Thursday, March 08, 2007

March a month of madness, as history repeats

We’re not sure what it is about the month of March, but for whatever reason some of the more infamous of events seem to happen in the Month.

There was the Rocket Richard Riot which resulted after a nasty bit of hockey back in March of 1955, when Richard injured Hal Laycoe and struck an official knocking him unconscious, three years ago there was the now well documented Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore altercation which saw Bertuzzi jump Moore and pummel him into the ice.

And on Thursday night, three years to the day of the Bertuzzi incident Chris Simon entered his name into the book of infamy, with a stick swinging attack on the New York Rangers Ryan Hollweg.

With six minutes and change left in the third period of the Rangers/Islanders game Hollweg had just shoved Simon’s face into the glass and turned away up ice, Simon then turned at Hollweg and with both hands on his stick chopped the Ranger in the face, leaving him to lay motionless on the ice.

Hollweg would eventually be helped to his feet and by games end was wearing his gash as a badge of honour of sorts after the Ranger victory, but for a few moments there was a certain fear of what has just happened and how could violence once again become the topic of a hockey game.

The act was a blatant attempt to injure and certainly something the league does not need in the game, but perhaps it is indicative of the recent ratcheting up of the play beyond an increase in normal physical behavior. Simon's comments at the end of the game won't be particularly helpful to his cause, expressing regret at taking a penalty that lost the game as opposed to any contrition for his violent act on the ice, although he did say that he shouldn't say anything until he the league called for his attendance at a league meeting.

The ugly and disturbing incident comes on the heels of some controversial hits of late in the NHL that have many wondering if hockey has stepped back more than a few decades in a short number of weeks.

From the Neal/Drury hit which while considered by many to be a legal if nasty hit, touched off line brawl in Buffalo a few weeks ago to the very late Jannsen hit on Tomas Kaberle last week, the tone of nastiness in recent weeks seems to be rising exponentially An increasingly violent string of happenings that led to what appeared to be an attempted beheading at the game on Long Island.

It will make for a showcase trial for Colin Campbell, who has to send a message and send it fast that the violence aspect of the game needs to be reined in. The latest incidents have brought into question the direction of the game of late, while many bemoaned the lack of physical contact at the start of the season, then the apparent running of the league’s stars as the season progressed.

To that end, the nights of the enforcers seemed to be making a comeback, players dedicated in their play to making sure that each teams top talents could work their play without fear of attack or impedance.

But Thursday’s frightening display of violence will call into question all of that and much more. Hockey hasn’t had a very good run of publicity of late in the USA, the TV numbers aren’t very good, the attendance in the stands in many cities is very low and the interest in the sport itself has taken a serious hit in the post lock out years.

Simons' stick swinging actions will make all the highlight reels, will become the fodder for many a talk show and will bring a new light to the NHL.

They say that any publicity is good publicity, but in this case that won’t hold true. The NHL will once again find itself on the defensive over the actions of a player who had pure malice in mind and little respect for the game itself.

The game by all accounts was one of those traditional Range/Islander showcases, up until the stick swinging incident. A game that threatened to re-ignite the hockey fans passion for the sport in the largest market in the league.

Many feel that the league missed the opportunity to reclaim its product three years ago, by not sending a strong enough message that the barbaric nature of these acts would not be tolerated. Those same people and no doubt many others, if they've stayed with the game since then, will be looking for a more determined and forceful result from the league this time.

Campbell’s discipline will have to be above and beyond what has been seen thus far, otherwise the league’s reputation and indeed the dwindling respect for the game will suffer a far more devastating hit.

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