Dr. Strangeleague: How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the goon

If you don't know the game / Then you're still part of it
Because, out on the streets it's strange / To see the show
Knowing full well / That you're on the range
Dodge the bullet / Or carry the gun:
The choice is yours!

~Killing Joke, "Pssyche"

I change the tagline of this site fairly often, and ironically the current one, "We take NHL suspensions so your team doesn't have to," was conceived and posted before the Zdeno Chara hit, and before the Milan Lucic crosscheck of Dominic Moore. I mention that not to impugn Son Of Campbell's team (I know one of their grinders was suspended four games earlier this year), but because it's just funny. Like many, I've nearly given up trying to figure any of it out.

We've rehashed the NHL's disciplinary circus a ton the last few days, so no need to do so again. I'm not going to pretend to understand or rationalize or even lodge accusations of conspiracy at a league that says prior offenses matter, but if you don't have a prior offense then you can't ever earn a present one because you never had a prior one. It's nice logic if you can get it. It'd make a good Terry Gilliam movie.

See, as every Wild fan and reporter will eagerly point out, Cal Clutterbuck didn't have a prior when he checked Justin DiBenedetto from behind. As far as I know, the league didn't even bother with a review. It's like their short attention span moved immediately to Trevor Gillies, who 1.5 seconds later checked Clutterbuck shoulder to shoulder -- with arm illegally following through -- but was penalized for checking from behind, and Clutterbuck stayed down, even though he was ready for his next shift and later earned himself a misconduct for again running his mouth without having the proper hardware to back it up. (This, after he again targeted DiBenedetto, this time late but at least not from behind.Meanwhile, Pavel Kubina did get a review, and a three-game suspension, which makes me think the league is using a narrow reading of Rule 48 as its only reason for doling out suspensions.)

As has been parroted all over hockey media in North America, Gillies did have a prior -- nine games for his first offense! -- so he was a predictable target. Brian Gionta is not, and I'm sure Gionta's crosscheck to David Backes's face last night will get the Lucic-on-Moore treatment from the league: Never happened. No lasting injury. And Gionta has no priors.

But riddle me this: Matt Martin didn't have any priors, but was suspended two games for this hit on Vernon Fiddler this season. I didn't raise a stink about it at the time because the league seemed suddenly serious about impacts to the head...until they again proved they're not actually serious about anything.

Now, Martin hits about as often as Clutterbuck does, only with a difference: When challenged for his frequent hits, he drops the gloves as asked, per tradition. The league sort of likes players to police themselves, although not too much, which is why they have an instigator rule. Of course, with Martin, they don't actually call the instigator -- otherwise B.J. Crombeen surely would've received one when he insisted Martin fight even though Martin had no reason to.

 

Suddenly, I'm a Fight Fan

Again, I'm done trying to make sense of this league, and I've had the unexpected personal hockey fan evolution from idealist and quasi-pacifist (in fighting terms) to resigned champion of fighting's role. If the league won't protect the Isles, then the Isles have to. I still think it's all rather absurd and too psychological for my tastes, but I'm resigned to its necessity.

Ah, its necessity: There is a delicious irony that Gillies only became an Islander early in 2010 because the league wasn't doing its job enforcing its rules or paying lip service to concern over player health. Before that point, whether it was the GM's choice or the coach's choice or even -- from some rumblings -- the owner's choice, the Isles in 2008-09 and the first half of 2009-10 had only tried part-time AHL-callup enforcers, but none proved able to skate or pick spots even better than Gillies. Worse, none proved a deterrent. The Isles young stars were getting hit in illegal ways that rarely caught the league's attention.

(Just one example: Last year Chris Pronger, the star with plenty of priors but still too few to match his actual history of offenses, railroaded John Tavares from behind well behind the play, chipping out a tooth -- and getting nothing but a laugh from Pronger's many admirers. I needn't point out it wasn't reviewed. "Oh, such the cheeky veteran, teaching the rookie a thing or two," the accolades went. Yeah, teaching him not to trust his "union brothers" to ever pass up a chance for a cheap shot behind the play. That's what the Isles were dealing with.)

I'd like to think if the NHL sacked Campbell and his staff and started over, maybe we wouldn't have stars like Henrik Sedin conceding that "players don't know where the limit is." But maybe not. So I'll just keep repeating to myself what I wrote the night Gillies hit Clutterbuck: That's the NHL for you, circa 2011.

So in 2011, the Isles are standing up for themselves where the league won't. Not just Gillies, but league PIM leader Zenon Konopka and recent callup Micheal Haley too. Other fans and media cry that Gillies doesn't take a regular shift -- "he's not a hockey player" -- but that grievance doesn't fly with me any longer. Considering the NHL's completely random supplementary discipline, why would you want a more important player to risk suspension while meting out the "policing" the NHL neglects? As best I can tell, the NHL's vast and inconsistent gray area is the biggest reason fighting still exists -- because players "don't know where the limit is." It's absurd and arguably barbaric, but is there any other explanation for fighting's most common defense being "it's part of the game"?

If other teams now fear the Islanders and dress an enforcer as a response, great. If other teams buy the media line and think the Islanders are gooning it up -- rather than responding to obvious transgressions -- that's great, too. Put on the foil, whatever works. Whatever discourages them from taking the liberties that had gone on for far too long, and frees them up to play more hockey. It's unclear how much player health is a true priority for the NHL. Its supplementary discipline regime can't be counted on to deter players from recklessly endangering each other. Maybe fists and big hits will. The image hit the Isles take and the stupid generalizations from hypocritical fans and media is just the cost of security.

For the Isles, it really was "dodge the bullet, or carry the gun. The choice is yours."

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