COLUMN: Violence takes place of hockey skill

Saturday Beat

The National Hockey League doesn’t seem to care much about its players so, as a result, I no longer care much for the NHL.

I don’t watch it for the same reasons I don’t tune in to ultimate fighting; I’ve got better things to do than watch a bunch of guys pound the living pulp out of each other.

What I find most interesting is that the players don’t seem to care much either. In today’s game, there is little evidence of respect for one another despite some poorly disguised rhetoric. There is barely any evidence of teammates sticking up for one another.

Where were the other Pittsburgh Penguins when Washington’s David Steckel elbowed Sidney Crosby in the head in the New Year’s Day Winter Classic? Where were they the next game when Tampa Bay’s Viktor Hedman drove Crosby’s head into the boards?

Oh, that’s right. Crosby had Matt Cooke as a teammate. Never mind.

These guys are out there, drifting from team to team in search of a bigger paycheque, not caring if they win or lose, not caring who shares the dressing room.

Fans, however, still don’t mind shelling out hundreds of dollars to watch what, despite the violence, is a dishwater dull game.

And to watch who? Steckel and Hedman? Players whose names would never be known if they hadn’t bruised Crosby’s brain?

The NHL, under the guidance of Gary Bettman, has turned into a bush league, and it deserves to be treated as such. I can hardly blame Air Canada for wanting to pull its sponsorship.

Gone are the code of ethics, the respect and the admiration of the skilled players. Arrived is the era of goons, mediocre players who make a name for themselves culling the talent in the league.

We shouldn’t be talking about guys like Cooke, Steckel and Hedman.

Instead of addressing the issue of understanding why the sport’s biggest names – Crosby, Marc Savard, etc. – are too dizzy to play, the NHL spent its summer working on a new kind of goal net that improves goal line visibility and, get this, has a “verification line” to determine if the puck fully crossed the goal line.

Newsflash: With guys like Crosby and Savard sitting on the sidelines while guys like Cooke, Hedman and Steckel suit up, there will be far less demand for a ridiculous verification line.

To me, the NHL started its long slide to bush league when cheap shot artist Gary Suter of Chicago almost took Anaheim’s Paul Kariya’s head off in the 1997-98 season. Suter, remember, is the same guy who took out Gretzky’s lower back in an international game between the U.S. and Canada. Gretz was never the same. Neither was Kariya. Neither was the game.

Since then, players’ elbow pads have turned into cinder blocks, borderline weapons, and the heads of opposing players are open season. You see it every game. All you have to is YouTube Zdeno Chara’s hit on Montreal’s Max Pacioretty last March. Chara cleverly used a fixed stanchion to almost decapitate his opponent.

If that’s what the NHL has come to, if actions like that are applauded, and if the culture of the game has changed so that morons rule the ice surface, then I’m no longer going to watch.

I have no doubt that stands will be filled again this season and that TV deals will continue to grow. I have no doubt that I’m probably in the minority of fans who would rather watch a good, fast-paced hockey game with skill and precision than Goons on Ice.

I have no doubt there are still kids out there who dream of playing in the NHL and hoisting the Stanley Cup above there head as I did when I was playing on a frozen outdoor rink in Calgary.

But I can only imagine the builders of the NHL, the men who played and coached with pride, strength and courage, would cringe at the disaster the league has become today.