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.
Here are some of the top Chicago sports stories from a busy Sunday:
MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.
The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.
Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.
It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.
It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.
Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.
“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?
“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”
Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”
A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”
“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.
“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.
“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”
So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.
Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.
By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”
“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.
“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”