The National Hockey League has long been a hotbed of physical violence. In fact, some Flames fans' fondest memories are of bruiser Tim Hunter trading punches with Oilers strongman Bill Semenko. The average hockey game contains a bevy of pushes, shoves and all manner of stick-work. Unfortunately, sometimes players surpass the acceptable level of violence.
Last week, former Flame Chris Simon was handed the stiffest punishment in NHL history. The New York Islander earned a 25-game suspension for his actions in a March 11 game against the New York Rangers for clubbing Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg in the face with his stick. The message being sent by the NHL to the players is clear: while body-checking and fighting is acceptable, using sticks as weapons is definitely not.
Unfortunately, the league seems also to be missing the point: If punching another player in the face is acceptable, what makes hitting them with a bit of wood so much worse? It's a distinction that might be obvious to observers, but there are no hard-and-fast rules in place within the league that define "acceptable barbarism."
Despite acknowledging a long history of embarrassing goonery, the league seems unwilling to do much about it. While efforts to reduce hooking, holding and obstruction were successful, resulting in increased scoring, the league continues to turn a blind eye to the antics that give it a black one.
The motto of the now-defunct Colorado Rockies franchise was "Come to the fights and watch a Rockies game break out!" With NHL executives desperately trying to revitalize their product and gain a foothold in the United States, their largest obstacle is the league's image as professional wrestling on ice. While the Flames' miracle playoff run in 2004 was national news in Canada, it didn't get nearly as much American press as the infamous Bertuzzi incident. If the league can break away from the culture of idiotic violence permeating it, perhaps it can find a way to become as popular as the NFL or NASCAR.
That's not to say that the NHL needs to eliminate all physical contact. Just like the NFL wouldn't be the same without blocks and NASCAR would be lame without crashes, hitting and fighting comprise an important strategic aspect inherent in hockey. However, if the league can curb the unacceptable level of bloodlust in the game, maybe the sport could get American press that's not about somebody being confined to a wheelchair.