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E.M. Swift
December 05, 1988
As sticks go up, players go down in hockey's ugliest season
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December 05, 1988

Blood And Ice

As sticks go up, players go down in hockey's ugliest season

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Nov. 16: Liver Let Die, starring Montreal right wing St�phane Richer, who slashed Islander defenseman Jeff Norton in the midsection while turning the toe of his stick inward like a scythe. Norton lay on the ice for nearly 10 minutes before finally being rolled out on a stretcher. Initial word from the hospital was that Norton had a perforated liver, but the injury was subsequently diagnosed as severely bruised ribs and internal trauma. Norton had missed five games through Sunday. No penalty was called on the play, but O'Neill, who was at the game, suspended Richer for 10 games.

Those were just the biggest hits from the first quarter of the regular season; a number of automatic suspensions have been handed out, too. Edmonton's Jeff Beukeboom and Pittsburgh's Troy Loney were each given 10-game suspensions for leaving the bench to engage in a fight ( Edmonton co-coach John Muckler and Pittsburgh coach Gene Ubriaco were also suspended, for five games each); Tom Barrasso of Pittsburgh, Petr Svoboda of Montreal, Mike Bullard of St. Louis and Paul Gillis of Quebec have each sat out one game after receiving their second stick-related major penalties of the season—a new rule, and a good one, which was created to try to get players to keep their sticks down. In the first quarter of the season, all told, the league suspended players and coaches for a total of 89 games. "We can hand out suspensions till doomsday," O'Neill says, "but unless the players react, there's only so much we can do."

One body that is reacting to the increased violence in the league is Lloyd's of London, which underwrites the NHL Players' Association's disability insurance. After reports of the various public threats issued by NHL players reached London, Lloyd's got in touch with Alan Eagleson, the head of the NHLPA. "They asked me, 'Hey, what's going on?' " Eagleson says. "They were reading reports of players saying other players were dead. With the number of incidents that have happened in the last five or six years, we had a lot of trouble renewing our policy in 1986. I didn't want to give them any more ammunition than they've already got. Our contract is up again in 1990."

Eagleson sent word to his membership: Keep your lips buttoned; no more threats. But the violence in the league has already cost the NHLPA dearly in terms of disability coverage. Before 1986, every player in the league was eligible for $175,000 if he suffered a career-ending injury. The best deal Eagleson could make when he negotiated the current contract was disability coverage of $150,000 for players 22-26 years old who had played at least 70 NHL games; $120,000 for 27-year-olds; $90,000 for 28-year-olds; $60,000 for 29-year-olds; and $30,000 for players 30 and over. The premiums, of course, have increased.

Lawlessness has become the rule in the NHL. Penalty minutes per game have risen dramatically in the last 10 years, from 27.5 minutes in the 1977-78 season to an astounding 52.8 per game last season—an increase of a bout 92%.

Small wonder that three-hour games are now the norm. And the reason isn't that the referees are twice as vigilant—if anything, more fouls slip past undetected now. If referees called all the infractions, games might last till dawn. So far this season, penalty minutes per game are down slightly—to 50.6—but fighting is on the rise. In the first 210 games there were 379 fighting penalties, compared with 366 over the same span last year.

"The Number 1 problem of the game is getting the players to keep their sticks down," says Washington general manager David Poile, who admits to being surprised that the new mandatory suspensions for major stick-related penalties have had so little effect. "It takes time. Nothing happens overnight."

League officials complain about the difficulty of trying to break habits that have been ingrained since childhood. Hockey players today must wear full face shields or cages at youth, high school and college levels; they wear them even in the Quebec major junior A league. The argument is that the young players are so protected, they never learn the stick is a dangerous weapon.

But the NHL is deluding itself if it thinks its troubles are confined to sticks. The essential problem is the attitude of malevolence that pervades the modern game. The ice surface has remained the same size, while the players have become bigger, stronger, faster—and more reckless. "Players today seem to have a certain disregard for other players," says Scotty Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history and now a television commentator. "When I was at Buffalo, I used to tell our smallest defenseman, Phil Housley, that if these guys tried to run him through the endboards, he had to bring that stick up. It's self-preservation. I often feel that something really bad is going to happen out there."

The NHL has to realize that it cannot crack down on stickwork while continuing to wink at other forms of illegal intimidation in the sport, most notably fighting. "There were always tough guys in our business," says Islander general manager Bill Torrey. "Back when none of the players wore helmets, if you raised your stick around a guy's head, it was war. Guys knew it. There was a line there you didn't want to cross. But it didn't used to be a tactic. When you have somebody on your team whose sole purpose is to punch somebody's lights out, that's a tactic. It's become a bit of a problem."

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