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Blowing the Whistle on Pro Hockey Buffoonery

Silly Putty

By Jonathan Putnam

I wasn't sure I'd ever grace these pages again, but watching the National Hockey League playoffs these past few weeks has, er, inspired me.

Now, I should say right away that I'm not much of a hockey fan. Sure, I've enjoyed a couple of games a year at Bright Center, and I even went to a pro game once in Pittsburgh (though we left early to watch the sixth game of the '86 World Series--and you know the rest of that story), but basically I know zilch when it comes to pro hockey.

All I know about the Campbell Conference is that it's not named after my girlfriend--also a Campbell--and I draw a total blank when it comes to the Prince of Wales (why not East and West or American and Canadian, anyway?). I think the Bruins are in the Wales, but I'm not sure.

Anyway, I have in recent weeks--like any good Bostonian--hopped aboard the Bruins' bandwagon and watched as they dismantled the Canadiens and took on the Garden Salad Devils (what else do their road uniforms look like?) from, appropriately, the Garden State. Now my basic conclusion from these weeks of NHL study is that hockey has the potential to be a great game. The action is fast and exciting, the play is of uniformly high quality and there's even artistry to match Micheal Jordan on occasion.

True, the television announcers (or at least the ones Boston is saddled with) are outrageous, unrepentant "homers." Bob Cousy may say "we" when referring to the Celts on T.V., but even he is mild compared with these bozos who make no effort to hide their distress when the opponents score a goal, and who have consistently denigrated the Devils' play, even though the series was tied at 2-all going into last night's game.


But what happened in game four of the playoffs the other night at the Meadowlands was unbelievably bush league, and proved once and for all why the NHL will remain a minor league for the indefinite future.

To recap briefly: After the Bruins' five-goal victory in game three, Devils' coach Jim Schoenfeld verbally and maybe physically attacked the referee. The league suspended Schoenfeld for at least one game, but did so without a hearing, enabling the coach to go to a New Jersey judge and get an injunction to allow him to coach the next game (on the basis that the suspension without a hearing violated his due process rights). Then the on-ice officials, who have complained of a lack of league support in the past, refused to work the game, and eventually amateur refs--including two paid employees of the New Jersey Devils' organization--did the game. Through this whole farce, NHL boss John Ziegler was nowhere to be found. Oh yeah, the Devils won the game to tie up this semifinal round series.

To begin with, it sure seems to me a bad precedent to take NHL disputes into the court system. It's not like there are a few, say, felonious assaults, in any given game. Ajudicating roughing penalties between Boston's Jay Miller and New Jersey's Jim Korn is just what our court system needs.

Next, why did the league act so casually and where was Ziegler during the hours of crisis? No less a legend than Pete Rose got a month's vacation recently for a roughly similar shoving incident, but in hockey no one seemed to be able to get their act together in time.

Finally, and most importantly, why the hell did the Bruins play the game? New Jersey had already screwed them by going outside the league for the injunction and causing the start of the game to be delayed for over an hour, and the league screwed them by insisting that amateur refs, and New Jersey employees to boot, work the game.

The fact that the refs did an okay job and the Bruins lost "fair and square" has nothing to do with this. In the semifinal round of the league's playoffs, you should not under any circumstance be forced to endure a delay of your opponent's making and then play with refs--however even-handed--on your opponent's payroll.

It's clear to me that Bruin general manager Harry Sinden did his team and its fans, even us Johnny-come-latelies, a huge disservice by consenting to play the game Sunday night. It could well cost Boston the series. Moreover, it represented a move that was against the best competitive interests of his team. In pro sports, especially in the semifinal round of the playoffs, sabotaging your team's chances of winning is unforgivable.

"The game is everything," Sinden was quoted as saying after the Meadowlands debacle. "The game goes ahead of my stupid feelings, and ahead of any vendettas, emotions or whatever else is going on."

But it's not worth sacrificing a playoff game for the honor of a sport beset by as many buffooneries as the NHL. As Schoenfeld has shown, there's no honor in the NHL. Or in being a pro hockey fan.

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