From Comcast SportsNetNHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's vision of a bigger footprint for hockey is finally coming into focus.But it's not just the skyrocketing TV ratings for these playoffs in markets both traditional, like Philly, Boston and Chicago, and those traditionally slow to come around, like Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix. It's the tire marks on the backs of the jerseys of some of the league's best players. The game has never been more popular, nor seemed so out of control.The latest to get run over was the Blackhawks' Marian Hossa, who was taken off the ice in Chicago on a stretcher and briefly hospitalized after absorbing a blow to the head from a shoulder hit launched by Phoenix's Raffi Torres. Everybody in the building saw it -- including apparently Bettman himself, who was in attendance -- except the four officials whose job it is to police that kind of mayhem. And because they didn't see it, according to a league statement issued after the game, they didn't call a penalty, despite the fact that Torres left his skates to deliver the blow."First off, I hope he's all right," Torres, a serial offender as cheap shots go, said after the game. "But as far as the hit goes, I felt like it was a hockey play. I was just trying to finish my hit out there, and, as I said, I hope he's all right."Chicago coach Joel Quenneville was so mad after the game that he was sputtering."It was a brutal hit. You can have a multiple-choice question, it's All of the above.' I saw exactly what happened, it was right in front of me, and all four guys missed it."The refereeing tonight," he added, "was a disgrace."It was. But even the best officiating crews are helpless against the tide of fights, cross-checks, hits to the head and sneak attacks that is overwhelming some otherwise very entertaining hockey. They aren't getting much help, either, from league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, whose decisions grow more bizarre with each incident that reaches his desk. Shanahan began by letting Nashville's Shea Weber off with a 2,500 fine -- roughly the cost of one shift -- after the All-Star purposely smashed the head of Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg into the glass at the end of Game 1 of their series. Then he suspended Chicago's Andrew Shaw and New York's Carl Hagelin for three games each after both hit opponents without obvious intent during the run of play.Cross-checking, hair-pulling, instigating fights -- Shanahan has handed out punishments for all those violations, too, with differing results. As a former player of some stature, he took the job determined to bring some predictability to the punishment his office doles out and even explained his decisions with accompanying video evidence. But lately those explanations have been all over the map. Players no longer know whether the line is being drawn at intent or result -- injuring another player -- or even the star power of the violator who winds up in the dock. So everybody, from Sidney Crosby to repeat offenders like Torres are getting in on the action.After winning 3-2 in overtime Tuesday night, Phoenix goalie Mike Smith was asked about the different sentences being handed out and whether he trusted the NHL front office to get each one right. In Game 2, the Blackhawks' Shaw ran over Smith, who has a history of concussions, behind his net and got the three-game sentence, even though the goalkeeper hasn't missed a minute of playing time. Even more maddening -- as far as the Blackhawks were concerned -- was that the length of Shaw's suspension wasn't announced until Tuesday afternoon, once it was determined Smith would play in Game 3. Had he been unable to go, presumably Shaw's suspension would have been even longer."I don't know if it's a trust factor. It's a tough job. Whether it's blatant, on purpose, or not. It's tough to get that read up there," Smith said. "Obviously, the head hits have to be cut down. It's people's livelihoods, not hockey ... people have families and kids at home and wives, and when we're getting into head and concussion issues around the whole league, I think we need to put a stop to it."But the NHL's commitment to limit concussions is either full-time, as it has been for the past few seasons and most of this one, or it's not. The league knows the difference, but it also knows that pandemonium on the ice is a lot easier for plenty of viewers to follow than a puck. Sold-out arenas and through-the-roof TV ratings across the board, including towns like Phoenix -- whose Coyotes may well be playing in another city next season -- are a testament to that.Back in January, even as the league was touting the fact that fights-per-game had dropped to low levels not seen since the mid-70s, Toronto general manager Brian Burke groused out loud about having to send his enforcer, Colton Orr, down to the Leafs' American Hockey League affiliate.Burke, who once held Shanahan's job, said his team was barely able to use Orr -- he appeared in just five of Toronto's 39 games -- because hardly anyone wanted to fight him. He predicted that abandoning the code that governed who fought and when would result in more players taking cheap shots and seeking revenge in even more dangerous ways."I wonder where we're going with it, that's the only lament I have on this," he said at the time. "The fear that if we don't have guys looking after each other, that the rats will take this game over."Too late. They already have.
From the high ground of hindsight, what unfolded in the Metrodome that day in 1995 was actually quite a big deal. But not for reasons that you could have really understood at the time watching the Bears stun the Minnesota Vikings 35-18 in the wild card round of the 1994 playoffs.
It was not so much the game alone. It was the overall context of the time for the Bears, before and after.
Though the 1995 season would get off to a 6-2 start for the Bears before their near-historic collapse, the Minnesota game would prove to be the high-water mark for the coaching tenure of Dave Wannstedt. This was the postseason, and the Bears looked to be going where then-president Mike McCaskey envisioned when he made the play to beat the New York Giants in securing Wannstedt, who was unquestionably the hot coaching prospect coming out of the Dallas Super Bowl pantheon after the 1992 season.
To fully grasp the situation, you need to understand the undercurrent of venom that had developed between the Bears and Vikings. Bears-Packers might have been the glitzy rivalry, but what had grown between the Bears and Vikings was true hostility, with little of the respect that the Bears and Packers had managed. The Vikings carried grudges for Pro Bowl slights going back almost to the Bears' Super Bowl win. One Bears defensive lineman remarked that his most hated opponent was Minnesota right tackle Tim Irwin, adding, "He's a guy that, if I ran over him with a car, I'd back up over him to make sure I got him." Dwayne Rudd's backpedaling taunt after an interception came a couple years later, but you get the idea.
What's easily forgotten looking back through the mists of time was the epic decision made by Wannstedt to make a quarterback change, from a quarterback he wanted in free agency to one he knew well from their time together at the University of Miami. That was every bit the turning point of the season and the real reason the playoff trip and win ever happened.
The Bears had been annihilated in their first game against the Vikings in the 1994 season — 42-14 — and something was really, really wrong, which become glaringly more evident just a few weeks later, even though the Bears were reaching a 4-2 mark under quarterback Erik Kramer, the centerpiece of an aggressive offseason foray into free agency. But the Bears then lost — badly — to the Lions and Packers, with Kramer throwing three interceptions against Detroit and two against Green Bay, the latter in only 10 pass attempts.
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I talked privately to Kramer after the Green Bay game, specifically about why it was that he was playing his absolute worst against Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota, all teams with which he was intimately familiar. My thought: You know those defenses and where their people are going to be.
Kramer shook his head: "The 'other guys' I know. It's my own guys. I don't know where they're supposed to be."
It wasn't a comment on his receivers whatsoever. It was Kramer admitting bluntly that he was not getting the West Coast scheme of coordinator Ron Turner and its timing element.
Wannstedt knew it wasn't working and made the change to Steve Walsh, who'd been the Hurricanes' quarterback under Jimmy Johnson when Wannstedt was the defensive coordinator.
That was the tipping point, and Walsh and Wannstedt are among the principals of "Bears Classics: Eclipsing Moon," airing on Monday at 8 p.m. on CSN.
Anyone with any time spent in or around the NFL knows that beating a team three times in a season is incredibly difficult. The Bears had been blown out in the first Minnesota game but had pushed the Vikings to overtime in the second and would have won had Kevin Butler not missed a 40-yard field goal try.
The playoff meeting was No. 3, and after the Vikings put up a field goal in the first quarter, the Bears scored with a Lewis Tillman touchdown in the second and just pulled steadily away from the winner of the only NFL division that produced four teams with winning records.
From there it would be another decade-plus — 2006 season — before the Bears would win a playoff game.
When the Chicago Fire traded for midfielder Dax McCarty it surprised many around Major League Soccer.
McCarty had been with the New York Red Bulls for five and a half seasons and served as the team's captain in recent years. He was a central figure in the club's identity and success (2013 and 2015 Supporters' Shield winners). His departure was devastating to many fans and came at a busy time in McCarty's life.
He got married two days before the trade and had just arrived with the U.S. national team for the annual January camp that takes place during the MLS offseason and largely features domestically based players.
On Sunday McCarty took to Twitter to thank Red Bulls fans in a lengthy note.
McCarty says he was blindsided by the trade.
"I have been in the league long enough to know how things work, yet somehow I was still surprised," McCarty said in the note. "I've been sitting here for a week trying to process everything, and I still can't quite come up with the words to describe how I'm feeling."
McCarty then thanked his teammates, the support staff with the Red Bulls, Red Bulls fans and his wife.
"To the fans: Thank you for giving me 5 1/2 of the best years of my life," he wrote.
The note is similar to what Harry Shipp tweeted after the Fire traded the Lake Forest native to the Montreal Impact. Shipp was again traded this offseason, to reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle.
One difference between the two is that Shipp mentioned being excited to join Montreal. McCarty made no mention of Chicago or the Fire.
"It will be weird stepping onto the field at Red Bull Arena as an opponent, but I'll always cherish the memories we made together, as a family," McCarty wrote. "If you could do me one huge favor and not chant "metro reject" when I come back, I would greatly appreciate it."
Metro reject is an old chant for former players in reference the club's previous name, New York/New Jersey Metrostars. The Fire visit Red Bull Arena on April 29.
The Fire open preseason training on Monday, although McCarty won't be there because he is still in camp with the national team.