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But that easy out should not be acceptable to anyone for reasons that the Province of Ontario took pains to make clear. For better and mostly worse these days, the NHL is hockey's standard-bearer, the primary influence on the way the game is played at all levels. That is why the Ontario legislature ordered a full-scale investigation of hockey violence two years ago after a 16-year-old player stomped an opponent to death in a fight following a Midget House League game. The probe was conducted by the Attorney General's brother William McMurtry, a Toronto lawyer and a former college player and coach, who heard testimony from more than 50 witnesses, including Campbell, and concluded, "Professional hockey is sick."
The most searing indictment of the pro game yet, the 47-page white paper stated: "When the evidence strongly indicates that there is a conscious effort to sell violence in hockey to enrich a small group of show-business entrepreneurs at the expense of a great sport—not to mention the corruption of an entire generation's concept of sport—then one's concern grows to outrage."
Hockey, the report went on, striking at the crux of the problem, "is the only sport where physical intimidation outside the rules is encouraged as a legitimate tactic." To that charge, Campbell answered, "Well, partly, that could very well be true."
Clarence Campbell, who was himself once punched by an enraged fan during a riot in Montreal, is a gracious man, a lawyer and Rhodes scholar. His contributions to the sport have been many. In recent years he has introduced several rule changes, most notably a stiff penalty for the third man who enters into a fight, that have helped curtail some of the abuses. But so far Campbell's actions have been limited to treating the symptoms instead of eliminating the cause: violence. And while he won some desired public-relations points this exhibition season by fining 62 players for fighting, it was more window dressing than a dressing down; 62 fines, at least some of which were paid by the teams, totaling $9,050, works out to $145 per offender. With hockey's average salary at $75,000, these equate with collecting for an office retirement party.
Like some other big-league chief executives, Campbell is the agent and spokesman for the team owners; put in sharpest terms, without the support of the majority of owners, Campbell is without a job. In reality, then, it is the owners more than Campbell who must be held responsible for nurturing what Arthur Beisser, a Los Angeles psychiatrist, calls "a new use of violence," an effort to peddle stylized brutality "not as a means to an end, but for recreational purposes, for pleasure. It's an end in itself."
So whither hockey in the light of all this? Now 70 and nearing retirement, Campbell could do the owners a favor by forcing adoption of a positive, much needed reform that will straighten the future course of the sport. So to balance Harold Ballard's grim projection of the season ahead, here is a proposal:
Do away with the fighting once and for all. There is no mystery to the method, just follow the lead of all other major sports. That is, enact and rigorously enforce a rule stating that the first player who throws a punch or deliberately uses his stick as a weapon will be ejected from the game and/or suspended for however long it takes to get the message across. It may take all of one week and two test cases but the fighting will end.
Fear not, hockey fans, good solid hard-hitting play and the healthy sort of intimidation that are integral to all contact sports will not cease and may even intensify. As in football, there is plenty of leeway within the rules for any player to make his muscular presence felt.
Failing to take that step, hockey should simply tell the truth about itself. It would save a lot of double-talk, a lot of shifting and swaying with each hot gust of controversy if the NHL owners would get together and admit that they could eliminate the fighting tomorrow if they wanted to, but the reason they do not is because they assume it will have an adverse effect on the gate. That show of honesty at least would lay the Big Problem right out there at center ice where the NHL fathers could walk around it, examine it and face it head on: Do they promote hockey as a sport for the discriminating fan or as a spectacle for the violence freak? And maybe, after another few rounds of truth serum, they will come to the Big Conclusion that they cannot have it both ways.
Failing any such miracles, the NHL will continue to be plagued by a split personality that threatens a ruinous alienation of affections. Beset by the loss of network TV revenues, an exhausted expansion program, shaky franchises and austerity drives, the NHL keeps Roller-balling along. Looking on from the perspective of a veteran who earned his ribbons in the NHL nets, Ranger General Manager Emile Francis assumes the resignation of a man who has seen it all before. "It never works for long," he says. "Players get tired of fighting. After a few years, they say to themselves, 'What am I, crazy, getting my brains beat out every night?' "