It is so easy to blame the NHL.
A cop out, really.
How many times do I – or do you – need to read in columns or hear on sports talk radio that the violence perpetrated by some in the NHL is the product of it being a “garage league” and the consequence of a league not being stringent enough on players who act like heathens?
Certainly, there is some truth to such a notion — but it is just half the story.
When will the outcry come that a level of the responsibility in all of this rough stuff happening right now in the NHL falls to the players themselves?
That is to say, when the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement was agreed to by the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association on Jan. 12, 2013 (after a four-month lockout) did the NHLPA try to make such huge strides or attempt to infuse things into that document to get rid of fighting? Did the NHLPA endeavor to abolish the violence in the league before the players agreed to a 50-50 split in hockey related revenues with the owners?
I will answer the previous two questions for you — no and no.
And that’s partially why we are where we are. That’s partially why we see scenes like the ugly ones with the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik being wheeled off a stretcher and his teammate, James Neal, kneeing someone in the melon.
Part of it is that the league doesn’t punish offenders enough, but the other truth is that these guys playing the game want fighting within the confines — at least the unwritten code — of their game and are willing to deal with off-shoots like what we saw when the Penguins and Bruins nastily clashed last weekend.
You see, in Orpik’s case, he was the victim of Shawn Thornton taking exception to a clean hit being delivered. In some kind of archaic, antediluvian thought process that binds the players in this NHL, when there’s a big crash — albeit legal — someone is supposed to pay by dropping his gloves.
Orpik didn’t want to dance.
He shouldn’t have had to prove himself anymore than he already did.
Unfortunately, in this primordial code followed by the players, that wasn’t good enough, so he was viciously attacked by Thornton — an attack that left him unconscious.
Orpik wasn’t hurt in a fight; he was hurt because there’s fighting in hockey and he didn’t want to fight — which is all the same.
That isn’t on the owners facilitating a “garage league” in the least. It is on the players having this unyielding want to police themselves, but not adequately being able to do so.
In 2011, 20 NHL players were polled by ESPN about their opinion on fighting. All 20 responded that fighting needed to remain in their league. A year later, in 2012, a poll conducted in harmony by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the NHLPA asked 318 NHL players if fighting should be removed from hockey and 98 percent wanted the fisticuffs to remain.
That’s not a slight majority, a little-more-than-half or the polls tilting marginally one way on a given day. No, 98 percent is damn near everyone.
These guys want to fight each other. That much couldn’t be more clear.
Me? I couldn’t care less if fighting stays or goes, as these guys — owners and players — agreed to a CBA and feel they know what is best for their league. But, on the same hand, I’ve often said I’ve prepared myself to see someone very seriously hurt in one of these fights or, worse yet, get killed because of the way hockey conducts itself.
Again, I’m OK with that — but when something really bad happens, it will seemingly come as a huge surprise to so many.
But let’s get something straight.
You go ahead and keep blaming the league, keep putting the entire responsibility on the guys in the suits for the violence that, at times, ruins this otherwise dazzling game.
On the other hand, I will look at the big picture and place equal blame on the guys out there skating, on the combatants in that arena.
If they don’t want saved from themselves, why should other people step in and feel a greater power to save them?
Live by the sword — or your head banging off the ice, in the case — and you might die by it, too.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.