Some hockey fans have, over the years, settled on a concise motto to sum up how they feel about the NHL’s stewardship of the game they love: “best sport, worst league.” Reasonable people can debate whether hockey is the best sport. But it’s increasingly hard to question the back half of that slogan: the NHL’s place as the worst-run league among all its major North American peers in professional sports.
Many of Gary Bettman’s failures as NHL commissioner have boiled down to the stinginess of his bosses—the owners of NHL teams. Their joint screw-ups include three lockouts (one that canceled an entire season), the decision to keep NHL players out of the 2018 Olympics and thus water down a key chance for the sport to market itself to the world, and childishly dismissing links between concussions and CTE to protect the league’s business.
This week, though, Bettman’s league failed in a way that, for once, had little to do with predatory capitalism. Instead, the league gave in to one of the worst parts of hockey culture, turned its nose up at a problem it could’ve easily solved, and allowed an overheated situation to burn into an embarrassment for the entire NHL.
The blowtorch that started the fire is named Tom Wilson. On Monday night, during a power play against the New York Rangers, a scrum broke out around Washington Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek. The Rangers’ Pavel Buchnevich found himself facedown on the ice just to Vanecek’s left. Then, Wilson arrived and punched Buchnevich in the back of the head or neck, sandwiching that head or neck between Wilson’s fist and the ice surface. Wilson also tossed around and injured the Rangers’ best player, winger Artemi Panarin.
This was not a fluke. The 27-year-old Capitals winger is a nice player, a key contributor on a Stanley Cup team in 2018 who’s good for a steady 40 points or so per season and is having his best year ever in 2021. But in addition to all of that, Wilson is a danger to the health of everyone in his vicinity whenever he steps onto the ice. He’s laid a bunch of grisly, illegal hits on his opponents over the years, netting himself five suspensions worth well over $1 million in lost pay. Picking Wilson’s worst headshot is hard, but it’s probably this one on the St. Louis Blues’ Oskar Sundqvist in 2018, which might be upsetting to watch and earned Wilson a 20-game suspension that was later reduced to 14:
After Wilson dished out his latest blows, the fans and media who post about hockey online and populate sports talk radio were fairly united in the view that Wilson should be marched into the town square and punished harshly. That, uh, didn’t happen. On Tuesday, Wilson got a $5,000 fine, the maximum allowed under the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The league did not elaborate on the lack of a suspension. The Rangers certainly did, in a scorched-earth statement that described Wilson’s behavior as a “horrifying act of violence.” The team called the lack of a suspension “shocking” and unloaded on George Parros, the head of the player safety operation for the NHL, for his “dereliction of duty,” adding that “he is unfit to continue in his current role.”
It’s not clear which Rangers executives greenlighted the statement. Team owner James Dolan (yes, the same dysfunction geyser who owns the New York Knicks) fired team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton on Wednesday, the day after the missive against Parros and the NHL became public. The Rangers apparently let it leak that their firings were unrelated to the statement and instead due to the team underachieving, which I find to be one of the single least believable bits of crisis management anyone has ever attempted in all of sports. The Rangers missed the playoffs this year but have flashed good signs the past two years, and the execs Dolan fired have stocked the organization with exciting young players. It’s not outrageous to want more, especially given that the team has Panarin on one of the most expensive contracts in hockey, but the timing of the firings makes me incredulous.
It is crystal clear that the Rangers’ players and coaches were furious that Wilson basically got away with his brutality on Monday. On Wednesday night, at the immediate drop of the opening faceoff, they engaged the Capitals in a full-on, choreographed line brawl, with three simultaneous fights breaking out.
Wilson wasn’t even on the ice for that faceoff, but he got into a fight with the Rangers’ Brendan Smith 50 seconds of game time later. Wilson played less than three minutes in the game, but he managed to accrue 15 penalty minutes, helping the game reach 100 combined PIMs in the first period.
“I had no beef with anybody else on their team,” Smith said. “I thought it should have been handled before this game, and it wasn’t. I felt it had to be on my shoulders, and I took it.” Because the NHL didn’t remove Wilson from the action, the Rangers did.
Someone might ask, “Well, doesn’t hockey sanction punches to the head by allowing fighting for as long as hockey has existed? Doesn’t it actively encourage head-punching by making the standard penalty five minutes in the box?” Yes, hockey does do that. But you aren’t supposed to punch players in the back of the head while they’re down on the ice, as Wilson did. That is a sucker punch, which is against hockey’s code, because a player having his skull dribbled against the ice like a basketball may not have consented to the battle. Historically, hockey’s code dictates that the victimized player’s teammates will defend his honor by finding the aggressor sometime later on and either fighting, checking, or headhunting him. Ergo, the Rangers’ full-team retaliation Wednesday night was the code at work.
But the NHL is supposed to have another way to deal with this kind of head-punching, and other illegal blows to the heads and necks of unsuspecting players. The league’s Department of Player Safety—it sounds like a federal agency and acts kind of like one too—is charged with reviewing dangerous plays and deciding, via a rigorous and often transparent methodology, whether a given incident merits a fine, a suspension, both, or neither. (The department tweets detailed videos explaining many of its decisions to its 167,000 followers.) A detailed explanation was absent from the Wilson ruling, but the NHL fined the Rangers $250,000 for their statement. Bettman called it “terribly unfair” that the team went after Parros.
Fighting is part of the game’s tradition. But there’s a reason it’s become so entrenched. Hockey’s governing bodies, most notably the NHL but also junior leagues going back decades, have allowed it to fester—on one hand by not penalizing it all that aggressively, and also by leaning on the game to police itself instead of punishing cheap shots harshly. Fighting has declined in recent times; it’s much more stringently banned in amateur hockey, but young players still grow up glorifying it. When I played growing up, I maintained accounts on the message boards at HockeyFights.com and DropYourGloves.com, the latter a now-defunct site where you could rate fights on a scale and taxonomize them by whether a player got knocked out or merely TKO’d.
Many things that people now pooh-pooh as bad examples for athletes to set for our youth are not actually bad. But hockey fights are bad. They distract from what’s actually best about the game: the speed, the shooting, and the stickhandling, as well as bone-crunching but legal body checks. More importantly, fists are not supposed to fly into heads at high velocity—and now that just about everyone except the NHL seems to be finely attuned to the serious long-term risks that concussions pose, it’s clear that fighting should have been left in the last century. At the absolute least, retaliatory throwdowns are not a substitute for punishing wrongdoers like Wilson more severely and giving them a bigger financial incentive not to take sucker punches.
Fighting is not just a symbol of the past, but of the sport’s mega-whiteness. Hockey fights have gotten a “boys will be boys” treatment from lots of fans and pundits, even when they’ve spilled into the stands and involved players fighting spectators. In 1979, Mike Milbury was a Boston Bruins defenseman when he climbed into the stands at Madison Square Garden and repeatedly whacked a fan with his own shoe. Milbury went on to a long career as one of the sport’s most decorated gatekeepers while a studio analyst for NBC’s broadcasts. Several player-versus-fan brawls are included in a “Top NHL Fan vs. Player Moments” video produced by one of the league’s biggest rights holders. Contrast that to the way NBA players were talked about after the Indiana Pacers brawled with Detroit Pistons fans in 2004, and it’s a hard sell to believe that the adoration of hockey’s fighting culture would hold in a more diverse sport. That hockey players may wear helmets when they punch one another in the face does not alter this equation.
The discussion over fighting will never end, because hockey will never reach a consensus on it. The NHL probably couldn’t eradicate fights on its own even if it wanted. Fortunately, a firm position on fighting’s future in the sport isn’t necessary to point out that Tom Wilson vs. the New York Rangers was the humiliating consequence of the league failing to keep a player out of a game that clearly would become a farce with him in it. The Rangers will probably keep going after Wilson into 2022, and he’ll probably injure someone again soon by doing something illegal. (To be fair, his track record indicates he may have done that anyway.) For the moment, the NHL is at least back in the mainstream of U.S. sports news—this piece you’re reading exists, after all!—but it’s not because of the things that make the sport enjoyable. Instead, it’s because of a pointless culture of sports vigilantism and a garage league that enables it.