Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dear NHL,

I'd send this to you myself, but your website doesn't have a link for that. (Given your total lack of marketing acumen, this doesn't come as a surprise.)

I'm glad you stood up and sent a message that cheap play like we saw at the end of Game 5 of the Wings-Flames series simply won't be tolerated. After all, it took a lot of courage to suspend a star like Iginla for a pivotal game based on his late-game actions.

Oh wait, that's right. Iginla didn't get anything at all.

Well, at least you suspended Daymond Langkow for his cheap-shot sucker-punch that knocked Jeff Lebda out of Game 6 and possibly more.

Right, he wasn't suspended either.

But you certainly stood up to Hatchet Jamie McClellan. After all, a match penalty not a minute into his appearance in the game means something, right?

Five games? Right, that'll put a stop to it. Wonder what Chris Simon thought of that penalty.

The one thing you did right was fine Playfair and the Flames, although frankly, given Playfair's postgame reactions, where he did everything but challenge you openly, $25K was nothing. I wouldn't be surprised if a Calgary newspaper took up a collection to pay it. (Then again, maybe they won't. George Johnson's article in the Calgary Herald took Playfair and the Flames to task for their antics.)

One of the reasons why hockey is pretty much a joke outside its core group of fans is garbage like this. "I went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out." You know why that joke is funny? Because you make it happen. You don't instruct refs like Marc Joannette to call penalties as soon as things get a little chippy. You don't crack down on on-ice violence, whether it's McLellan's slashing of Franzen or Todd Bertuzzi's body-slam of Dion Phaneuf (to be fair, I'm not sure how that ended up as offsetting majors). Part of the reason why we see retaliation penalties, or actions like Langkow's punch, is because players don't believe that the league and the referees will do something to stop cheap shots, especially by cheap players. (How long did Bryan Marchment play in the league? About 17 seasons too long. And what a coincidence ... his last NHL action was with the Flames.) Because they don't think the league will do anything, they take matters into their own hands, which makes things worse.

Some "old-school" fans would have you believe that in the "old days," this never happened, because enforcers like Dave Schultz and Marty McSorley would put a stop to this behavior. What they fail to mention is how those guys racked up 250-300 penalty minutes year in and year out. If that thuggery actually stopped cheap shots, they wouldn't have had to do it for very long. What it really did was add to the problem.

You have a chance to stop this. Starting next year, crack down on this behavior, whether it's late in the Finals or opening day. If that means suspending a star like Iginla, do it. If it means fining a team $250K or more, do it. If the punishment isn't painful, teams and players won't stop the behavior.

But you need to do something. Hockey is a beautiful sport to watch when it's played cleanly. Don't let it regress.

P.S. It's also beautiful to watch in HD. Next time, you might try signing a deal with a network that actually shows games in HD. Sure, no-longer-OLN has an HD station, but almost nobody gets it, and the DirecTV HD feed is standard-width. Also, NBC is irrelevant now, in case you hadn't noticed. Look for a network that covers sports and has the space to do it. Hint: ESPN.

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