When I tell people I live and breathe hockey, one of the most common answers I get is: "You like hockey? Really!? It's so barbaric! They fight all the time!"
In a way, it is true. Grown men on skates in post-whistle scrums hacking, pushing, shoving, punching, trash-talking, fighting. What most people don't understand, and most often than not it's because they've had very little exposure to the sport either by watching or playing, is that there is a "hockey code" involved. I once tried to explain this to a friend of mine to justify all the "barbaric" things that happen on the ice but there were times where I really stumbled on my words to convey my message. It's not something easily understood. There's a certain honour when it comes to dropping the gloves and hitting someone, something that has clearly been lost as evidenced by this week's crazy sequence of events.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when hockey players lost respect for one another. Hits to the head, elbows, kneeing, slew foots have been just a few of the instances this year in which hockey players lost their ability to make good decisions. Mike Richards' hit was a poor decision. As was Matt Cooke's hit on Marc Savard, Patrice Cormier's elbow on Mikael Tam, and most recently James Wisniewski's hit on Brent Seabrook. It certainly doesn't help hockey's image when papers like the Boston Herald are actively calling for a punishment on Matt Cooke. This is head-hunting at its best.
This all gives hockey a bad image. I'm a little shocked that Gary Bettman hasn't publicly said anything about the matter or the Herald's front page (... on second thought, I'm actually not). The last time an (alleged) head hunt was called ended in a nasty situation that involved a season-long suspension and fractured vertebrae. The NHL took huge five steps forward with the success of the Olympics with an all North American final but its image has once again suffered because the league has proved incapable and inefficient once again to really address the issues. In fact, I think the Pittsburgh-Boston game Thursday night was a great example of why the league really needs to get rid of the instigator rule.
<img src="http://d.yimg.com/a/p/rids/20100319/i/r3602461247.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">First, I thought the Bruins responded in a great way to the incredible amount of pressure on them to exact revenge on Matt Cooke. Cooke knew what was coming too and obliged when he was challenged by Shawn Thornton in a spirited tilt (kudos to both). Thornton was tossed from the game for throwing punches when Cooke was vulnerable on the ice, but I'm glad that it didn't get worse, because really, it could've. Never mind the Bruins lost, that was asides from the point. Had Cooke declined the offer to drop the gloves (and he does have a history of doing that) the pent up rage of the entire Bruins squad and Boston crowd could've escalated into something much worse.
In regards to Wisniewski's hit on Seabrook, had there been no instigator rule, I don't think the hit would've happened. Instead, Wisniewski would've dropped the gloves whether Seabrook was willing or not. In some ways, a spirited tilt in which the play is dead and the referees and linesmen's focus is on the fight, and in which Seabrook doesn't necessarily have to be as aware of the surroundings around him, makes it a much safer option than skating 20 feet and slamming Seabrook into the boards when he isn't looking. At least in a fight Seabrook has a chance to defend himself. It was clear Wisniewski wanted to send a message. I find it hard to believe that retaliation wasn't something he had in mind when he skated from his own bench and flew into Seabrook like a RPG.
Fighting needs to stay in the NHL. Blindside hits and the instigator rule have to go. Respect, for the players and sport alike, needs to be earned again.