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Blackhawks star Marian Hossa took a violent shoulder-to-head blow from the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres, who has been suspended indefinitely.

Steve Lundy, Associated Press

THURSDAY'S NHL PLAYOFFS HIGHLIGHTS

New Jersey 4, Florida 0: Brodeur sets record with 24th playoff shutout. • Phoenix 4, Chicago 3 (OT): Coyotes win in overtime yet again. • Coverage: C8

Souhan: NHL is out for blood

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • April 20, 2012 - 2:11 PM

There's a series on cable TV this spring featuring all manner of cowards and lowlifes trying to remove each other's heads in the quest for a title.

Don't let the kids watch. It's gruesome.

That's true whether we're discussing "Game of Thrones," or "Game of Thrones on Ice," otherwise known as the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL playoffs are like the fantastical HBO series, only without the gratuitous nudity. The NHL offers everything else you'd expect from a graphic, tawdry ratings ploy: Men smashing helpless foe's heads into the nearest hard object; blindside hits featuring elbows and sticks; the senseless beating of prone players; and all-out battles royale for no apparent reason.

At a time when every legitimate sport is trying reduce concussions, or at least their legal liability regarding concussions, the NHL has allowed its showcase to turn into a bar brawl.

In the spring following the winter in which Jack Jablonski was paralyzed during a Minnesota high school hockey game, Minnesotans can flip on the Stanley Cup playoffs and be reminded that for some pros, paralyzing an opponent might be a goal rather than a tragic accident.

The league should be ashamed.

But the NHL, like MMA and our old, punch-drunk friend boxing, seems to be beyond shame.

Canadian website CBC.ca tracked concussions and suspensions during the 2012 season. Its final totals: The NHL lost 1,697 man-games to head injuries. Players suspended for hits to the head sat out 134 games and were fined $2,468,239.60.

Think about that: Hits to the head cost the victims 1,697 games and the perpetrators just 134 games. The lost-games total would have risen if the CBC had included Boston center Marc Savard, who announced last summer that he would not play this season because of concussion symptoms.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has enabled a culture in which Raffi Torres feels free to leave his feet to deliver a blind-side, head-high hit that caused Marian Hossa to be carted off the ice on a stretcher. A culture in which Predators defenseman Shea Weber could smash the head of Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg into the glass.

If you watched the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, you might have seen Sidney Crosby score a goal. More likely, you wouldn't have seen him on the ice because of concussion symptoms. In the playoffs, you are just as likely to see him wrestling with an opponent after being targeted by a cheap shot as you are to see him wheeling through the neutral zone with the puck on a string.

Bettman has allowed his showcase to become a bloodbath.

Olympic hockey is riveting. It features the best players in the world competing for their homelands. It does not include or condone fighting. It is the best hockey you will ever see.

Then there is the NHL, which has so little respect for its own players and fans that it sacrifices the cerebella of the former in a jaded attempt to transfix the retina of the latter.

The hockey portion of the NHL playoffs has been compelling, and it usually is, but the many intriguing storylines are obscured by the cowardice of the players who target their union brethren with high hits and sticks.

"What other sports say [fighting] is a part of the game?" asked one politician recently. "Least of all in this game, because the essence of the game is the speed and the skill and the playmaking."

Why should you listen to a politician?

In this case, the politician is a former hockey player and the governor general of Canada. He was wearing skates and holding a stick on a frozen pond while being interviewed.

"I call it the beautiful game because it is the fastest game in the world," David Johnston told a Canadian reporter this winter.

Thanks to the NHL's cheap-shot artists and the culture that allows them to exist, many of this year's Stanley Cup playoff games are the slowest in the world. The clock doesn't move while teams brawl, or while a player is removed on a stretcher.

The NFL has thrived while trying to reduce violent hits and protect defenseless players. Major League Baseball and the NBA have installed new concussion tests to protect their players.

Then there is the NHL, a league with proof via its brain-damaged former enforcers that fighting and concussions can ruin humans. You don't have to have prodigious long-term memory to recall the tortured end of Derek Boogaard's life.

The NHL doesn't seem to mind. Maybe an extra dozen fans will tune in if there's blood on the ice.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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