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NHL players deserve better than this

The Wysh List publishes every Friday.

On Players, And Health

I’ve been thinking a lot about hockey players lately.

As, like, people. Not commodities.

That’s not always easy. A lot of us, and I’d include myself here more often than I’d like to admit, just see them as names on a roster or numbers on a box score. We see their names fly by on the ticker at the bottom of the screen when they’re traded and rarely consider what that upheaval means to their lives, just what it means for our favorite team’s second unit power play. Fantasy sports have somehow both increased the focus on the individual player while dehumanizing them to the point where our first concern about an injury is when we can toggle him down to “IR” status.

It’s not always easy when those who work in these leagues see them as eminently replaceable. Like when the venerable Bill James, a Boston Red Sox consultant, said this of Major League Baseball players recently:

“If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them. The game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever. The players are NOT the game, any more than the beer vendors are,” he wrote, sparking a rather robust backlash.

If NHL executives feel the same way, it’s never something they voice. To wit: Commissioner Gary Bettman constantly voices that the players in the NHL are the best in the world, and the lifeblood of the league’s success. At least while they’re playing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hockey players lately because a few hundred of them finally took the ‘L’ in their legal pursuit against the NHL over concussions policy. I’ve said for years that they were never going to win this, because I never thought there was a smoking gun the likes the NFL was holding when it had to settle with its former players. But once their suit didn’t reach class action status, that was the endgame for this group effort: The NHL offered about $22,000 to each player, along with $75,000 in medical coverage. Not all will take it. Many will.

It’s not what these players wanted, having sacrificed so much in seeking financial remedy for their post-playing days health issues. But maybe they got something else in the process: Recognition of their plight.

How many stories do we know now that we hadn’t before about players struggling after their careers were over, through places like The Players Tribune and TSN? How much more have we heard about what’s being done, or not done, to assist them? But more than anything: How much more willing are we to listen?

It’s not always easy to listen. Many us feel that players make bargains when they play professional hockey: Participating in an inherently injurious sport in exchange for personal gratification, be it financial or validation or whatever their aim is. And it’s not like they’re not cognizant about it, either.

“We all knew what we were getting into. We all knew what we had to do to get to the league, and stay in the league,” one retired player, known for his physicality, told me during Hall of Fame weekend. “We knew we were hurting, but when the trainer put up three fingers in front of your face and you could count them, you were back on the ice.”

(As aside: a lot of players, current and former, decline to address these issues meaningfully on the record. If you want to know why, keep an eye on how many of those in the lawsuit get invites to alumni events in Gary Bettman’s NHL. I’m guessing not many.)

Yes, they put their health on the line, knowingly. But guess what? That doesn’t disqualify them from being taken care of after their playing days, when those years of bludgeoning for our pleasure catch up with them. Bettman loves to talk about hockey being a family. Far too often, it feels like the relatives in ill health are being locked in a dusty bedroom upstairs, away from the dinner parties.

Figuring out how to more responsibly help former players starts with the small gestures — like, I don’t know, a formal acknowledgment of the link between CTE and brain injury, which is good enough for the Dept. of Defense but not the National Hockey League — and grows into larger ones.

I think fans would like to help these players directly, in some way. I have faith that if given the chance, fans would buy a special jersey or attend a special game or even buy a special Christmas ornament annually if it meant helping NHL alumni.

(And I have faith that none of these fans would be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll help, as long as it doesn’t go to Darcy Tucker” or some other ice villain. Not full faith, but faith.)

Maybe those of us who have been entertained by their broken bones can find new ways to improve their broken lives. It’s a conversation worth having, and one that shouldn’t end as the litigation against the NHL seemingly has.


On Players, And Safety

When an NHL player gets rung up for a huge suspension, the National Hockey League Players Association will frequently appeal on their behalf. Which always leads to some confusion, because the NHLPA also represents the player that was injured. The same union that represents Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson represents St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist, the guy Wilson concussed to earn a 20-game suspension, since reduced to 14 by an arbitrator.

How does one square that, as a player?

“A member is a member. You don’t criticize a member, and you don’t quite support him either. You explain. So it all feels neutral,” Hall of Famer Ken Dryden told me recently. “Maybe the most dramatic case involved Steve Moore. Moore was a member; Bertuzzi was a member. I don’t know what the PA said, but the test was going to be what individual players said. Virtually everyone who said anything, if not everyone, supported Bertuzzi. I think it was because they could imagine more easily ‘losing it’ than being attacked. And here was Bertuzzi being brought before a court, and in what these other players did and who they were, that was something they couldn’t even remotely identify with.”

Wilson’s hit on Sundqvist wasn’t Bertuzzi/Moore, but it was a clear violation of Rule 48. The Department of Player Safety felt that way. The arbitrator who overturned the suspension felt that way.

You know who didn’t feel that way? The NHLPA.

Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to the director for the Players’ Association, testified before Wilson’s appeal that Wilson did not violate Rule 48. “This testimony, although informed by Schneider’s many years of experience as an NHL player and later participation as an NHLPA representative on the League’s Competition Committee, essentially was based on his review of the video evidence that had been presented to and considered by the Commissioner and paralleled the arguments made by the NHLPA to both the Commissioner and the NDA,” wrote the arbitrator in his ruling.

Schneider testified that “Sundqvist releases the puck, Wilson comes in to deliver a check with his shoulder and first contacts Sundqvist’s shoulder, after which — as Wilson continues through the hit — Sundqvist’s body and head rotate in the same direction, moving in unison.” That this wasn’t a hit to the head, but rather a hit to the shoulder than only looked like a hit to the head.

I mean, c’mon:

I know the NHLPA is just doing whatever it can to reduce punishment for one of its guys, not only for his benefit but to keep the bar low for other players that might end up in Wilson’s shoes.

But if the aim is “you don’t criticize a member, and you don’t quite support him either,” I’m not sure how an alternative reality where Tom Wilson didn’t violate Rule 48, spun by a respected former player, doesn’t support Wilson in a way that feels like a slight to what Sundqvist suffered through.

Funny how players “policing their own” never seems to extend past the ice.


RIP, Stan Lee

Marvel comics publisher Stan Lee died at 95 this week. His legacy as a modern mythmaker can’t be lauded enough. It’s not just the characters he created, but the stories he told. Every kid who didn’t feel they had a place in the world could find someone else feeling the same way, even while they were wearing a costume and shooting webs out of their wrists or living in a mansion with other mutants. And he did so with an undeniable sense of whimsy that, to this day, is the point of demarcation between Marvel Cinematic Universe properties and the GrimDark attempts from other studios.

But they all can’t be winners. He also “created” the NHL Guardians Project, one of the greatest debacles in Bettman’s tenure as commissioner and a sports pop culture flop, the likes we’ve rarely seen. It told a convoluted story and in some cases just completely ripped off preexisting IP to create superheroes for every NHL team — The Canadien was Cobra Commander, the Coyote was Wolverine. I wrote extensively about their origins on Puck Daddy if you want to check it out.

Excelsior, Stan Lee. You gave us normal teenagers with extraordinary powers but great responsibilities. And also a giant tree called The Maple Leaf who threw sap bombs.


Jersey Fouls

Couples Foul from a Capitals game in Minnesota:

Hey, speculate all you want, but all I see here are two huge Michal Kempny (6) and Dmitry Orlov (9) fans.

Meanwhile, in Columbus:

First of all, some clarification on Jersey Fouls in bathrooms: We do appreciate the safari hunt for Fouls extending into odd (and smelly) places. But our feelings on the bathroom Fouls are that it’s best not to capture them, for your own safety. Digital photography and the sanctity of the urinal simply don’t mix. As for the Foul itself, our crack team of analysts (me) have determined this jersey reads “More Cannon Balls.” For some ungodly reason.


Gretzky At The Hall

It’s always amazing to see what happens when Wayne Gretzky walks into the room. Especially when that room is the shopping mall that contains the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. With the gawking and the stealth photos, it’s like someone spotted a yeti riding a unicorn down the red carpet. People are just in awe.

(Yes, for those that don’t know, the Hockey Hall of Fame is located near the food court of a mall. And it’s within that food court that the media sets up on Hall of Fame induction night, inside of a fast Italian eatery. My former colleague Nick Costonika of NHL.com suggested that the hockey writers honored at the Hall should wear blazers with a slice of pizza on the patch, an idea I heartily endorse.)

It’s also always charming when Gretzky gets his full Hockey Nerd Boy on, because you get to hear arguably the greatest hockey player who ever lived — the caveats here are “among skaters” and “allowing for Connor McDavid’s gestation period” — be the one who is in awe.

It’s well-documented that Gretzky’s a Hall of Fame geek, sometimes wearing disguises to travel through the hallowed rooms. It’s always been that way for him.

“As a kid, I grew up in this area. I used to venture into the old CNE Exposition Hockey Hall of Fame. I was just telling Vladislav Tretiak I used to stare at his mask and his old CCCP jersey for hours. One of the greatest things about our game is the history and the nostalgia. Buildings like this, they go so far in inspiring young players to say, ‘You know what? I’d like to be there one day,” he said.

(Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge that seeing Gretzky and Tretiak, the storied Soviet goaltender from the Hall’s Class of 1989, casually chatting during the induction ceremony is akin to going to Madame Tussauds and seeing the wax figures of former presidents making small talk. Like, it’s a conversation that seems to transcend time.)

The Soviet players meant a lot to Gretzky, as they did to a lot of Canadians of a certain age. The world felt larger then. You didn’t have the greatest players on the planet concentrated in the NHL. You would only see them in the Olympics, or during something like the Summit Series. Which is why someone like Alexander Yakushev, inducted into the Hall of Fame on Monday, was like a living legend to some young Edmonton Oilers stars in the 1980s.

“Mark Messier and I got to spend one of the greatest lunches ever with Yakushev in Moscow, years ago,” Gretzky said before the ceremony. “We were telling him that in 1972, he was our favorite Russian player. In Edmonton, when you made a great play in practice, we would say that was ‘Yakushev-ian.’ We were telling him the story, and he started crying. He didn’t believe us. But we thought he was their best player. A combination of Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr.”

Gretzky was in awe of Yakushev. Yakushev was in awe of Gretzky. I was in awe of both in their moments at the Hall this week. Well, until Yakushev thanked Canada for inventing hockey. C’mon, dude, those egos are already overinflated.


Three NHL General Managers With Whom I’m Never Making a Trade

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

I don’t actually know what kind of dealer Dubas is, as he’s only been in the big chair for a minute. But I know he’s smart. Super smart. And not just because he wears smart guy glasses and has an office of fine leather-bound books. (They might not be leather-bound, but should be.) He seems like the kind of person you negotiate with, and the better the deal looks for you, the worse you feel about it, because you assume Dubas has this thing game-theoried out for the next five years.

Jim Nill, Dallas Stars

Trading with Jim Nill is like casting Nicholas Cage in your movie. The lows are certainly low, but always weirdly interesting: Getting Marc Methot, trading away Patrick Eaves, stuff like that. And the highs are manic moments of absolute genius, like the Seguin trade and getting Stephen Johns as a throw-in on the Patrick Sharp trade. He’s been more “Raising Arizona” than “direct-DVD-to-Redbox.”

Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh Penguins

He buys good players at low prices, and then suddenly has two Stanley Cup rings thanks in part to players like Phil Kessel and Justin Schultz and Nick Bonino and Ian Cole. Do people really buy the kindly old grandpa routine when they negotiate with him? Does he lull his peers into a false sense of comfort with copious amounts of Werther’s Originals? Does anyone believe Tanner Pearson won’t be, like, a 30-goal guy by next season?


Listen To ESPN ON ICE

Listening to Bob Costas talk about the state of sports media and the hockey world was a pleasure, but it was our conversation about his (very) early approach to player safety and concussions that stuck with me. Plus, we poll a few Hockey Hall of Famers (including The Great One) about whom they’d like to see get into the Hall that isn’t there already. We also talk Tom Wilson, concussion lawsuits and much more. Head here for iTunes and stream it here.


Gritty’s First Snowfall

There’s really nothing like seeing a newborn frolicking around in their first snowstorm:

Is anyone else struggling with how the embodiment of childlike wonder, unbridled joy and endearing bliss is also wearing a Philadelphia Flyers jersey? Like, at some point Gritty is going to break a stick over another mascot’s head, filling the ice with colorful furry innards and revealing the inherent evil in in his genetic code, right?


Puck headlines

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

Dellow makes the not-at-all-bold case that Milan Lucic should be bought out next summer by the Edmonton Oilers.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

We’re running an awesome new contest where we’re asking readers to design their own Seattle NHL uniforms. Finally, a chance to create a proper Seattle Sasquatch kit. Go Squach Go!

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