Hey guys, your humble Isles scribe checking in again.
Today, I sit down with everyone’s favorite THN writer, Adam Proteau. Adam has been with The Hockey News since 1999, and serves as the radio host for their show on XM. This interview is a follow-up on Adam’s book that came out this year, Fighting the Good Fight, which is available for purchase here. This interview also serves as a counterpoint to my trilogy on fighting, the first part of which is available here. Without any further adieu, here we go!
VP: Your most recent book, Fighting the Good Fight, is it fair to view this as a symbolic response to Ross Bernstein’s The Code?
AP: You can interpret it any way you like, but I didn’t intend it as a rebuttal of The Code, which I haven’t read. I wrote it as a polemic intended to challenge the core assumptions and what I believe to be the dogma of the hockey world. Much of that includes the so-called Code, something I just don’t believe in. But other elements of the book deal with the hockey culture surrounding visors and concussions, which obviously aren’t Code-connected.
VP: As a mere pup at the time, the Bertuzzi-Moore Assault which you discussed in-depth literally changed the way I viewed the sport’s issues with player control. Is it fair to describe that as a watershed moment in the way the league regarded the severity to which on ice incidents could escalate?
AP: No, to be honest, I don’t think NHL management and ownership has arrived at that moment. The nonsense between the Isles and Penguins in 2011 showed how things can still escalate, yet the league more or less shrugs its shoulders. That said, the Bertuzzi/Moore incident could still have an influence on policy, as Moore’s court case this fall will bring the league and game under an unforgiving and unsympathetic light.
VP: In my response to your book, I labeled Don Cherry a War Profiteer given his good old hockey game mentality and the substantial income he made off fights while he now bashes the fighters who want to see reforms. Do you feel that’s an accurate portrayal of Cherry and his ilk? Your thoughts on their demonization of former enforcers who have spoken out, i.e., Grimson, Thompson and Laraque?
AP: I don’t know I’d use that exact term, but I agree with the overall characterization of him as someone who profits immensely off the style of hockey he so fervently touts. He has to be credited for being a savvy businessman, but as an ambassador to the sport some people claim him to be, he’s been an abject disaster. Good ambassadors don’t scapegoat entire groups of people simply to build themselves up in the eyes of one particular group of people. And the fact he lashes out at anyone who dissents from his views is an indication of how much he must fear having them seriously questioned. He has been more of a hindrance than help to the overall game.
VP: You talked quite a bit about your rough and tumble past in the sport, and I get the notion of being a “changed man”, but are you going to tell me that if someone recklessly boarded one of your friends in a game tomorrow you wouldn’t want to drop the gloves? That’s where the problem lies for me. I have no problem with a clean, honest fight in response to something that occurs during the flow of the game. I left with the impression you don’t either. You’ve been on the bench after a fight. Can you deny it gets everyone going? Do you think even ‘hockey reformists’ accept it as part of the game?
AP: Hey, there’s no denying the visceral thrill of sticking up for a teammate. But you could say the same in any sport, if those sports allowed it. Who wouldn’t want to smack around Ron Artest after his elbow to the back of an opponent’s head? But the NBA draws a line, and that doesn’t mean that fights don’t still happen there. But they are punished appropriately, it is a means of last resort. And that’s what I’d like to see more of in hockey.
Right now, it’s institutionalized as a first resort, partly because leagues refuse to do their duty and curb dirty play overall, and partly because there’s a financial industry built around it. So if, one day, we get to a point where pro hockey players can still fight, but only if it’s really worth it, because a game misconduct will follow, as will increasing suspensions for repeat offenders I’ll be happy.
VP: Fighting aside, I come down on the league for It’s failure to look “big picture” at its subtle evolutions. We now have faster players,stronger players, more imperviously equipped guys flying around without a redline slamming into each other at full speed. All these factors have led to a staggering uptick in concussions as the league has moved to a speed/offense dominated game. Is it time to rein it in? What should be done? Are we looking at the restoration of the red line, no touch icing, the removal of the trapezoid, and wholesale equipment reforms? Which of these things (or something else) do you think we’ll see implemented out of the next CBA?
AP: I think there’s an argument to be made for slowing the game down a little, and I’m all for that, so long as obstruction standards (that continue to slide) get back to where they were in 2005-06. But overall, there has to be more emphasis placed on player safety: visors, increased sit-out times for concussion victims, perhaps independent team doctors. There are lots of choices and options that I explore in more depth in my book. But until that is made more of a priority than money (which will be by far the biggest priority in the next labor deal), we’ll see NHL team owners continue their long pattern of putting profit before the talent on the ice.
VP: In the opening few chapters of your book, you really slammed my team, the New York Islanders for their role in the fracas of February 11, 2011. What would you say to my assessment that (NHL hits leader) Matt Martin is a hard-nosed but mostly clean player and the same goes for Mike Haley (who is basically a reincarnated Steve Webb). Furthermore, it has been my contention that the league’s failure to get the Pens in line in games and seasons prior was a contributing factor to that brawl (with the Talbot hit on Comeau and the Ponikarasky board on Bailey just two examples at my disposal), would you agree with that notion of the league’s culpability?
AP: I think both Martin and Haley are aggressive players who wouldn’t be NHLers prior to the last round of expansion. That’s not to say they’re horrible people, or that they can’t rise above their station, but let’s not try to paint them as saints, either. But yes, I would say the league could have stepped in at any point early in the developing feud and nipped things in the bud. That they chose not to says it all. They want these kinds of things happening, but their definition of “too far” is nebulous.
VP: I contend that Shanahan’s transparency is the most important thing about his administration. He has a thankless job, but explaining to players and fans the rationale for his decisions is the best thing for the league, as it demystifies supplemental discipline. Do you see this as an important step in getting players to trust the league to “handle things” more?
AP: After the roasting Shanahan has taken in the playoffs, I’d argue that his transparency has only made it clear how terrible the NHL’s supplemental discipline policies really are, and why it doesn’t really matter who is in that role so long as owners don’t commit to a tougher stance on acceptable player behavior. After the Shea Weber non-suspension, players went batty for a while, precisely because it showed the league would do nothing to stop egregious actions. That’s why, on one level, I don’t blame these guys for the vigilante justice culture. Clearly, the NHL doesn’t care about justice, which is why the decisions are as baffling under Shanahan as they were under Colin Campbell.
VP: I felt that ‘holy shit’ metric described by Kerry Fraser is the easiest example to relate to I’ve ever seen described by an official. With the increased scrutiny, do you feel officials are doing a good job enforcing rule 48? Do players (e.g., Travis Hamonic for a phantom elbow on Letang) who get ejected on a dive just have to suck it up and accept the league is going to call anything borderline, or should they still finish their checks?
AP: No, as I said, I think the overall officiating standards have slipped yet again. It’s undeniable if you’re talking playoff hockey, and the regular-season penalty numbers strongly suggest the same. But I don’t fault the officials, either. They take their direction from Terry Gregson, who takes his from Gary Bettman, who takes his from the owners. It all starts at the top.
VP: It is my contention the Bruins and Flyers don’t hoist their Broad Street and Big Bad Cups without their toughness. And that the Isles don’t roll past them without Clark Gillies. Is it accurate that team toughness and having a guy that can mix it up (Not necessarily an enforcer per se) is still an essential component for a Cup run?
AP: Depends what you mean by a guy who can mix it up. Who would that be on the Red Wings’ last Cup-winning team? I think it all depends on what the league allows to happen on the ice. If they reward the Bruins and other aggressive teams for their play, of course it makes sense. But if the game is more about skill and the rulebook is interpreted that way, maybe other teams win out.
VP: If you were in charge for a day, how many “reckless players” would you exile from the game? Would there be a set “this many transgressions and you are gone” criteria?
AP: The changes I’d want wouldn’t work for just a day. I’d put all players on notice that dirty play won’t be tolerated, intent or no intent, and that the head was off-limits. From there, I’d establish clear penalties for headshots and discretionary but severe penalties for other wanton acts. Unfortunately, that would mean examples would have to be set and new precedents created, but that’s the only way players will know change is here and here to stay.
In terms of numbers, I don’t have anything specific, but I do think eight games, or roughly 10 percent of the regular season, is a good starting point for first-time offenders (not fighters). But I would say repeat fighters would have a sliding scale of suspensions that increases drastically after, say, the fifth fight. More than nine or 10 fights means you won’t be playing for the rest of the season.
VP: I’m the Isles writer here, so I’ll ask this in closing: The history of the market, the potential of this young core, a passionate (they are still there, trust me) fan base – is Long Island a hockey market worth saving?How much of a black-eye for the NHL would it be if the franchise responsible for one of the great dynasties in sports history ceased to be?
AP: I do recognize there’s a vocal and proud group of Isles fans and that it would serve the league well to maintain as large a presence in the greater NYC market, so I do hope the franchise stays. My biggest problem with the team has been the dubious decisions made by its ownership and management, as well as the arena that hinders its ability to bring in free agents. What will have to come first for this team to get a new building – the threat of relocation, or winning? Unfortunately, Charles Wang and Garth Snow haven’t made winning part of the equation.
That was fun.Thank you so much for your time, Adam! Follow him on twitter @Proteautype.