The handling of duelling hits — Byron gets suspended AND a concussion and Weegar skates — proves the NHL is still stuck in a dangerous time of eye-for-an-eye justice.
Of that gritty bunch of skilled, undersized forwards who represent the heart and soul of this edition of the Canadiens, Paul Byron is both the smallest — and the fastest.
With Max Domi, Jordan Weal and Tomas Tatar joining Byron, Andrew Shaw and the peerless Brendan Gallagher, the Canadiens have a distinct identity not unlike the Flying Frenchmen decades ago, when players like Bobby Rousseau, Yvan Cournoyer and Henri Richard were lighting up the league. It’s fun to watch and (when they’re on their game) also effective.
On and off the ice, Byron represents all that is good about the game. To see him pick the pocket of an opposing defenceman on the penalty kill and turn it into overdrive to score a shorthanded goal is the epitome of excitement. To watch him battle against much larger, heavier defencemen around the net is to see what courage can accomplish whatever your size.
Add that Byron off the ice is classy, soft-spoken, articulate and bilingual and you have a player who honours the uniform and the league.
A league, sadly, that refuses to protect him. When Byron was over the line with a hit on Florida’s MacKenzie Weegar several weeks ago, the Department of Player Safety treated Byron like a combination of Tom Wilson and Radko Gudas. Byron was suspended for three games, which was frankly absurd. And he apologized for the hit.
That wasn’t enough for Weegar. When Byron dared to hit Weegar again Tuesday night, Weegar demanded his pound of flesh and Byron had to oblige, even though he was spotting the guy 40 or 50 pounds.
The result, predictably enough, was that Byron got a concussion. Why? Because in too many ways, the NHL is still stuck in 1952. Because the Department of Player Safety doesn’t do its job. Because of the idiotic “code.” Because of Don Cherry.
Did Weegar get an instigator penalty for starting the fight? Of course not. Was he suspended for three games? Absolutely not. So Byron gets the suspension and the concussion, because he doesn’t dare sidestep the eye-for-an-eye “justice” of the alleged code.
First of all, the code was, so far as anyone can determine, the invention of Cherry, the shameless bully who has made millions on the backs of the league’s tough guys. Was there an unspoken “code” before Canada’s largest embarrassment began pushing the concept from his bully pulpit? Indubitably — and it went well beyond hockey. When I was growing up (in a Nebraska town where the NHL was a distant mystery) if you got hit by a pitch in baseball you got up, dusted yourself off and jogged to first base without rubbing the spot where it hurt.
If you took a linebacker’s shoulder pad in the solar plexus in football and were unable to breathe, as soon as you could catch your breath, you jogged over to the sidelines, puked behind the bench and begged the coach to put you back into the game. If you took an elbow in the teeth in basketball and felt a couple of incisors dangling by a thread, you spat out the blood and kept playing.
That’s what being a man was once about. For too many adolescents and young men, it meant turning yourself into a ticking time bomb. You didn’t cry, didn’t complain, didn’t back down and (especially) you never let anyone know if you were hurt. In football, our concussion tests on the sidelines were painfully simple. If you knew your name, you were back in the game.
Mercifully, we evolved. We now understand the effect concussions have on the human brain. We understand the long-term consequences, which may include Lou Gehrig’s disease and definitely include an increased risk of depression and suicide.
We learn. Men are learning that it’s OK to cry — and not OK to backhand the woman in your life. Even the NHL, after decades of lawsuits and denial, has finally brought in a limited, quasi-effective concussion protocol.
But as the Byron incident proves, the NHL has a long way to go. Predictably, Cherry’s take on all this was that it wouldn’t have happened if the Canadiens had an enforcer. First, they have a fighter in Nico Deslauriers. Second, all that happens if you turn the fighting over to the enforcers is that they get the concussions.
No, the way to stop it is to hand Weegar a five-minute major for fighting, a game misconduct and a one-game suspension. And if he’s a multiple offender, then three games, five games, whatever it takes.
Instead, the Department of Player Safety penalizes the 160-pound guy for the original hit and gives Weegar a free pass to do it again. The Canadiens had to go into their most critical game of the season without Byron’s speed and savvy. Would it have made a difference in Columbus? Probably not — but it should never have come to that.
“I simply asked Byron to own up to the hit,” claims Weegar. “Own up?” Why should Byron have to “own up” to anything?
Because the NHL is stuck in 1952, that’s why.