game on, again, 2020: fist bumps no, fist fights fine

Wrasslemania: Art Coulter of the New York Rangers fights Joe Cooper of Chicago’s Black Hawks at Madison Square Garden in January of 1941. Looking on at left is Chicago goaltender Sam LoPresti, along with an unidentified press photographer and (at right) his New York counterpart, Dave Kerr. Working on separating New York’s Muzz Patrick and John Mariucci of Chicago is referee Bill Stewart.

Like everybody, Gary Bettman was housebound at the end of May. Unlike the rest of us, the NHL commissioner was broadcasting live from his New Jersey home, announcing the plan his league would be following in the hope of rebooting a 2019-20 season that the global pandemic had so brusquely interrupted in mid-March.

It was another strange scene in this strange and scary year we’re in, and at the same time as familiar as yesterday’s Zoom call. The image was medium-res at best, and Bettman was looking slightly startled, though smartly turned out in his quarantine-formal blue jacket and open-necked white shirt. He was in his dining room, with a formal-looking high-backed chair sitting empty behind him, maybe to signify the absences we’ve all been enduring. Over his left shoulder the camera caught the corner of a painting rendered in greens that don’t naturally occur in hockey. The room itself was a hue that, if I’m reading my Sherwin-Williams colour chart correctly, sells as Decisive Yellow. Cacophonous and yet somehow consoling was the background percussion accompanying Bettman as he said his scripted piece: nearby, in the commissioner’s kitchen, his three-year-old grandson was happily hammering pots and pans.

“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said at one point in a 15-minute explanation of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan that laid out formats, match-ups, and a tentative calendar. While there were blanks yet to be filled in — just where games would be played still hadn’t been determined, for instance — on the well-being front, the commissioner was adamant. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”

In a 2020 context, it was the right thing to say. In a COVID-19 context, there was no not saying it.

There’s another context that applies here, too, a broader hockey framework in which proclamations of how seriously the NHL takes the health and safety of its players are rendered ridiculous even as they’re spoken by the fact that the league still — still! — insists that fighting is a fundamental part of the game.

Tweakings of rules have, in recent years, contributed to a reduction in fights. Coaching attitudes and strategies have shifted as the game has sped up, and intimidation no longer plays the part it did even five years ago.

The reasons why the NHL prefers this fading-away over an outright embargo on fighting remain opaque. Fans still love it, it’s always said, some of them, and cheer when the gloves drop. Bettman takes cover, when he’s cornered, by insisting that the players think it’s fine.

Otherwise, the league hasn’t bothered to renovate its rationale since Clarence Campbell was president almost 50 years ago. Fighting is a safety valve by which players release the pressure that builds up in such a bumptious game as hockey, he used to argue: without it players would be maiming one another with their sticks. That’s one of Gary Bettman’s go-to defences, too, though it’s a thermostat he likes to talk about.

Advances in medical science continue to reveal links between head trauma and the grim tolls of CTE, but that news hasn’t impressed the NHL, which wants more proofs before it decides that the safety of its players might be improved by not having them punch one another in the head.

The contradiction the league embraces when it comes to fighting remains baked into the rulebook. Which part of Rule 21 doesn’t apply to fist fights on the ice? “A match penalty,” it reads, “shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.”

Earlier this month, The New York Times imagined how major sports might have seized the opportunity of our global lull to re-imagine the way they go about their business. What about dispensing with baseball’s DH, the Times blue-skyed. Or, for the NBA, introducing a 4-pointer for really long-range shooters? And for hockey:

Though that was never going to happen.

Returning to the ice after a four-and-a-half months hiatus is no easy enterprise. You can understand why a league like the NHL, trying to get back to its business in extraordinary times, would seek to keep things as normal as possible, as familiar, as unchanged.

The times, though — they’re different. COVID-19 has sickened millions worldwide. Tens of thousands have died. Mid-pandemic, the movement against racial injustice and police brutality that grew after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman was such that it’s even shaken the NHL out of the complacency it’s preferred to shelter in for so long. (Granted, the response has been a little stilted, a little clumsy, but the fact that the league is getting around taking a stand on issues of systemic racism, equality, and social justice is, I suppose, a something in itself.)

As the NHL lurches back into action — the verb there is Michael Farber’s, from a TSN essay this week, and I think it’s the right one — as hockey goes lurching into its unprecedented and unpredictable future, we’ve learned all about the safety measures the league has put into place for the 24 teams hubbed away in a pair of Canadian bubbles, Toronto and Edmonton, from testing players every day for COVID-19 right down to counselling them to wash their hands frequently while singing “Happy Birthday.”

The league’s playbook on all this is available to any and all who might like to browse it, in two documents, neither one of which is exactly a riveting read. The 65-point Return To Play FAQ is the more accessible of the two; the Phased Return To Sport Protocol: Phase 4 Secure Zone is 28 pages of deeper detail, covering everything from the in-bubble roles of Hygiene Officers and what happens if a player or official tests positive for COVID-19 to Hotel Amenities and Dining Options.

It’s all very thorough, as it should be. But what about on the ice? How is that going to be affected, if at all? Looking in on European soccer over the past few weeks and even some Test cricket, I’ve been interested to see how pandemical conditions and precautions have changed the way games are actually being played.

Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Most of the adjustments have been of a peripheral sort.

Cricketers were told not to apply sweat or saliva to the ball.

The handsome guide issued by England’s Premier League, which resumed play in June, included these provisos:

Closer to home, North American Major League Soccer offered a short plan for “In-Match Prevention,” outlining “general hygiene measures [extending] to the field for official matches.”

Players, coaches and officials were asked, for instance, “to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose;” they were also “asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.”

Health and safety guidance governing the NBA’s bubbly restart in Florida was contained in a 113-page guide disseminated among teams, though not, as far as I can tell, released in any public way. It does, USA Today reported, mandate that players to “Avoid Gross Habits on the Court,” namely:

No spitting or clearing nose on the court; wiping the ball with jersey; licking hands (and touching other items such as shoes or the basketball); playing with or unnecessarily touching mouthguard (and touching other items.)

Baseball, benighted as its efforts to get back to bats and balls have proved, issued a detailed guide in its 101-page 2020 Operations Manual, which includes a section on the rules MLB has modified for its pandemic return-to-play as well as guidelines for best behaviours on-field. Those include wherein “players all other on-field personnel” are exhorted to “make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hands (including to give signs), wiping away sweat with their hands, licking their fingers, whistling with their fingers, etc.”

Not allowed: any spitting, “including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco.” (Chewing gum is okay.)

Also, says MLB:

Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action. Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline consistent with past precedent, which discipline shall not be reduced or prorated based on the length of the season.

Compare that to what the NHL is offering. As far as I can tell, the NHL’s guidance for what players should and shouldn’t be doing on the ice in the time of COVID-19 is limited to a single bullet-point on page 10 of the aforementioned Protocol, down at the bottom of the section headed “Safety Precautions.” It reads, in its entirety:

Avoid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps.

So no more handshake lines, I guess, to finish off hard-fought playoff series? What about kissing the Stanley Cup, when it’s finally presented? On that and other matters the NHL seems to be keeping its own counsel. Maybe more advisories are to come. For now, not another word does the league have to say on how players might be advised to conduct themselves on the ice in a time of a highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Teams, I’ll assume, have their own careful systems to make sure water bottles aren’t shared; maybe they’re in charge, too, of reminding players not to be blowing noses or spitting. It may be that, like the NBA, the NHL — or maybe the NHLPA? — has issued comprehensive handbooks to teams to cover this whole tricky territory, they just haven’t been made public.

I guess it’s possible, too, that the league has been talking to players on an individual basis — putting in a call, maybe, to remind Boston’s Brad Marchand, for instance, not to be licking anyone for the next few months at least.

What seems just as likely is that it was decided at some point that short of rewriting the way game is played, there’s no way to govern or even guideline hockey into a safer, socially distanced way of doing things, so why even bother drawing attention to the awkward truth?

There’s nothing social about the game once it gets going on the ice, and no distancing. Players stand shoulder-to-shoulder at face-offs, they jostle, they bump. Once the puck drops, the game is a festival of mingling and milling, of sweaty human pushing and crowding and collision. That’s the game.

And the punching that sometimes ensues? Maybe you could direct players to disperse after whistles blow, to stand back a bit at face-offs. But if you did that, how could you not say something about the closer contact of bodychecking and fighting? While baseball might have no problem with explicitly forbidding melees, the NHL feels safer in silence, maybe, which is why it defaults to pretending that none of this is worth discussing.

The fighting that hockey has failed to inhibit didn’t make sense a year ago, long before COVID had capitalized its threat, and it doesn’t make sense now. But it’s not going anywhere: it’s firmly ensconced inside the NHL’s bubble for as long as this outlandish season lasts.

Even if you missed the exhibition games earlier this week and the several scuffles that happened there, if you tuned in this afternoon to the real thing, you didn’t have to wait long to see the new NHL meld with the old in Toronto.

When Carolina’s Jacob Slavin scored an early goal on Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, once he’d gathered with his linemates for a hug, he headed, as you do, to the Hurricanes’ bench to bump fists.

There was more of that a few minutes later, under angrier circumstances, as Carolina’s Justin Williams felt the need to drop his PPE to punch New York’s Ryan Strome in the head, and vice-versa.

Strome was bleeding from the nose by the time they’d finished. He headed for the Rangers’ dressing room, while Williams sat himself down in the penalty box. A couple of bemasked members of Scotiabank Arena’s rink crew skated out with shovels to scrape away the blood from the ice.

Game on, I guess.

Contact Tracing: Boston’s Brad Marchand showing how it’s not supposed to done in the Eastern Conference finals of 2018. Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan was the unfortunate recipient of the Boston winger’s attentions. The NHL’s handling of Marchand’s lick? The league told him if he did it again he’d be “subject to supplementary discipline.”

 

 

bussboys

Embed from Getty Images

Above: Behn Wilson of the Chicago Blackhawks gives his stick a
smack during a game at New York’s Madison Square Garden in
January of 1988. (Photo: Bruce Bennett)

The first of the two goals that Alexander Ovechkin scored last night in Washington’s 7-1 romp over Ottawa was a momentous one, of course, the 500th of his career. The Washington Post has a useful review of how and when he’s scored all those goals, and where Ovechkin fits into NHL goalscoring history. As for the goal itself, here’s a quick look at how it’s being worded in the hours since it went in.

The Canadian Press:

The landmark score was vintage Ovechkin. Posted up just beyond the left hashes during a power play, he fielded a feed from Jason Chimera and then whizzed a shot past the head of goalie Andrew Hammond just under the crossbar for a 5-1 lead.

Des Bieler in The Washington Post:

Ovechkin got his goal in classic fashion, sending a wrister past goalie Andrew Hammond from his favorite spot at the left circle.

Alex Prewitt in Sports Illustrated:

The milestone goal had been roofed past goaltender Andrew Hammond, a slingshot from Ovechkin’s usual office on the power play.

If you watched the game from the start, or saw the highlights, later, you may have noted the quick kiss that Ovechkin bestowed on the right-curving blade of his Bauer Supreme Totalone MX3. For luck? For thanks? Could he have scored without it? Just because we don’t know any of the answers to those questions doesn’t mean we can’t take a moment to commemorate a few other select hockey busses from years gone by. Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs well remember Don Cherry’s lips meeting Doug Gilmour’s cheek on Hockey Night in Canada circa 1993 (there was also a 2013 reprise, featuring Nazem Kadri), but the timely hockey kiss goes back further still:

Anatoli Tarasov, 1960

“Imagine me getting kissed by the Russian coach,” said Jack Riley, whose U.S. hockey teamed zoomed to the top of the Olympic hockey tournament by upsetting Canada 2-1.

Russian coach Anatoli Tarasov of the once-tied, second-place Soviets hugged and kissed Riley in the bedlam that followed the Americans’ stunning conquest of the high-powered Canadians Thursday in the Winter Games hockey tourney.

• Patrick McNulty, The Associated Press, Ellensburg Daily Record, February 26, 1960

Glenn Resch, 1975

Glenn Resch is edgy and he admits it.

“I’ll let the pressure take its course,” the friendly New York Islanders goaltender said Thursday night. “If I get sick, I get sick. My nerves are super-jumpy.”

Of course, it didn’t show Thursday night when Resch led New York to a 4-1 playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. It didn’t show, either, when Resch kissed the goalpost behind him in the first period; he was wearing his painted facemask at the time.

Shots by Pittsburgh forwards hit the post twice in the period. “I literally kissed the post,” he recalled. “It’s my best friend. I get along with it just like my wife.”

• Frank Brown, The Associated Press, Lewiston Evening Journal, April 24, 1975

Brendan Shanahan, 1987

His composure and efficiency under pressure are dazzling for an 18-year-old rookie, but Brendan Shanahan of the Devils wants to do much more before he is satisfied with himself.

Since his arrival in New Jersey as the second overall choice in the draft last summer, Shanahan’s flamboyant looks, articulate speech and expressions of affection for teammates — he kissed Claude Loiselle, who assisted on Shanahan’s first goal — have captivated fans of the Devils.

“Some people like to keep their feelings inside,” Shanahan said before practice here today. “I just like to let them out, especially when I’m excited.”

“I kissed Claudie,” Shanahan said of Loiselle, who assisted on the goal that gave the Devils a 3-2 triumph over the Rangers a week ago. “I knew I was going to kiss the guy who assisted me. I don’t know if he noticed it.”

• Alex Yannis, The New York Times, November 17, 1987

Pat LaFontaine, 1990

After the 4-4 tie between the Islanders and the Devils at Nassau Coliseum today, the Islanders’ Pat LaFontaine, following an appropriate dictum, stepped from the locker room to the corridor — and kissed his sister.

There was only one problem. His chin was still dripping blood from a fresh, six-stitch gash caused by a speeding puck. “I dripped blood over her blouse,” LaFontaine said. “Sorry about that.”

• Joe Lapointe, The New York Times, January 29, 1990

Esa Tikkanen, 1994

How embarrassing was it for Washington? Consider the altercation between Keith Jones of the Capitals and Esa Tikkanen of the Rangers, two rough, tough, gritty players. Trying to inspire his team, Jones played a mean game, bumping, hacking and slashing whenever possible, taking three minor penalties.

After one confrontation, Tikkanen got close to Jones. He got in his face, boy, did he ever. And then Tikkanen, well, he, yes, he, uh, why he kissed him. That’s what he did. He kissed him right on the nose. And there is no penalty, minor or major, for that.

“He’s trying to be a tough guy, trying to stir the pot,” Tikkanen said of Jones. “We’ve got to turn around and skate away.” Shoot, nowadays, if you want to see a good fight, you’ve got to watch the National Basketball Association playoffs or maybe a major league baseball game.

• Joe Lapointe, The New York Times, May 6, 1994

this week: is god a jets fan?

elixir

“Hej, Heja, Heja, Cracovia Mistrzem Hokeja,” chanted the fans in Poland this week, after Cracovia Krakow beat GKS Jastrzebie in game seven of the finals of the Polish national championships.

“I’ve never even been at an NHL playoff game,” one of Toronto’s goalies, James Reimer, told one of The Toronto Star’s columnists, Rosie DiManno.

“Is God a Jets fan?” a reporter from The Free Press asked Winnipeg’s team chaplain this week. Great question. “I’ve always been taught that God loves everybody and God loves all the teams,” said Lorne Korol. “And in fact we pray for a spirit of competition for our players, we pray that they would leave it all on the ice for that audience of one, the one being God. And we pray for their safety, both on and off the ice. But we never pray for victory or good weather.”

Alex Ovechkin explained a 2-1 shootout win over the Islanders this week. “Holtsy play unbelievable, make the biggest save, keep us in the game and big win,” he said.

“The history of icing is a harrowing one, involving horrible injuries and even death,” wrote Jeff Z. Klein in The New York Times. This after Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen was injured in a race to touch up a puck for icing. Puzzled Damien Cox from The Toronto Star: “Guy hurt on icing, immediate calls for rule changes; guy gets brain injury in a fight, ho-hum, part of the game #absurd”

On Hockey Night in Canada, Ron Maclean called Toronto’s Nazem Kadri “Nazem-a-taz.” Kadri had just scored a hattrick against Ottawa, so he was happy, as were his teammates, Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr, who stood behind him. “Hard-hat hockey,” is what Toronto plays, said McLaren. Don Cherry was there, too, and he kissed Kadri.

Before that, Maclean said to Kadri, “Your parents knew, your teachers knew, in London, that that was kind of, that you had the spit, you had the self-confidence, and you didn’t take losing lightly, so … congrats is the simplest way to say it.”

“Thank you,” said Kadri, as well as “Lups is a great player” and “My old man’s a pretty gritty guy, too.”

“Who taught you to hit?” Maclean had asked him, “because I know you were good at volleyball and basketball.”

The New York Rangers were having troubles scoring goals, so reporters on the beat asked coach John Tortorella why. “I don’t have an answer for you.”

A puck, slapshot by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik, flew into Sidney Crosby’s jaw, which broke, shedding teeth and blood. Everybody grimaced. Nobody wanted to think the worst. Crosby left the game.

“I just know,” said his coach Dan Bylsma, after the game, “he had some issues with his teeth. Just from the replay I know that.”

Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle wondered, “Is that the hockey gods sending a message?” Continue reading