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Tom Wilson Incident a Reminder of NHL’s Love Affair With Old Time Hockey

“George Parros’ mentality in protecting the players seems to be the same as it was when he was protecting his teammates as an enforcer, which is for the players to protect themselves and each other through violence and intimidation. To turn the clock back to before Brendan Shanahan’s tenure with the DOPS.”

What an ugly, bizarre situation going on in the NHL right now.

In case you missed it, here’s what everyone is talking about this week – or here’s the basis for what everyone is talking about, anyway. A lot has gone down since.

That’s footage of a 6’4, 220lb, 27 year old man throwing the kind of temper tantrum you’d expect to see from the child of a 27 year old man. Actually, no. That’s not fair. I don’t know anyone who expects that kind of behaviour out of children.

A Breakdown

In my first viewing of that video, before any of the nastiness started up, the first thing that stuck out to me was that Pavel Buchnevich looked paralyzed on the ice. I struggle to think of how he could have been in a more vulnerable position than he was.

Not much out of the ordinary had happened up to that point – there was a loose puck in the crease, bodies piled in, Buchnevich got tangled up and ended up on his knees. Yeah, Nic Dowd probably pressed his knee behind Buchnevich’s deliberately, but if Wilson doesn’t sucker punch the guy that’s just one of those sneaky “veteran” moves that, in most cases, would serve to take him out of the play in pretty harmless fashion. It’s important to note here that Buchnevich was leaning forward at the time as well, so I feel like buckling his knee posed a pretty low risk on its own.

As Buchnevich falls forward, though, his throat catches on the shaft of Wilson’s stick, causing Wilson to double over under the weight of Buchnevich’s body as it awkwardly falls to the ice beneath him. This leaves Buch with his ass in the air, the side of his face pressed against the ice, and Tom Wilson’s stick against his throat. His neck is bearing the weight of his entire upper body at this point. He’s in such a vulnerable position that he couldn’t even use his arms to get out of it if he wanted to – he still had his stick in his hands for Christ’s sake.

From there, Wilson throws a gloved punch that narrowly misses Buch’s head and lands on his left shoulder. It was tough to notice in real time, but if you watch the replay you can clearly see Wilson pull his stick up against Buch’s throat with his left hand in almost perfect synchrony with the punch thrown a split second later. It looked to me like he was maximizing the torque he could get on a punch to Buch’s head, before either missing the punch or thinking better of it. This is the first point where it becomes important to acknowledge the severity of what happened, because regardless of intent, if that punch lands on Buch’s head or neck in the wrong way, we’re talking about how Tom Wilson broke a motherf*ckers neck, not about him throwing a dangerous and embarrassing tantrum.

After the punch is thrown, bodies begin to pile onto Wilson (and one another), and Buchnevich is dragged by the neck briefly before he’s finally free. For a split second, he’s motionless. I thought he was out cold the first time I watched it, not catching where the punch had landed. He ultimately gets up and, fearlessly, goes into the scrum looking for Wilson. At this point, Wilson is going f*cking bananas because Artemi Panarin tried to wrap up his arms from behind after seeing him throw another gloved punch at a defenceless Ryan Strome, who seconds earlier had pulled Wilson off of Buchnevich.

This is where the focus shifts to Panarin, as Buchnevich ends up tangled with Trevor Van Riemsdyk, and the 5’11, 170lb Panarin becomes Wilson’s primary focus. They tussle, and through bodies Wilson can be seen successfully pushing Panarin’s helmet off his head after a couple failed attempts. As soon as that helmet is off, Wilson goes for the takedown. Grabbing Panarin by the face and hair, he throws him to the ground upper-body first, and his head smacks against the ice.

Here’s a better angle for reference:

Following this, Wilson rag dolls him some more, then throws another gloved punch that lands on his chest before rolling him over, pulling him off the ground, and yanking him back down to the ice once again. His face appears to narrowly avoid contact with it as he gets his hands down in time.

The linesmen get involved, attempting to wrangle Wilson off Panarin to no avail. Buchnevich joins in, followed by Nic Dowd and Ryan Strome. With five people piled on his back, Panarin squeaks out from the pile, his knees bending awkwardly beneath him in what very well might have been the cause of his season-ending lower body injury.

Things tail off after that. Panarin, who isn’t afraid of the f*cking Kremlin, actually tries to get at Wilson again, but thankfully the insanity comes to an end in short order.

If only that last part were true.

Detached From Reality

After watching the clip a few times, I actually thought the league was going to throw the book at Tom Wilson here. There was this feeling amongst fans of “how many playoff games will he miss?”, but my gut was telling me they’d suspend him for the playoffs entirely.

I have no idea why my gut was telling me that, mind you. It didn’t have good reason to, as history will tell you, and my reaction to the ruling on this – a 5k fine with no suspension for punching Buchnevich and nothing more – was really a culmination of the many cases in recent memory that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has botched.

But this one was different, too. Unlike all of those clips, which were headshots and blindside hits, this came after the whistle and involved a shocking level of disrespect and recklessness. This felt gross, like something you’d see at an LNAH game – except that’s not true, because in the LNAH you’ve got several guys on every team who can match (or top) Wilson physically, and everyone involved in that league, from the fans to the players to the owners, is aware that games regularly get out of control. It’s kinda their schtick.

I’ve heard chatter defending what happened as being “old time hockey”. To be clear, this Wilson sh*t wasn’t old time hockey. Old time hockey, which for the sake of this I’ll consider to be before fighting dropped below .4 per game (2013), was similar to the LNAH in that there were plenty of players around the league who would’ve made Wilson answer for what he did – and you can bet it wouldn’t just be the Rangers’ tough guys looking to put him in his place after a violent fit directed at skill players. If Wilson’s history against equal competition is any indicator, he might’ve thought twice about doing it in the first place.

The days of old time hockey are long gone, and there are just a handful of players spread across the league who are a match for Tom Wilson physically. Of those players, I count maybe two in his division: Boston’s Jared Tinordi and the Isles’ Matt Martin. Tinordi has played just 20 games at the NHL level over the past two seasons, and Matt Martin is a fourth liner who’s days of physical dominance are fading. Not exactly players a first liner like Wilson is going to have to answer to all that often.

That’s where the imbalance lies, and Tom Wilson knows that. No, this wasn’t old time hockey, this was one of the strongest and most dangerous players in the NHL violently going after skill players he knows damn well stand no chance against him.

And the league gave most of it their stamp of approval, showing they struggle to give up on the concept of “old time hockey” as much as some of their fans.

I’m furious over this one. I can’t remember a time where I’ve been this mad at the NHL. Not just mad, either. I’m embarrassed. They’ve so severely mishandled this, from not suspending Wilson, to fining the Rangers a quarter of a million dollars for suggesting George Parros is unfit to head the DOPS, after Parros suggested the exact same thing with his ruling.

God forbid the NHL be forced to hear the truth after they f*ck up without publicly smacking the victim to let them know who’s boss.

Worse yet, reports are coming out that the Rangers statement has actually served to drum up additional support for Parros from front offices around the league, in a painful show of the deeply dysfunctional culture at the root of this. As mentioned in that report, ex-GM Jeff Gorton and ex-President John Davidson are alleged to have actively distanced themselves from the Rangers statement in the hours leading up to their firing, which the team is claiming to be completely unrelated.

Right.

Again, but Ugly From the Top

That video is what happens when the league sends the message that it’s not gonna protect you 48 hours before you face the opponent who cheapshotted you again. Old time f*ckin’ hockey, eh? Except you’ve got f*cking skill players like Carl Hagelin, Colin Blackwell, Lars Eller and Ryan Strome going toe to toe in high-emotion fights with half a punch landed between them, when staying on their feet and protecting themselves in a hockey fight has never been part of their games.

You’ve got the Rangers sending Brendan Smith out to get killed in a fight by Wilson, because at two inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter, he’s the closest they’ve got to someone who can take him on. You’ve got the 6’5, 235lb Anthony Mantha hounding Pavel Buchnevich for an entire shift before taking a run at him away from the play, and getting a nasty one handed cross-check to the face from Buch in defence. Buch received a one game suspension for it, and while I agree with that being a suspendable act, zero part of me blames Buch for reacting the way he did. Two days after putting up with Wilson’s attack, he’s got another heavyweight aggressively hounding him with bad intentions.

None of this happens if Wilson is suspended for an appropriate amount of time. Thankfully everybody got out without major injury, but Wilson getting pulled after the first with an “Upper Body Injury” certainly helped the cause.

Now, the entire reason the NHL got rid of goons was to rid the game of unnecessary head trauma. The thing is, goons served a purpose; to protect their teammates. If the NHL is going to continue this trend of allowing dangerous plays to go largely unchecked, who’s protecting the players? The league handled this situation so poorly and with so much disregard that this game would’ve been safer for the players involved if goons were still in the NHL.

Let that sink in.

Maybe that’s the angle. Maybe George Parros misses that fat NHL player salary from his playing days so he’s creating the need for goons again to stage a comeback. Maybe Bettman put him up to it. Maybe this goes deeper than any of us realize. Maybe Q put Bettman up to it. Sh*t, maybe Bettman is Q.

*burns down cell phone tower*

Firing Parros Not the Solution

Let’s get the obvious out of the way, because it’s getting left aside a lot lately:

George Parros is not the problem.

George Parros is a symptom of the problem, sure, and this absolutely falls at his feet as the head of the DOPS, but getting rid of your nausea won’t make the fever go away. Without GM’s, the NHL’s board of governors and the NHL/NHLPA’s competition committee voting in favour of it, we wouldn’t have a rule book that clings to the idea that in order to maintain the integrity of physical hockey, we need to allow players to do what Tom Wilson did on Monday night in New York. That we need blindside hits and headshots to exist legally – as long as the head isn’t the “principal point of contact”. That it’s on the players to protect themselves from these when they present themselves legally, despite the game being faster than ever before and mounting evidence to support the link between even mild head trauma and an increased risk of long-term, irreversible brain damage.

Parros, who’s career in the league was centred around inflicting head trauma through fighting, didn’t magically fall into this position. It’s not like he left “Goon” off his resumé and nobody picked up on it. George Parros was hired for this job because of the role he had as a player, and more specifically, how he was able to play it without ever receiving a suspension.

In a 2018 interview with the New York Times, Parros had this to say:

“I kind of say, joking around I guess, but when I was playing, I was protecting 23 guys, and now, I’m protecting 800 guys […]

“I always did see it like that. Whatever you think of my career, I was definitely always concerned that no one was taking runs at my guys, and making sure there was a presence on the ice if they did.” – George Parros.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/07/sports/hockey/george-parros-nhl-player-safety.html

Despite the joking nature, this quote tells you all you need to know about the underlying issues at play here. Parros’ mentality in protecting the players appears to be the same as it was when he was protecting his teammates as an enforcer, which is for the players to protect themselves and each other through violence and intimidation. To turn the clock back to before Brendan Shanahan’s tenure with the DOPS.

Old time hockey.

Old Time Hockey Is Dead

Old time hockey placed the onus on players to settle the score themselves. For skill players, that meant one of their tough guys stepping in and settling it for them. And that was all well and good at the time. It was exciting and violent and aggressive and manly and f*ckin’ Stone Cold Steve Austin slamming beer cans together and sh*t, I get it. I grew up watching Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em tapes on VHS and looked up to the physicality, to the point that I was a problem on the ice myself in minor hockey.

Ignorance was rampant when we were embracing that kind of physicality. It was easy to watch a guy take a vicious blindside headshot from Scott Stevens, because A) it was legal, and B) we were under the impression the brain could take those blows and recover fully. Those hits were also revered at the time and were an exciting part of the game. We didn’t know better.

But we do now.

I know I’m not alone in saying those hits play very differently to me now than they used to. As exciting as they were and as much as we enjoyed them as a crucial part of the game at the time, that routine head trauma has always been a tragic part of the NHL. We just had no way of knowing it at the time, but since we’ve learned we’ve been blessed to see the league develop into the fastest and most skilled it’s ever been. While physical play is a big part of that, headshots, blindside hits and grown men throwing dangerous tantrums at players half their size aren’t. All three are a detriment to the game and serve to put the players we love in a significantly more dangerous position than necessary.

With the speed of today’s game, violent, dangerous hits are going to happen regardless of intent. If they’re that important to you, rest easy. They’re not going anywhere, and if you eliminate headshots and blindsides entirely, players are going to continue to get lit up by legal hits to the body and it’ll get you out of your seat all the same. You’ll just see more of that and less severe injuries. If it’s important to you that tantrums like Tom Wilson’s stay in the game, I don’t know what to tell you.

The role of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety should be to eliminate unnecessary violence from an inherently violent sport, but to do that properly, the rules need to change. That’s at the root of this. The Tom Wilson incident is awful on its own, but the level of outrage we’re seeing is also a result of all the inconsistent and infuriating rulings up to this point. Until the rule book makes clear – with no wiggle room – that this stuff isn’t allowed, it’s going to keep happening. In Wilson’s case, the 5k fine says loud and clear that the NHL wants this sh*t in the game.

Again, we can criticize George Parros until we’re blue in the face, but until the NHL, its GM’s and the competition committee make changes to the rule book, George Parros or someone like him will continue to be put in a position to do a job they’re not fit to do with an approach that embraces dangerous hockey from a bygone era.

Find me on Twitter @HSkratch

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