Hockey Players Behaving Badly: Should We Expect More?

Blake BenzelCorrespondent IDecember 1, 2009

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 23: Keith Ballard #2 of the Florida Panthers has his mouth checked by referee Kevin Pollock #33 after he was hit by Sidney Crosby #87 (not pictured) of the Pittsburgh Penguins on November 23, 2009 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Children copy what they see their heroes doing.  It’s human nature.


I remember, when I was no more than four or five, I used to tape an "S" to my chest, tie a blanket around my neck and run around in my underwear pretending to be Superman.


When I got a few years older, I morphed from Superman into Dan Marino, and then from Dan Marino into Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan into Mario Lemieux and so on and so forth.


It’s just part of childhood.


The reason I bring this up isn’t to recount the “glory days” of my youth, but with yesterday’s events in the National Hockey League, I believe this point is an important one to bring up.


The one thing that Marino, Jordan, and Lemieux taught, on the field, or court, or ice was the right way to play the game.  They were passionate about the game.  They wanted to win.  But rarely, if ever, would you see antics that were unbecoming and, as professional athletes, they held themselves in a stature that represented themselves and the game that they played very well.


Last night, early on in the NHL’s schedule, there were two players in particular that were not representing themselves, nor the sport of hockey, very well.


The first and, in my opinion, least egregious was Alex Ovechkin’s knee-on-knee hit on Tim Gleason.


Say what you will about Ovechkin and the way that he plays the game, but the bottom line is that he plays it with a youthful enthusiasm that is enjoyable to watch.  With this youthful enthusiasm comes a certain lack of regard for himself and, sometimes, others on the ice.


Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau said himself that he didn’t think that the hit was a suspend-able, or even eject-able, offense.  His justification was that “Gleason makes a pretty good move to the inside, and as he’s moving, his leg comes out and he hits him.”


Could this be the case?  Absolutely.


But there is evidence out there that is pretty damning to the contrary.  Just look at Puck Daddy’s NHL-can-t-turtle-on-Ovec?urn=nhl,205779">take on the issue .  The picture of Ovechkin and Gleason directly before the hit is pretty cut and dry.


Now, I’m not saying that Ovechkin did or didn’t purposely hit Gleason knee-on-knee.  But it was his second game misconduct in three games and has now put the onus on NHL discipline czar, Colin Campbell, to act.


But intentional or not, Ovechkin is one of, if not the face of the NHL right now.  He shouldn’t be expected to change his style of play because of this, but he should at least be cognizant of this fact when he’s on the ice.  There is a right way and a wrong way to play physical in the NHL, and the way that Ovechkin has played for the majority of the last three games is most certainly the wrong way.


Don’t get me wrong.  I love Ovechkin.  He’s one of my favorite players in the league.  But what he needs to understand is that there is a spotlight on him and that there are young players out there that are watching the way he plays and modeling their game after him.


But the second offense from last night is, in my opinion, the one that should be scrutinized the most.


In one fell swoop, Keith Ballard may have potentially changed the season of the Florida Panthers and, possibly, the career of goaltender Tomas Vokun.


Again, Puck Daddy has a good look at this play in their Three Stars thread , and in the video, I think you’ll see exactly why I think this is the more egregious of the two incidents.


Look.  I’ve played competitive sports almost my whole life.  I get it.  You don’t want to lose.  When I was playing high school tennis my sophomore and junior years, I was quite the emotional player.  Whether it was good or bad, I wore my emotions right out on my sleeve.


By the time I got to my senior year, I realized that I was the captain of the team and needed to start acting as such because the younger players were looking to me for how they should act.


The same goes for Ballard.


While he may not be the same stature of Niklas Lidstrom or Zdeno Chara, he is still an important defenseman to his team.


But its antics like that (or a lack thereof) that set apart the leaders from everyone else.


Ballard is 27 years old and is in his fifth year of NHL action, but last night he looked like a 12-year old in the way that he acted.


Just consider the severity of this.  When Chris Simon tried to chop down the tree of Ryan Hollweg, he got 25 games.  Marty McSorley got 23 games initially, followed by a one year suspension that ultimately led to his exit from the NHL.


Ballard, meanwhile, will receive no punishment solely because 1) it was his own player and 2) it was accidental.


I get it.  Ballard was upset over the goal.  But swinging your stick at the goalpost, which is just a couple feet from your goaltender?  Why?  And why did he swing the stick a second time after initially hitting Vokun?


Ballard is supposed to be a “professional” and is expected to conduct himself as such.  But instead, he opted to throw a hissy fit on the ice and his team will now have to pay the price, not Ballard.


Maybe professional athletes shouldn’t be role models.  Maybe it’s something that shouldn’t be expected of them.  But the bottom line is that they are and it is, regardless of whether or not they want it to be and I think it’s time for them to realize this.