NHL Faced With Great Opportunity In Wake of Penguins-Islanders Debacle

Russ GodekContributor IIIFebruary 14, 2011

Pens-Isles in one of many scuffles last Friday
Pens-Isles in one of many scuffles last FridayJim McIsaac/Getty Images

February 11, 2011 could mark a historic date for the National Hockey League (NHL) if it desires. What started as one of 82 games in a season for the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders, quickly turned into a sideshow, sparked by a desire for retribution.

In their previous meeting, the Pens and Isles garnered attention with a goalie fight in which Penguins goaltender Brent Johnson one-punched Rick DiPietro and subsequently injured him, much to the delight of the Penguins franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

The Islanders took offence to the Penguins' enjoyment of the outcome to the fight and set out for retribution last Friday night.

Looking at the resume of the game, which include 346 penalty minutes, 10 ejections, 15 fighting majors and 20 misconducts, it's hard to justify calling it a "game". Circus? Joke? Sure. But not a game.

Whether you are on the Penguins side of thinking or the Islanders side of thinking regarding this matter, one thing is certain, the game of hockey does not need this.

This debacle comes only two days after another circus between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins took place in Boston last Wednesday. That game, featured a combined total of 166 penalty minutes and 12 fighting majors, including a goalie fight. Is this really how the NHL wants to sell itself to its audience?

With the NHL's television contract with Versus expiring after this season, they are presented with an interesting scenario. It has long been rumored that ESPN is interested in signing a contract with the NHL.

With the NFL possibly facing a lockout next season, it could mean a perfect opportunity for the NHL to be thrust into the spotlight on ESPN and add an immense amount of viewership. Let's face it, the NHL in its current standing is nothing more than a fringe sport, at best.

Could it possibly be because it allows what happened on Wednesday and Friday to continue with little consequences? It seems, with the reaction to Mario Lemieux's heavy-handed statement, that the NHL has no intentions of changing.

In a time when other professional sports leagues are taking player safety seriously and putting it at the forefront of conversation, the NHL seems to be consciously ignoring it.

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying the NHL should completely eliminate fighting here. Fighting has its place in hockey. I do believe hockey for the most part has toned down its fighting in recent years, but still could stand to tone it down further.

What the NHL does need to ban is reckless play that leaves its players injured. By coming down with stiffer suspensions to the Islanders players, they could have sent a message to the rest of the league that it has reached the breaking point in terms of these kinds of actions.

In recent years, the NHL has put into place new rules to speed up the game and make it more exciting and entertaining to fans. This is something that I strongly encourage and believe is better for the game of hockey.

All successful leagues learn how to adapt to what the fans are looking for, but the NHL seems stuck in its mentality of old-time hockey and almost encourages fighting and goon-ish behavior, much like what was scene in the two games I mentioned previously.

The fighting, the cheap hits, the injuries, are slowing down a game that the NHL has made efforts to speed up and make better—they are fighting against themselves.

Poised with an amazing opportunity to gain more prominence and attention next season, the NHL needs to grow up and make some major, yet simple changes to the game of hockey.