James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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Broken Star System

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Every now and then, we get a reminder of an opinion that feels like a fact: the NHL is really lucky that hockey is such an intoxicating sport.

Naturally, barely skipping a beat - heck, even posting record ratings in many cases - after the lockout is the easiest example. That the league could nearly bumble yet another season away to save percentage points is maddening, especially since we didn’t make them "pay" for it.

Still, the good news about the labor conundrum is that it isn’t likely to be a major concern for 8-10 more years. The larger nagging issue is the league’s broken “star system.”


When you look at the NFL and NBA, you see leagues that know how to cater to and enhance their stars. For the most part, they find organic ways to open up space for their artists to work; I can’t help but giggle with envy at NBA fans who complain about stars getting calls late in game because NHL officials rarely whistle anything, especially in the closing minutes of the third period. Stars getting that kind of treatment would be a great problem to have in the NHL, if you ask me.

Think of it in a Hollywood way. Most productions would attempt to make actors look heroic and obscure that person’s flaws (usually his or her height), rather than putting too many obstacles in that guy's way. Meanwhile, the NHL is content to watch countless scenes where their leading men have to fight through quicksand.

(Just look at almost every non-breakaway highlight reel goal. How many times will you notice a star player fighting off hooks and bits of obstruction both obvious and subtle to score that goal? Imagine how many more highlights we’d see if defenses didn’t get away with that nine times out of 10.)


It almost makes you believe that the NHL roots against its stars, but that’s not true. Instead, stars get significant benefits, only it usually happens in the least productive way. Rather than making games more exciting, this league’s “star system” shields big names from being properly disciplined.

That much became clear on Tuesday night, when TSN’s Bob McKenzie revealed that Corey Perry will receive a phone call (not an in-person meeting) with the NHL’s player safety people, which means he’ll face a maximum of a five-game suspension for his vicious hit on Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker.

This is far from the first time that an ugly hit gets soft treatment because of the prominent name on the back of the perpetrator's jersey. While it’s by no means the worst crime I’ve witnessed this season, it’s difficult not to circle back to Taylor Hall’s two-game slap on the wrist for a knee-to-knee on Cal Clutterbuck. After that, it became clear: the NHL is going softer and softer on crime, especially when it comes to prominent players.

Losing Perry for any number of games hurts, although considering the Anaheim Ducks’ strong place in the standings and the fact that the power forward is in line to get a contract that will wipe up whatever tears come from his lost game checks, fantasy owners might be among the biggest losers.

Really, though, the biggest frustration is that the NHL seems just as likely to look the other way when a mediocre defender interferes with a star as they are when a star takes liberties with a mediocre player. The latter part seems inevitable, but it all points to a system that’s broken in all the wrong ways.

(And it also makes fantasy hockey a little less fun, albeit in subtle ways.)

Such lawlessness might circle back to the Spaghetti Western movies of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. Sadly, though, it’s a weird mix of tedium and danger that turns the NHL into “The Mild West.”

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James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than four years. Follow him on Twitter.
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