This week's grab bag examines two highly-debated topics: hockey voters' award ballots, and the league's division-based playoff format. Plus a look back at the time Tie Domi sucker punched Ulf Samuelsson.
Photo by Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
Three stars of comedy
The third star: Joe Thornton and Brent Burns—I am thoroughly enjoying Joe Thornton's late-career reinvention as a cuddly homeless character.
The second star: Joe Thornton, again—Seriously, I'm not sure "thoroughly enjoying" even covers it. Vagabond Joe Thornton forever.
The first star: Phil Kessel—"It's not good, eh?"
Seriously, you guys, we're a few games away from a potential Joe Thornton vs. Phil Kessel matchup in the Stanley Cup final. I don't even feel comfortable talking about it because of how crushed I'll be if it doesn't happen.
Outrage of the week
The issue: The NHL's division-based playoff format created some uneven matchups this year, especially in the second round.
The outrage: This is dumb, and the old conference-based system was better.
Is it justified: No. The current system is fine.
That's not to say that it's perfect. And yes, we got some weird matchups this year. In the Central, we got the Stars and Blues, meaning the second- and third-best teams in the NHL (by regular-season record) had to play each other in the second round. And in the Metro, the top-seeded Capitals ran into the league's fourth-best team in the Penguins. Meanwhile, the Atlantic matchup was No. 10 vs. No. 12, and the Pacific was No. 11 vs. No. 14.
There's an argument to be made that teams like the Capitals and Stars should be getting those easier matchups instead of losing to fellow powerhouses before they can even get to the conference final. There's some truth to that. The current system was designed to help foster divisional rivalries, and it's doing that. But it doesn't seem especially fair.
But at the risk of sounding like your kindergarten teacher, life isn't fair. And as with most things in life, making things fair isn't a realistic goal here. Sure, we could go back to the conference format, where teams are seeded one through eight. We could even go all the way and just seed the top 16 teams, travel headaches be damned. Would that make things more fair? Maybe. Until one of those weaker teams comes into the playoffs on a massive hot streak, or a top seed gets hit by injuries, or some goalie decides to go on a heater and renders all the other strengths and weaknesses in a series irrelevant.
You get the idea. The NHL playoffs are a crapshoot, and there's never going to be anything approaching a fair way to decide who's best. And that's especially true today, in an age of parity where it feels like we're all just flipping coins. The gap between the best and worst playoff teams is thinner than ever, so trying to get the seeding exactly right feels like a waste of time.
And besides, while the current system is "new" in the sense that it was brought back a few years ago, the NHL has actually used a divisional format for most of its post-expansion history. Was it fair in the late '80s when the Flames and Oilers had to play in the second round every year, with whichever team could be bothered to stop throwing haymakers long enough to remember which way to hold their sticks won the Norris? No, it's wasn't. But it was awesome. Ask an old person, they'll tell you.
And if you really want fair, try this: To win the Stanley Cup, you need to beat four very good teams. That's the reality in today's NHL. If you can't do it, you'll be going home, and the round that happens in doesn't really matter. OK, maybe it matters for narrative purposes. But as Elliotte Friedman argued this week, that's a reason to change the narrative, not the format.
The playoff format is fine. Not perfect, but fine. The NHL has a dozen problems far bigger than this one; let's get those right before we worry about too many good teams being in the same playoff series.
Obscure former player of the week
The Lightning continue to battle the Penguins for the right to return to the Stanley Cup final for a second straight year. It's their third trip to the conference final in six years, and they're seeking another championship to add to the one they won in 2004. The Lightning have come a long way. So today, let's look back at the franchise's early days, and its first star: Brian Bradley.
Bradley was a third-round pick by Calgary in 1983, and made his NHL debut two years later before spending most of the year with the Canadian Olympic team in 1987-88. He was traded to the Canucks at the 1988 deadline for tough guy Craig Coxe (just a few months removed from his all-time classic bout with Bob Probert), and spent three years in Vancouver before being dealt to the Maple Leafs. That trade put Bradley in a tough spot; he was moved straight-up for Tom Kurvers, who'd cost the Leafs their pending first-round pick in an all-time terrible trade just a year before. That left Bradley to assume the "this guy may have cost us Eric Lindros" mantle in Toronto, where he struggled in his only full season.
Through it all, Bradley was a marginally productive forward who never reached the 20-goal or 50-point mark, and usually found himself handling third-line duties. But in 1992, the Lightning nabbed him in the expansion draft, and he became the team's No. 1 center by default. And he responded with one of the great out-of-nowhere seasons in NHL history, racking up 42 goals and 86 points while being named to the all-star team.
That 1992-93 season would stand as Bradley's best, but he remained productive for three more years, including a 79-point campaign in 1995-96. Injuries caught up with him after that, including a serious concussion in 1997 that essentially ended his career. But to this day, his 1992-93 season stands as one of the greatest by a player on an expansion team in any sport; his 86 points that year were more than any modern day Lightning player has managed since 2012.
Be It Resolved
The NBA announced the results of its MVP voting last week, then posted the ballots of every voter on the league website. Naturally, that led plenty of fans to ask the obvious question: Why doesn't the NHL do that, too?
I'm a voting member of the PHWA, and I've seen this issue come up at meetings over the last few years. Without getting too deep into what goes on behind closed doors, I can say that there are a handful of writers who I have a lot of respect for that are emphatic that they shouldn't have to reveal their ballots. My sense is that a majority of the voters have no issue with public ballots, but that many of those don't feel so strongly about it that they're willing to force the hands of the holdouts. The status quo, where anyone who wants to can reveal their ballot and most voters eventually do, seems like a reasonable compromise.
As best I can tell, there are two main reasons for wanting to keep the votes secret. The first is that revealing the ballots leaves voters open to scrutiny that they may not want. On its own, that's fine—the media is in the scrutiny business, so turnaround is fair play. But that scrutiny could affect the votes themselves. If you were an NBA voter who really believed, for some strange reason, that Steph Curry wasn't the league's MVP, would you have voted that way if you'd known your ballot would be made public, and that you'd no doubt be singled out for mockery and derision (and worse) from fans? Or would you go along to get along, following the crowd to avoid drawing attention to yourself? Or look at this year's Norris debate—you really think everyone wants to deal with the Doughty or Karlsson fan boy armies that will descend on anyone who voted "wrong"?
The other point that comes up is that a writer's votes could influence relationships with players or teams. Think about the local beat guy who doesn't cast his ballot for his team's star player. That could make things awkward around the rink; in an extreme case, that writer's vote could even affect the player's bonus money. Some guys would rather not have to deal with the fallout.
Personally, I'm in favor of revealing everything. It's why I post my full ballot every year, after the awards are announced. The media wants the league and its teams to have to reveal as much information as possible—I've complained about disclosure of injuries, salary terms, NTC conditions and more—so we need to eat our own dog food here. And I think that revealing everything would eliminate much of the weird voting we've seen in the past. I get the objections, but I'd still like to see the NHL follow the NBA's lead here.
So sure, be it resolved that all NHL award voting should be made public. But I can see the arguments against doing it. Maybe now you can, too.
Classic YouTube clip breakdown
This week, baseball fans witnessed something even rarer than a perfect game or an unassisted triple play: A punch that actually connected. Texas Rangers infielder Rougned Odor was suspended eight games for tagging Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista with what some are calling a sucker punch during Sunday's game, and the sports world hasn't stopped talking about it since.
For hockey fans, this all may sound familiar. The Rangers... Toronto... a sucker punch... an eight-game suspension... Hmm, yes, I think we've seen this before.
- So it's Oct. 14, 1995, and the Maple Leafs are hosting the New York Rangers at Maple Leaf Gardens. We're into the final minutes of what's been a chippy game. Things are about to get a lot chippier.
- OK, let's get this out of the way early: This clip is 20 years old, and it's one of those moments that's very much going to feel like it's from a completely different era. If this happened today, everyone would be (correctly) horrified. When it happened in 1995, lots of people thought it was hilarious. There's going to be some cognitive dissonance here. You've been warned.
- Our clip starts as the camera follows the puck down the ice. We don't see the incident, but we hear it, or at least we hear the crowd's reaction to it. The crowd's reaction, of course, is to cheer wildly, because again this is 1995. The only good news here is that Anchorman hadn't been released yet, so we didn't have to listen to everyone say "stay classy, Toronto" for the next three weeks.
- Harry Neale informs us that Toronto's Tie Domi has punched New York's Ulf Samuelsson. Neale then proceeds to, um, count Samuelsson out. Yeah. Neale is a legend and one of my favorite color guys of all time. Let's just say that this was not his finest moment.
- I'm trying to imagine the reaction if this happened today. How high would the announcer be able to count before he was physically dragged off the air and fired into the hallway? I'm thinking three. Maybe four if the door to the booth was locked and they had to break it down with an axe.
- It quickly becomes apparent that Samuelsson is seriously hurt, although again, that's a relative concept. Back in 1995, this was still "getting your bell rung" and we were all fine with it. We were very dumb back then, is what I'm trying to say.
- We haven't had a replay yet, which means we're still in that weird hockey violence twilight zone where you know something bad happened but you're not sure how bad, and you're trying to convince yourself that it's probably just some misunderstanding. Every fan has a few moments like that involving a player on their favorite team. I think Domi's elbow on Scott Niedermayer may be the all-time standard bearer, come to think of it.
- Nice product placement for Flex-All there.
- We finally get a replay, one that begins with Domi and Samuelsson getting tangled up along the boards before heading to the front of the net, at which point Domi drops a glove and suckers him. We get a few more looks, including a classic "Dude, WTF?" reaction from Mike Richter.
- If you're seeing this for the first time, you're probably wondering what the background is here. You never want to blame the victim, but surely Samuelsson had done something terrible to provoke Domi. And indeed he had. According to Domi, the sucker punch was a reaction to Samuelsson... calling him a name—"Dummy," to be specific. Sure glad he cleared that up.
- Seriously, nobody tell Tie Domi that literally every fan of every team he ever played against called him "Dummy." Everyone made that exact same joke for a solid decade, right up until somebody figured out that Tie Domi was an anagram for "Me Idiot," and everyone switched to making that joke for the next decade.
- Of course, there was some bigger-picture backstory here. Samuelsson was in his first year with New York; this was just his third game as a Ranger. But his reputation preceded him, most notably his knee-on-knee hit on Cam Neely in 1991. That was just one of a long list of players Samuelsson had injured, and one that inspired one of Don Cherry's most memorable rants. (Cherry also once called for somebody to break Samuelsson's arm "between the wrist and the elbow".) That all added up to an awful lot of fans and even some media suggesting that Samuelsson had it coming, and that Domi didn't deserve a suspension. Luckily, the NHL's VP in charge of discipline wasn't buying it, as we're about to see.
- I know it's confusing because he has his tie tied and his hair combed, but yes, this dapper fellow is a young Brian Burke, speaking to reporters a few days later after announcing that Domi had been suspended for eight games. This was considered a shockingly severe punishment back then, and there was plenty of outrage in Toronto about it. Burke, to his credit, goes full lawyer on the assembled reporters in laying out his reasoning.
- Burke's tenure as discipline chief was an uneven one. Like everyone else who's ever done the job, he was criticized for being too lenient—he gave Claude Lemieux just two games for the Kris Draper hit, and he only fined Pavel Bure $500 for The Mother Of All Elbows. But for a guy who to this day still gets painted as a caveman, you have to admit that he was well ahead of his time on the Domi suspension.
- Around the 2:40 mark we finally get to the most famous replay of the incident, one taken from the front of the net. Yeah, that was pretty inexcusable. Did I defend it anyway back in 1995? Absolutely. I also owned three Enigma albums and desperately wanted to pull off Chandler Bing's hairstyle. Judgment was not a strong suit.
- We end with a disappointed Domi, who expresses surprise at the ruling without sounding especially remorseful. This was his first suspension, and it's fair to say he hadn't been expecting it to be this severe—check out this clip in which he breaks out the "Samuelsson was OK to go to the bar after the game" defense. For the record, Samuelsson missed a week of action before returning to the lineup after passing the league's concussion protocol, which in 1995 consisted of the trainer yelling "You're not a wimp, are you?" in your face.
- "God I hope they beat the Rangers when we go back there,"—Tie Domi at the end of our clip and/or every Toronto Blue Jays fan earlier this week.
Have a question, suggestion, old YouTube clip, or anything else you'd like to see included in this column? Email Sean at email@example.com.