- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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If you don't pay close attention to the NHL or, worse, you long ago wrote off the league as some holding pen for knuckle-dragging goons with jack-o'-lantern grins, you probably missed one of the most interesting subplots of this season. The vindication of Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference has been a slowly coalescing but steadily building story since he was ripped for breaking "the code" among NHL players. Ference's criticism of a hit by one of his teammates came a full week before Mario Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Hall of Fame center turned owner, was back in the headlines Sunday with far more scalding remarks about the league.
The beauty of Ference's stand goes beyond that he's an active player and has far more to lose than the great Lemieux, whose place in the game is assured. It's how Ference has refused to back down in the face of being called everything from a locker room cancer to what hockey analyst Mike Milbury has lamentably called part of the "pansification movement" in the NHL. "Hockey Night in Canada" icon Don Cherry, a longtime apologist for belligerence in the game, went even further. Cherry said he doesn't care if one of Ference's teammates was "an ax murderer"; Ference should defend him unconditionally.
(Thanks, Grapes. Now have some warm milk, and it's off to bed for you.)
The issue that Ference and Lemieux took on is the decades-old topic that divides the NHL like no other: What should the league do about gratuitous hits and violence in its game?
Currently, and to its credit, the NHL is staggering through the same abrupt culture shift regarding blows to the head that the much slicker NFL lurched and bellyached through this past season. Pro football stepped up its enforcement of hits on defenseless players after an especially frightening weekend this past fall that left several players injured or concussed from violent hits. The NHL's own last-straw moment came last season, when the usual parade of players going out with concussions climaxed with an unpenalized, blindside hit by Penguins serial troublemaker Matt Cooke on Ference's teammate Marc Savard that left Savard with post-concussion symptoms and may yet end his career.
In response, the NHL passed Rule 48 before this season, a new measure intended to cut down on blows to the head (although it doesn't outlaw them completely, as the Ontario Hockey League, the International Ice Hockey Federation and a few others have). It is also notable -- if only on a symbolic level -- that the family of retired hockey enforcer Bob Probert, who died of a heart attack in July, donated his brain for study to the same Boston University researchers who have done some of the most significant studies on the lifelong effects of concussions suffered by athletes.
So change is coming in the NHL, all right -- if not fast or confidently enough.
Nothing highlights the still-lingering divide between the league's progressives and old-school wings -- not to mention the NHL league office's timidity about how aggressively to enforce Rule 48 -- than the fallout Ference endured after being asked in a postgame interview about teammate Daniel Paille's hit on Feb. 3 that left the Dallas Stars' Raymond Sawada with a broken nose and bruised shoulder. It was, according to Ference, "a bad hit."
"Standing up for your teammate is one thing," Ference said, "but that's what they're trying to get rid of, and you can't be hypocritical about it when it happens to you. You can't say 'it's fine' when your teammate does it. That's hypocritical and not being honest."
That same night, Ference went on the NHL Network and repeated his thoughts. Then he kept it up.
When asked about the fallout he was still getting days later from Cherry and the like, Ference didn't budge. He told the Boston Herald, "You stand by what you say. I'm not here to B.S. anyone or to get [TV] ratings. We have an issue with the league with head shots and those kinds of hits, and there's a big push, not only by us but by the NFL, to look out for the safety of players, and getting rid of those hits is one of those things. Getting rid of it is getting rid of it."
Ference's stance was this: If he violated some code, well then, tough. Maybe some codes are worth breaking.
Especially considering the context here.
Ference originally spoke out three days before his teammate Savard, in a long-rumored move, held a news conference to call it a season (and perhaps a career) after his second concussion in recent months. Ference has also noted how the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron suffered a serious concussion in 2007 that bothered him for more than a year. He could've added he works in a league whose greatest player, the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, is seeing his most luminous NHL season derailed by a blindside hit and concussion in the first week of January. Six weeks later now, Crosby still can't skate and isn't sure when he'll return. If nothing else, you'd think the NHL hawks and doves could at least agree that such injuries are horrible for business.
None of those asides stopped hockey traditionalists from teeing off. In addition to Cherry and Milbury -- who admonished, "Keep it to yourself, Andrew Ference" -- former players such as Keith Jones and Kelly Hrudey criticized Ference.
Although several Bruins teammates came to Ference's defense and insisted his remarks aren't something that will divide the team, none was willing to go as far as Ference did about Paille's hit, either.
A few Bruins did say Ference could've at least waited until Paille's punishment -- a four-game suspension -- was announced.
Ference pretty much had no seconders until Lemieux revisited the violence issue Sunday, and some other active players -- though not management types -- chimed in and said that when Lemieux speaks, you have to at least listen.
Lemieux's critics are correct that his franchise has to answer for employing Cooke and leading the league in penalty minutes this season with an injury-wracked team that is missing star forward Evgeni Malkin in addition to Crosby. But Lemieux -- who famously called the NHL "a garage league" in 1992 when he was still playing and grew sick of the clutching and grabbing tactics in the game -- didn't feel hindered by any of that baggage.
Although he rarely grants interviews or ranks as anything close to an activist owner, Lemieux fired off a statement threatening to dissociate himself from the game after the New York Islanders turned a 9-3 win over Pittsburgh on Friday into a farce that featured 346 penalty minutes, 15 fighting majors and 11 game misconducts.
The Islanders had hinted before the game that they might do something because Blake Comeau and goalie Rick DiPietro had been injured by the Pens in previous games. Isles GM Garth Snow had just called up minor league enforcer Micheal Haley, who, sure enough, got into several fights. Haley tried to jump Penguins goaltender Brent Johnson, who had fractured DiPietro's face by answering DiPietro's invitation to square off with a one-punch knockout the last time they met.
"What happened Friday night on Long Island wasn't hockey," Lemieux said. "It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that."
Were Lemieux's remarks partly self-serving? Sure.
But Lemieux's overall point -- like Ference's -- is also correct.
Lemieux thought the punishment the league handed down on the Islanders isn't severe enough -- which has been a constant and legitimate criticism of the NHL disciplinary process in general for years. Pittsburgh's Eric Godard received an automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join in a fight, the Islanders' Matt Martin was suspended four games for punching Max Talbot from behind, Trevor Gillies was given a nine-game suspension for a vicious elbow and attack on defenseless Penguins prospect Eric Tangradi, and the Islanders organization was fined $100,000 for what the league called "a failure to control its players."
If Paille had been given a 15-game suspension instead of four -- which was then the highest number the league has handed out for a blow to the head since passing Rule 48 -- don't you think the Isles or other NHL players would rethink lining up someone else in the crosshairs next time? NFL players -- even the Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison -- sure were by the end of their season. Why? Because the NFL -- far more than the NHL -- has shown more conviction about demanding change.
One encouraging result of Lemieux's remarks is that a few more players took the opening to also challenge the league and its prevailing ethos.
Canadiens defenseman Alex Picard threw another rock at "the code" when he lamented the four-game suspension the Islanders' Martin got for sucker-punching Pittsburgh's Talbot. Picard compared the incident to Todd Bertuzzi's infamous attack on Steve Moore years ago, saying, "The difference is Steve Moore broke his neck, and Talbot had nothing. It's kind of the NHL's trademark. They crack down when a player is hurt, otherwise they go with a shorter suspension. It's a pretty sad reality."
But it was Ference who had the guts to throw the first stone.
Since speaking out, Ference has gone back to his usual job of helping the Bruins chase the Stanley Cup. He declined an interview request for this story, same as Lemieux and Snow did through team spokesmen. The same night Ference made his remarks about Paille, he also got into a fight with a Dallas player. He got into another one against Montreal this month to stick up for a teammate, and several Bruins commended him for once again having their backs, same as he always has.
So much for Ference's alleged defection to the "pansification" wing.
Ference probably would say he's a realist more than a pacifist. He knows that his sport's unique nightly phenomenon -- bare-knuckle fist fighting -- isn't going anywhere any time soon, no matter what the NHL says about eliminating head shots. But hopefully, the next time his peers find themselves at the same crossroads he did -- confronted with the dangers of the game on one hand versus the decades of inertia in hockey and the supposed hopelessness of thinking that dangerous hits can be trimmed back -- more of them will make the same choice Ference did, and defy "the code."
The NHL has to change more. And it will.
To do anything less -- knowing what we know now about concussions -- is unconscionable.
"These are concussions, these are guys' lives -- ask Marc Savard," Ference said.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.