The NHL may have reached its breaking point on Tuesday night in Chicago. The catalyst was hulking Phoenix Coyotes goon Raffi Torres's ruthless hit on unsuspecting Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa, a cheapshot so ugly that you had to see it twice to believe it. Perhaps more stunning than the hit itself, was that no penalty was called, and Torres remained in the game. The irony of this collision wasn't lost on a stunned Chicago crowd. The graceful, at times fragile Hossa, nearly dismembered by a savage with a stick. The reincarnation of a new and improved NHL, being undercut by a culture of violence.
Torres isn't the goat here. Yes, he's a dirty player -- many in Chicago would use harsher adjectives -- but he's a pawn in a much larger game. The NHL's ratings have improved substantially since the 2004 lockout, due in large part to rule changes, which have made the game faster.
With the speed and strength of modern athletes, come concussions. Like the NFL, the NHL has had a serious problem with head injuries. Sidney Crosby, the best player in the world, missed nearly a year with concussion like symptoms. Claude Giroux, Jonathan Toews and many other stars have missed significant time as well. At this point the face of the NHL shouldn't be a player, it should be a hospital bed. As in, if your team can stay healthy, you have as good a chance as any to win a title.
You'd think with the intense publicity that the Stanley Cup playoffs get that the NHL would clean things up. Just the opposite. A week into the playoffs, we've seen double the number of game misconducts as during the entire 2011 post-season. Many of the games across the league have descended into chaos: Clueless refs trying and failing to break up scrums, which start every two minutes; blatant cheap shots with no repercussions. It would be funny if we didn't have extensive evidence of the problems caused by head injuries in sports.
Can you imagine if even a quarter of this fighting was happening in the NBA? Advertisers calling up David Stern, complaining about tattooed thugs who don't represent American values. (If you can't see the racial double standard between the NHL and NBA, I don't know what to tell you.) The league is quickly devolving into a farce. Everybody likes to see a fight once in a while, but now the size of your goons means more than the skill of your players. The landmark New York Times series on Derek Boogaard seems to have had no impact.
To see the danger zone he NHL is slipping into, look no further than the reactions of the Phoenix Coyotes announcers after Torres's hit. While Hossa was face up, immobile on the United Center ice, color commentator Tyson Nash called the hit, "as clean a hit as you are going to get." By sending Hossa to the hospital on a play where he didn't have the puck, Torres was "setting the tone" for the Coyotes.
I'm hesitant to call Gary Bettman "commissioner" anymore, because he seems to have lost control of his league. Rogue players like Torres are allowed free rein because some ratings exec says that Americans would rather watching fighting than hockey. But what if next time somebody is blindsided by a 225 lb. man, hits his head on a sheet of ice and doesn't get up?
What if the next cheap shot ends in a funeral?