Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Get the goons off the ice since such tactics don't work

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

During his 3 minutes 53 seconds of ice time, in a clunky cameo amid the rhapsodic tension of an NHL playoff game Thursday night, the Islanders' Eric Cairns became a singular example of goon liability, of enforcer irrelevance, of a sport's cultural ambivalence.

This hat trick of ignominy in the National Hockey League was illuminated when Cairns blundered away Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Twice, his oafish giveaways led to devastating goals that vacuum-packed the Islanders' fate, raising a question, not a fist: How can intimidators like Cairns be such left-footed misfits to the purity of the playoffs, but so integral to hockey's vitality in the regular season?

As any player with a tube of Polident would concede, the punch-drunk regular season is a non sequitur to the beautified intensity of the playoffs. En route to the Stanley Cup, games are considered too precious to disrupt with fighting, too close to risk with penalty minutes.

Skill players, agile skaters and puck-sponge goalies are revered while ham-fisted enforcers are often relegated to cold storage.

Somehow, a sport that gives life to mindless fighting and violent venting in the winter is able to legislate itself by spring. Somehow, the romantics of bare knuckles and malleable noses in January find a way to enjoy the physicality without the fists in April.

Good sense has a short life span in the NHL. When next season opens -- labor lockout willing -- the goons will have soaked their scarred hands over the summer. With 41 percent of regular-season games interrupted by fights, according to the reputable hockeyfights.com, the bashers will be back in business inside a culture of reprisal that is a harbinger for bounty hunting and ambush tactics.

This is how Todd Bertuzzi happens. But while Commissioner Gary Bettman deserves credit for taking a crime-dog's stand against cowardly acts by Bertuzzi - and Marty McSorley before him, and Dale Hunter before him - hockey officials have yet to mandate a ban on deliberate headhunting with fists, sticks and bodies.

They have yet to eliminate the atmosphere of retribution by vanquishing the players' margin for stupidity. "When we need to make rule adjustments, we do it," Bettman told The Toronto Globe and Mail recently, adding, "you can't just knee-jerk and gut the game for the sake of doing it."

This dramatic resistance does more to illuminate the league's woes than the fights themselves. Just who is the NHL more worried about protecting: its players or its fan demographic?

The National Football League promotes its collision sport, but a roundhouse fist on the field leads to an automatic ejection for a culprit. The National Basketball Association is accepting of hard fouls in the lane, but if a player responds to contact with a punch, he is bounced and bound for a suspension.

It's discipline based on visibility. The NBA and NFL play to a broad base of spectators that includes a vast television audience. The ratings-challenged NHL remains deferential to its cozy niche of loyalists.

The NHL isn't built on lucrative sponsorships; it owes its shrinking space on the sports landscape to hard-core ticketholders who are enamored of the nightly psychodramas that lace historic grudges. Translated: Who's gonna get his tonight?

The hockey lords may truly long to ban fighting, but not at the risk of alienating their faithful band of followers.

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