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McKenzie: Campbell still has backing of NHL community

Bob McKenzie
11/16/2010 4:49:01 PM
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Even before 'Colie-mail' arrived in our collective in-box this week, there has been outrage.
   
Fans have been calling for NHL VP and league disciplinarian Colin Campbell's head for weeks, months and, in some cases, years.
   
The same goes for the media, who have written thousands upon thousands of words expressing shock, dismay and ridicule for how the NHL conducts its disciplinary business.
   
We have seen and heard it all concerning both Campbell and the dispensing of justice, NHL style. Resign in shame. Overhaul the system and institute a tribunal. Do I hear a call for a 10-game suspension? Lifetime ban, anyone?
   
Campbell, the Tillsonburg, Ont., farmer who played more than 750 pro games as a hard-working defenceman in the NHL and WHA and coached  professionally for 13 years before picking up the NHL gavel, is the front man, so he takes it on the chin. If he were an easy target before, the revelation from a lawyer turned sleuthing blogger who rather ingeniously pieced together a league email trail of inappropriate dispatches written by Campbell only put him more on the hot seat.
   
Surely, fans bellowed, this would be his downfall.
   
'Colie must go,' the scribes scribbled.
   
The cacophony was deafening.
   
Everywhere except within the NHL community.
   
Scant hours after 'Colie-mail' broke, the NHL issued what can only be described as a supreme vote of confidence in Campbell.
   
There was nary a negative word spoken publicly by anyone directly involved in the game. And Campbell's own in-box filled with emails from "hockey people" telling him to hang in there.
   
The truth is there is this incredibly huge, and growing by leaps and bounds every day, disconnect between how hockey fans and media view crime and punishment in the NHL and how the league and those who comprise it -- the 30 owners, the 30 GMs, the 30 head coaches, the 700-plus players who play the game, the NHL head office executives led by commissioner Gary Bettman and, finally, the NHL Players Association -- deal with it.
   
Fans have become conditioned to want every hit, every high stick, every slash  to be suspendable. When the garden-variety one, two or three-game suspensions are levied, fans call for it to be five, 10 or 15.  They rail on about inconsistencies, how a lewd gesture is a bigger crime than a hit from behind. 
   
If it's possible, the media, of which I'm a card-carrying member, can be even more shrill and relentless in its call for law and order.
   
And yet it is as if the NHL and all those who populate it are oblivious or impervious to the din on the outside world.
   
Face it, Colin Campbell could be deep-sixed tomorrow in his job as league disciplinarian, but do you really think anything would change? Fans and media could prance about and sing, 'Ding Dong, the witch is dead,' but the next guy would come in and it would be, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. No one in fandom or the media world liked the job Brian Burke was doing when he left the dean of discipline's office and no one likes the job Campbell is doing now. Do you honestly think the next guy who takes the chair is going to turn things upside down?
   
There's a reason why many players don't get suspended or, if they do, they only get a game or two or three -- because that's the way the vast majority of people who comprise the NHL community want it.
   
The owners don't want to be paying players not to play.
   
The general managers don't want a hole in their lineup.
   
The coaches don't want to re-jig the forward lines or defence pairs.
   
The Players' Association, even though it represents both the victim and the perpetrator, don't want suspensions or long suspensions because that means their members are losing money.
   
Ditto for the players, who are already more than a little crusty with escrow.
   
There is, of course, one exception to that "we don't want any suspensions or at least no long ones in the event it's 'required' mentality.
   
The owner, GM, coach and players of a team that have been aggrieved in some wanton act of violence will cry out for justice. But not too loudly or too long because they know tomorrow it might be their guy in the NHL equivalent of a police lineup.
   
Us eggheads in the media, who bring with us our intellectual, businesslike and righteous sensibilities and sometimes a strong, albeit often misguided, sense of moral superiority, will latch onto the transient disciplinary malcontents within the NHL because we'll think this is the reaffirmation that validates our position and may get some traction for change. But the moment, like so many others, quickly passes and we're left with the outraged fans to merely cluck in disapproval and rationalize why we are so much saner and wiser than those who run the game.
   
Don't get me wrong, Colie Campbell and how he does his job is not universally loved within the NHL community. He has critics and detractors, but none so vociferous or none empowered or devoted enough to affect a move for change.
   
But, for the most part, if there are some who don't like Campbell, they respect him, and here's why.
   
Campbell is the quintessential 'old-time hockey' guy. He knows the culture inside out. A GM can call him up after the game, vent like there's no tomorrow, yell and scream, “F U” him seven ways from Sunday and Campbell, the old defenceman, will give it right back to the GM in spades.  When all is said and done, the general manager knows that if a week from now, one of his guys goes up in front in Campbell for some suspendable offence, the judge isn't going to hold last week's exchange against the GM or his player. That's just the hockey way. Much was made of Campbell's email to director of officiating Stephen Walkom, when Campell wrote: "I hate soft penalties...remember that when I'm a GM!" For anyone who knows Campbell they would have to laugh at that one because the former coach does hate "soft calls" and has said that publicly over and over again, expressing empathy for any GM or coach when they complain about getting one.
   
Perhaps the most significant inference from the 'Colie-mail' escapade, and the one everyone is latching onto, was that Boston's Marc Savard may not have gotten justice when he was knocked out with a shoulder to the head check by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke last season. It was Savard, of course, who Campbell called in his deciphered emails a "little fake artist" and a whiner, leading many fans and media to believe that egregious bias led to Cooke walking free when he should have been suspended for life, if not longer. But those involved in the game are confident that the bias card was never an issue because whatever disparaging remarks Campbell made about Savard, there isn't anyone in the game who can't imagine Campbell thinks even less of Cooke and the way he plays the game.
   
Like many "in the game" Campbell played in the rough and tumble 1970s and 80s. Sensibilities were different then. There were none. Men were men, if you were challenged to fight, you fought. The agitators, the guys Don Cherry and others like him - probably Campbell - call "rats" were few and far between. Far be it for anyone to put words in Campbell's mouth on his specific feelings for Cooke, but you know damn well that if there's 'Colie-mail' that calls Savard a "fake artist" there's bound to be a juicy one somewhere on Matt Cooke or Sean Avery or Patrick Kaleta or Jordin Tootoo and the way that they play the game.  And if you ask those guys, they're likely to say they get persecuted by the NHL on reputation. Round and round it goes.
   
The easy call on Cooke-Savard would have been to hammer him because no one outside of Cooke or his family or the Penguins would have cared, but Cooke walked free and many "in the game" recognized how anguished and conflicted Campbell was to make that call, but at the end of the day, he didn't feel like he could suspend Cooke because the rules, as they were written then, weren't violated and he didn't suspend Mike Richards for a similar hit earlier in the season.
   
That decision, and this will absolutely infuriate fans and media alike, is precisely why when 'Colie-mail' erupted there was no great hue and cry inside the NHL. Because the GMs, and others within the league, know that regardless of how loud the fans scream, how much the media pontificates, how much Campbell is lobbied or pressured by agents or rival GMs or, yeah, maybe even his boss in the Commissioner's chair, the old farmer from Tillsonburg is going to do what he thinks is right by him and he's going to do it within the context and standards of NHL discipline over the ages. They may not like all his decisions or how he arrived at them, but virtually anyone who knows the man would never consider questioning his integrity. If the price to be paid for that which is so admired within the NHL community but so reviled outside of it is a few email indiscretions that in the eyes of many didn't have a tangible and/or negative end result, so be it.
   
Only in the NHL? Perhaps.
   
Listen, whatever context you choose to assign to them, Campbell shouldn't have sent the emails. But Campbell's currency with his bosses and peers in the game apparently trumps whatever fallout there may be, inside or outside, the hockey community.  
   
The NHL is, at its very core, tribal and, at times, savage. While we in the media and the fans most certainly play a part in its theatre, we aren't full-fledged members of the tribe and never will be, nor do many necessarily aspire to be. That said, we still all push our collective noses up against the glass, bang our fists and demand to be heard on issues we think matter and on very rare occasions it sometimes occurs. But on this overall issue of crime and punishment in the NHL, the league's equivalent of tribal council if you will, there's a way the NHL has always done business and a way how they apparently intend to continue doing business and we can all bray as loudly and as long as we like, but we saw this week with 'Colie-mail' how quickly the wagons get circled.
  
It's not about one man, it never has been. It's about The Game, those who run it, those who play it and how they govern it. They do, we (media and fans) don't. That's just the way it is.

Bob McKenzie

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