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.”

 

 

montreal’s most

Montreal’s dismal season ends on Saturday, when they play in Toronto, just before the playoffs get going, Canadiens-free. As a gloomy season wraps up, the stories in the city’s sports pages are structured around phrases like “a boring — and losing — brand of hockey” and “empty seats at the Bell Centre.” Asked at practice in Brossard what he’d like to tell fans, coach Claude Julien said he’d have to go with “thank you.” The Gazette’s Stu Cowan was on hand for this, and if it sounds like Julien was in fact trying to say “sorry,” no, apparently not — he was just grateful fans didn’t jeer more than they did this season. “There’s no doubt,” he said, “we got booed a couple of times because we weren’t a good hockey club. But I think they’ve actually been pretty patient to come to the games and cheer us on. I think they’ve recognized a solid effort as far as guys working hard and competing hard and realizing that right now we’re not good enough and that’s why we’re not in the playoffs.”

On the brighter side, Carey Price is back in the net, and seems to be healthy. On Tuesday night, he was celebrated for his Montreal longevity: the Canadiens’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets saw him play in his 557th NHL regular-season game. With that, he surpassed Jacques Plante as the man who’s minded Montreal’s nets most since the league got going in 1917.

It’s no small achievement, even if Plante does (as should be noted) remain atop the statistical heap if you factor in playoff games: he played 90 of those for Canadiens, for a total of 646 games played, while Price’s 60 playoff games get him to 617.

Canadiens have looked to 83 men to guard their nets, all told, though a few — like Charlie Sands, Battleship Leduc, and Sprague Cleghorn — were skaters subbing in on a strictly emergency basis.

In terms of successes, Plante and Ken Dryden would have to top the pantheon, having each helped the team to six Stanley Cups. Plante is the winningest of Montreal goaltenders, (314 regular season + 59 in the playoffs = 373), followed by Patrick Roy (289 + 70 = 359) and Dryden (258 + 80 = 338), then Price (286 + 25 = 311). Among bona fide goalies, Price also rates fourth in scoring — his 12 all-time assists have him trailing Roy (32 points, season and playoffs), Dryden (23), and Michel Larocque (17).

Straying from statistics, I might just mention that I happened to be talking to Dryden in Toronto earlier this season. Two of his young grandsons are hockey players, goaltenders both. I asked their Hall-of-Fame, Calder-and-Conn-Smythe-winning, many-Vézina’d grandfather what numbers they wear, assuming there could be just one answer, 29.

I was wrong: for Ken Dryden’s grandsons, Carey Price is the incumbent in their imaginations, and it’s his 31 that both boys show on their sweaters.

(Image by Toronto illustrator Dave Murray. For more of his work, hockey and otherwise, visit www.davemurrayillustration.com)

rue paul

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Paul Henderson ascended to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. Two years later, he and a famous goal he scored in 1972 were commemorated with both a stamp and a coin. Governor-General David Johnston welcomed him as a member of the Order of Canada in 2012, the same year he also got a star of Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto. A year later he returned to Ottawa to receive Hockey Canada’s highest honour, the Order of Hockey in Canada. The International Ice Hockey Federation elevated him into their Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2014, he added the Order of Ontario to his CV, which by then already featured an honorary doctorate of Divinity from Toronto’s Tyndale University College and Seminary. Queen Elizabeth II has been been generous, bestowing a Golden Jubilee Medal (2002). The rink in Lucknow, near where he was born in western Ontario, has a Paul Henderson Hall, and he has streets bearing his name in Erin Mills and Mississauga. Canada’s Sports Hall of celebrated him a second time in 2005, when it recognized the heroics of the entire Team Canada ’72. And if you’re reaching back that far across the calendar, is it worth mentioning, too, that in October of that momentous year, Henderson topped a national popularity poll organized by Labatt’s Breweries? Around the same time he won the Life Saver of the Month Award. Labatt’s gave him a car. From the candy company, he got a trophy and something described in contemporary accounts as a home entertainment console.

All of which is to say: Paul Henderson, Hero of the Luzhniki, hasn’t been without honour in his country. What he also hasn’t been — glaringly, annually — is inducted into hockey’s holy pantheon, the Hall of Fame.

It’s not as though there hasn’t been a clamour about this — noisily, annually, there has. There will no doubt be more today, as the Hall announces its 2016 inductees, which could include up to four players, along with two builders and an on-ice official. Will Eric Lindros be called to join the 268 players, men and women, whose names are already enshrined? Paul Kariya? Mark Recchi? What about Vinny Prospal, who’s in his first year of eligibility? Is it Theo Fleury’s time, and/or maybe Jeremy Roenick’s? If Henderson, who’s 73 now, doesn’t make the cut, the roar from aggrieved fans might be more than usual: with all due respect to those accomplished players, the roster of likely candidates is seen as a bit of a weedy one compared to years past.

What’s keeping Henderson out? When it comes to the choice of its honorees, the Hall is famously opaque in its operations, and the selection committee doesn’t deign to discuss its decisions. Most of us would tend, I bet, to Stu Cowan’s view, which is that Henderson’s career as a whole is seen by the Hall’s gatekeepers as having been too narrow for a fit within its lofty environs. In the 1,128 games Henderson played in the NHL and WHA, he recorded 388 goals and 399 assists for 787 points. “Not necessarily Hall of Fame numbers,” Cowan wrote in 2012 in Montreal’s Gazette. And yet:

There’s no doubt that Henderson scored the most important goal in Canadian hockey history in Game 8 of the Summit Series. In fact, he scored the winner in the last three games, giving him a team-leading seven for the series. When Canada really needed a hockey hero, Henderson answered the call.

Does the Hall have no sense of (and place for) Henderson’s importance as a cultural and historical icon? I guess not. At this point, it’s hard not to take the Hall’s Hendersonlessness as some kind of statement somewhere on a spectrum ranging from confident self-assurance all the way to lockjawed contrariness. Either way, nobody’s going to tell them who deserves one of their fancy rings.

As for the man himself, Henderson says that when he travels the country, nine out of ten people he meets tell him he oughta be in there. That’s from The Goal of My Life (2012), a memoir he penned with an assist from Roger Lajoie. Nice to hear the support, but (Henderson says) he’s at peace:

I was a good NHL player, but I don’t have the numbers or the All-Star status or major trophy wins to be a candidate. I feel there are many retired players more deserving than me who still haven’t been inducted.

 Or as he told Stu Cowan in 2012: “I wouldn’t vote for me.”

(Photo: Frank Lennon/Library and Archives Canada, e010933346)