Sometime today, a plane will land in Toronto, and Red Wings coach Jacques Demers will get off, along with Bob Probert, and they will take a car to a suburban office building.
They will walk into a private boardroom. Someone will take their coats. They will shake hands formally, and everyone will sit. Then, the man in charge, perhaps in a deep solemn voice, will give the long-awaited signal.
Turn on . . . the TV.
And they will watch a hockey fight.
Over and over. And over and over. They will discuss it. From the aggressor’s side. From the victim’s side. (“Look at that. Right there. See? That little thing flying across the screen? That’s his last tooth. Now what do you have to say for yourself?”)
This is how discipline is dished out in the NHL. A player accused of excessive violence — in this case, Probert — goes for a hearing with the NHL’s executive vice-president — in this case, Brian O’Neill — to determine who was really at fault, and how much vacation time the guilty player should get.
As far as I know, hockey is our only major sport that operates this way. In baseball, someone does a no-no, commissioner Peter Ueberroth finds out. Then, depending on how long it has been since his picture has been in Sports Illustrated, he decides what to do about it.
In the NBA, executive Rod Thorn looks at the fight footage — by himself
— and decides to fine the player $500, $750 or $1,000. Unless it’s Rick Mahorn. In which case, it’s automatically $5,000.
(By the way, it is rumored that Thorn has now collected enough to break ground on the new Rick Mahorn Memorial Wing of the NBA offices. I think he is also taking the secretarial staff to Hawaii.)
And, oh, yes. There is the NFL, in which excessive violence is called “a rip-roaring defense.”
And in tennis, they just take the money out of McEnroe’s check.
But hockey? A man’s sport. Here they all dress up, suits and ties, go into a room, and watch the fight.
And when the meeting ends, player and coach are excused, and O’Neill, with the wisdom of Solomon and the technology of Sony, dishes out justice. First defense: Feigned ignorance
Now, here is what I want to know: What goes on in one of these meetings? Is it like high school, when you’re sent to the vice-principal’s office, and he gets that god-like tone in his voice?
“Well, Johnny, what do you have to say for yourself after knocking that poor man’s teeth out of his mouth and skating across his jaw?”
“I’m very sorry, sir. It will never happen again.”
“The jerk can’t talk no more, anyhow.”
Perhaps the judge is more blunt. And perhaps the player adopts an old technique that always worked for my childhood rival, Al (Punty) Punto, who, whenever he got in trouble, fell back on the safest of all words: “What?”
“Did you do it?”
“That. There. See?”
“WHERE YOU BRING YOUR STICK ACROSS HIS MOUTH, THEN LIFT HIM BY THE WAIST AND THROW HIM OVER THE GLASS!”
This might be effective. I think Punty might have grown up to be a hockey player. Or a politician.
Of course, if the footage clearly shows your stick in his nose, or your skate on his chest, feigning ignorance might not work. You might want to try that old standby: “Well, he started it.” I have never seen this work, ever, in the history of the world.
But there has to be a first time. Second defense: Real ignorance
In today’s case, Demers will argue that Probert’s decking of Toronto goalie Allan Bester Saturday was nowhere near as serious as it looked, and that anyhow Bester had provoked it with nasty stick work, and that as soon as the penalty was called (a match penalty, thus the hearing), Bester popped back up like a jack-in-the-box.
“I have the tape and a quote from Bester in the newspaper,” Demers says.
“We’re going in prepared. I will stick up for my player. All we want is a fair hearing.”
Now, you have to give Demers credit. On many other teams, the general manager, not the coach, goes to these things. And Demers has already been to one such hearing this season, for Miroslav Frycer, who wound up with a 10-game suspension. (Geez. Imagine if Demers hadn’t gone?)
Still, it is a strange image, no? A bunch of grown men, dressed in suits and ties, sitting in a boardroom, watching the replay of a hockey fight and trying to see whose stick went into whose eyeball, and whose fist hit what.
Strange. Upsetting. But what is truly upsetting is that there are people out there who would pay to get into one of those meetings, rip open a bag of potato chips and watch the fight replays over and over. And clap and whoop it up. Entertainment tonight.
You could call these people foolish, decadent, call them small-minded, violent and pathetic.
I have a feeling they would say: “What?”