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Vulgar Opinions: Hockey Media Doesn’t Really Get It

11/04/13

Look, I’m not going to beat a dead horse by naming names, but here’s the source article that inspired this post.

As hockey fans, we shouldn’t be cool with what Ray Emery did to Braden Holtby on Friday night, and in seeing the backlash to that assault, we aren’t.

Okay, good start.

As a pro-fighting guy, I’m not cool with what Ray Emery did, because as much as some writers on this site belittle “The Code”, at the very least it mandates that fights should be between two willing participants and, typically, with understandable cause.

Oy.  I called this post bias-laden, narrow minded (which I should have said narrow-focused), depth lacking horsesh*t and this is the first example.  The author acts as though Ray Emery’s attack on Braden Holtby is a rare incident and that The Code does a good job of policing fights.  It is not, and recent evidence is that it doesn’t.  Ask Milan Lucic, John Scott, Ray Emery, or the countless others that have started a fight by punching first and asking questions later.

“RAY EMERY MAD, RAY EMERY SMASH” doesn’t rise to that validation, obviously, which is why what happened to Holtby is something only the bastion of the rink has prevented Emery from facing criminal charges.

Holtby’s not the first player to get jumped and be an unwilling participant in a fight. But Holtby didn’t deliver a questionable hit. This wasn’t about retribution. This was about Ray Emery attacking a guy because he figured that’s what the locals wanted to see and because he’s terrible without the Blackhawks’ security blanket.

The author seems to make me a liar above, but then immediately nixes it with a victim-blaming qualifying statement.  The problem with The Code is that it attempts to police how players dole out vigilante justice, which by nomenclature is not police-able.  The fact that prominent hockey writers are giving perpetrators of assault a pass on questionable, not even dirty, questionable hits is a reason we have a problem to begin with.

The most twisted aspect of this – besides the Flyers joining the Sabres as the only teams in the League that believe their draft lottery odds increase with punches landed, apparently – is that the NHL was powerless to prevent it or retroactively punish Emery for it.

It’s fun to highlight the Flyers because of this incident and the Sabres because John Scott, but it really isn’t accurate.  And let’s be pretty clear here (and as the author will outline later which I feel should really be the entirety of this article and not what we’re wading through now), the NHL is not powerless to hand out discipline at will as Ron Rolson’s fine for ‘player selection,’ John Scott’s 7-game suspension for a hit that has typically earned 5 games, and Sean Avery’s suspension for ‘conduct detrimental to the league’ have shown us.  (And if anything is a license to suspend at will, it’s that last one.)  Guilty of setting bad precedents with inconsistency and erring on the side of inaction, yes.  Powerless, no.

Let’s start on the ice with the joke that was Francois St. Laurent.

He’s still fairly new to the NHL as an official, although he’s had moments of infamy. Remember when AHL goon Patrick Kaleta took a run at Mike Richards and then Richards was given a 5-minute elbowing major for defending himself? That was St. Laurent.

Remember where I said bias-laden?  Here it is.  Referring to Kaleta as an ‘AHL goon’ is a cheap-shot that, quite frankly, I would think below any professional writer. Kaleta has 306 games in the NHL and 87 in the AHL, and will most likely see the NHL again at some point in (possibly even the majority of) his career.  Calling him an AHL goon is an attempt by the author to demean a player that he doesn’t like.

The second part of the above that’s problematic is how the author excuses dirty play when it comes against a Guy Who Deserves It.  Maybe you know that sentiment by its other name, “the line of thinking that caused the Bertuzzi-Moore incident.”  Condemning St. Laurent for assessing an elbowing penalty to a guy that elbowed another guy in the face because of that other guy’s name is, again, exactly why we have a problem in the NHL with inconsistent and ineffective discipline.  Here’s what I would have written:

Remember when the NHL failed to mete out dirty play by giving Patrick Kaleta a free pass again and again and again including that time he broke Paul Mara’s face?  Remember when Kaleta, responded to that by continuing to play recklessly?  Remember when Mike Richards chose to commit a similarly dirty act because of this?  That’s the exact same message the NHL is sending with inaction here.

On Friday night, he had a chance to stop the Emery fight or at the very least allow a Washington Capitals player to stop it for him. But he didn’t.

Michael Latta of the Capitals raced over to do Francois St. Laurent’s job, but the referee waived him off, allowing Emery to pummel the head of an opposing goaltender unabated. Like any player, he would have taken the ‘third man in’ ejection to save his guy. He was told to hang back.

Except having a skater fighting a goaltender is violating The Code in the eyes of many.  Funny thing about vigilante justice…it tends to be inconsistent and chaotic.  The Code works when fans are stupid and there’s no internet and we have little choice but to buy the line the league and the media are selling.  That is not the case today.

St. Laurent probably felt he was controlling the game, preventing further carnage. Yes, at the expense of a goalie being carved up by an amateur boxer. It was sickening.

I do agree that St. Laurent seemed to espouse that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one in sacrificing Holtby in an attempt to maintain control of the game.  But at the same time I have to ask if the opposite would have been any better.  What if St. Laurent had allowed a third man in, or even prevented the fight from starting to begin with?  I don’t honestly know.  It was sickening, but I can’t tell you that it was better or worse than any of the other options.  What I can do is criticize the decisions that get us to moments like these.

But as the League said, there’s nothing currently in the rulebook under fighting that would allow for supplemental discipline.

You know, which is exactly what they said after Matt Cooke ended Marc Savard’s career, too …

True, and here’s where the article gets good and the author beats the NHL over the head with its own rules.

Emery was the “aggressor” in the fight, attacking an unwilling opponent. That falls under Rule 46.2 for the NHL, and this is how supplemental discipline works for an aggressor:

6.17 Fines and Suspensions – Aggressor – A player who is deemed to be the aggressor for the third time in one Regular season shall be suspended for the next two regular season games of his team.

For the fourth aggressor penalty in the same Regular season, the player will be suspended for the next four games of his team. For the fifth aggressor penalty in the same Regular season, the player will be suspended for the next six games of his team.

During the Play-offs, any player who is deemed to be the aggressor for the second time shall be suspended automatically for the next Play-off game of his team. For each subsequent aggressor violation during the Play-offs, the automatic suspension shall be increased by one game.

Prior to the commencement of each Stanley Cup Final, a player or goalkeeper will have his current aggressor violations removed from his current playoff record. They will remain part of his historical record.

So like Rule 48 after Cooke/Savard, Ray Emery’s psychotic episode will allow the NHL GMs to quickly amend this rule to an automatic suspension for any aggressor when they meet next week. It’s an quick loophole to close, and a very easy sell to the conservatives in the group, given recent events – drop John Scott’s Phil Kessel chase in there too, for good measure.

(Hell, at the very least, Scott warned the Maple Leafs bench that they were sending out chum for him. That’s more than Emery did.)

But the NHL didn’t have to wait for the rules to change to punish Emery. Gary Bettman’s comments on this were a copout:

“There was no rule that was violated to elevate things to the level of a suspension. It’s something we’ll continue to discuss.”

“I don’t think anybody liked it, liked what it looked like. Fortunately it’s not something that happens very often. But I’m sure it’s something we’ll focus on, particularly with the general managers.”

Whenever a player makes the League look as terrible as Emery did on Friday, Bettman has the authority to go beyond what the rulebook mandates and take him down:

28.1 Supplementary Discipline - In addition to the automatic fines and suspensions imposed under these rules, the Commissioner may, at his discretion, investigate any incident that occurs in connection with any Pre-season, Exhibition, League or Playoff game and may assess additional fines and/or suspensions for any offense committed during the course of a game or any aftermath thereof by a player, goalkeeper, Trainer, Manager, Coach or non-playing Club personnel or Club executive, whether or not such offense has been penalized by the Referee.

Are we going to argue semantics here on “additional”? Hope not.

It’s a pretty good point coming from someone with a greater knowledge of what NHL rules actually say than I.  It’s just too bad it had to come this late in the article after the author spent so much time trying to act like this is a rare act, trying to excuse other players who might do something similar to Emery, and shitting on players he doesn’t like.

Bettman has broad powers as commissioner. As Sean Avery can attest, the League can do whatever it damn well pleases if it doesn’t like your behavior. The idea that the NHL was powerless to suspend or fine Ray Emery for this onslaught is a fiction of their own creation. It is, in the end, their choice not to have done so.

And, I would argue, a creation of the writers that prop up inconsistencies in NHL discipline and/or favor a loosely defined “system” of vigilante justice.

If you want to argue the current rules aren’t enough to warrant the commissioner, then consider who was being assaulted – a division rival’s starting goaltender. You’d think that a goalie being pummeled in the head would earn Emery the electric chair, given how the NHL vigilantly protects both. But not here.

A fight is not a fight when one combatant is willing, the other is unwilling, and the first responds by saying “just protect yourself.”

Had it been with a stick instead of his fists, Ray Emery would have gotten 25 games from the NHL.

Maybe the fighting debate has the NHL in such a moral quandary that it can’t recognize the difference between a fight and an assault. Because this was an assault, an embarrassment to the NHL and the fact that everyone from the referee on the ice to the commissioner in Manhattan feigns weakness to prohibit it compounds that embarrassment.

Okay, we’re done.  Did you notice a few things missing?  I sure did.  For starters, “A fight is not a fight when one combatant is willing [and] the other is unwilling” isn’t so clear-cut, right Patrick Kaleta, Claude Lemiux, Sean Avery, and others?  Granted the NHL does punish a guy for pummeling another during turtling incidents, but no one is jumping to protect those players as “victims of assault.”  The more common sentiment is that they should expose themselves to face punches.  Furthermore the league is going to argue that whatever penalties get handed out were punishment enough, which is exactly the sort of thing people aren’t saying about Emery.  I know it’s difficult, but we really have to try to forget who is participating in these incidents and how we feel about them.

Lost in all this is Wayne Simmonds who ran around throwing elbows until the Washington Capitals decided to do something about it.  What about those assaults?  It’s pretty clear from the video that Simmonds is in no way attempting to play hockey.  Why do his actions get a free pass?  The Emery incident taking people’s attention and the general short attention span of the average fan excuse those people, but not those that make a living covering hockey or enforcing its rules.  If you want to get dangerous hits out of the game, you need to punish to the reckless behavior, not the results because often the difference between a guy being fine and catastrophic injury is not the hit itself, but the circumstances independent of the hit.

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