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Kovacevic: NHL burns while Bettman fiddles

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 11:55 a.m.
Flyers goaltender Ray Emery (rear) fights Capitals goalie Braden Holtby during the third period on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The Capitals shut out the Flyers, 7-0.
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Flyers goaltender Ray Emery (rear) fights Capitals goalie Braden Holtby during the third period on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The Capitals shut out the Flyers, 7-0.

The NHL is an institutional irony in that it oversees what those who love hockey feel is the world's greatest game, but it does so with a maddening mix of indecisiveness, inconsistency and outright idiocy.

Yeah, and I guess this is as fine a time as any to say good morning to Gary Bettman.

Because that's the only greeting that makes sense given his glaring silence through three sickening scenes over the past 10 days, all of which demanded authoritative responses at the institutional level and received nothing of the kind:


This was pretty basic stuff: Team gets down a couple goals, goon gets sent over boards, skilled player gets blindsided in the head and concussed.

Fans of hockey would love to claim that's rare. Sadly, it isn't.

And here's why: The Sabres' Scott, a winger who meets every goon criteria one could concoct, got off with a seven-game suspension for blatantly elbowing the Bruins' Loui Eriksson to the ice Oct. 23 in Boston. Skated the width of the rink and put the full force into the side of Eriksson's face.

The coach who just as shamefully dispatched him to the ice with his team presumably needing goals, Ron Rolston, got nothing.

That was it. That was the verdict of Brendan Shanahan, Bettman's discipline czar who, to be fair, has his hands unduly tied by the league's dinosaur wing of GMs and Bettman's fear of ever taking on those GMs.

Shanahan's explanation for lenience on Scott was that he had no prior suspensions. As if that should have any relevance whatsoever to judging an act and its consequence. As if a comparative love tap by Matt Cooke two years ago should have earned him 17 games because of a personal history while this guy got seven because, gee, he's new to this whole savagery thing.

As for the coach getting away with it, stay with me. I'll get back to it.


If you haven't already read the appalling accounts of Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov's girlfriend this week, here's one quote from an interview she gave after reporting Varlamov to Denver Police: “It happened on Tuesday at 6 a.m. My boyfriend came home drunk and acting strange and rushed at me with the intention of beating me. He grabbed my hands and twisted me. When I tried to close the door to the room and get him out of the room, he kicked me in the chest with his leg. Twice I fell on the ground, and it hurt me a lot. After that we had a small fight between the kitchen and the lobby. At this moment, he was laughing.”

She showed extensive bruising to back it up.

Varlamov will have his day to defend himself. Through his agent, he's declared innocence.

But set that aside for a moment because, hey, that sure is what Patrick Roy and Colorado management did. To a man, including several athletes, they went public to proclaim they're all behind “Varly” and, as Roy put it, “he's got our full support.”

So, the trial must already have taken place then. Because the Avalanche, incredibly, put Varlamov between the pipes Friday in Dallas. As if he'd been handed a parking ticket. As if no one who follows their franchise, including the typically high ratio of female fans for hockey, would mind at all if their default mode would be that the girlfriend is lying.

And the NHL, pressed for its view of the matter, responded to reporters with a 67-word email — not from Bettman but from league vice president Bill Daly — that they're “monitoring the developing legal situation and do not intend to intervene in that process.”

Awesome. Keep monitoring, fellas.


The Flyers are an almost satirical farce of a franchise anymore, and that might never have been more visible than before, during and after their chaotic 7-0 loss Friday night to the Capitals on home ice.

Before, they did what they always do when struggling and traded away a hockey player, Max Talbot, for a fighter, Steve Downie. In Downie's debut, naturally, he didn't score but he did fight and was punched in the face with such force he'd be hospitalized.

During the game, Paul Holmgren, the reigning T-Rex of that dinosaur wing of GMs, paid a visit to the Flyers' locker room during the second intermission. Which was probably one more such visit than the other 29 GMs will make all season. And, through what I'm sure was just a happy coincidence, there was an all-out line brawl five minutes into the next period.

And since no one can ever out-Flyer the Flyers, Ray Emery took a break from leaking in bad goals, charged the length of the ice to engage his counterpart, Braden Holtby, and found ... a guy who didn't want to fight.

Don't take my word.

“He didn't want to fight,” Emery would tell the media later. “And I said, basically, ‘Protect yourself.' He didn't really have much of a choice.”

Well, then. With both men mask-less, Emery began whaling away at Holtby, who counted with a couple mild defensive jabs but then turtled. Emery didn't stop. Watch the video closely, and you see Emery punch — with arm winding way back — the back of Holtby's head one, two, three, four, five, six times before the linesmen finally arrived to spare Holtby serious injury.

It was as ugly an attack — and that's what it was, an assault and ensuing battery on an unwilling participant — as I've seen since Todd Bertuzzi's cheap shot ended Steve Moore's career.

Word still hasn't come down regarding possible discipline, but don't expect much.

Never expect much from a league that does nothing about comments like this one from Holmgren, asked after the game how he felt about the brawl: “When you're getting slapped around like that, it's a response. Do I have an issue with it? Probably not.”


I know, I know, I can hear you asking: What can Bettman do about any of the above?

And here's the easy counter: What can't he do?

Say what you will about Roger Goodell having overstepped his bounds with Ben Roethlisberger and the Saints' bounties and Aaron Hernandez and other punishments. But no one can accuse him of just sitting back and waiting for the NFL brand to get damaged.

I've seen the same, though mostly behind the scenes, from Bud Selig and Major League Baseball. He was blind to steroids, but he's also twisted tons of arms to get meaningful change since then in terms of discipline.

That's because both are powerful men and have actually used that power.

Bettman's behaved like a serf by comparison.

And if I had to guess why, it would be part personality — he's never shown a stomach for controversy — but mostly it's that the three work stoppages during his tenure have made him so beholden to team owners and executives that he's forgotten who's boss.

Know who's been one of his staunchest allies?

Try Ed Snider, the Flyers' owner who makes dinosaurs look like the next dominant species.

Think Bettman would dare call Snider — assuming Snider owns a phone — and strongly suggest the Flyers stop embarrassing the sport?

For that matter, who can picture Bettman fining the Sabres for their coach's repeatedly boorish behavior?

Or even broaching something as messy as the Varlamov matter?

Bettman has the ability to suspend any player involved in a criminal investigation without waiting for the legal outcome, per the NHL's labor agreement.

So where is he?

Not even a syllable?

Hiding under a desk in Manhattan somewhere, his suit dripping with nervous sweat?

This, I really believe, is why the NHL is where it is: It isn't about punishing individuals and never should have been. It should always have been institutional. It was Mario Lemieux who suggested a few years back, after the Penguins' epic fight night on Long Island, that teams as a whole should be fined. And fined big.

I loved the idea then, love it even more now.

If you take it easy on a first-timer like Scott, you're only sending the signal that the next first-timer is free to decapitate as he pleases. The cycle keeps going round and round. But a team gets the message once and enforces it internally.

The only such NHL policy currently in effect is related to bench-clearing brawls, for which teams get hit with fines as high as $100,000. That began 26 years ago and, amazingly, bench-clearing brawls were wiped off the hockey landscape forever. There hasn't been one since March 9, 1996.

You want irony in how this league is run?

Because of that policy, as poor Holtby was being pummeled in that corner by Emery, not one of his Washington teammates budged from the bench to help him.

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