By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, September 29, 1999; Page D1
I am not outraged that Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee popped the Chicago Blackhawks' coach in the eye the other night. I'm not even slightly annoyed at McPhee. If I were his boss, I'd give him a bearhug and heartfelt congratulations, maybe even a little bonus.
McPhee, if he erred at all, erred on the right side. He defended the people in his charge after the system set up to protect them from harm – in this case the NHL – went blind and deaf. McPhee likely will be fined. Whatever amount will be well worth it. He will have earned the unqualified respect of the people who employ him, the people who work for him. And I'll bet other NHL clubs will think long and hard before they try to carve up one of the Capitals.
If the league office, starting with Commissioner Gary Bettman, had done its job, McPhee wouldn't have had to confront Blackhawks Coach Lorne Molleken, whose mission this preseason, it seems, has been to injure as many opposing players as possible. Perhaps he feels that would help even things during the regular season for the talent-bereft Blackhawks. Molleken, in the form of a black eye, got what was coming to him and here's why:
The St. Louis Blues, after a preseason game against the Blackhawks, called the NHL office to complain about Chicago's thuggery.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, after a preseason game against the Blackhawks, made a similar call to complain about Chicago, and even said they might cancel a second game against the Blackhawks rather than put up with more gooning.
The Dallas Stars, after the warm-ups for a preseason game with the Blackhawks, called the NHL to say it was clear what Chicago was trying to do: hurt people, not play hockey.
People in Bettman's office can't say they didn't know, because the NHL sent a supervisor to monitor the Capitals-Blackhawks game. The Blues, Maple Leafs and Stars are all lying? The NHL knew, and did nothing. Again. McPhee and Capitals Coach Ron Wilson were so certain of the Blackhawks' intentions, they scratched their most important skilled players – Peter Bondra, Adam Oates, Sergei Gonchar, to name a few – from the lineup that night. Sure enough, the Blackhawks came out thugging from the opening faceoff. Mike Eagles, playing his 18th season in the NHL, told the guys on the bench he'd never seen a preseason game like this. It got so bad the Capitals considered pulling their players from the ice before the end of the game.
Are half the teams in the NHL supposed to lose players before the league does something? The Capitals, for the first time in years, are on the verge of starting a season with a healthy lineup. Even so, I doubt McPhee went to the Blackhawks dressing room with the intention of taking a swing at anybody. He has had a bad back this summer. And I am told he was wearing his glasses when he approached Molleken to demand an explanation after the game. But when heated words were exchanged, McPhee dusted Molleken.
Good. I'm not as interested in what the league will do to McPhee as I am in what it will do to the Blackhawks. See, there is a progressive wing of NHL folk who want to move away from violence. Even though McPhee made his living in the NHL primarily as a fighter, he's one of the progressives and has been so for several years. The progressives know the league can't grow by selling fighting. Cancer couldn't drive Mario Lemieux from the NHL; thugging did. In California, Paul Kariya might emerge as one of the great players the game has seen in the past 10 years. But he might not because he's already had one season-ending concussion, which resulted from a Blackhawks cheap shot. Kariya, as a result, couldn't play in the Olympics.
I talked to one club official yesterday, a big-time fighter in his day, who said: "More and more teams are going to speed and skill. Fighting will always be a part of the game, I guess, but not like it used to be. We've got a great game if we do the right things with it." Sadly, the NHL commissioner's office seems uninterested in showcasing skill and skilled players. The commissioner's office, by remaining silent, seems spineless on this issue. Either that, or the league wants to continue operating in this Neanderthal way, selling violence. (You think the NHL doesn't sell violence? The league could ban fighting in a second if it wanted to – like Olympic hockey – but doesn't.)
You can't negotiate the culture of professional hockey without dealing with such issues as manhood and honor and, yes, violence. You elbow me; I'll slash you. You take out two of my guys; I'll send four of yours to the hospital. The team that doesn't have anybody stand up to defend it has no chance to compete for a league championship. In a civilized world, we might wince. In the world of hockey, you regret not having been there to lend a fist, and pat him on the back.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Co