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Bruins’ thuggery sets template for playoff hockey violence

Last year’s Stanley Cup Final was a chance for skill and grace to win, but the Vancouver Canucks fell short, and now violence abounds.

Last season, Canucks’ GM Mike Gillis built a high scoring up-tempo squad based on the premise that an NHL team could dominate the league and win the Cup by turning the other cheek and punishing their opponent on the powerplay. In the final against Boston, they fell apart, losing their cool, forgetting their mission, and ultimately succumbing to a bigger, meaner and dirtier team.

The Bruins won by punching, hacking and beating the Canucks into submission. Ultimately, they also got better goaltending and timely scoring, but their most clear advantage was rooted in physical attack.

Teams around the NHL saw the Bruins as the model for Cup success. They figured the path to victory was not through offence and artistry but through violence, intimidation and brutal thuggery.

The referees are only going to call so many penalties, and if the other team’s power play proves ineffective as a deterrent, as the Canucks’ did, then “anything to win” is the motto, such a great lesson for society. Such great heroes are these men who use violence and intimidation as a means to achieve such a noble feat. I thought we weren’t supposed to like bullies.

Even the Canucks abandoned their template. It clearly hadn’t worked; there were lessons to learn and adjustments to make. Staying the course and seeing it through to victory was not an option. The Canucks traded skill for grit when they jettisoned prized centre Cody Hodgson to Buffalo for bigger, meaner Zach Kassian. They gave up their identity to try to emulate their foes, to become the bully.

This is classic NHL thinking. There is no higher calling than winning the Cup, so just try your best to duplicate the most recent winner. Unfortunately, this narrow approach disregards the reality that there are in fact endless ways to win Lord Stanley’s holy grail.

The Canucks won 15 games last year, if they had won 16 teams would be copying them. Daniel and Henrik Sedin wouldn’t be called soft or weak, or the ever so witty, “sisters,” they would be lauded as champions. We would have an NHL moving towards more skill and less violence. But it was decided that the Bruins’ approach must be the winning formula. Ethics and esthetics aside, the way to win in today’s NHL is to punch, bully and intimidate your way to the Cup.

As a result, we have been treated to a plethora of on-ice attacks to start the playoffs. A wonderful treat of players and teams trying to send a message of how tough and mean they are. We got Shea Weber smashing Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the glass after the game was over. We got Matt Carkner jumping a defenseless Brian Boyle and punching him the face as many times as he could before someone intervened. And in retaliation, we got Carl Hagelin’s flying elbow to the head of Daniel Alfredsson, leaving the Senators’ captain concussed and possibly out for the rest of the playoffs. And that was in just the first handful of games. The list of offenders grows daily and there isn’t enough space here to address them all here.

Like many others, I was glued to the Penguins/Flyers game on the weekend. I get that the little caveman (or woman) inside of all of us finds entertainment in what transpired. I get it, the crowd was loud, there were lots of goals and the hatred between the two sides adds a dimension that makes playoff hockey great.

The game was compelling and full of drama, but it would have been compelling without equipment strewn all over the ice and some of the best players in the game throwing fists at each other. It would have been even more compelling without the antics of Aaron Asham and James Neal (amongst others), and their attempts to maim their opponents.

A few short suspensions and a couple small fines were all that resulted from the chaos.

All we are left to conclude is that the NHL doesn’t actually care about bringing us a game based on skill. They want a spectacle of violence – the Roman Coliseum on ice. They want gladiators not poets.

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