Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Devil's Advocate

One of the things that I hope this blog offers is an alternative to what you can get in the papers, on sports radio and from the TSN's and Sportsnets of this world.

I'd like to think of it as a really engaging conversation among people who love hockey. And like any good conversation it will have funny parts, controversial bits, occassional lulls (well maybe more than the occassinal one) and even disagreements. I'd also like to think that this space moves above and beyond the two-dimensional qualities and false dichotomies that marr so much sports coverage and so many exchanges (yeah, I know the Leafs suck, thanks for posting).

With that in mind, I really wanted to know what a fan of the Devils made of the Kaberle hit (as Winnie the Pooh says to Tigger in one of my daughter's books, "Good manners are mostly about looking at things from someone else's point of view.") so I fired an email to Tom at The Out Route (he and I have exchanged music tips over at Glorious Noise for years) and asked him if he wanted to send a paragraph or two my way.

He did, and here it is:

OK, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a Devils fan. I’m the enemy.

But take pause, Leafs fans, before you sling your iBarbs into my skin. I know we haven’t been at harmony over the recent years. We dislike you because you remind us a little too much of the Rangers, with your tradition, free-spirited spending, and blue jerseys. You dislike us because we win Stanley Cups and you don’t. Kidding, kidding. I just had to get that one out of the way.

I know that tensions are high after Tomas Kaberle’s injury, and that someone defending Cam Janssen is probably the last person you’d want to hear (read?) from. ANYWAY, I ask that you look at me today not as a Devils fan, but as a beacon of logic.

Was Janssen’s hit illegal? It was, in the sense that it came just a teensy bit too late. When watching the play develop, there seems an eternity between the pass and the check in which anxiety sets in, because you can see disaster ahead and are helpless to stop it. It’s that feeling you get watching a foolish victim in a horror movie open the closet door (the killer is always in the closet) or when a rollercoaster reaches the top of its initial ascent. In reality, it was 1.2 seconds. Certainly late, and certainly illegal by NHL rules.

In my mind, that’s the extent of Janssen’s wrongdoings. Go back and check the tape – the elbow is down, the players are facing each other, Janssen is gliding and not striding. All the benchmarks of a good, clean hit. The rest is circumstantial. Kaberle wasn’t looking and thus had no way to brace himself which, combined with the proximity to the boards, made the hit about 10 times more devastating than it would have been under normal circumstances. Because of the injury, I think a game misconduct or one-game suspension would have sufficed. But honestly, Janssen’s infraction typically costs a player two minutes. Suspensions should come with intended malice, I just don’t see that being the case here. I mean, it wasn’t like he intentionally elbowed Scott Niedermayer in the face at the end of a certain second-round playoff game (cough. cough.).

The logical reader now asks him or herself this: Well, smarty-pants, even if, fundamentally, Janssen’s hit was legal, why did he throw it? It wasn’t necessary in the context of play. That’s a good question. And I know you assume that it was intentional because of the role Janssen plays on the team and because of people’s natural instinct to think their worst of their peers. I’ve got no factual evidence to dissuade you, but I can say with a straight face that Janssen is not a dirty player.

I hate the term “goon.” It’s derogatory towards a group of hockey players that help define the sport. Janssen is a role player. His role is to be physical and to bring energy to the ice. He’s also young and on the periphery of this league. With the new rules, players of his ilk are being eradicated. He’s fighting (literally) for a job, and he gets precious few minutes on the ice to prove his worth. In this instance, he got overzealous and made a mistake. He is not the type of player to deliberately injure a player, and he showed genuine concern for Kaberle’s well-being and contrition after the game. It should be noted he hasn’t protested the check or tried to defend himself. The Devils have always been unapologetically physical, which may or may not be boring to watch, but they’ve never been a dirty team. I wouldn’t support one.

I’ve heard a lot of hyperbole about the hit, using it as a way to blast the NHL – because, I’m sure even we can agree, the only time the U.S. media touches hockey is to complain about its physical nature – and throwing Janssen to the lions. Frankly, I just don’t get it. This isn’t to undermine Kaberle’s injury – I hate to see anyone injured, and I hope Kaberle’s recovery is of the speediest kind. But to me it seems that this pales in significance to the Todd Bertuzzi and Marty McSorely incidents, as well as the one earlier this season that sparked a brawl between Buffalo and Ottawa.

The exaggerated punishment is a clear attempt at further eradicating the physical element of hockey, and that’s something I can’t stand for. Forget about Janssen. Doesn’t everyone love a good fourth-liner? I’m sure the Leafs will want revenge, and though I don’t necessarily believe the hit warrants it, I’m not objecting because I understand that’s the way hockey is, and that’s how I like it.

If we are going to be suspending players for hits with clean intentions, we are changing one of hockey’s core functions. Players will forever be afraid to throw a good body check because of the potential ramifications. That’s worse than bigger nets, shootouts, or tighter jerseys. It’s castrating the sport as we know it. Janssen’s suspension is the starting point on a slippery slope. If we continue on this path, the NHL will lose the roguish charm that attracted us all. It will be run with an iron first, a place where unintentional high sticks are sins and fights are viewed with the same affection as a malevolent tumor. The NHL will become a Nazi state, or something far worse – the NBA.

Feel free to post your comments here or to visit Tom over at The Out Route...


  1. Kaberle is apparently done for the season. Too bad this 'good, clean' hit did so much damage.

    I appreciate giving the forum to a Devils' supporter but there were no clean intentions on that hit.

    A lifetime ban on Janssen wouldn't equal the loss to the Devils that the Leafs feel after one game without Kaberle.

    Good, clean, devastating, and repeated hits on Janssen are what I want to see March 20th. Maybe even a couple of seconds after he passes the puck and is vulnerable...err...admiring his pass.

  2. PPP I think the hit was late, I agree the results were catastrophic, and I wish the suspension had been at least five games.

    While I admire your passion, I disagree that a life-time ban is warranted.

    I do hope, as a result of this unfortunate injury, the NHL adopts the OHL's stance on head shots.

    As for those who would wish injuries on others, I just don't get it...as my main man Epictetus said, "For if it is not right to do it, avoid doing the thing"

    The sweetest revenge would be for the Leafs to win the balance of their schedule, meet up with the Devils in the playoffs and eliminate them. Give the whole Devils team a five month break from hockey. I'd take that over any on or off-ice actions toward Janssen..

  3. Oh I wasn't implying that he should get a lifetime ban just that based on their respective contributions to their teams even that wouldn't be a punishment equal to the crime.

    Good quotation, I don't want him injured, just hit repeatedly. Cleanly and very hard. That and a win might make guys like him think twice about laying those late hits.

    The absolute last thing I want to see is any sort of over the top revenge plot that has the potential to veer towards the land of Bertuzzi.

    I had not heard about the OHL's rules (not even in the two days after the hit) until today but I don't see why it wouldn't work for the NHL. The proof in its effectiveness is that the OHL is still a hard-hitting league. Kind of gives the lie to comments from guys like Brian Burke (delivered with a sneer for non-former hockey players) that indicate that such a move would erase hitting.

  4. I wonder what Burke would be saying if Pronger or Neidermayer were out for the rest of the year with a concussion after being whacked by some c-list player. I somehow don't think his concern would be the NHL becoming ballet on ice...

    FYI: OHL rule re. head shots is here:

  5. That's one of the frustrating things about the NHL. Each Governor and GM and Owner is pulling in their own direction. The GM vote on headshots at the last meeting was 30-0 which means that Regier AND JFJ both voted against it.

    I thought that the commissioner of a sports league was supposed to build consensus and manage in the best interests of the game not just grow franchise values.

    The good news is that Wellwood is probably coming back next week and Kaberle is feeling good.

  6. A suspension on Janssen has no impact on the Devils. He is a marginal player. A 2 minute penalty in the game would have a bigger impact. Hockey culture is saturated with guys who either never made it or else survived only by accepting the role of a goon as their meal ticket. Don Cherry and Colin Campbell want their proteges in the game. Taking guys like Janssen or Tie Domi or Chris Neil out of the sport would be like taking them out of hockey, too. Better to let skill players get concussed than lose marginal agitators from the sport. So today it is Kaberle but what happens if next week it is Sid the Kid? Ever team has stars then need to protect but the executive identify more the guys like Janssen. So guess who gets the protection. The agitators.

  7. MF, while your pal is well spoken and well intended, to suggest Cam Janssen isn't a dirty player makes me think he doesn't watch many Devils' games. From my own viewing experience and numerous conversations here in the Garden State, it is well-known Janssen has a tendency to hit late. Usually it is along the boards while the defender braces himself for the hit he knows it coming, so not much is made of it. But Cam is a late-hitter, no question. Whether it be malice of over-eagerness, the actions are the same.