Tuesdays With Stoosh: 1.25

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NBC kicked off its regular 2011 weekend coverage of the NHL this past Sunday with a Blackhawks-Flyers game.   Decent game…rematch of last year’s Cup Finals, blah, blah, blah, but mostly the same old NBC coverage we’ve come to know and sort of love and mostly hate.
 
Doc Emrick & Ed Olczyk were in the booth, which is fine for the most part.  Doc is one of the few real plusses of NBC’s hockey coverage; he could read the phone book and make it entertaining.  Plus he knows how to reign in Olczyk’s horrible misreads of plays (Does Edzo not have a monitor up there?  Was he always this bad when he called Pens games?).  And hey, Pierre McGuire was back between the benches, dumbing the game down to elementary levels because NBC apparently thinks all its viewers are watching the game for the very first time.
 

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Even Marty Turco thinks you’re bullshit.
 
Not stopping there, NBC decided to continue battering the intelligence of their viewers by resurrecting the ridiculous scripted first intermission debates between Pierre McGuire & Mike Milbury.  The idea for this probably had its genesis in the old Sportscenter spots when ESPN would have John Clayton and Sean Salisbury debate a number of football-related topics.  Clayton played the voice of reason and Sean Salisbury played the resident meathead, which really wasn’t much of a stretch for him.  The end result came off most of the time as a poorly-executed SNL skit, with Clayton trying to stifle laughter through Salisbury’s pathetic attempts at feigning outrage over something.
 
NBC, of course, thinks this is a great idea, believing that this comes off as representative of what hockey fans want, I guess.  You’ve got the brainiac-looking McGuire, who loves to overuse hockey jargon and talk down to his viewers.  You’ve also got the ex-goon in Milbury, who never scored more than 10 goals in a season (during the high-octane late-1970s and early 1980s, go figure) and whose playing career was defined by a fight.  With a fan.  In which he beat the fan his own shoe.
 
Milbury treats chances to make himself look like an ass the same way Tyler Kennedy treats shots on net – he never fails to pass them up.  So it took him less than three minutes to accomplish the feat this past Sunday as the two of them discussed concussions and the league’s stance on shots to the head.
 

“Soccer Mom Pierre Mcguire.” How’s that image working for you?
 
At this point, NBC should just save everyone the trouble. Put Milbury on the air dressed in an animal pelt and give him a large wooden club to wield.
 
It’s been said before that Milbury fashions himself as a younger generation’s version of Don Cherry, but that’s an insult to Cherry.
 
See, Cherry is many things that drive people crazy. He’s bombastic and opinionated.  He’s jingoistic and old-fashioned.  There isn’t a bigger fan of what he calls the “Canadian way” – fast-paced, physical hockey.  He’s long professed his affinity for guys like Wendel Clark and Gary Roberts – guys who were just as apt to knock a skater silly with a check or a punch as they were to beat your goalie with a well-placed shot.
 
But while Cherry advocates a physical game, he has also recognized the problems that the NHL has with dangerous hits.  He’s long spoken out about hits from behind on the boards; hell, his old Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em tapes from almost 20 years ago used to close with tips on how kids at the youth levels should learn to AVOID delivering checks from behind along the boards.  He’s addressed hits to the head several times on his Coach’s Corner segments, and has said that something more needs to be done to change it, especially at the grassroots levels.
 
The “headshot” debate has hit a fever pitch now that a concussion has claimed the biggest name in the sport.  Like most debates these days, it seems to exist mostly in the media as a debate of extremes, as perfectly illustrated in that joke of an NBC segment shown above.  I’m not sure why that is, because there’s a very simple point that’s getting lost here.
 
You can take headshots out of the game without taking the physicality out of the game at the same time.
 
Hockey fans don’t want hits taken out of the game.  Hockey is a collision sport by nature.  It’s a fast game played in a confined space, and it’s driven by hard work and emotion.  Players on each team are battling for possession of a puck and wielding sticks to control it.  Hits are a necessary part of the game, and they’re going to happen.
 
You know what most hockey fans like more that hits?  Skilled players.  There are few things more exciting in hockey than watching a great hit that separates the puck from the puck carrier, but one of those things is a goal, especially one scored in spectacular fashion.
 
Yet for some reason, the NHL over the last 15 years has been notoriously hesitant to allow its star players to be star players. While the NFL has gone out of its way to implement rules that specifically promote offense AND directly protect its marquee players (read: quarterbacks), the NHL is the only pro sports league that tailored its rules to make things tougher on its elite talent.  It got so bad that it rendered the game nearly unwatchable on television from 1998-2004 and ultimately cost the NHL a season because revenues suffered.
 
You think they would’ve learned.  Protect the star players.   Because whether guys like Milbury want to admit it or not, it’s the elite players that drive the ticket sales, fill the arenas or get people to tune in and watch at home.  In turn, it’s those players that help pay Milbury’s salary. The sun will never come up on a day where a third-line grinder proves to be a bigger attraction for the NHL than a top-line scoring center or winger.
 
That’s not to say there isn’t a place for those lower-line roles; there most certainly is.  There will always be a place in the game for fast, physical and gritty play, just as there should be a place for skill players to work their craft.  Fans want to see the TOTALITY of the game, a point that seems completely lost on people like Milbury.
 
To the valid part of Milbury’s point – really, there IS one – it’s worth noting that no matter how many rules the league writes, they’re never going to completely eliminate hits to the head.  And even if they do what the OHL does and penalize every hit to the head deemed to be non-incidental (which the NHL SHOULD do, by the way), believe it or not, some players will still suffer concussions.
 
Look no further than the two checks that Marc Savard recently took from Deryk Engelland last week and then Matt Hunwick this past weekend. Both legal hits.  Both clean hits. Both hits that happened in the course of normal play, with each opposing player doing pretty much what he’s told to do…
 
Namely, hit Savard in the head.

 

I keeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed, I keeeeeeeeeeeeeed.
 
But seriously, OHL Commissioner David Branch recently said as much.  It sucks, but it is part of the game. Those hits are part of the game. The hits by Engelland and Hunwick on Savard were textbook examples of incidental contact as part of the play.  Sometimes those things are just going to happen.  Players are aware of the risk, and they assume that risk every time they step on this ice.  You can’t legislate it ALL out of the game.
 
But again, that’s not the objective anyway.  And it’s disingenuous to have some meathead like Milbury behind a desk telling people that such a rule would result in such a fundamental change to the game.  It won’t.  Watch an OHL game…there’s just as much hitting as before, just fewer hits to the head.
 
This is why Milbury’s weak-ass example – the risk of penalizing a player for hitting another one whose head might be lower because he’s playing the puck or quickly changing direction – isn’t good enough.  It’s worked in the OHL. It’s worked in the NFL. The NFL took a stance on shots to the head midway through this past season and there may have been some growing pains but by and large, players adjusted.
 
The league stands to gain little and lose a hell of a lot more by allowing the current standard to go unchanged.  It does absolutely nothing for the league to have guys like Crosby and Hemsky watching from the press box. Fans are smarter than that. Fans know that there’s a middle ground that can be reached that won’t impact the quality of the game and very well *gasp* might even make it better.
 
Fans certainly don’t need someone like Mike Milbury speaking for them.
 

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