It seems to me that in the wake of the Zdeno Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty, the voices of moderates are getting lost in the hateful bickering of two waring fanbases. The extremists are dominating the discussion (if you could call it that).
Taunts from Bruins fans quickly took on ethnic, linguistic and strangely enough, even jingoistic overtones. Disturbing Photo-shopped images of Chara were circulated by some Habs fans. An ailing Pacioretty was subjected to vile abuse on Twitter.
I’m sure that Gary Bettman is grinning in approval as the arsenals are aimed at each other rather than at the source of the current problem.
I know people on ‘the other side.’ Doug and Sarah are all the things friends should be: bright, funny and knowledgeable hockey people. They are also one thing friends shouldn’t be: Bruins fans.
Somehow we get through it. I guess that the three of us have discovered that not all fans from the other side are knuckle-dragging troglodytes. Most, but not all.
I also have respect for some writers in the land of black, gold and white — unfortunately none of the mainstream folks. There is one blogger whose writing I admire greatly: CJ Shepard.
Shepard has been following the Bruins since birth with her earliest memories being of Johnny Bucyk raising the Stanley Cup. (Yes, a Bruins fan who remembers the last Cup!) No surprise that CJ’s list of favorite NHL players is well-stocked by Bruins, but a certain number 13 for the Montreal Canadiens, Mike Cammalleri, is also there.
I decided to ask CJ to collaborate on a project to begin to bridge the gaps, and to take back the discussion. I’m not talking about a rousing chorus of kumbaya — we don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on every subject. But we can discover common ground and can respectively debate the items of disagreement.
Have a look at this piece by CJ — applaud what you agree with, challenge what you don’t, but let’s stay civil.
NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. — As the dust settles from another, in a seemingly endless parade of, head scratching moments in this NHL season, the eyes of the concerned fans are trained on the future of the game we love. The NHL’s front office has never been accused of consistency, nor of adopting a stance where the true essence of the game is as valuable as the sacrifices made to market it. The convergence of the NHL’s desire to grow and market the game to the levels of NASCAR or the skyrocketing popularity of MMA is seen in not so subtle changes such as the shoot-out, The Winter Classic, and The Guardian Project. While some fans may feel like these things are irrefutably damaging the game it is the subtle changes which are the most alarming. A few seasons ago the long arm of the NHL law reached out and tapped Sean Avery for an indefinite suspension for “inappropriate public comments” and then this season James Wisniewski was suspended two games for a lewd gesture. The NHL must not have attended nursery school, as their perceived “threat” to the league and its reputation/standing can be summed up best by a taunt, once heard on playgrounds around the world. “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” So while the League office has been accused of being “soft on crime” maybe the better question would be what the league believes it is their primary responsibility to police the game, protect the image of the game, or protect the integrity of the game.
Fans generally see things as black or white. Their players do no wrong, and every wrong against their team is a crime against humanity. However there are a growing number of fans who are becoming more vocal and justifiably more concerned with the way the greatest, and toughest game on the planet is beginning to degenerate in front of their very eyes. As long as players have been lacing up skates there has been an honor amongst its players, one that even fans struggle to grasp. Until recently there has been a code, an unwritten understanding there is a responsibility to the players sharing the sheet to respect one another and to respect the integrity of the game. That code has been enforced by the players themselves, and until the instigator penalty there was a recognition and understanding that actions on the ice which violated the code would require the offender to be held accountable. The honor amongst players is best seen on display at the end of a playoff series, where players line up and shake the hands of their worthy opponents, a small gesture which acknowledges the shared respect of the effort, and the physical sacrifices made in the quest for the most prized trophy in professional sport.
As fans we vilify or deify players; Chara is a monster who must be jailed, Pacioretty is an innocent victim; both are extremes, and neither is entirely true. Chara is not a player noted for playing on the physical edge of the game, in fact many Boston fans would argue he loses more puck battles along the wall than any other Bruins’ defenseman because he fails to utilize his size and strength as a weapon. Chara did fail, in my opinion, to respect the vulnerable position Pacioretty was in as they approached the stanchion and he attempted to “rub” him out of the play. Chara was beaten on the play, and made a mistake, and in the words of Wisniewski, “A lot of actions on the ice are regrettable,” if there were more mutual respect in the game today Chara MAY have still hit Pacioretty, but the extent of which he “finished” his check may have prevented a serious injury, perhaps not; however the rate at which incidents like these are occurring is most certainly cause for serious concern. Likewise, Pacioretty is no saint. His hit on Mark Eaton of the Islanders, while Eaton was facing the boards, was both dangerous and reckless, and Eaton was fortunate not to have been severely injured. Chara’s hit on Pacioretty was not the first time a player has been forced into a stanchion, nor the last, and this week in addition to Chara and Pacioretty there was Ben Lovejoy’s hit on Tyler Ennis into the stanchion, on March 8, and RJ Umberger on Drew Doughty on March 12. If you were to search it, my guess is it happens more than most fans would realize. For my money, it is not about the Chara hit, or the others which occurred this week, it is the speed at which honor seems to be flowing out of the way the game is played. There are more incidents of the slew foot, seen as one of the most cowardly acts in hockey, the targeting of the head, the blindside/backside hit, and then there is the diving. Darren Pang made comment on a recent broadcast that all players sell calls, and where is the honor in that?? Yes, there have always been the divers, and not unlike the Italian national futbol team there is a general disgust associated with undeserved advantages associated from the dishonorable flopping and diving, yet it is a not so distant cousin of the element of nasty play which has infiltrated the game and threatens to taint its reputation beyond repair.
Have there always been moments which leave fans shaking their heads, turning their stomachs, and hoping for some form of “karma” from the hockey gods? Yes, and there will likely continue to be frightening moments in a game as fast, physical, and fraught with peril from objects in motion, as well as ones at rest. However, the game, the players and the fans would be well served to recognize the element of mutual respect which is slipping through their fingers. No team, and no player is perfect; and as long as there has been hockey played in the NHL there have been moments which embarrass a player, a team, and its fans. I can not believe Canadiens fans were proud of Chris Chelios and his near catastrophic hit on Brian Propp, in the the 88-89 series against the Flyers; nor would it surprise me to find there were hockey fans who celebrated it. Likewise, there are Bruins fans who were not only disgusted by Chara’s reckless hit, but ones who believe it was a “hockey play” with an unfortunate result. Make no mistake, the furor from fans of the Habs would have been equally voiced from fans of the Bruins had that been David Krejci run into the stanchion by Hal Gill, a player widely respected across the league, as Chara is by many. The polarizing and critical mass reaction among each team’s fan base is enough to send warning signals that the game fans love is on thin ice.
Players want to play the game without their life on the line each shift; owners struggle to write rules that protect the “skill elements” of the game while preserving the atmosphere of physicality and integrity of toughness, inherent to the game’s identity; fans want to be entertained. While the League office wanders aimlessly with no clear direction or focus on protecting players or the image/marketability of the league, the media circles like sharks with blood in the water waiting for the next failure. Fans pledge allegiance to their team, wearing blinders to the game’s spiral until one of “their” stars falls prey to the game’s hunt or be hunted undercurrent. No one is served by turning a blind eye to the lack of respect players have for one another on display in the game today. Nor is it reasonable to assume that anyone, except the players themselves is able to turn the tide. After the most recent Winter Classic the players from the Penguins and the Capitals could not muster the simple action of shaking hands, it is time for the players to clean up this mess.
Today the game is at a crossroads, and while the owners will meet and likely construct an unenforceable Rule 48-esq way to clean-up the game, the players are the ones who hold the power to returning respect to the game, before someone pays with their life.