Stanley Cup playoffs: NHL fails to control intimidation tactics

Mike Wise
Columnist April 18, 2012

When bigger and stronger men routinely shove and hit their opponents after the whistle is blown and the play is over, most decent sporting societies call these cheap shots by gutless bullies. In Boston? Bruins hockey, baby.

These low-rent intimidation tactics have become so accepted outside of New England that even NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his officials cower instead of doing something to clean up the small-time physicality of the defending Stanley Cup champions. Better to go after a skill player who has never been suspended in his life than any one of five hooligans on the other team.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Maybe someone is afraid the Stanley Cup would not reside in Boston if the league genuinely took a look at what the Bruins do often after plays are clearly over. All I know is Game 4 of the Bruins-Capitals series is Thursday night at Verizon Center and somehow Nicklas Backstrom is not playing. Meanwhile, the ruffians who have been trying their damnedest to knock his concussed head have a full roster. In Bettman’s NHL, this is justice.

Funny, no, that the team that tied for the league lead with 65 majors, led the league with five game misconducts and had more penalty minutes than all but two other NHL clubs during the regular season has been able to skate away without so much as a warning. The Bruins have 14 fewer penalty minutes in the series against Washington thus far, proof that either they have become remarkably good at looking like they’re not doing anything illegal or the on-ice cops aren’t doing their jobs.

A guy who always gets away with it is Tim Thomas, Boston’s anger-management goalie. Unsmiling, on edge, he is essentially Yosemite Sam with a better pair of clippers. In Game 2, he nailed Backstrom in the head with his blocker and kicked Troy Brouwer. According to the NHL rulebook, those are match penalties — the kind that got Backstrom suspended for Game 4. On it goes. Milan Lucic repeatedly takes whacks at Backstrom’s head.

Is Dale Hunter reaping what he sowed in the last millennium as a rugged, no-holds-barred player? That’s one way to look at it. Everyone knows what could happen when things weren’t going Hunter’s way — see Pierre Turgeon. He didn’t fight fair. But more accurately, a rookie coach made a rookie mistake by not doing the off-day lobbying between Games 2 and 3 that the Bruins did. Just once this season has he genuinely politicked for a ruling, and it didn’t help Backstrom one bit.

These are indeed dangerous times for the NHL and its image.

In an open letter to Bettman, consumer advocate Ralph Nader called Wednesday for the commissioner to ban fighting, citing the growing number of head blows in the playoffs.

In the opening week of the postseason, the average number of fights per contest has almost doubled from the regular season.

What Nader ceases to realize is, the consumers he’s advocating for include a disturbing number of warped fans, who want to see the bull get stuck, who want to see the violence and cheap shots.

When you hear James Neal of Pittsburgh was suspended for just one game because the NHL bought his story about “jumping to avoid contact” and then you watch the video of his hit against Flyers star Claude Giroux, you just shake your head in disgust. The same applies for when you see Shea Weber of Nashville slam the Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the boards and find out he was fined a mere $2,500. Or for when you look at the Boston-Washington series.

So the rugged Bruins, widely regarded as the dirtiest team in the NHL, have all of a sudden morphed into abide-by-the-rules, upstanding choir boys? And Backstrom is now Marty McSorley in training?

Only in Gary Bettman’s under-siege NHL.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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