‘Code breakers’ relay an important message
No matter if you were a Bruins fan or not, it was sad to see Marc Savard on the podium at the Garden Monday, unable to summon even the slightest smile, announcing that he would not play again this season. He talked of headaches, spotty memory, and seeing spots, symptoms of the concussed that have become all too common to the veteran pivot these last 10-11 months.
“The odd dizzy stuff,’’ said Savard, wearing the blank look and mouthing the empty words of the despondent. “Obviously it’s tough right now.’’
Savard, who last played Jan. 22 — the day he was nailed by a routine check by Matt Hunwick — was launched into this state, of course, last March by Matt Cooke, the Penguins forward who finally felt the long arm of the law hook him around the neck last week when the NHL suspended him four games for yet another bad hit, this time on Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin.
The hit on Tyutin, though a vicious charge from behind, was fairly garden variety for Cooke compared with the blind-side pole-axing he issued Savard, but everyone in and around the game should be thankful that league disciplinarian Colin Campbell at long last demanded that Cooke serve some penance. Until now, Cookie has been able inflict his damage at will, then slither back to the bench and on to the next game, ready and able to sink his venomous bite deep into his next prey.
The amusing offshoot to all this around here was the dustup following Danny Paille’s hit 10 days ago on Dallas forward Raymond Sawada. Rushing from Sawada’s blind side on a backcheck, the normally reserved Paille cleaned Sawada’s clock with a hit every bit as illegal as the one Cooke later put on Tyutin. Campbell assessed a four-game suspension for that one, too, and Paille, a decent citizen, will be eligible to return to the lineup Tuesday night with the Leafs in town.
The center of attention here, though, became what Paille’s teammate, Andrew Ference, said in the wake of Paille’s hit. Ference had the audacity to speak the truth, first on air to NESN sideline reporter Naoko Funayama, and then later to various scribes, bloggers, and microphone-toters in the dressing room. All Ference said, and rather flatly, was that such hits are no longer tolerable (see Rule No. 48, which is appropriately highlighted in yellow in the NHL’s Official Rules guide).
Ference’s words touched off far more fireworks than the damage Paille inflicted on Sawada. Commentators Mike Milbury and Don Cherry, both former Boston coaches turned talkmasters, interpreted Ference’s words as a crime against hockey. They focused not on the words per se (every one of them true and right on point), but instead that Ference, as a member of the Black and Gold, broke the “code’’ by indicting one of his own.
“Unacceptable!’’ shouted Milbury from his bully pulpit.
“I don’t care if your teammate is an axe murderer,’’ bellowed Cherry, proclaiming the eternal need to abide by the game’s honor and keep such comments “in the dressing room.’’
Beyond ridiculous. In fact, painfully and shamefully so. These are two guys who profess to care about the game, and I have no doubt they do. But they clearly have their priorities so twisted and off target here that they, well, deserve one another, forming a club so exclusive that we can only hope no one else would care to join.
What’s unacceptable, given the growing trail of brain injuries such as Savard’s, is that Mssrs. Milbury and Cherry are still dragging their knuckles over the broken bodies and brains of the victims. This is a game now that is in desperate need of fully addressing its horrifying concussion issue, and that’s not going to happen until more players such as Ference have the sense and fortitude to call a spade a spade.
What did Ference say? That Paille’s hit is illegal, and that’s what the game is trying to stop. No more than that. Because he said it about a teammate, he broke some code? Hey, then all the better I say, because wrongs don’t get righted until someone starts speaking the truth, without concern for whether the offender happens to be wearing the same logo on his sweater.
What was Paille looking at when he made his offending hit? I assure you, not the Spoked B on his own chest, but rather the target on Sawada’s head.
“He doesn’t just clip his head, he explodes on him,’’ said retired Bruins winger Bill Guerin, reached by telephone last week at his home on Long Island. “If you look at it, Paille explodes right through that guy. He goes at him with his knees bent . . . he doesn’t jump at him, but he explodes right into his head. You can’t do that.
“Hey, I was no angel. I played a physical game, but . . .’’
Guerin, you might remember, also broke the alleged code last March in the wake of Cooke’s hit on Savard. Just like Ference here in Boston, Guerin then was Cooke’s teammate in Pittsburgh, and he made clear that such hits cannot be condoned.
At the time, a dithering Campbell did just that, eventually leading the Lords of the Boards to rewrite the rule book and thus give their alleged Dean of Discipline both some language and a clue how to do his job.
Guerin, days after his comments on Cooke’s hit, was on the road with the Penguins when he received a knock on his hotel room door. It was Cooke, literally at Guerin’s doorstep, asking for an explanation.
“I told him, ‘Look, Cookie, this is nothing about you personally,’ ’’ explained Guerin some 11 months later. “And it’s not. Hey, Cookie’s a good guy, and I’d have him on my team any day, anywhere.
“But as I told him, it was about that one hit. You can’t do that. He put it right on Savard’s chin when the guy wasn’t looking. It was far worse than the Paille hit the other day, but they’re both illegal. They’ve got no place in the game.’’
According to Guerin, Cooke heard him out and the two left the meeting with their relationship as teammates intact.
Asked if he felt Cooke understood what he had to say, Guerin said, “I think he did, absolutely. I mean, there was no issue between us for the rest of the season, and it was March, right? So there was still a lot of time left in the year.’’
The overriding point, Guerin emphasized, is that bad hits are bad hits, all of them able to inflict damage to another player, each one bringing the game down a notch.
“In the end, I think [Cooke] respected where I was coming from,’’ said Guerin. “Yeah, the code is you don’t speak out against a teammate. Fine, I get that, but to a point.
“This is a very serious issue in our game. As players, we are always talking about accountability, whether that means accountability around cheap shots, around the whole instigator thing and policing the game, whatever.
“Well, that doesn’t mean you just police the guy on the other team. Sometimes it’s guys on your own team, and that means if you have to say something, then you have to say it.’’
The extent of brain injuries around the league is horrifying. Not every one of those concussions is the result of the kind of hits Cooke and Paille inflicted. But enough of them are the product of wanton acts of destruction that don’t have anything to do with hockey.
To date, Guerin and Ference are the only two players to have the nerve, sense, and decency to say something about it without regard to how their words are viewed by their peers. Let us hope history shows that the cultural change so necessary in the game right now began with what they had to say. Otherwise, careers and lives will continue to be ruined, all according to code.
Reached in his office via telephone last week, Fehr made it clear that the union, despite its upheaval over the last 18 months, remains attentive and concerned about concussions. His office, in a follow-up e-mail, confirmed data first published by the New York Times showing the alarming number of concussions over the previous four seasons:
2006-07 — 72
2007-08 — 74
2008-09 — 73
2009-10 — 82
“It’s not a large percentage,’’ said Fehr. “But it’s also not a tiny percentage of players over the course of a year.’’
Fehr noted the ongoing “scrutiny and publicity’’ both the NFL and NHL have faced in light of concussions, and carefully chose his words when asked to what degree and how promptly the NHLPA will act.
“You want to do everything you can to enhance the safety of the players during the game,’’ said the former boss of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “We are still in the process of review, and it’s one of the matters I am reviewing with our staff and our medical consultants.’’
Fehr has a son who is a newly minted neurologist, and said he has casual conversations with him on the subject, but noted that his son’s studies centered on epilepsy, not sports-related concussions.
“As a general matter, it’s obviously true,’’ mused Fehr. “The more sunshine shed on an issue, the better. And it’s not surprising people are paying attention to this.’’
But for now, said Fehr, discovery remains a “slow-moving’’ process.
Crosby still fuzzy on details Superstar Sidney Crosby, another of the concussed, isn’t due back soon to the Penguins lineup. Like so many of the KO’d before him, he tried to assuage the local media last week, noting that he fully hopes to return this season. But he added, essentially, that he has no clue whether that will happen. That’s life in KO country. Sid the Kid hasn’t played since Jan. 5.
Hockey dad Bill Guerin, by the way, is still deciding what to do post-career. For now, he only knows that Long Island will be his family’s permanent home and that he’s having a blast coaching the team of his son Liam (age 9). “He’s both, right wing and left wing,’’ said Dad. “Funny, you can tell who he’s been watching the last few years — goes right to the net.’’
It was no island paradise Two nights after the Bruins-Canadiens dustup at the Garden, the Penguins and Islanders went old school in Uniondale with brawls in the first and third periods. Penguins goalie Brent Johnson, who mashed up Rick DiPietro’s face days earlier, was at it again — this time with minor league tough guy Michael Haley. Final tally: a stunning 9-3 Islander victory and a pair of benches that were nearly as vacant at night’s end as the Nassau Coliseum stands most nights.
Loose pucks Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli is willing to deal that first-round Toronto pick he’s holding from the September 2009 Phil Kessel deal. The only two viable names on the radar screen right now for him to surrender it: 1. Brad Richards; 2. Zach Bogosian. Both would be huge pickups here and both would require the Bruins adding bodies to the mix . . . The only surprise regarding Mark Stuart will be if he’s still with Boston after the Feb. 28 trade deadline. Many possible suitors for him, including Los Angeles, where Mike O’Connell works in pro development. O’Connell was GM here when the Bruins drafted Stuart 21st overall in 2003 . . . Congrats to Nick Benning, whose father, Jim, is one of the Bruins’ assistant GMs. Young Nick is headed to BC High in September, and hopes to suit up for the Eagles hockey team . . . Going into last night’s matchup vs. the Habs, Kessel had gone more than a month (13 games) without a goal, a subject that has turned into a “morbid fascination’’ among fans and media in TO, in the words of Toronto Star reporter Paul Hunter. Prior to the drought, the ex-Bruin had potted five goals in four games . . . Look for Leafs defenseman Tomas Kaberle to finally have a new home on or before Feb. 28. Yes, it could be Boston, where Kaberle’s main impact would be on the atrophied power play. It makes zero sense to have Mark Recchi, one of the game’s best goal scorers from in tight, working out on the point. Like taking a Clydesdale to a poodle convention. If you want to get creative, park 7-feet-on-skates Zdeno Chara at center on the power play and count the damage, both in terms of goals scored and defensemen leveled.