Rob Vanstone: NHL's flaws are painfully evident early in relaunch

Columnist Rob Vanstone decries issues that plague the National Hockey League — the nullification of skill and the needless finishing of checks.

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Robservations …

• The National Hockey League continues to endorse the nullification of skill. Witness a qualifying-round series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus won Sunday’s opener, 2-0, while extracting the life from a much-anticipated game. The Maple Leafs, whose roster includes stars such as Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly, are the vastly superior team in terms of talent. But it doesn’t matter on those occasions when the NHL playoffs are reduced to a somniferous game of checkers.

Mark Scheifele, 55, of the Winnipeg Jets is helped off of the ice after a hard hit against the Calgary Flames on Saturday in Edmonton. Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images. Photo by Jeff Vinnick /Getty Images

Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele suffered a leg injury Saturday while being hit by the Calgary Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk, who was finishing a check. Lost in all the discussion about whether Tkachuk’s hit was ill-intentioned is the utter pointlessness of finishing a check. Time after time, players absorb needless hits. Nobody in power seems to think this is a problem. Legendary NHL goaltender Ken Dryden, who should be the conscience of the game, has called for finished checks — which are essentially late hits — to be penalized. Scheifele had already relinquished the puck, yet Tkachuk’s hit was deemed permissible. Nobody blinks. Nothing is done. So much for player safety.


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• Suppose that Scheifele was a quarterback and not a hockey player. Roughing the passer would have been called in the NFL and CFL.

The NHL’s 2019 Heritage Classic, between the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames, was played Oct. 26 at Mosaic Stadium. Troy Fleece/Regina Leader-Post. Photo by Troy Fleece /Regina Leader-Post

• The NHL’s most-recent Heritage Classic, in which the Jets registered a 2-1 overtime victory over Calgary, was played Oct. 26 at Mosaic Stadium. Now it is August and, after a lengthy hiatus due to COVID-19, the 2019-20 season is still in effect. The Jets and Flames are in the midst of a qualifying-round series. Back in October, we marvelled at a precedent-setting NHL game in Regina. Now, Mosaic Stadium is empty, COVID-19 has put the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the CFL in a precarious financial situation. We long for the days when the only cause for concern was the chilling conditions during the Queen City’s first flirtation with Hockey Night in Canada.

• What a joy it is to hear Chris Cuthbert calling NHL games on Canadian television again.

Maurice (Rocket) Richard uses Eddie Shack’s nose to measure a stick on Jan. 14, 1988 during an old-timers hockey game at the Fort Qu’Appelle Rexentre. Robert Watson/Regina Leader-Post. Photo by Robert Watson /Regina Leader-Post


The recent death of Eddie Shack prompted a flashback to January of 1988, when the colourful ex-NHLer visited the Fort Qu’Appelle Rexentre with a touring old-timers team. One of the gags called for the guest referee, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, to use Shack’s battle-tested nose as a benchmark during a stick measurement. That was classic Eddie Shack — willingly poking fun at himself and generating loads of laughs along the way. I interviewed him a handful of times and, trust me, it was difficult to take notes while cracking up. He always treated the fans like royalty. (And, yes, it was also an honour to interview The Rocket — a wonderful man.)


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• The year was 1974. The fledgling World Football League was to include a Canadian-based franchise — the Toronto Northmen. The federal government, a Liberal administration, stepped in to quash the foreign football intrusion as a means of protecting the CFL. Fast forward to 2020. Another Liberal government, given an opportunity to allow Canadian professional football to be played this season, has provided only lukewarm support. TSN’s Dave Naylor reported Friday that the feds have offered “a short-term loan with high interest rates and fees.” Naylor added that league operatives believe “taking that kind of position would put them in a worse position going forward.” The time has arrived to direct all resources and energies to a relaunch of the CFL, with a sensible and sustainable business plan, in 2021.

Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo was named a CFL all-star and the West Division’s most outstanding player in 2019. Troy Fleece/Regina Leader-Post. Photo by Troy Fleece /Regina Leader-Post


• From the how-time-flies department: Saturday was the first anniversary ofthe Roughriders’ memorable corn-dog game. In the aftermath of a 24-19 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, quarterback Cody Fajardo — who had scored the winning touchdown in the final minute — expressed a desire to wade into the Queen City Ex midway and sample the concession fare. In short order, Fajardo posted on social media the image of himself satisfying the corn dog craving. It was one of those a-star-is-born evenings … and it still feels like yesterday.

• In 2019, Fajardo became the first Roughrider to be named the CFL’s all-star quarterback and the West Division’s most outstanding player since Kerry Joseph, who enjoyed a magical 2007 season while guiding the Green and White to a Grey Cup championship. Joseph, who was also named the league’s most outstanding player in 2007, was recently hired by the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks as an offensive assistant. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.


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• More from the how-time-flies department: Sidney Crosby — a.k.a. Sid The Kid — turns 33 on Friday. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ superstar is putting the finishing touches on his 15th NHL season.

• So, a group of minor hockey teams attend a summer tournament in Winnipeg — in the midst of a pandemic. Everyone associated with four of the teams, emanating from the same organization in Saskatchewan, adheres to a social-media blackout. Those teams’ nicknames are altered. Players’ names are changed to initials on the game sheets. At some point, how does one of the adults in the room not speak up and convince the group that “this isn’t a good idea”?

• Summer hockey, period, is a bad idea. Give the kids a break.

• Kudos to TSN for showing ESPN’s version of SportsCenter.

Jim Marshall, a future legend with the Minnesota Vikings, is shown in 1959 as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Regina Leader-Post files. Photo by Regina Leader-Post files


• Three legendary NFLers, each of whom spent some time at Taylor Field without making it a long-term home, will tell Regina-oriented stories on our pages in the days to come. Stay tuned for features on Fred Biletnikoff (Thursday), Warren Moon (Friday) and Jim Marshall (Saturday). Biletnikoff and Moon played here as members of the visiting team. Marshall began his professional football career with the 1959 Roughriders. The following year, he figured in a rare NFL-CFL trade and ended up joining the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland cleared the way for quarterback Bob Ptacek, a 2002 inductee into the Roughriders’ Plaza of Honour, to join the local CFL team. Marshall and Ptacek share their recollections in Saturday’s Weekender section.


• Nice people who deserve a plug: Olivia Ann Quest, Sally Elliott, Don McDougall, Jill McDougall, Chris Cuthbert, Sidney Crosby, Dave Millar, David MacLeod, Mark MacLeod, Lloyd Stan, Sylvia Stan, Chris Getzlaf, JJ Elliott, Teale Orban, Brian Munz, Sean Kleisinger, Dan Bilicki, Jeannie Mah, Kevin Martens, Trevor Warburton and Tom Fuzesy.