Why Blame the NHL?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 13) — I knew Steve Montador. And I liked Steve Montador. It was impossible not to. You simply had to meet the guy.

I was accorded that opportunity in San Jose, Calif. on May 9, 2004 — a Sunday afternoon — while covering the Stanley Cup semifinal between the Sharks and Calgary Flames for The FAN–590. Steve scored a goal at 18:43 of overtime to give Calgary a 1–0 lead in the Western Conference series. Though born in Vancouver, the 25–year–old defenseman had lived in Toronto most of his life. I was part of a reporting mob that surrounded him for commentary after his Game 1 decider. Turning to leave, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Are you Howard Berger?” Steve asked. Replying affirmatively, I was told that he’d grown up listening to me on the radio (cripes, I was old back then). “It’s nice to put face to voice,” he smiled.

From that day forward, Steve and I would say hello whenever his team hooked up with the Maple Leafs. He bounced between Florida, Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo and Chicago in the final seven years of his career — ending with the Blackhawks in 2011–12. Needless to say, I was terribly saddened by the news — on Feb. 15 of this year — that Steve had been found dead at 35 in his Mississauga home. Reports suggested he merely stopped breathing while in bed. Foul play was ruled out though speculation about suicide briefly prevailed given Montador’s late history of depression. Knowing that he and his brother, Chris, had sustained concussions while playing hockey, Steve chose to donate his brain to medical research. No one believed it would happen at such a young age.

Not surprisingly, it’s been determined, three months after his death, that Steve had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE) — an increasingly common ailment among athletes in professional contact sport. It often leads to depression, memory loss and erratic behavior. Though not yet studied widely in hockey, CTE appears to burden rambunctious players; those that initiate contact, drop their gloves to fight, and are therefore more prone to concussion. A spate of tragedy in 2011 among such players — Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien died between May 11 and Aug. 31 — heightened awareness of the condition.

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MY LATE FRIEND, STEVE MONTADOR, AS A MEMBER OF THE BUFFALO SABRES.

Montador’s family said it will join Boogaard’s family and more than 200 former players in legal activity against the National Hockey League. A class–action suit filed in October alleges the NHL “had knowledge and resources to better prevent head trauma; failed to properly warn players of such risks and promoted violent play that led to their injuries.”

I won’t pretend, for a minute, to have legal expertise, but doesn’t this appear to be a misrepresentation? My heart bleeds for the families of the aforementioned. I knew Montador and I knew Wade Belak — from a reporter’s perspective, one of my all–time favorite Maple Leafs. Steve, Wade and all others that yearn to skate in the NHL were (and are) aware of how violent the game can be, even when played within the rules. No one put a gun to their heads; they became professional hockey players of their own accord. Their families choosing to go after the NHL for posthumous reparation seems contradictory to me. The now–departed young men knew exactly what they were signing up for.

Among the major professional sports, hockey is the only one contested within a “cage.” There are boundaries on the playing field in football and baseball; on the floor in basketball and the pitch in soccer. None are as rigidly defined as in hockey, with wooden boards and unbreakable glass ascending from the ice. But, again, it has been this way for the better part of a century — long before the players involved in these lawsuits chose to “join in.” The NHL has taken innumerable measures to increase safety. Yes, the league continues to sanction fighting and players of limited skill have been cast in the role of “enforcer.” Montador, Boogaard, Belak and Rypien all compiled many more penalty minutes than minutes played. Still, these roles ultimately came down to choice. The aforementioned clearly understood how they would be deployed. They agreed to such conditions. And, were handsomely remunerated.

To castigate the employer after the fact is unreasonable.

BRADY GOT CAUGHT — END OF STORY: While Tom Brady’s agent and countless apologists in the Boston–area media whine about the heinous National Football League, the furor over “deflate–gate” has resulted from the simplest of facts: Brady and the New England Patriots got caught.

You are never officially a cheater until that happens.

There is no conspiracy; no attempt by the NFL to “take down” its best team of the past 15 years — or that team’s smug, Hall–of–Fame–bound coach. A large sack of footballs went missing from the officials’ dressing room in the immediate minutes before the American Football Conference championship game, Jan. 18, at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. A security camera caught locker–room attendant (and Patriots’ employee) Jim McNally going into and emerging from a bathroom stall with the bag of missing items. Beyond one’s kinky imagination, it required no genius to determine what McNally had been doing to the items. Not after the NFL discovered, at halftime, that 11 of the footballs were deflated below the league–mandated minimum of 12.5 pounds–per–square–inch — just as Brady preferred, and had likely instructed balls to be so–altered in countless games prior to Super Bowl qualifier against Indianapolis.

New England routed the Colts, 45–7, and went on to narrowly defeat Seattle, two weeks later, in Super Bowl XLIX.

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TUESDAY’S BOSTON HERALD — WHINING ON BEHALF OF THE PATRIOTS.

These findings were presented to the NFL in a 243–page report conducted by investigator Ted Wells — criminal attorney and partner in the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison. Wells concluded it was “more probable than not” Brady was aware the AFC Championship footballs had been tampered with. The NFL issued the 37–year–old quarterback a four–game suspension–without–pay on Monday; the Patriots were fined $1 million and required to forfeit two draft choices — a 2016 first–rounder and a fourth–rounder in 2017.

New England owner Robert Kraft has the clout and wherewithal to take this issue to the Supreme Court of the United States. But, it really doesn’t matter. Kraft might as well aim for the highest bench the next time he gets a speeding ticket. Or when someone he knows is charged with disorderly conduct. In the court of public opinion, Brady — and, by extension, his franchise — has been exposed for cheating. Tampering with footballs in the NFL is surely as common as driving 15 miles–an–hour beyond the speed limit. Perhaps as common as adultery.

The bottom line is: You aren’t a cheater until you get caught.

And, the NFL just grabbed the Patriots by their collective balls.

It is no more complicated than that.

THE MASTER’S MEMORY: Among the many rewards I get writing this blog is reaction from people within the NHL. Most meaningful are emails from the greatest coach in hockey history. Scotty Bowman must have more time on his hands than I’ll ever know because he reads my drivel faithfully. I led my last blog with recollection of Bobby Orr scoring his legendary overtime goal on Glenn Hall of St. Louis to win the 1970 Stanley Cup — an event that occurred, at Boston Garden, 45 years ago Sunday. Bowman was coach of the Blues, who made the Bruins sweat for that victory. It required a late powerplay goal by veteran John Bucyk to extend the game beyond regulation. Orr won the match, and the NHL championship, 40 seconds into overtime. Not long after posting the blog did I receive the following message from Scotty:

“Hi Howard. Although it was 45 years ago and I was only 36, I remember that game like yesterday. I had been married the previous August (1969) and my wife Suella was four months pregnant with my first born — Alicia. She attended the game, sitting with Fran Kelly, wife of the late Dan Kelly, eminent play–by–play voice of the Blues, when suddenly she felt queasy and left to go back to our hotel. We were up by a goal with a little over seven minutes left when referee Bruce Hood gave our center, Andre Boudrias, a faceoff–interference penalty to pave the way for Johnny Bucyk’s tying powerplay goal. It was later [determined] that it was only the second faceoff–interference penalty called in the entire 1969–70 regular season and playoffs. Needless to say, I never forgave Hood for the call. The Bruins deserved to beat us but did not need his help. Glenn Hall was superb throughout the entire playoffs. Thought you would enjoy these facts as much as I enjoy all your blogs. Regards and thanks, Scotty Bowman.”

Like I said, this gig comes with reward.

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YOUTHFUL SCOTTY BOWMAN (LEFT) AND HARRY SINDEN: COACHING RIVALS IN THE 1970 STANLEY CUP FINAL BETWEEN ST. LOUIS AND BOSTON.

CRAPPY ANNIVERSARY: Sorry for the reminder, Leafs Nation, but the Causeway St. Calamity occurred two years ago tonight. Yup, it was on May 13, 2013 (oh, that number) that the Leafs coughed up a 4–1, third–period lead and lost Game 7 to the Boston Bruins, 5–4, on Patrice Bergeron’s overtime goal. It remains the lone playoff appearance for the Blue and White in the past ten NHL seasons and it occurred after a 48–game schedule abbreviated by an owners’ lockout. Leafs haven’t made the playoffs in a regulation, 82–game season since 2003–04. Incredible, to say the least… The Montreal Canadiens are starting to remind me of the Leafs when they had Curtis Joseph — a team whose goalie repeatedly compensates for error and eventually burns out. Carey Price will be a deserving winner of the Hart Trophy this season as the NHL’s most valuable player. But, I’m certain he would trade it for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Instead, the Canadiens have fallen one playoff round shy of their advancement from a year ago — losing the Eastern Conference semifinal to Tampa Bay in six games. Price looked increasingly weary as the round progressed against Steven Stamkos and the fleet Lightning. Joseph led the Leafs to four consecutive playoff appearances — and twice to the Conference final — between 1999 and 2002. He ran out of fuel each time. Montreal needs better support for Price if it plans on ending a 21–season Stanley Cup drought… First Joe Namath. Then Mark Messier. Now Alex Ovechkin. Star athletes that have “guaranteed” victory for their teams at playoff time. Namath engineered one of the colossal upsets in pro sport history when he led the New York Jets past Baltimore in Super Bowl III (January 1969). The Colts had been favored by 18 points — most in Super Bowl history. Messier “guaranteed” victory for the New York Rangers in the 1994 Eastern Conference final. New York trailed New Jersey 3–2 in the series with Game 6 at the Meadowlands. Messier told reporters there would be a Game 7, then went out and scored three goals (two on Martin Brodeur; one into an empty net). Rangers won the set back home at Madison Square Garden on a goal in double–overtime by Stephane Matteau. And the Stanley Cup — two weeks later — in a marvelous seven–game clash with Vancouver. Now, Ovechkin has “guaranteed” the Washington Capitals will prevail in tonight’s deciding match of the Eastern semifinals against the Rangers, also at the Garden. “We’re going to come back and win the series,” Ovie told reporters after losing Game 6 at Washington on Sunday. “We’re going to play our game; come back, and go on to play Montreal or Tampa.” Ovechkin may be a clairvoyant. We’ll find out later tonight. But, he won’t be considered in the rank of Namath or Messier until he also wins a championship. It is the hallmark of any prominent athlete and Ovie hasn’t yet come close to raising the Stanley Cup… If Tom Brady’s suspension is upheld, he’ll miss New England’s first four games of the 2015 NFL season: Sep. 10 vs. Pittsburgh; Sep. 20 at Buffalo; Sep. 27 vs. Jacksonville and Oct. 11 at Dallas… Good call by the Toronto Raptors to retain Dwayne Casey, who is an excellent coach and cannot be faulted for the club’s lack of defensive posture against Washington in a four–game playoff sweep. The Wizards manhandled the Raptors in the paint and possessed the clutch performer — Paul Pierce — that Toronto lacked. These are issues to be addressed by general manager Masai Ujiri. Not by Casey… Happy 53rd birthday today to one of favorite peeps — long–time Leafs radio analyst Jim Ralph.

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JIM RALPH. 53 TODAY. KEEP SMILING, OL’ PAL.

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