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Tuesday, May 19, 2009
The Sports Guy

By Bill Simmons
ESPN The Magazine

You might remember Hurricanes right wing Scott Walker's decking Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinals. Total sucker punch. Outraged fans (myself included) pined for swift justice, telepathically urging B's enforcer Milan Lucic to escape an official's grasp and get to Walker. I think I even screamed, "Kill him! Kill him!"

Unable to break free, Looch settled on the I-will-have-my-revenge-someday hockey trifecta: swearing, fierce finger-pointing and sarcastic nodding. Walker exacerbated the situation by skating around with a defiant smile on his face. The moment ended. Ward wobbled off. And every Boston fan had the same thought: Scott Walker must pay.

Nothing happened in Game 6, and when the series returned to Boston for Game 7, I wanted the Bruins to marinate Walker, grill him and serve him to the fans with an apple stuck in his mouth. You know, like a pig at a feast. Instead, Walker shushed the crowd by scoring the series-winner in OT. Of all the guys! I haven't been so furious since Drago killed Apollo. I waited for someone to pummel him in the handshake line. No one did. He was offered every hand and even gave Ward an "I'm sorry" tap on the shoulder.

The Walker story had everything you want from playoff hockey: bad blood, vengeance and, ultimately, reconciliation. Like Vito Corleone tried to teach his sons, it's only business. Come playoff time, players grow ugly beards and throw themselves around with no regard. If an opponent crosses the line, they settle it with elbows, sticks or fists. Maybe a slash when the ref isn't looking. They might even take a run at someone after the outcome has been decided. Just remember, Sonny: It's business. Every Bruins fan felt the same thing: "Scott Walker must pay."

I grew up a hockey lover in Boston, and the sport's nonstop feistiness pushed it over the top for me. But I cooled on the B's after college, when owner/miser Jeremy Jacobs kept pinching pennies at the expense of Cup hopes. Other reasons: too many soft Euros; too many instigator penalties, helmets and eye shields, not enough old school. When overexpansion mortally wounded franchise feuds -- after all, the more times NHL teams play each other, the more they despise each other -- the sport's feistiness was sucked away like pus from an aching knee.

Problem was, we missed the pus. The NHL didn't get it, though. Add the ghastly trap and overpriced tickets, and it's no wonder fans trickled away. After the ruinous lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, hockey devolved into a niche sport, and that was that.

Or so I thought. Because, as it turns out, I really like hockey again. A boom of superskilled players helped, but not as much as the NHL's reembracing its chippy DNA. Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke admitted as much to me when we shared a panel at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference recently. All he wants from any game, he said, is for his fans to see a few goals, a donnybrook or two and, hopefully, a win.

I wanted to hug him.

Burke always knew casual fans would return only for wide-open hockey and physical play. (I can vouch for this; I've never been to a game in which the excitement level didn't quadruple as soon as things got testy.) A few savvy rules changes opened up the ice, unleashing riveting talents -- Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, among others -- who resonate more than they would have 20 years ago, thanks to YouTube. As for the physicality, little has changed other than the league's deciding that maybe it's not so bad. Fighting majors are up 11% from last season. It's true.

Know what else helped? Our country swung back toward the traits that make hockey hum. In the 1990s, we made great strides in the areas of racial equality, gender discrimination, gay rights, animal abuse, domestic violence, recycling, safe sex, drunken driving, name it. Americans grew more sophisticated and socially engaged. But we became undeniably uptight in the process. Something as innocent as a hockey fight suddenly became a bad example for the children. And no handshake line could undo the "damage."

Mercifully, we have swung the other way in the new millennium. The UFC made fighting profitable and acceptable. The Internet made it seem okay to attack anyone with words and hide behind the cloak of anonymity. Anyone could steal content -- songs, jokes, highlights -- and post it online, and everything was fine. Female celebs used sexuality to advance careers; soon teens were grinding on shows like Gossip Girl and nobody cared. Reality TV had no rules at all -- you couldn't do anything they wouldn't show.

Call it a lawlessness of sorts. I'm not defending it, just pointing it out. It's been great for hockey -- and terrible for basketball. The NBA suddenly seems like one of those late-1960s dads freaking out because his son has returned from college with long hair. "Wait, you can't shove him after the whistle like that! This game might get competitive! Flagrant-2!" Robbed of the ability to police one another, today's NBA players have no idea how to act when an opponent angers them. It's like watching two young siblings play -- wrestling unsuccessfully because Mom keeps screaming hysterically, "Careful! Careful! Careful!"

Can you play a fluid sport like basketball at its highest level without bodies banging, penetrating players getting clobbered and the occasional testiness? Of course you can't. The NBA pretends you can, though, putting the playoffs in the hands of (mostly incompetent) refs who overreact to each shove and stare. It drives me crazy. I can't believe I'm saying this, but the NBA could learn something from the NHL.

On the flip side you have hockey -- a sport in which players police the ice themselves and happily jump into the boards after scoring a goal. In hockey, it's okay to settle differences like men, and websites like hockeyfights.com thrive. It's always business, never personal. I can't believe I'm saying this, but the NBA could learn something from the NHL.

This was my favorite Bruins moment this season. Center Patrice Bergeron almost lost his career once to a concussion, and in April, Canadiens D Josh Gorges ran him from behind. That same bozo did it again in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs. Bergeron had never fought in his career. Not once. This time he whirled, dropped his gloves and pounded the bozo like a veal chop. Bruins fans reacted like a crowd at one of Oprah's washer/dryer giveaways. Bergeron could have scored the game-winner and he wouldn't have gotten a bigger reaction.

We may as well have been watching the UFC. Is that a bad thing? You can't call hockey's resurgence a comeback, because it hasn't fundamentally changed. We changed. Twice. Hockey didn't fit 10 years ago; now it does. I love having the NHL back in my life, even if it means dealing with Jacobs the Skinflint again. The sport is breathtaking to watch. The players are more brilliant than ever; games look gorgeous in HD. And like old times, all scores are settled on the ice.

Well, except for the one with Walker. Maybe we didn't barbecue the jerk this time, but that's what is great about the NHL: We know we can get him next year. And we will. I'm counting on you, Looch.

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