Professional hockey players aren't animals. You can eat with them in public restaurants. You can expose them to mixed company. You can send your little boy to their summer hockey camps and expect him to be treated humanely.
But take your son or daughter to a National Hockey League game this season, and at some point your child will see a player—more often, several players—commit a foul that, were he to commit it in the street, would label him a criminal.
Maybe he will ram a stick blade into an opponent's mouth and carve out some teeth. Perhaps he will aim a little lower and spear that fellow in the liver or the kidney. Maybe—and more commonly—he will start a fistfight, many of which begin as bare-knuckle assaults and degenerate into eye-gouging, head-butting, hair-pulling brawls. Your kid is likely to see a potentially crippling cross-check to the back of an unsuspecting player. Or a savage elbow to the bridge of the nose. Or a carefully placed butt-end of the stick to the jaw. Maybe even a broken neck.
There will be something, you can bet on it. It will be grotesque, unsportsmanlike and unrepentantly vicious. And it will probably be on display at the next game you attend, and the next, and the next, because the owners, the officials, the managers, the coaches and the players themselves confuse violence with toughness and will not put an end to the mayhem in their sport.
Brian O'Neill, who is in charge of disciplinary actions, has been one of the busiest men in the NHL this fall, reviewing more films than Siskel and Ebert. As the league's executive vice-president, O'Neill has been meting out suspensions to players who sink to a level of conduct unacceptable even by NHL standards. Already, in 248 games through last weekend, 13 players and two coaches have been suspended. O'Neill admits that in his 12 years as the league's disciplinary boss he has never reviewed so many violent incidents in so short a period of time as he has this season. The films O'Neill has been looking at are not suited for general audiences. They are low-light films—some would say low-life films—of game-related violence, the league at its most animalistic. Some of the films O'Neill has reviewed this fall:
Oct. 23: Fiddler on the Roof of My Mouth, starring Edmonton center Mark Messier, who extracted four teeth from Vancouver's Rich Sutter with the blade of his stick. No penalty was called on the play. "The dentist had to scrape black tape from the stumps left in Sutter's mouth," says Vancouver vice-president Brian Burke. O'Neill called the incident "more of a reflex than a premeditated attempt to injure," and suspended Messier for six games. It was Messier's third suspension in the last five years.
Oct. 27: For Your Eyeballs Only, starring Philadelphia Flyer right wing Rick Tocchet, who during a fight used his thumb to nearly gouge out the left eye of Islander rookie defenseman Dean Chynoweth. O'Neill suspended Tocchet for 10 games for going to "extraordinary means in his attempt to injure," a suspension Tocchet has now served. Chynoweth's vision, meanwhile, remains blurred as a result of the attack; he had missed 14 games through Sunday and is not expected to return to action for another week. Said New York's tough-guy rookie Mick Vukota: "Tocchet's going to be caught with his head down, and he's going to be sent down. Maybe not the first shift. But it's going to be a long year." NHL horror buffs are already looking forward to the sequel, A Nightmare on Broad Street—The Revenge.
Oct. 29: Jaws (in) III (pieces), starring New York Ranger defenseman James Patrick, who in fending off a check by the Flyers' Ron Sutter cross-checked Sutter in the face, breaking his jaw and giving him a concussion. Patrick drew a two-minute penalty on the play and, after a review, was not suspended by O'Neill, who determined that Patrick's cross-check was a reflex and that the injury resulted from Sutter's forward momentum. The ruling infuriated Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke.
Oct. 30: The New York Chain Shaw Massacre, featuring Ranger defenseman David Shaw, who played Paul Bunyan to Mario Lemieux's dramatic debut as a tree. Shaw, after taking a little bump from Pittsburgh's Lemieux, wheeled around and took a woodchopper's swing with his stick at the league's second-best player, barely missing Lemieux's face and striking him full in the chest. Lemieux toppled like a redwood and lay on the ice for several frightening minutes while his teammates convened to try to skewer Shaw. Lemieux missed the rest of the game with a bruised sternum. Shaw was suspended for 12 games by O'Neill—not long enough, apparently, to prevent talk of a sequel. "He's a dead man," said Penguin enforcer Steve Dykstra of Shaw.
Nov. 4: Lethal Weapon, introducing Detroit's Miroslav Frycer, who whacked the Flyers' Murray Craven near the eye with his stick, cutting him, while unsuccessfully trying to stop Craven from scoring the winning goal. O'Neill suspended Frycer for 10 games for using "excessive and careless tactics to check an opponent."