Conflict in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

In Sports by Brock Bourgase

A week into the playoffs, the National Hockey League has surpassed the record for suspensions for the entire Stanley Cup playoffs (nine in 2012 compared to eight in 2011). Media outlets have been complaining about lax discipline and fans have been mocking the league and the apparent lack of oversight. While this has generated a tremendous amount of coverage and interest, it will ultimately prove disastrous for the sport.

“I know that cooler heads should prevail but am I the only one who wants to see this?”

The league’s failure to protect player safety is equivalent to a business which neglects to secure their most valuable asset. A firm that invents a new product but forgets to a seek a patent for their unique selling proposition would be ridiculed and the N.H.L. deserves the same treatment. When Conn Smythe trophy winners wind up with cracked helmets, Hart trophy winners are sidelined for weeks with concussions and goalies are targeted outside the crease, skilled players lost the ability to control the game.

Sports which are based on a history of violence, like hockey and football have a difficult time adapting rules (and enforcing them) to new issues like traumatic brain injuries because they are criticizing what their culture encourages. Fans want to see big hits and while nobody actively wants to see a player sent to the hospital, they subconsciously want to see the huge impacts which often result in injuries. Leagues cater towards this and move slowly to evolve. The Roman Coliseum lacked a dark room for gladiators with suspected concussions but it never hurt attendance at the games.

This is only problematic to the N.H.L. because they are less than a year away from introducing a new Department of Player Safety (led by Brendan Shanahan) with great fanfare, expanded powers and more open explanations of their decisions. If a new regime can only last for a few months – or only during the regular season – it suggests that the organization is incapable of making meaningful changes. The popularity of a slow motion sport (when the play is impeded and delays occur frequently because of frequent stoppages for penalties and fights) pales in comparison to one that is played by elite athletes top speed.

“This is medieval.”

Olympic hockey remains fast, dynamic and hard-hitting but lacks the fighting and pull-apart brawls seen during the playoffs; it is an example of the sport at its finest. Philadephia fans may enjoy cheering as “Real American” is played in the arena as James Neal is given a game misconduct but the absurd scene has nothing to do with whether they will capture the Stanley Cup. Skill development – including the ability to think and make decisions under pressure – is a more reliable path to success in any sport than physical intimidation.

Before the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia series began, it was assumed that the rivalry would lead to intense and competitive games. Instead, of asserting a slight skill advantage and controlling play, the Penguins played without any control and took many penalties, which were converted into goals by the Flyers. Sidney Crosby did not act like the best player in the world but played like an instigator; two teammates were ejected because of skirmishes that he started. Facing a 3-0 deficit, Pittsburgh took some time off between games, decided that they would dictate play and (aided by incompetent Philadelphia goaltending) won the fourth game decisively.

“Consider that my last piece of advice.”

Conn Smythe said that “If you can’t beat them on them in the alley, you can’t beat them on the ice.” Teams must be tough: the Boston Celtics succeed because they are very resolute on defense, the St. Louis Cardinals rebounded to win the World Series because they never gave up in Game 6 and the New York Giants won many games in the fourth quarter on their way to the Super Bowl championship. If coaches and players focus on the fights (with officials, the opponents and each other) instead of the game, they lose sight of the big picture.

Recently, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the Orlando Magic and the Pittsburgh Penguins have experienced conflict and their progress in the worlds of advertising and the playoffs has suffered. They have been distracted from what they do well because of issues unrelated to their main objectives. During pick-up game arguments, the team consumed by the dispute instead of winning usually ends up on the bench. When a person is exercising and blood starts flowing to the amygdala (which controls the fight or flight reflex), other more logical parts of the brain may suffer. Emphasizing group and individual goals and improving consistently leads to team success, not truculence and strife.