On May 4th of 2021, the National Hockey League let it be known for all to see that the health of their players is worth pocket change.
The night before, Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson whipped out his best Randy Orton impression against the New York Rangers. A stoppage in play after a scrum in front of the Washington net saw Wilson deliver a punch to the back of the head of Ranger Pavel Buchnevich, whose noggin was parallel to the ice at the time. The ensuing battle saw Wilson blindside Ryan Strome with a punch, then remove the helmet of New York superstar Artemi Panarin before body-slamming him to the ice. Then fully in Hulk mode, the Capital bruiser opted to pick Panarin up again and shove him down onto the ice once more.
After the parade to the penalty box, Wilson could be seen flexing at the Rangers from behind the glass with a demented grin on his face. Panarin’s injuries would force him to miss the remainder of the season.
Now, you’d think that the NHL would make the decision to protect Panarin and the rest of the league’s stars by disciplining Wilson in a way that would force anyone to think twice about egregiously attacking the league’s moneymakers.
Think again. They slapped a $5,000 fine on the veteran head-smasher and called it a day.
Yes, for viciously attacking three Ranger players after the whistle, Wilson was fined approximately 0.00096% of his $5,166,666 salary, despite his well-known history of violence; he’s been suspended five times since 2017 for a total of 30 games. Just a few weeks ago, he concussed Boston’s Brandon Carlo with a flying elbow to the head.
The Rangers released a statement following Wilson’s “punishment” denouncing the league’s decision and calling for the removal of Department of Player Safety (DoPS) head George Parros for a “dereliction of duty.”
What came next was perhaps the most telling gesture in an embarrassing fiasco for the NHL: League commissioner Gary Bettman handed out a cool $250,000 fine to the Rangers for their comments. In other words, an unapologetic and defiant “fuck you” to the team, to Panarin, and to the rest of the revenue-driving skill players around the league who now might as well have notes stuck to their jerseys that read “Beat me.”
To those of you asking how we got here, you’re asking the wrong question. The problem is that we’re still here.
Once upon a time, the NHL was dominated by pure physicality. The 1970s saw a rambunctious group of hardened skaters from the Philadelphia Flyers wreck the league in back-to-back seasons, earning the moniker the Broad Street Bullies for the South Philly block that housed the team. Names like Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, Andre “Moose” Dupont, and Bob “Hound Dog” Kelly filled out what became the most feared team in hockey history, headlined by three-time MVP Bobby Clarke. Together they pummeled and clobbered their way to two Stanley Cup victories in the 1973–74 and 1974–75 campaigns.
That was nearly a half-century ago.
The game of hockey has changed dramatically since the mid-70s, most notably during this past decade alone. Clarke and company played in an era when your best players were likely your most physical. But if they weren’t, your team had a “bodyguard” or two: big-bodied and virtually skilless goons whose sole purpose was to beat the hell out of anybody who dared touch the goalscorers. Guys like Marty McSorley, who spent most of his 17 years in the NHL protecting Wayne Gretzky while only scoring 359 total points against 3,381 PIM (penalties in minutes).
Hockey is now a sport dominated by skill and speed, for many reasons. With constantly evolving skates and gear, the taboo on sub-six-foot-tall players vanishing, and rule changes that favor offense, the mold of your average NHL player has changed dramatically. Long story short, you simply cannot get by on pure physicality in today’s game.
Clarke’s three MVP seasons saw him average over 113 PIM per season, numbers that are rarely associated with the league’s top players nowadays, let alone its best one. From 2010 to 2020, only one league MVP finished the season with more than 70 PIM (Corey Perry, in 2010). More notably, the NHL’s top ten scorers in each season from that decade averaged only 39 penalty minutes per campaign.
That’s especially telling when you consider the measures that the NHL has taken to increase the number of penalties assessed. The league dramatically redefined what was considered to be a slashing penalty — whacking at someone with your stick — in the 2017–18 season, a move that still has hockey enthusiasts rolling their eyes for its liberal enforcement. Holding (grabbing of the stick or body) and hooking (wrapping of the stick around an opponent) standards have also become stricter.
Some may want to credit Bettman and the league for enforcing these changes as a measure of player safety. But other rule changes, such as imposing penalties for non-contact infractions, adjustments to rink dimensions, and lenience on offside calls, all point to the obvious fact that Bettman only wants one thing: more offense.
More penalties equal more power plays, which equal more goals. Bettman’s vision for the marketability of the NHL is centered around how exciting the game is, not how safe it is. His handling of the DoPS even before the Wilson incident has made that very clear.
The aforementioned Parros was hired by the NHL in 2017 to be the decision-maker at the DoPS, which is roughly the equivalent of putting Mel Gibson in charge of the Anti-Defamation League. Parros, a former player, collected 1,092 PIM to just 36 points in 474 career games. He also helped found the clothing line “Violent Gentlemen,” following his retirement in 2014.
Yeah, a former goon is in charge of protecting your favorite skill players from other goons.
With this truly mind-boggling hiring decision, one must assume that Bettman wants the best of both worlds: a league that gains popularity for its fast pace and extraordinary skill but also keeps the gladiator spectacle aspect of “good old-fashioned hockey” alive.
Or is he actually that tone-deaf? It was too obvious that a Parros-led DoPS would result in a lackluster disciplinary system and that’s precisely what has happened: Instead of protecting victims of dirty plays, the Department has elected to protect the aggressors by dishing out meaningless fines and short-term suspensions to guys who have no intention of cleaning up their game. Parros was a goon. He likes goons. He wants to keep the goon alive in today’s NHL.
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But goons (enforcers, bodyguards, whatever) are largely a thing of the past. The increased pace of the modern game has made them obsolete. In a perfect world, the departure of the traditional goon would’ve taken the culture of serial cheap-shot artists with them. But the culture lives on through the big-bodied players who have enough speed and/or skill to crack the bottom of the roster, and even some skill players at various levels. Hell, Boston’s Brad Marchand once held the mantle of dirtiest NHL player before setting aside most of his carelessness and becoming a legitimate top-five winger in hockey. Why make the change? Because Marchand’s career had two potential paths: continue being a good player with a tendency to collect suspensions, or become a great player who knows how to walk the line. You can’t have both nowadays. The well-respected core of player and managerial leadership of the Bruins pushed him in the right direction.
The sad part is that Wilson has the potential for a similar trajectory. He’s no Gretzky, but he’s a skilled skater with a knack for scoring goals once he fills his daily quota of dishing out brain damage. If he cleaned up his game, he’d be an even more valuable player.
But the NHL has given him no reason to do so. And their refusal to hand out meaningful discipline means teams are left to take matters into their own hands — like the Rangers did in their next meeting with Wilson and the Caps. The “revenge” game started with a line brawl right at puck drop, six fights in the first five minutes, and a combined 100 penalty minute first period between the two teams. Among the bruised and beaten was Wilson’s tough-guy act; the Capitals kept him in the locker room for the rest of the game with an “injury” designation to prevent any further punishment from the Rangers.
In other words, a mockery that is sure to repeat itself whenever Wilson or someone else inevitably carries out another cheap shot that’s more likely to get them a “Violent Gentlemen” care package than a meaningful suspension.
After a decade with NBC, the NHL will move their broadcasting rights to ESPN and Turner (TNT and TBS) starting with the 2021-22 season. The move has the potential to introduce hockey to a bigger audience considering ESPN’s popular standing among sports fans of all kinds. Let’s see how those new audiences react to the league’s stars getting ragdolled every other night. Considering how player safety — such as concussion/CTE awareness in the NFL — has rightfully become a topic of importance in recent years, it may only be a matter of time before Bettman feels pressured to make a change.
But until then, the Tom Wilsons of the league will continue to flex from the penalty box like roid-raged maniacs as another superstar is helped off the ice, too often on a stretcher. ❖
Correction: An alert reader pointed out to us that Wilson’s fine of $5,000.00 comes out to 0.00096% of his salary, not the 0.096 we originally reported. The Voice regrets the error.