I have been watching hockey for more than 60 years. And before me, my dad used to go to “the old Garden” during high school and sit up in the GO seats. My dad was not a team sports fan, but he loved hockey. As someone who loved rough and tumble sports as a kid (roller derby was my second favorite sport), I could not understand why my very meek and peace-loving dad loved a game as physical as hockey. One day when I was about 10, I finally asked him why he loved hockey. I remember distinctly where we were when I asked the question (at Paragon, near Union Square, where my brother and I were being fitted for our yearly new Hyde skates), and I remember just as well his answer and how his eyes lit up when he started to answer. It was those GO seats and how the players, with no helmets on, would attack each other with their sticks when they got in fights. He told me that, even though it was crazy rough, guys rarely got badly hurt–that there was a code about fighting in hockey and everyone loved the game more than anything else. There were very few guys who wanted to hurt each other.
The game evolved over time, fighting became passe (as awareness of CTE rose), clutching and grabbing went out the window (for the most part), and I went from watching the Rangers on a curved black and white tv to a seat in the press box at the “new” Garden. Over all those years, my love for the game has never waivered. But now I am at my wits end. Now I am disgusted with what I am seeing–where the league that has sworn that it wants to protect its players has fallen so short. This came to a head last night and this morning, when Tom Wilson, a player who has been suspended numerous times for crossing the line and hurting other players, first attacked Pavel Buchnevich while he was lying prone on the ice and then went after Artemi Panarin, injuring the star player after grabbing him by the hair, pushing his head into the ice, and punching his head while he was down. And then this morning came word that the NHL decided that Wilson was not going to be suspended for his “performance” last night; instead he was given a $5,000 fine.
My immediate response to the light sentence was disbelief. But, as the morning moved along, I put this incident together with others throughout the last years and realized that, once again, this is not about player safety–it is about expediency and money. Panarin and the Rangers were going home anyway. But Wilson is critical to the Capitals competing for the Stanley Cup. Without him, the climb is a lot steeper. You see, Wilson is not just a goon; he actually is a very skilled player (with what seems to be a screw loose). He is a valuable asset for the NHL; a more valuable asset to the NHL right now than any of the Rangers.
In fact, Wilson could be a great player–a player that has immense skill and plays a very physical game; but, he does not know where the line is, and what I am worried about is that because he crosses over so often, he may also wind up being a killer (intentionally or not). The NHL knows this; in fact, everybody knows this. But, the league is ignoring it, because Wilson is an important player for Washington, who likely will compete for several rounds in the playoffs; and that means money for the team and for the NHL.
So what does this have to do with the Rangers? Its quite simple–it’s that the Rangers rebuild almost totally focuses on high-end skill and is therefore vulnerable to being taken advantage of–now and in the coming years; when you look through the lineup, who would it be that could actually have intimidated Wilson. Who would Wilson be hesitant to take on? The answer is nobody on this team and probably no one already in the organization. The Rangers need several people to be in Wilson’s mold that stays on the right side of crazy. But for now, obviously the NHL is not going to stop Wilson or anyone like him from taking advantage of skill players.
I hate seeing players get mauled, hurt badly, or out for any length of time due to purposeful injury-inducing hits (or punches). Yesterday, we saw some really awful things happen on the ice. Luckily, it appears that Panarin is not badly hurt–this time. But two things need to happen here. First, the Rangers need to incorporate at least one semi-Wilson into their lineup. I say semi, because I want this new player to play tough but stay on the right side of “the line.” Players who are considered “skill players” need to be protected from the rough and tumble that goes on the ice. And the other thing that needs to happen is for the NHL to have a no tolerance policy for “dangerous” hits intended to injure. Long suspensions should be the norm. We don’t want what happened last night or worse in our game. Now is the time to stop it.
But should the Rangers get (or bring up) a fighter? Most agree that staged fights are ridiculous, but being somewhat “old-school,” I roll my eyes and generally don’t mind them. What is important though is to have a guy to bring in that has the skill to make a bully pay for his own stupidity. Frankly, since the league refuses to effectively act against this stupidity, the quickest way to get that out of the game is to hire someone who can stand up for his teammate–or better yet, hire more than one someone. The Blueshirts could easily give up one wing spot and one defensive position to guys who are going to protect their players. Skill is wonderful, but if other teams are going to pick them off one by one, skill is worthless. Some changes need to be made because the NHL is not doing their job to keep them safe; so I say to the Rangers, make those changes to get more gritty and physical and make them as soon as possible. The fate of some of your most valuable assets may be on the line.