|Saturday night was all right for fighting when Andrew Ference and Sean Avery dropped the gloves last weekend. (Justine Hunt/Globe Staff)|
It took a couple of double-runnered villains, Steve Ott and Sean Avery, to get our hockey blood boiling again around here. Ott, the cheap-shot artist, and Avery, the wisenheimer loudmouth, banged around the Garden last Saturday night with the Dallas Stars, and gave everyone a luscious glimpse into hockey's not-so-distant past.
Sure, it was rough much of the night, crude and ugly at times, and as was often the case years ago, not all that germane to hockey during the rowdiest stretches. In today's PC world, which so often expects pro sports to be our culture's ongoing civics teacher, I know I am supposed to apologize here for both last Saturday's game and my unrelenting support for all that good ol' ugly stuff.
Sorry, but at the risk of alienating some very loyal readers, I won't apologize for what I like, and what I know sells. The NHL needs more, not less, of what we saw at the Garden, such as career creampuff Marc Savard jumping into a fracas and firing punches to support Milan Lucic. That's a little like a tofu-loving vegetarian volunteering to work the pit at a pig roast, but hey, you get the idea.
Hockey doesn't need fighting and raw, nasty passion to survive. True enough. It draws quite well in Canada, thank you, where the half-dozen NHL rinks are sold out every game night. It's their thing up there. It defines Canadians, whose hearts are mounted on 5 1/2 ounces of galvanized rubber. It defines their day, their night, their work week, their holiday and holy day schedules. I imagine if Major League Baseball thrived in only six US cities, and sputtered along in 24 cities up north, we would see much the same riveted fanaticism here, too.
And, yes, the Stanley Cup playoffs usually pack 'em in across the NHL's Lower 24, too. Fighting and cheap shots are rare in the postseason, but there is ample suspense, passion, and drama to sustain the sport for eight action-packed weeks in April and May (with a toe dip into June).
However, for the NHL to thrive in the US during the 82-game regular season, for it to fill up its seats, its luxury boxes, its souvenir shops, and generate a real "number" on national television, it desperately needs to dial into and embrace its pugnacious past. That's particularly true here in Boston, 2008, where the franchise has yet to awake fully from the dormancy it fell into during the 2004-05 lockout.
In an e-mail exchange last week with Cam Neely, in which the two of us shared, let us say, our appreciation of Saturday night's artistry, he wrote, "Original Six markets like hockey played a certain way, no?"
Do they ever. Not just in the US, but in Canada, too. When there is a real stew brewing on the ice, it is guaranteed to boil over into the stands. It also translates very well on TV, and subsequently oozes into family rooms and man caves across the land. It's a good bet that Boston-area offices were full of Bruins chatter last Monday morning. When was the last time that happened after any regular-season game?
Contrary to a very vocal minority, an overwhelming number of men and women like fighting in hockey. They don't worry that it will twist the fragile minds of their youth. The NHL, when it decided to expand its US-based broadcast envelope in the early '90s, figured it had to clean up its sport to engage viewers. The logic: Yanks would turn away from all the gore. Talk about overestimating a country and its alleged culture.
"Look," said Anaheim general manager Brian Burke, another who likes his hockey caffeinated and demands that his Ducks are in a row when it comes to fighting, "NASCAR can guarantee that it will never have another fatality. All it has to do is set the speed limit at 55 miles an hour. No more crashes. No more fatalities. Of course, no one will want to watch it, either."
The Lords of the Boards have a decision to make here in the US, one that the economic recession may finally force them to face.
They can keep perpetrating NHL Lite, which is nothing other than a tricked-out and expensive version of US college hockey, right down to pulling out the red line. It sells OK in some US cities, and it plods along on national TV, registering minuscule numbers on Versus and NBC, just as it did on ESPN.
Or, the out-of-touch Lords can decide that their Original Six forefathers weren't dimwits, as they've been portrayed the last 20 years by the sport's revisionists and self-righteous PCers. The Lords nowadays tie themselves in knots, trying to figure out how to increase scoring, believing total goal count will make the league thrive.
It's about one thing: How . . . the . . . game . . . is . . . played.
It's about passion and hate and rivalry and playing the game with a legitimate, even frightening, fervor that once made the game percolate like no other professional, unscripted sport in North America. It is a sport capable of reaching into its fans' stomachs, twisting our innards until it hurts, and maintaining that claw-hold over the course of a fan's lifetime, and across generations.
The answer, gentlemen, is in your history books, highlighted by the names Howe, Richard, Beliveau, and scores of other greats who thrived amid the endearing mayhem. Read about it, weep over it, then please, have the courage to do something about it.
Shutouts this season by Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo, who has reeled off three in a row. No other goalie has more than two. Luongo had six shutouts last season and never has had more than seven in a season.
The Rangers, who led the league last season with 2,137 hits, headed into last night again atop the NHL, with a wide margin over the rest of the pack. As of yesterday, the NHL's top hitting clubs:
1. NY Rangers 412
2. Anaheim 363
3. Ottawa 358
4. Columbus 328
5. San Jose 316
13. Boston 254
"His name's on it quite a bit. I'd like to get my name there, too."
Blackhawks assistant GM Stan Bowman, noting how often his famous father, Scotty, has his name on the Stanley Cup.
Burke will have options if he becomes a lame Duck
Ducks general manager Brian Burke, rumored for months to be headed to Toronto as the Maple Leafs' No. 1 hockey guy, will inform his bosses in Anaheim in the next 6-7 weeks if he plans to extend his deal there.
Don't count on it, although Burke has said repeatedly that his offer to remain is extremely generous. Family issues, related to his first marriage, would be eased greatly if he worked closer to Boston, where he lived and worked for years as a player agent before going into hockey management.
Provided he cuts the cord in California, Burke no doubt will receive a handful of enticing offers for president/GM jobs.
Depending on what happens to Peter Chiarelli's Bruins this year, Boston could be a player for Burke's services. Keep in mind, Chiarelli is on his original deal, signed in the summer of '06, and it runs out after next season. Also, the Bruins' presidency has been vacant since Harry Sinden was booted off the job and into an advisory role in the summer of '06. There would be plenty of room for Burke here, provided club owner Jeremy Jacobs was willing to pay the freight.
Another likely bidder for Burke will be Chicago, where GM Dale Tallon is about the last link to the Blackhawks' old way of doing biz (read: prior to the death of owner Bill Wirtz). Along with Toronto, the Senators might be enticed. Much like Boston, it would depend on how the Senators finish this season under GM Bryan Murray, who once was the GM in Anaheim.
Loose pucks: Scotty Bowman, who today plays the Harry Sinden role (i.e. adviser) in Chicago, left Detroit after 15 great years last summer, first and foremost to work with his son, Stan, the Blackhawks assistant general manager, who in recent years has waged a brave battle against Hodgkins lymphoma (now in remission). Scotty lives in Sarasota in the winter (suburban Buffalo in the summer), scouts NHL clubs that come through Tampa, and stays in constant contact with Stan. The senior Bowman didn't want to pass up the chance to work with Stan, he said, because "with cancer, you're never out of the woods." . . . In the next three weeks, beginning with Wednesday night's game in Chicago, the Bruins will play at least three games a week - a total of 10 games across 18 days. It is their busiest stretch of the season, but a late January/early February run of 10 games in 19 days comes very close. "One thing Scotty [Bowman] taught me," Flames coach Mike Keenan mused. "The schedule has to be your best friend." Ten games in 18 days virtually guarantees injuries, and what shape the Bruins are in after Detroit's visit here Nov. 29 could go a long way in determining how they fare the rest of the season . . . The season began with the Bruins carrying Glen Murray's buyout figure ($1.383 million) as a cap consequence. Via his agent, Anton Thun, he began making noises last week that the buyout could be invalid because of circumstances related to his ankle injury that led to offseason surgery. A grievance was filed Friday by the NHLPA, so don't look for a quick resolution. In theory, if the Bruins were forced to make Murray "whole," and provide him his full $4.15 million this season, then that $1.383 million would come off the cap - this year and next. Unable to play, he would be rendered to the long-term injury list, his salary paid by the Bruins and/or insurance. The Bruins then would have that $1.383 million (or its prorated amount) as new spending money, possibly to offer to someone like Brendan Shanahan. Just as an example . . . Mats Sundin hasn't officially said he will return to action this season, but it appears a fait accompli, considering his agent, J.P. Barry, recently engaged in a chat with Ducks management about playing there this year. Keep in mind, the Canucks have a standing offer of two years/$20 million for the iconic Swede to play there this season. If he's going to Anaheim, it will have to be at a Disneyland discount.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.