Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NHL owners committed to violence

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MONTEREY, Calif. -- Blame Shawn Thornton if you like. Lump in Gary Bettman too. But if what happened in Boston Saturday night further demonstrates violence in hockey has too long gone unchecked -- take a look higher up the hill to those profiting from the use of foul force entrenching itself deeper into our game.

For the most part they're not hockey people. Few of the NHL's blue bloods have ever taken a slapshot in anger or driven a child to an early morning practice or made their own backyard rink. They're businessmen driven by profit and they're fine with the thuggery which they believe drives their business.

When they decide the cost of fighting, and attacks such as Thornton's on Brooks Orpik, outweighs any measurable financial benefit, they'll act to quash the violence. The physical toll paid by players can continue unabated as it matters little to ownership. But money? Now that's a different story. That will get them to act.

Don't believe for a second the NHL needs the consent of the NHLPA to ban fighting. The NHL can institute a rule change and if the union doesn't like it they can grieve it. What court in Canada or the U.S. would uphold the players' right to bare-knuckle fight? Our courts don't condone barbarism.

Thornton may regret his slew-foot and assault of Orpik, and Bettman can send a message through a lengthy suspension. But neither can stop a similar reoccurrence. Nor can they put a halt to the nastier incidents that are inevitably coming our way.

The NHL's board of governors, meeting today in an opulent California coastal resort, can put an end to it. But they likely won't even discuss it. Not with more pressing items, such as ratifying a billion-dollar TV deal over which to pat themselves on the back.

Bettman, a crafty lawyer more than familiar with the case law of his NFL brethren, can't want this to continue. His life would be far easier without the existence of concussion lawsuits both pending and those yet to be unfurled by so many ambulance chasers.

Yet there he is, like a Big Tobacco executive, trotting out statements he hopes will provide plausible deniability when the judgment days finally arrive. Bettman is far too educated and evolved to believe half of what he says on this subject. But it's what he's paid to do.

Most NHL owners remind me of the unfortunate U.S. politicians ambushed by documentarian Michael Moore. Moore has filmed himself asking members of the U.S. Senate and Congress if they are signing up their son or daughter to fight in Iraq. The politicians wear faces of horror and astonishment.

Horror at the thought of their child being killed in the line of duty. Astonishment in the sense anyone would suggest they even consider such a course of action so easily skirted by their positions of privilege.

How many NHL owners would let their teenage son leave home to play in Moose Jaw or Oshawa and have his brain softened up fighting a couple of nights a week? Or to move on to the NHL where the same brain can be permanently damaged? All so one of their boardroom peers could profit? None, of course. That's why Canadian prairie boys like Derek Boogaard or hardscrabble kids from the American Northeast like Chris Nilan were put on this planet.

Flyers owner Ed Snider and Bruins operator Jeremy Jacobs would rather gut you and drag a polished loafer through your steaming entrails than have you take away the fighting upon which they've built their franchises. It's no coincidence this latest incident happened in one of their rinks, which have long been bastions of beatings.

Surely there are owners in the NHL who feel the moral strain of allowing their employees to engage in such obvious transgressions of workplace safety. But their voices are muted under the din of cawing hawks.

It seems every time Bettman brings his owners to California there's a fresh wave of violence-related excrement to deal with, and this year's no different. Bettman will spend some of his time here this week giving ownership a 50,000-foot view of the class action being brought against the league by a few hundred of its former players. Turns out NHL hockey players have been suffering brain damage for some time and they think ownership knowingly let it happen.

Surely someone will want to stand up and ask some pointed questions about the league's direction. But if they dare, they'll be shouted down.

Some time will be spent on the salary cap, which will likely rise to $70 million for next season, and there might even be discussion about expansion.

But the disease that is penetrating the NHL and has now hauled it into a civil court?

That will have to wait. Until money or death make it unavoidable.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 9, 2013 0

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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