I have feared (as a fan, not as a citizen of the earth) nights like last night since a very specific date: May 18, 2011.
That was the night that Vancouver beat San Jose 7-3 and opened up a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals. It was also the night that Ben Eager -- the bushman goon of the Sharks who, when he choses a wiser route, is actually a pretty skilled player -- threw Daniel Sedin into the boards from behind, a good two feet off the wall and not far from the penalty box that Eager would inhabit moments later.
Daniel was unhurt, remarkably.
Eager got two minutes or something cheap and post-coitus like that, then challenged everyone in blue to a fight from behind the glass he put himself in. Eager went out and scored a late goal, cutting the lead to four.
Before the next match, all the talk was about whether Eager would play. His temper had cost San Jose a chance to contend in Game 2, they said, and Canucks fans gloated loudly that, "Hey, let him play! Our boys will just go around that talent-less sack and score!"
But I was in fear, as a fan. Daniel could have easily been carted off that night, like he was on Sunday when Calgary's Paul Byron -- an everyday AHLer who wanted to show the hockey world he existed in Game 82, a meaningless affair between two teams who collapsed long before the league's season season -- completed his check in the worst way possible, planting each of his hands on Daniel's 22 and slamming the two-goal twin into the end boards.
(And what if it wasn't Game 82 for Vancouver... what if they actually were heading to the playoffs? Wouldn't you be even more pissed off then, Canucks fans, if Sedin had to miss another first round or more because of a conscious cheap shot to your star player?)
I feared, way back in 2011, that the league's castoffs had figured out what they apparently now have: it doesn't matter if you do anything illegal in the NHL.
You'll get a refreshing, short suspension and the other team you just crippled will still be suffering from it when you get back.
Byron claimed he wasn't trying to hurt Sedin and I, of course, believe him.
Any other day, it's a pretty routine collision. But it wasn't any other day -- it was the last game of the season and Byron should know better.
If Byron expects to be an actual, 24-7 professional hockey player and not just a 5'7" on-loan mite from Abbotsford, he better learn to know better.
Then again, who says he has to?
That hit by Byron last night was a perfect showcase of the problems Brendan Shanahan has created and then left for this league going forward.
I realize being the NHL's disciplinarian is a thankless job, blah blah blah... But don't all of us have thankless jobs?
Under Shanahan's watch, the memo basically went out that the only way to take out star players was to do it illegally, and your repercussions were minor and temporary.
Like when Zdeno Chara slammed Max Pacioretty into the bench's stanchion in 2011 and then claimed it was a freak accident, like somehow the big Slovakian -- who had been playing hockey all his life, for 30-or so years -- didn't know where the benches were or what the danger was.
Like when Duncan Keith -- the dirtiest star playing the NHL -- savagely elbowed the same Sedin in the head a month out of the 2012 playoffs.
Keith got two games, which is a pretty typical length for the Shanahan regime - uninterested and unwilling to punish anyone who's last name isn't Torres. (That guy has been serving everyone else's suspensions since 2010.)
Pretty much the same thing happened with Keith in last year's playoffs, when he slashed Jeff Carter in the face in the Western Conference Final and got one game. I repeat... he slashed Jeff Carter in the face and got ONE game.
The fallout from that was minimal, because Carter wasn't hurt. I mean, I'm sure the slash in the teeth hurt, but he didn't miss any action. But still... Duncan Keith slashed another player in the head, with a full around-the-world swing, and he pled guilty for a shorter sentence, doing it all like he was the victim.
That stick was half an inch from things going a lot worse for Keith's soon-to-be Canadian Olympic teammate.
How about when Shea Weber slammed Henrik Zetterberg's head into the boards in their quarterfinal series in 2012? Zetterberg's helmet broke -- again, only chance kept him from spending months without the lights on. But Weber didn't receive a game, just because he had never been suspended before, and because Shanahan didn't feel like stepping up.
Does the league really care about concussions, or does it just care about them when somebody else is watching?
That is the danger, of course, with idolizing and then canonizing guys like Shanahan... terrific, Hall of Fame players who themselves had a hard-nosed edge to their style, who would have made the hit Byron made last night or would have tossed some guy's head into the glass when given the chance, and then they would have pled out the Canadian way - "I didn't mean it... I hope he's okay... I really didn't mean it..."
My favourite excuse is one that Byron gave last night: "You never like to see that stuff."
You never like to see that stuff?
Then why'd you do it?
But the league has always been careless about its priorities. It's not the United States or Sunrise, Florida that spoiled its brand, it was the NHL on its own. And when CONCUSSION reared its head as the newest PR buzzword for the league to pretend to cater to, the NHL went all Joe McCarthy on it and they witch-hunted the easy targets and left the Keiths and the Charas to feast on the finer things.
The league pulled itself up from its own mess and then blamed it on the janitor.
Like when Bud Selig watched baseball's biceps balloon and then pitchforked steroid users to save his own tush.
And so when I hear that Byron won't have a hearing for last night's hit, I know Canucks fans will be upset, but I don't care anymore.
What are they going to do? What if they gave Byron a hyperbolic 82-game suspension? What would that even do?
Byron's absence wouldn't hurt Calgary, it would only hurt Abbotsford. Bob Hartley would just have more to whine about. And Daniel Sedin still would have aged five years in half a second. Pundits will say the twins are getting older, that the best Canucks are past their primes, and maybe they are. But we'll never know if that's true, just like we'll never know what Paul Kariya could have been if Gary Suter hadn't rammed the Anaheim star's brain into 1936.
(*This was originally published on White Cover Magazine...)
That's the NHL right now. And it won't change until the players do.