WINNIPEG, OCT. 30 -- By mandating lengthy suspensions and heavy fines, the National Hockey League appears to have eliminated the bench-clearing brawls that made the league a laughingstock.
But the outcome of a hearing today in Montreal will determine whether the NHL is serious about eliminating the individual brutality, politely termed "intimidation," that forces skilled players to search for potential blindside attacks instead of utilizing their skills to the fullest.
Brian O'Neill, NHL executive vice president in charge of discipline, must pass sentence -- the decision is expected to be announced sometime next week -- on Dave Brown of the Philadelphia Flyers, who on Monday night in full view of a Canadian television audience charged the Rangers' Tomas Sandstrom from behind during a stoppage in play and cross-checked him in the side of the head.
The case is so clearcut that the Flyers, who last year vigorously protested a five-game suspension to Brown for a less vicious attack on Sandstrom, were reduced to defend Brown this time, as General Manager Bob Clarke did, with the claim that "Sandstrom is the dirtiest player in the league."
Reaction around the NHL has been virtually unanimous in condemning Brown. Predictably, the Rangers were most vociferous, with Coach Michel Bergeron saying, "When a player attempts to injure someone like that, he should be suspended for a year. If he did the same thing on the street, he'd get 10 years in jail. He didn't just try to hurt him -- he tried to kill him."
A more impartial view came from Babe Pratt, the Hall of Famer who performs public relation duties for the Vancouver Canucks.
"Brown should get the rest of the year," Pratt said. "In my 65 years in hockey, I've never seen anything like that. I've seen guys spear each other and swing their sticks at each other, but at least they're looking and can duck.
"Here's a guy looking the other way, with two other Flyers around him, and Brown goes at him from behind. If they let him get away with it, everybody will laugh at the NHL. And that goes down to pup hockey, too. You'll have kids doing the same thing."
Already, this has been a busy season for O'Neill. He issued an eight-game suspension to Montreal goalie Patrick Roy for slashing Minnesota's Warren Babe and he banned New Jersey defenseman Jack O'Callahan for three games for kicking Pittsburgh's Mark Kachowski.
Still pending, besides the Brown case, are rulings in the Pittsburgh incident in which New Jersey's John MacLean swung his stick at some fans from the penalty box, as well as the match penalty issued to Quebec's Gord Donnelly for kneeing Willi Plett during a brawl in Boston Thursday that saw 10 players ejected.
Neither the Canadiens nor the North Stars were satisfied with O'Neill's decision to ban Roy for eight games. The suspension matched the eight-game ban handed to Philadelphia's Ron Hextall for slashing Edmonton's Kent Nilsson in the leg during the Stanley Cup playoffs last season.
Montreal General Manager Serge Savard called the eight games "excessively severe," adding that, "You can't compare Patrick Roy's record of such incidents with Ron Hextall's. Hextall does something almost every game."
However, Nilsson escaped injury, while Babe, because of nerve damage to his knee, already has sat out five games with the prospect of more. Accordingly, Minnesota General Manager Lou Nanne complained, "Roy should miss as much time as Babe. It was worse than Hextall, because Nilsson didn't miss a shift."
Regardless, the message is getting out that the NHL means business in cleaning up its image. Even the off-ice quarrel between Washington Coach Bryan Murray and linesman Ron Asselstine, which would have produced nothing beyond covered-up fines in the past, resulted in three-game suspensions for both.
Montreal Coach Jean Perron said, "The league seems to be more serious this year in showing that it will be the one to lay down the law, rather than the players. If I were in Dave Brown's shoes, I'd be extremely afraid of what's going to happen to me."