It felt like the Sunday morning talk show circuit with high-ranking officials making the rounds to defend and spin.
In this case it was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on his weekly satellite radio show explaining why James Wisniewski was given an eight-game suspension for a dangerous hit while Matt Cooke got nothing for his. And a little later it was director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, the man who made both decisions, offering his take while being interviewed by Mike Milbury on the NESN Bruins pre-game show.
Both had been hearing a lot about the bad optics that have dominated the NHL landscape lately because of several recent on-incidents. But most of the media conversation and on call-in shows and message boards has been about Cooke going unpunished after his blind-side headshot forced Boston’s Marc Savard to be carried off on a stretcher two weeks ago. Still Bettman and Campbell kept insisting that since Cooke’s shoulder hit was technically legal and drew no penalty, precluding supplementary discipline from being used.
That could change since general managers at their meetings last week to unanimously recommend those types of hits be penalized. Already there is a movement on to fast-track the supplemental discipline part of the recommendation. But a new rule can't be implemented until next season, and in the meantime, injury-causing hits and how to deal with them continues to be the hot-button issue.
It came to a head this week when Cooke came to Boston for the first time since the Savard injury. A local newspaper even put the Pittsburgh Penguins player in a wanted poster on its front page, which helped explain why Campbell and the NHL’s officiating director Terry Gregson decided to drop in from their Toronto offices. You know, just to remind everyone not to let things get out of hand.
“You find the opportunity to avenge what you think you might have to,” Campbell said. “And if it is within the rules, you do it. Our game allows things and if that’s there, that’s there. Players do what they have to do. I think Cooke understands that as well.”
Apparently, because Cooke accepted a challenge from Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton on his first shift. Cooke took a few punches, went down first and because he "did the right thing" according to Thornton, that was the end of that. The matter was settled with a fight the way hockey people say it should, and then the teams got down to the serious business of playing for two important points. At least the Penguins did, shutting down the ineffectual Bruins 3-0, and leaving whatever revenge there being from the loss of a star player even less sweet.
Campbell said he regretted that.
“Trust me, we attempted to find a reason (to suspend Cooke) Mike,” he told Milbury. “I didn’t like the hit at all.”
Neither did Bettman, but he and Campbell kept insisting that those types of hits had never been punished before and the standard had to be consistent. Maybe, but don't commissioners have some discretionary latitude to do what’s good for the game? And the Cooke incident was nothing if not detrimental because it reinforced the impression of the NHL for thuggishness.
You have to figure there's a better way to get on news loops than having players victimized by cheap shots.
Whatever momentum the league had coming out of a great Olympic tournament – and there was a fair amount -- it has been lost in the last few weeks because of these repeated incidents. Instead of the focus being on the great playoff races now going on, the focus has been on images of woozy players being helped off the ice.
Obviously the commissioner has the legal basis to defend how the league handled Cooke And clearly the NHL is dealing more forcefully with bad hits now, this week sitting repeat offenders superstar Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals for two games and Anaheim’s Wisniewski for eight.
But Cooke is a repeat offender as well and that’s why majority of calls Bettman handled on his show were about Cooke. The commissioner repeatedly attempted to explain the decision process, yet callers couldn’t seem to get their heads around the logic.
The problem for the league right now is that it looks like it can’t get its act together when it comes to dealing with violent behavior. And no amount of spin will change that that visceral impression.