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Violent Stanley Cup play sparks ratings, creating conundrum for NHL

Even the most casual hockey fan will tell you that the sport truly comes alive during the post-season. It’s practically impossible to endure a Blue Jackets-Predators regular season showdown, but if those two teams met in April, the excitement level would be pushed to a much higher level. Hockey is a fast, rugged game that compels fans with its drama and action. No wonder its ratings soar once the playoffs start.

This season is no different. Game Three of the Flyers-Penguins series on April 15 drew a 2.3 rating on NBC, which was up 77% from the same weekend in 2011, and was the highest rated non-Stanley Cup final game since 2002. Clearly, the people are watching.

But why are they watching? Is it because of the aforementioned action on the ice, or is it due to the excessive violence that has been part of this year’s first round? Already, we have seen a bevy of suspensions because of hits to the head or just plain cheap shots to opposing players. The most egregious violation came when Phoenix’s Raffi Torres launched himself at Chicago’s Marian Hossa – who clearly didn’t have the puck – and drilled the Blackhawk forward in the head. Torres was smacked with a 25-game suspension for his antics, one of the longest pieces of discipline meted out in league history, and certainly a worthy punishment for so cowardly an act.

Torres’ suspension might lead some to believe the NHL is serious about eliminating gratuitous violence from its sport. But that isn’t necessarily true, because while sitting the Coyote down for an extensive period might just send a message that assaulting defenseless rivals will not tolerated, the NHL is actually refusing to address its main issue: fighting and fans’ positive responses to big, sometimes-injurious hits.

One of the reasons that the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh game received such a high rating was that the first two contests of the series featured high-scoring excitement. The other was that the teams went after each other physically as if it were a playoff tilt between the Visigoths and Romans. Fans tuned in that Sunday to see more carnage, and they weren’t disappointed. The game was a wild affair, with penalty minutes and goals piling up all afternoon. Those who enjoy hockey’s full buffet of action and brutality were sated. And, truth be told, it was a fun time.

But the NHL is treading on, and you’ll pardon the term, thin ice here. By allowing the sport to careen toward extreme physicality, it may engage the casual fan, but by encouraging players to be so aggressive, it is also running counter to the current trend toward protecting participants. Say what you want about the motives of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as he fines and suspends players, coaches and even GMs for excessive violence, but there can be no mistake that he is taking definitive measures to limit collisions that could lead to serious physical consequences down the road. He may be simply limiting the league’s exposure to future lawsuits, but Goodell is moving forward. The next step could well be an elimination of the kickoff, the sport’s most dangerous play.

            The NHL, meanwhile, is waging an intramural argument about whether fighting belongs in hockey. Supporters maintain that fighting allows teams and players to police themselves, and a dramatic confrontation can provide a huge momentum swing in a game. Opponents talk of concussions, future brain damage and the recent suicides by “enforcers”. The league remains unwilling to take a stand, because it knows that an end to fisticuffs will take some fans away from the sport, perhaps forever.

It is a tough situation, to be sure. The NHL doesn’t come close to the NFL in terms of popularity, revenue, TV ratings or yearlong interest. Giving up even a handful of fans is a dangerous proposition, especially in light of the ever-growing menu of entertainment options available to those who would become disenchanted with a kinder, gentler league.

On the other hand, if fighting continues, and those who participate frequently begin to display the symptoms of brain damage that are prevailing in many NFL vets (more than 1,000 are part of a class-action suit brought against the league), then the NHL could crumble under the weight of settlements and awards from juries that can’t understand why a league would allow such behavior to continue. Although Goodell and the NFL can do nothing about what happened during the first 85-plus years of the league, they are certainly trying to create a better future. And, so far, the fans continue to come around; witness the three-hour TV programs aired by ESPN and NFL Network last week announcing the 2012 schedule. And don’t forget to tune in to their 16 hours of Draft coverage this (long) weekend.

The proper thing to do is eliminate fighting and all shots to the head. Anybody who violates the new edict faces suspensions along the lines of the one meted out to Torres. It would take about a half-season of that kind of tough justice to let players and coaches know the league was serious. Then, the game could continue, leaning on its speed and action.

Of course, when it comes to money, the right thing isn’t always the, well, right thing. If the NHL loses the fans who come around just for the post-season, along with alienating some of its hard-core base, it could suffer serious damage that would impact future TV negotiations. It’s a tough decision, but let’s hope the NHL makes the right choice.

Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.

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