Hunter nailed Turgeon now it's Bettman's turn to strike back

April 29, 1993|By Frank Brown | Frank Brown,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- It has been rather a pleasant honeymoon for Gary Bettman. The NHL's first commissioner has shaken all the right hands, said all the right things, has started to scrape mud off the NHL shield with an eagerness and an energy that suggest hope for the future.

But his first crisis started last night, and now we are going to learn what Bettman looks like with his tie unknotted and his sleeves rolled up. He holds the league's self-respect in his hands zTC right now, holds its national image in his hands right now like it is a pulsing heart. And how he decides to punish the Washington Caps' Dale Hunter today will determine the public perception of his sport for a very, very long time.

If he doesn't fall on Hunter like a building, Bettman's rule won't be worth a damn. It's sad, but it's true. The league's ability to govern itself, the league's determination to rid itself of a tawdry image, is on trial today because of something that happened before Bettman's very eyes in the New York Islanders' 5-3 win at Nassau Coliseum last night.

With no apparent provocation, the Washington center interrupted Pierre Turgeon's goal celebration by flinging the Islanders' star center into the sideboards. While attempting to brace against the fall, Turgeon suffered a third-degree separation of his right shoulder. Third-degree is virtually the worst kind of separation.

It would be one thing if the incident had been caused in the course of play. Hockey is a fast-paced game and accidents happen. But this was no accident. This was venal. This was malignant, as malignant as the series against Boston a few years ago, when Hunter jammed his elbow into Craig Janney's head long after the Bruins center had scored a key goal.

Dale Hunter, the repeat offender, leaned against the wall outside the Capitals dressing room and stuck to a feeble, but remarkably creative, story about not having known that Turgeon had scored a goal.

The fact is, his assault on Turgeon occurred long after the puck was in the net and the Coliseum was wobbling with cheers. You can count the number of strides Hunter took before reaching Turgeon, who had been celebrating his goal for some seconds before Hunter arrived.

"It was premeditated. It was an intent to hurt," said Islanders GM Don Maloney, seeming near tears at times from the anger and the frustration. "It hurts the franchise. It hurts the game. And I'm sure they're going to realize they're going to have to come down extremely harsh.

"You know what happens?" Maloney asked. "[Defenseman Rich] Pilon probably breaks his knuckle in the incident after. [Center Benoit] Hogue hurt his hand in the fight -- we don't know how bad -- all because of a senseless act of premeditated violence. It takes away all the luster; we walk in our dressing room everybody should be happy. Now, it's like, 'Geez. How do we get excited about this?' Turgeon's got tears in his eyes. It gets you sick. It really does. Hits you right in the stomach."

Now Bettman has to hit Hunter. Harder. Or there is no point in continuing. Bettman has to handle this one. Not Gil Stein. Not a committee on discipline. This one is on his desk. It begins and ends in his office. And it declares forever the course he intends for his league.

Bettman wasn't the only key witness to this event. This game was shown nationally on ESPN and on TSN, the Canadian equivalent. Also, ranking columnists from the major papers in this media capital of the world were in attendance. Most of those people see only a handful of games in a season; most of them think this type of despicable cheap shot is a common occurrence in hockey.

The opinions they hold help shape other opinions; there is a trickle-down effect. Thus Hunter's gutless cheap shot caused severe damage not only to one of the league's major stars, it caused a major setback to the league's attempt to clean up its image. It embarrassed every one of the many hard-working people in the Washington Capitals' organization. It caused Maloney to bellow Hunter "should be out for a damn year."

Pierre Turgeon is the Islanders' Mario Lemieux, their Wayne Gretzky. The star players are the game. If this league doesn't protect its star players, it has no game.

Bettman, no dummy, knows all this. He scheduled a hearing for today, and he could charge anything he wants for tickets because the eyes of all sport will be watching, the ears of all sport will be listening. The honeymoon is over; now Bettman starts cleaning the toilets.

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