The Stanley cup playoffs might be the finest spectacle in hockey, and the NHL certainly made a spectacle of itself in this year's first round. Instead of enjoying the gust of brisk postseason air that normally refreshes the sport after an interminable regular season, the NHL spent last week airing its dirty laundry on the clothesline that Boston Bruins defenseman Kyle McLaren used to put Montreal Canadiens wing Richard Zednik in the hospital with a severe concussion.
Some of the hockey was splendid and surprising—the Los Angeles Kings rallied from a 3-1 series deficit before falling in Game 7 to the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, and eighth-seeded Montreal dumped No. 1 seed Boston in six games—but exciting matches were overshadowed by general managers assailing the officiating in polemics that ranged from the artful (by the Vancouver Canucks' Brian Burke) to the profane (by the New York Islanders' Mike Mil-bury). Too many games were marred by sickening sights such as Zednik's being strapped to a gurney last Thursday; the Islanders' Kenny Jonsson's lying unconscious on the ice a day later after Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Gary Roberts skated 60 feet and drove Jonsson's head into the glass; Islander Michael Peca's writhing in pain in that same game following Maple Leaf Darcy Tucker's low blow to Peca's knees; and Islander Eric Cairns's just missing getting kicked by the Leaf's Shayne Corson following a brawl two nights later.
Standard playoff intensity veered dangerously close to the pathological. Montreal coach Michel Therrien made a throat-slashing gesture at the Bruins' bench (accompanied by a warning to forwards Joe Thornton and Bill Guerin that they were "going down") following the Zednik incident, and coaches Andy Murray of the Kings and Bob Hartley of the Avalanche engaged in a screaming match with seconds left in Game 6 of their series last Saturday. The name-calling, ref-bashing and cheap-shotting were a succession of blows to the NHL's integrity. The league has never been able to shed its caveman image, and in these playoffs it has been living down to its reputation.
The day after McLaren's hit on Zednik, commissioner Gary Bettman publicly warned the Canadiens and Bruins to temper their feud. Privately he began phoning general managers of teams not involved in the postseason to solicit opinions on how to stop the flood of public criticism of the officiating. One suggestion, SI has learned, was that teams that harshly criticize the refereeing should forfeit draft choices. "This [public condemnation of officials] is dragging the league down, and it has to be attended to," NHL executive vice president Colin Campbell told SI on Sunday. "The commissioner will address it before the next round."
The thread that connects the disparate incidents and the far-flung first-round series is the players' growing lack of respect, not only for opponents—"At some point we have to get in a big room and say, 'Let's stop hurting each other,' " says Kings defense-man Aaron Miller—but also for coaches, referees and, by extension, the game. General managers were also showing little respect. Consider the clever yet damning critique by Burke, who spent five years as the NHL's director of hockey operations, a job in which he handed out fines and suspensions and often defended referees. After Game 4 of the Vancouver- Detroit Red Wings series, Burke complained about Detroit's stalling on line changes and executing picks on face-offs and the lengthy conversations Red Wings players were having with the refs. Burke reminded reporters, "[Canucks winger] Todd Bertuzzi does not play for Detroit. It just looks like that because he's wearing two or three red sweaters all the time."
Working the refs and griping about perceived slights are age-old tactics, but Burke raised the stakes when he said his small-market Canadian team had not been given a "level playing field," implying a bias toward the Red Wings, one of the NHL's marquee clubs. On Sunday, Burke, whose team was eliminated in six games, told SI, "I stand by my comments. I made them because I was sick of watching what I'd been watching."
Detroit shrugged off the complaints. Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan said he might even ask the voluble Burke to speak at his charity dinner, an invitation he couldn't extend to Milbury unless the affair was for adults only. On April 21, the day after New York fell behind Toronto 2-0 in the series, Milbury led reporters into the Islanders' weight room at Nassau Coliseum. Popping a cassette into a VCR, Milbury proceeded to narrate in language as blue as the Maple Leafs' road sweaters a stream of unpenalized Toronto transgressions. The ever blunt Milbury, who like Burke was fined $5,000 for his outburst, should have saved some of his A material for use after Game 5. In that match the Islanders lost their best forward, Peca, for the rest of the season and their best defenseman, Jonsson, because of cheap shots that Milbury labeled "thuggery." For the first time in Milbury's life he may have understated things.
Roberts's bulldogging of Jonsson drew a five-minute charging penalty but shockingly no game misconduct. Campbell, who succeeded Burke at the NHL, did not deem the hit worthy of suspension, saying Jonsson "turned into the play and left himself exposed." Jonsson sustained his fourth NHL concussion. Another damaging blow—and one that raised more eyebrows around the league than the hit on Jonsson—was a hip check to Peca's knees by Tucker a full second after Peca had passed the puck. Peca sustained a torn ACL in his left knee. Peca and the excitable Tucker had been jawing on the ice and through the media. According to Peca, Tucker had threatened to "kill" him during the series, although before Game 5 last Friday, Peca dismissed the remarks as comical. Last Saturday, Tucker said he had simply finished his check. While Campbell didn't suspend Tucker either, he did ban Corson for one match for his attempt to injure Cairns in Game 6.
There was no question that Zednik was injured in Montreal last Thursday as doctors and trainers wheeled him off the ice with 1:17 left in Game 4. Zednik, who had scored both Canadiens goals, was cutting to the middle when the 6'4", 225-pound McLaren, who in seven NHL seasons had never been suspended for an illegal hit, stuck out his left arm as Zednik was skating by, smashing the Montreal winger in the face. Zednik, four inches shorter and 27 pounds lighter, fell backward, his head striking the ice. Therrien pointed and bellowed and pantomimed the throat slash. In a letter that Canadiens general manager Andre Savard presented to Campbell before McLaren's disciplinary hearing last Saturday, Savard compared McLaren's clothesline to the vicious elbow that Toronto's Tie Domi nailed New Jersey's Scott Niedermayer with in the second round last season, a hit that resulted in an eight-game suspension. Campbell, noting McLaren's previously clean record, banned the defenseman only for the remainder of the series, a total of two games.
The incivility that marred the first round was not restricted to the ice. During Game 6 in Los Angeles last Saturday, a Kings fan who goes by the name Dancing Boy and whose antics are featured on the Staples Center scoreboard, held up an old Kings sweater of Rob Blake, the former LA. captain who was traded to Colorado last season. When Dancing Boy displayed the Kings' logo on the front, the crowd cheered. When he showed the back with Blake's name, fans jeered. Dancing Boy concluded the bit by pretending to vomit on the jersey. In a twisted way, it was the perfect metaphor for the first round.