There’s NHL playoff mettle — and then there’s the mayhem


The enduring impression of the Stanley Cup playoffs should be the skill and endurance required to succeed during two months of fierce competition, not of Chicago’s Marian Hossa being strapped to a stretcher after he took a vicious hit to the head from Phoenix forward Raffi Torres.

The talk during the best time of the hockey season should be about good hits, deft goal scoring and acrobatic saves, not Pittsburgh’s Arron Asham cross-checking Brayden Schenn in the throat while the Philadelphia forward was on his back.

Nor should the hot topics be the other seven incidents that have resulted in supplementary discipline and one that didn’t draw a suspension but should have — Nashville defenseman Shea Weber’s slamming the head of Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg into the glass not once but twice, for bad measure.

Weber received a $2,500 fine, the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. Chicago Coach Joel Quenneville on Thursday was fined $10,000 for complaining that Torres’ thuggery went unpenalized. “It was a brutal hit. I can’t believe all four guys missed it. It makes me sick,” Quenneville said.

Sticks and stones can break your bones but the NHL apparently believes objecting to poor officiating causes greater harm than being hit in the head.

This has become the “Spring of Suspensions,” of disquieting incidents available on TV for all to see. To date the sentences have been modest, topped by Asham’s four-game ban. But repeat offender Torres is expected to take the dubious lead after his hearing Friday in New York with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, whose unpredictable and baffling rulings leave players unsure of what’s allowed and what punishments they’ll face when overcome by emotion or stupidity.

This should be the NHL’s finest hour. Through Wednesday, nine games had gone to overtime. In the West, the No. 8-seeded Kings will get a second chance to eliminate the No. 1 Vancouver Canucks, and the spunky Nashville Predators have pushed the Detroit Red Wings to the brink. In the East, the No. 1 New York Rangers are tied at 2-2 with No. 8 Ottawa and the Penguins and Flyers have scored 45 goals, a record for a four-game series with at least one more game left.

The lasting images, though, are of Hossa, Schenn and Zetterberg and other moments of mayhem.

Is this what Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Assn. leader Donald Fehr want their game to be?

“I don’t think that what we’ve seen is that dramatically different than what we typically see in the first round of the playoffs,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday via email. “It’s tremendously competitive and passions always run high in the first round. Players always test the boundaries of what is acceptable and it’s up to the on-ice officials, and the league where necessary, to step up and set the proper boundaries. And I think you are seeing that.

“Have we seen more dangerous plays than we saw in the latter half of the regular season? Yes, but the fact of the matter is we always do in the first round. As the proper boundaries are established and player expectations adjusted, you will see things settle down.”

It’s just impossible based on precedent to expect those boundaries to be properly set.

Kings Coach Darryl Sutter contends what’s happening isn’t as bad as what occurred in the 1970s or ‘80s but more people can now see it. NBC or its affiliates televise every game and there’s blanket coverage in Canada.

“We had very little video back then, unless somebody was actually there,” Sutter said. “That’s the biggest change. You have access to everything you want, from six different angles. I can slow it down. I can speed it up. I can say who it was. It’s a big difference.”

There’s a theory that the NHL tolerates this chaos because it’s good for TV ratings, but NBC spokesman Chris McCloskey said viewership increased before the bloodletting began in earnest. Its opening-night rating on NBC Sports Network was 29% higher than a year ago and its telecasts on NBCSN and CNBC were up 34% compared with a year ago, when they were available only on Versus (now called NBCSN).

Hockey is a passionate, physical game. No one wants to change that. But it’s time for some intelligent thinking by players and league executives. Punish the goonery severely, until it stops. Or risk the lasting image of these playoffs being another player carried off, perhaps never to walk again.