These NHL playoffs have, thus far, been an unmitigated success for the NHL concerning the one benchmark that consumes Gary Bettman and his presumable alien overlords more than anything else: American TV viewership ratings.
Sunday's Bruins/Capitals overtime game drew the highest overnight ratings of any NHL playoff game (outside the Stanley Cup) in 14 years for NBC. The Predators -- playing in hockey hotbed Nashville -- achieved their best-ever ratings for Game 4 against the Detroit Red Wings. Even Canada's TSN reported 56 per cent more viewers than last year for its playoff coverage.
The hockey has been good -- playoff hockey usually is -- but the jump in ratings is attributable to one factor, and one factor only: violence. Indeed, without the fighting and headshots that were rampant in round one, Americans wouldn't be paying hockey this much attention -- probably, they wouldn't be paying any attention at all.
The fisticuffs, dangerous hits and general bellicosity got ESPN to take notice, as well as influential U.S. newspapers and blogs. Shea Weber and Raffi Torres became household names for their brutal acts against opponents, and even Sid the Kid's golden-boy image was roundly tarnished by his participation in a post-whistle scrum.
So the NHL is in the news for all the wrong reasons -- this, at least, is what many sportswriters and commentators are saying. There's been much grumbling about the state of the game, that something needs to be done to clean it up. The integrity of hockey, they say, is at stake.
Bettman doesn't see it that way at all. He knows that a lot of people -- especially young people -- don't give a flying puck about hockey but really like to see a good fight, and will happily turn on the television if there is a strong possibility of violence breaking out. As for corporate partners, he knows the brutality won't scare brands away -- after all, it's not like the NFL is losing sponsors because of violence.
But the NHL commissioner represents only half the equation. Fortunately for him, all indications are that NHL players and their pathetic union take no issue with the league's laissez-faire attitude toward rule changes that would make the game much safer for players -- like, say, automatic system -- not to mention the mind-bogglingly insane system of rules and punishments.
Sure, they talk about cleaning up the hockey, about the dangers of concussions. Yet the game doesn't change. If anything, the NHL is getting more violent.
Which leads me to believe NHL players think the same way Dominic Raiola thinks.
Earlier this month in a revealing interview about concussions in football, Detroit Lions' veteran centre Dominic Raiola said "When you sign up for this job, you know what you're getting into...you know you are going to get dinged up...I know I'm going to have my day when something is going to happen, whether it be short-term memory loss or whatever."
That seems like a lot of weight on Raiola's shoulders -- the knowledge that his career choice will in all likelihood leave him one day with some degree of a scrambled brain.
Nope. Not for the six-foot-one, 295-pound former all-American, who went on to say: "It's worth it; totally worth it. This is the best job in the world and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
This might be the most honest thing a professional athlete has ever said. Why else would NHL or NFL players -- or boxers for that matter -- subject themselves to such violence? Why are they willing to risk destroying their bodies and minds? Haven't they heard the stories of former players whose dementia and deaths have been directly attributable to playing the same games?
The answer, as Raiola explains, is simple: Elite athletes live the good life -- lots of travel, swanky hotel rooms, every conceivable amenity taken care of, half a year of vacation time, public adoration and very, very good pay. Who wouldn't want that life?
The players are as vested as team owners and league bosses in producing a product that people want to see. Their wages depend on the will of the fans. And that's why eliminating violence from hockey is a non-starter -- doing so would effectively neuter the game. And the vast majority of hockey fans don't want that.
It's time to accept hockey for what it is -- a game that is breathtakingly beautiful but also vicious and barbaric, played by strong-willed, ill-tempered men skating on the thinnest of edges. If the violence turns you off, that's fine, just know the majority of fans aren't concerned with head shots and the message fighting sends to their kids -- at least not enough to give up watching.
For better or worse, this is hockey. Get used to it.