From Bobby Orr to Mario Lemieux to Sidney Crosby, the NHL has a dismal record of protecting its star players. And we saw that yet again when Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson was body-slammed — and injured — on the weekend.
Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson.|Getty
The saving grace in all of this is that at the very least, the NHL will have gotten to Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks early and taught him a couple of valuable lessons. The first, of course, is don’t ever, ever make your opponent look bad because every single time an NHL player is embarrassed by his opponent, even if it’s because he’s clowned on a play by a young rookie with otherworldly talent, that player is bound by The Code™ to do whatever necessary in order to exact revenge.
The second lesson Pettersson will have learned is probably an even more valuable one. And that is simply because he has been blessed with an abundance of natural gifts and talents, because he’s so much better than most other players and that he likely worked harder to cultivate those attributes by working harder than most players, he’s going to spend the rest of his career a target. That’s the way it works in this dopey league. The best players simply have to accept that opponents will have the leeway to stop them using whatever means necessary because NHL.
How else do you explain the fact that Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson didn’t receive so much as a minor penalty for body-slamming the Canucks’ explosive rookie to the ice on Saturday night? How else do you explain that there are people out there who legitimately thought it was a hockey play? How else do you explain that, since Matheson has been granted a telephone hearing, there is no way his suspension can exceed five games? (And will probably be a lot fewer. One or two is the betting in this corner.)
With the game on Saturday night between the Panthers and Canucks tied early in the third period, Pettersson essentially turned Matheson inside-out along the boards, leaving Matheson on the ice hopelessly flailing as Pettersson went behind the net. A full eight seconds after the play, Matheson drilled Pettersson into the boards. Then, with his stick between Pettersson’s legs and Pettersson in the air, Matheson slammed Pettersson to the ice WWE-style, sending the NHL’s best rookie to concussion protocol. Did the head injury occur when Matheson slammed Pettersson into the glass or when Pettersson’s head hit the ice after being thrown from the turnbuckle? Guess it doesn’t really matter, does it?
The Canucks are expected to provide an update on Pettersson’s condition at some point on Monday and Canucks GM Jim Benning reported that Pettersson was “feeling a little bit better” Sunday morning, about 12 hours after the hit that left him woozy and unable to get off the ice on his own. Should Pettersson miss any appreciable time for the Canucks, it would put the brakes on the best start to a season ever by a Canucks rookie. Not even Pavel Bure was this good in his first five games. Not even close. With five goals and eight points, Pettersson is the single-most important factor in the Canucks coming out of the gate with a 3-2-0 record and being one of the most surprising teams in the NHL.
There are those out there who believe we wouldn’t even be having this discussion right now had Matheson done this to a fourth-line player of if Pettersson hadn’t been injured on the play. Well, Matheson didn’t do it to a fourth-line player, largely because a player of that ilk would have never been in the position to embarrass him, nor did Pettersson skate away unscathed. So the NHL potentially loses an all-world young talent on a pre-mediated play that, if it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to injure, was at the very least incredibly reckless.
Let’s get one thing straight. No player, whether he’s a superstar or a minor-league call-up, should have to put up with this kind of thing. But from Bobby Orr to Mario Lemieux to Sidney Crosby, the NHL has a dismal record of protecting its star players. There almost seems to be an attitude in the hockey hierarchy that suggests the better player you are, the more you should expect to be abused. It is, of course, one of the many ridiculous tenets of old-time hockey culture. Players such as Pettersson put people who pay good money for tickets in seats. And while Matheson is a fine young player with a good future in the game, nobody is paying a cent to watch him play.
There was also something of an outcry that the Canucks did not avenge the Matheson hit with a vigilante act of their own. But the game was tied and not long after, the Canucks took the lead in a game they would go on to win by one goal. The third period of a one-goal game is not the time to go rogue and start causing mayhem. That kind of thing should be saved for a game down the road, preferably one that is hopelessly out of reach. Does that sound familiar?
Either that or the Canucks will have to go out to get someone to protect Pettersson because the league does not, causing them to use a valuable roster spot on a player whose skill level doesn’t warrant his presence there, but has the one redeeming quality that he can beat people up. That’s the way these things work. Either that, or Pettersson will simply have to accept the fact that he’s going to have a target on his back for the rest of his career, simply because he’s an elite player. Either way, it all defies logic.
Carry on, then…