NHL and sportsmanship? You’ve got to be kidding!

NHL players now know that whoever touches an opponent’s head, be it by accident or just for the sheer fun of it, will face punishment.

That was one of the messages contained in a video teams received prior to opening their training camps, with the instruction to share it with all the players on their premises.

One major positive: Brendan Shanahan, the new NHL discipline and player safety Pooh-Bah, wasn’t the only talking head in the DVD. Matthew Schneider, a former NHL defenceman, now a players’ union (NHLPA) employee, joined Shanahan to convey the message as sternly as they could do it while keeping their faces straight.

If NHL players needed this reminder, there is something fundamentally wrong. Not only with them, but with the entire system, a.k.a. culture of hockey, too.

Yes, there has been a veritable flood (or avalanche, if you prefer) of serious injuries lately. Some pessimists predict Sidney Crosby will never again be as dominating a force as he used to be before his concussions. We all know that the three premature deaths within NHL ranks this past summer must have had something to do with the violence that has become an integral part of the game.

But why? Cliché after cliché. Players no longer respect one another. Players’ equipment is to blame. Players have grown stronger and faster than they used to be, so, when the hit one another in full speed, the force of the impact is that much more devastating.

It is most unfortunate, but all of these statements are perfectly correct. And none of them goes to the root of the issue.

What root? It’s called, “Just win, baby.” In other words: it’s all about winning. Nothing else matters. Professional sports are no longer about sports. Or about being sporting. Sportsmanlike, even. It’s about entertainment value. After all, professional sports belong, by rights, into entertainment business, even if the entertainment value tends to be more than questionable on occasion. And so far as being a viable business proposition, well, owning a sports club is no longer a certified gold mine, to put it mildly.

This is really nothing new. Forget the modern Olympians’ cries about the purity of their spirit. Doping was rampant in ancient Greece, and cases of races sold to an opponent were so frequent it boggles the mind.

The only difference is we’re now talking about these things with a seriousness worthy of better causes, and our media inform us about all of the goings-on amongst our beloved sports personalities – consequential or not – to the point of drowning us in stats, quotes and whatever else sports clubs (and journalists who cover them) consider newsworthy.

Sportsmanship? What sportsmanship?

Do you recall the case of former Oiler Petr Nedved? He started his NHL career with the Vancouver Canucks. Once, while still there, his club lost a playoff series to the Los Angeles Kings. Unpleasant, sure, but stuff like that happens in the best of families. Now, young Nedved has been a Wayne Gretzky admirer since his early childhood. So, when the two clubs met at centre ice to shake hands, Nedved (quite shyly) asked Gretzky for his stick. Gretzky, the gentleman that he is, nodded in agreement and, after the teams had departed the ice, he signed one and gave it to Nedved. An intrepid reporter witnessed the scene, and Vancouver media were filled with indignation: how could Nedved, just after his club had lost to the Kings, ask the opposition’s main star for a stick?

What Nedved did was he showed his sportsmanship. Well, his request was saying, you guys beat us today, and congratulations, you were the better team this time around, after all. I acknowledge your abilities, and I would like to have a memory of the fact that I had been privileged to skate on the same ice with you.

That is called sportsmanship. Instead, nothing less but Nedved’s manliness was called into question. You’ve got to hate your opposition, and so on, just fill in the blanks.

Is this about sportsmanship? Absolutely not.

Or: remember a playoff series between the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres years ago? Buffalo’s goalie Dominik Hasek accepted an invitation from Ottawa defenceman Frank Musil to drop by and have dinner with his family. Hasek accepted. The two have been friends since childhood. They both hail from Pardubice in what is now Czech Republic, and besides, Musil’s wife (and former tennis star) Andrea is a pretty good cook.

Both the Ottawa and Buffalo media were up in arms. How dare Musil invite an enemy to his house? How dare Hasek accept an invitation to break bread in an enemy’s house?

Was this sporting?

Are outrageous hits for which you’d be arrested if you attempted them on the street sporting? Your opposing player may be fair game, but is it fair play? A rhetorical question.

This is not to challenge the character of hockey. It’s called the fastest team game on earth for a reason, and it is fully deserving of this description. Of course, there will be violent crashes and encounters. Of course, players will have to be stronger and stronger to even survive the increasing pace of the game. We’re living in the era of instant gratification, after all. Outlaw the violence and the crowds will get down to what we see in arenas during regional (or club) figure skating competitions. And then what?

But if anybody thinks that tweaking a rule here or expanding a ruling there will change the picture, they are either naïve or they are paid for expressing such views with serious glares at cameras.

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