Opinion

In a week in which so many terrific, at times touching things happened on the ice, the biggest takeaway for most will be the three-ring circus that went down at the world's most famous arena.

In a week in which so many terrific, at times touching things happened on the ice, the biggest takeaway for most will be the three-ring circus that went down at the world's most famous arena.

Under the approving watch of head carnival barker Gary Bettman and his group of hand-picked lackeys, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals put on a deplorable display over two nights (Mike Stobe/Getty Images/TNS FILES)</p>

Under the approving watch of head carnival barker Gary Bettman and his group of hand-picked lackeys, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals put on a deplorable display over two nights (Mike Stobe/Getty Images/TNS FILES)

Under the approving watch of head carnival barker Gary Bettman and his group of hand-picked lackeys, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals put on a deplorable display over two nights at Madison Square Garden, dragging the sport back into the very gutter it claims to want to distance itself from.

Egregious acts of violence. Attempts, some of them successful, to injure. A line brawl right at puck drop. Enough potential head trauma to fill an ER. Trash talking and WWE-style flexing and posing.

Congratulations, NHL. You reap what you sow. And the bush-league brouhaha on Broadway — just a stone's throw from the head office — was richly deserved for a league that showed once again why it will always exist on the fringes for so many fans, particularly south of the border.

"Oh, but it got more eyeballs on the product!" some will shout from the rooftops. I've already seen plenty of takes along those lines. To which I would say this: You could also put an execution on live television and likely garner boffo ratings. That doesn't make it right. There really is such a thing as bad publicity, and appealing to the rubberneckers is not a sound long-term business strategy.

Getting your league some exposure on websites and shows such as TMZ, which happened thanks to the Tom Wilson-inspired mutiny, is the wrong kind of attention. And the worst thing is the NHL apparently wants it this way.

Washington Capitals' Tom Wilson takes a roughing penalty during the second period against New York Rangers' Artemi Panarin. (Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via AP)</p>

Washington Capitals' Tom Wilson takes a roughing penalty during the second period against New York Rangers' Artemi Panarin. (Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via AP)

By allowing a notorious repeat-offender like Washington's Wilson to skate with nothing more than a US$5,000 fine for sucker-punching New York forward Pavel Buchnevich during a post-whistle scrum on Monday, then tossing star Artemi Panarin to the ice — possibly by his hair — and injuring him for the remainder of the season, the fuse was fully lit. (For the record, Buchnevich and Panarin weren't exactly saints, either, clearly biting off more than they could chew.)

Knowing the teams were meeting 48 hours later for a final time, you'd think the NHL would have at least slapped Wilson with a one-game ban just to take the temperature down a notch or two. Then came some more gasoline from the Rangers in the form of a scathing written statement calling for the head of former goon George Parros, who is now the NHL's head sheriff for some bizarre reason. For that, the organization was hit with a US$250,000 fine. Because of course they were. 

Do whatever the hell you want on the ice with little to no repercussions. But don't you dare speak out of turn or question authority.

Predictably, things completely went off the rails Wednesday night, with six fights — including three at the same time just one second into the game — and 141 combined penalty minutes. Buchnevich, who was running around like he was Liam Neeson in a Hollywood thriller trying to avenge some horrible wrong against his family, eventually got kicked out of the game for a jumping cross-check to Anthony Mantha's face which bloodied the Capitals forward.

Buchnevich was slapped with a one-game suspension for his reckless actions. And I suspect Wilson couldn't contain his laughter, sitting back and enjoying the latest crap-show he created. 

New York Rangers' Pavel Buchnevich (89) skates between Washington Capitals' Tom Wilson (43) and Zdeno Chara (33) during the first period of Wednesday's game. (Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via AP)</p>

New York Rangers' Pavel Buchnevich (89) skates between Washington Capitals' Tom Wilson (43) and Zdeno Chara (33) during the first period of Wednesday's game. (Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via AP)

It was all so stupid, especially the staged fights right off the hop when Wilson wasn't even on the ice. Why, exactly, did Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway and Carl Hagelin feel the need to immediately drop the gloves with Kevin Rooney, Philip Di Giuseppe and Colin Blackwell? Because hockey culture!

"I don’t know why the (Rangers) thought they had to fight all the (Capitals) last night. To prove what point? Wilson should be suspended? Why didn’t three guys just jump him? Why put your entire team at risk to prove a point? It’s the ‘I don’t like the law, let’s riot mentality!'" former NHL enforcer turned broadcaster P.J. Stock wrote on Twitter the following day.

Bingo. Bettman has often spoken about the need to have players "police" the game, of controlling the temperature. What that really means is vigilante justice and prison-yard rules. Of inmates running the asylum. Of bare-knuckled brutality in the name of entertainment. And the Rangers and Capitals players and coaches deserve plenty of blame as well for putting hockey on the back-burner as they tried to take their pound of flesh from each other. 

Imagine if something similar happened in the NFL, the NBA or MLB, the three other big-league sports which blow away the NHL in popularity. You can bet the consequences would be extreme, because they have no tolerance for such buffoonery. In hockey, it's simply dismissed as an acceptable part of the game.

It's no secret I have issues with the department of so-called player safety, and I wrote in this space a few weeks ago how the league continues to stick its collective head in the sand when it comes to plays that cause concussions. That extends to still allowing fighting, which is up sharply this season due to what I suspect is teams growing tired of seeing each other over and over and over again in the 56-game divisional schedule. 

By not only condoning, but essentially encouraging what we witnessed this past week, they've doubled-down on their wilful blindness.

"You’d think that we would have learned, or someone would have learned," Len Boogaard told the New York Times this week about what went down between the Capitals and Rangers, and the role the league played in it. 

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP FILES Photo/Matt Slocum</p>

Derek Boogaard was one of the most feared heavyweights in the NHL during a six-year career which involved 277 games and 589 penalty minutes. He died a decade ago, overdosing on alcohol and painkillers.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP FILES Photo/Matt Slocum

Derek Boogaard was one of the most feared heavyweights in the NHL during a six-year career which involved 277 games and 589 penalty minutes. He died a decade ago, overdosing on alcohol and painkillers.

His son, Derek, was one of the most feared heavyweights in the NHL during a six-year career which involved 277 games and 589 penalty minutes. He died a decade ago, overdosing on alcohol and painkillers. An autopsy found evidence of advanced CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which is brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas. 

"What boggles my mind now is that everybody knows better," said Jody Boogaard, Derek's stepmother. They do. Unfortunately, they're all talk, no action when it comes to doing anything about it. 

There are great stories happening right now around NHL, which has never seen so much speed and skill.

Michael Houser, an undrafted 28-year-old goalie who has spent his entire pro career in the minors, made his NHL debut this past week and won his first two starts for Buffalo. Marc-Andre Fleury, one of the true good guys in the game, now trails only Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur on the all-time wins list for netminders after recording his 490th victory. Washington forward T.J. Oshie, playing his first game since the death of his father, Tim, due to Alzheimer's, recorded a hat trick.

Auston Matthews hit the 40-goal mark in just his 49th game. Connor McDavid is now just four points shy of 100 in this truncated season and could get there with a big night on Saturday. Closer to home, Jets captain Blake Wheeler recorded his 800th career point on the same play that Mark Scheifele got his 500th.

Unfortunately, all of that is being overshadowed by league-sanctioned thuggery that should have been run out of the game a long time ago.

For decades, Madison Square Garden played host to the "Greatest Show On Earth", as tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, jugglers and clowns performed annually as part of The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This week, under the very same roof, we were reminded of why arguably the greatest sport on Earth is seen as nothing more than a freakshow on skates by many observers.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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