Only On-ice Tragedy Can Change NHL Culture

So this is what the Neanderthal Hockey League has become in the 21st century: No longer are injuries described as upper body or lower body, but players are said to be simply dead or alive.

And so it went for the garage league in the Stanley Cup playoffs, when all it took was a few games for its image to suffer another unsightly black eye. Commissioner Gary Bettman and his pompous pals were damn lucky that’s all it was, because if St. Louis captain David Backes hadn’t woken up from the gruesome head shot that Chicago Blackhawks lughead Brent Seabrook delivered to him, the league would have opened itself to widespread charges of negligence and worse.

It’s just a matter of time before it happens, of course. The players are faster and stronger than ever, while the dimensions of the ice surface remain the same. More important, so has the steadfast refusal of the bottom-liners to provide a safer, more civil environment for the participants. Something has to to give eventually, and it will be someone’s life, no doubt. When it does happen, a lot of ex-players will be on the phone with their attorneys faster than they can say “Mike Milbury is a brainless idiot.” Only days earlier, another group of ex-NHL players filed a class-action lawsuit that rightfully charged the league had promoted fighting and failed to communicate the risk of head trauma that accompanied it.

And you thought the NFL had problems?

“I think the glorified violence is really the Achilles’ heel for the NHL,” said Charles Zimmerman, an attorney for the firm that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the players. “If anything comes of this, the focus on the glorified violence and perhaps the change to that will be a good thing.”

Meanwhile, in other playoff news, the Dallas Stars targeted the freshly stitched face of Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, Boston Bruins bully Milan Lucic speared a Detroit Red Wing between the legs, Minnesota Wild hack Matt Cooke (five career suspensions) took out a Colorado Avalanche player on a knee-to-knee hit . . .

And Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock was very happy to report that Backes was above ground still.

“All I know is, he’s upright,” Hitchcock said after Game 2 against the Blackhawks, a poor excuse for defending Stanley Cup champions. “And that’s about it right now.”

Certainly, you’ve seen replays of the kill shot several times by now. The puck slid past Backes in the corner, and just as his head turned, it was crushed by a freight train with a Blackhawks crest on the front of it. The Blues forward went down with sickening thud, appeared to black out momentarily and laid prone for several seconds while Seabrook wore a drunken grin in his face. Somehow, the bloodied Backes was able to wobble to his feet before he was escorted to the dressing room. Hey, he’s a hockey player, right?

Seabrook insulted our intelligence with the usual sorry excuses afterward, but his intent was clear. Backes is the Blues’ No. 2 goal-scorer and most physical player, not to mention a pain in the butt in his own right, but he’s not nearly as effective in traction. Or six feet under, for that matter.

If another sicko had blind-sided someone on the street, he would have been arrested and charged with first-degree assault. In Missouri, that would get him a minimum of five years in the sin bin. Or a life sentence in the event that the person didn’t wake up at all. In the NHL, that kind of felony results in a measly three-game suspension. If league officials really wanted to take a stand against excessive violence, then Seabrook would have been suspended for the remainder of the postseason. Or for at least twice as many games as Backes was unavailable. Otherwise, if Backes is out for an extended period of time – his absence was obvious in Games 3 and and 4, which his team lost — the Blackhawks are allowed to trade an above-average d-man for an elite power forward.

Incredibly, that wasn’t the worst of the episode. In the NHL, it isn’t enough to cheap-shot someone into next month. You also have to mock him because it’s part of the hockey culture. According to video replays, Seabrook’s back line partner Duncan Keith was heard to say something along the lines of “Wakey, wakey, Backey, Backey” while the victim was flat on his back.

“I don’t know who was saying anything,” Blues toughie Ryan Reaves commented one day later. “It doesn’t matter who was saying it, whether they caught them on camera or not. If something was said, it’s gutless. He has to live with it, not me.”

Conveniently, Keith came down with a foggy memory and couldn’t remember what he said at the time. He also didn’t deny the charge.

“There’s a lot of things that get said out on the ice in the course of a hockey game, especially in playoffs,” Keith said. “I mean, I’m an emotional guy. It’s an emotional game. I don’t remember everything that gets said throughout there.

“I don’t know how many times you want me to say the same thing — I’m skating around, didn’t see the play, come in there to help support (Seabrook) . . . Like I said, there’s lots of things that get said over a course of a game. You know I don’t remember everything that gets said.”

Before the fact, Keith was noticeable only for his frequent face-washes and stick fouls, which even drew the wrath of Grapes, old-school critic Don Cherry himself.

“Keith, I don’t know what’s going on with this guy,” Cherry fumed on his Hockey Night in Canada segment. “We’re going to show you a few things with him . . . What is going on with this guy? You act like this? You’ve had one fight in five years and you act like a jerk like that? I mean, what is this? What’s this supposed to be? Why don’t you do it to some tough guy. Why don’t you do it to Reaves or somebody out there and do it to him? I mean, what is this nonsense?

“And you know who he got pumped up, eh? I don’t want to say anything, but he got Seabrook pumped up. One fight in five years and he acts like that. Never act like that, kids. If you’re going to do something, back it up.”

Anyone who followed Keith in recent years wasn’t surprised in the least. In March, 2012, he concussed Vancouver Canucks star Daniel Sedin on a vicious elbow to the face. Sedin hasn’t been the same player since then. Thirteen months later, in Vancouver, Keith tried to embarrass a female reporter in public. Now comes the latest red flag, one that has triggered speculation about personal demons off the ice.

Then again, how can you expect a team to be disciplined when its so-called leader has been known to drive while intoxicated and pull his crotch in public?

Head coach Joel Quenneville set the emotional tone for his team in the series opener, when he went bonkers over a call in the second overtime period. It was one of the more pathetic sights in a sports world too full of them – a raving, white-haired, 55-year-old lunatic standing on the bench, screaming at the officials from a distance, motioning frantically then handling his privates when he didn’t get his way. In front of a sellout crowd and a national television audience, no less. A suspension was in order here, obviously, but he got off with no more than $25,000 hand-slap for “inappropriate conduct” instead. Give all this, would anyone put it past the coach to instruct his players to take Backes out of the series?

The job of head coach be an extremely stressful one, no doubt, and recent history tells us that Quenneville can handle it no longer. First, he was legally drunk when police pulled him over outside Denver one night. With his car headlights turned off. More recently, he was hospitalized for a health problem that was said not to be of cardiac nature. Whatever the case, maybe it’s time for the coach to pack his Stanley Cup rings and call it a career, not only for his good but for that of those around him.

Until then, the NHL is sure to have a growing number of followers who aren’t necessarily interested in the final scores.

“The point is that the fighting arena would not exist and would be outlawed as it is in every other level of the game had the NHL not condoned it and sold tickets based upon it and promoted the sport in that way,” said Zimmerman, who also represented the players in their suit against the NFL not long ago. “It’s not the players that promote the sport in that way because the players don’t implement the rules. It’s the league that implements the rules. If they would outlaw fighting, there wouldn’t be people who would fight.”

And if the NHL doesn’t begin to change the culture of its sport before it’s too late, allow me to be the first to list it on the injury report.