Reaping What You Sow: John Scott, Loui Eriksson, and the Pride of the NHL All-Star Game
For Stars fans, this is a complicated situation. For the NHL, it was an impossible one, but that's still no excuse for what's happened.
So many people have written and written well about the John Scott fiasco, and with good reason. It's fascinating, it's charged with emotion, and it's about as controversial a maneuver by the league--sorry, by Arizona, Nashville and Montreal--since the last lockout.
For Dallas Stars fans, it's especially complicated:
Eriksson's loss in the summer of 2013 was by far the most painful part of the Seguin trade. To watch him then get knocked out with a predatory and needless hit just three months later was downright ghastly. John Scott would be suspended seven games for that hit, but you could still make a very good argument that he deserved more. Way more. Concussions are awful, life-altering events, and unlike all the recent voting campaigns for laughable All-Stars, the NHL has repeatedly changed its rules and procedures in order to prevent them and their recurrence. John Scott hit Loui Eriksson with a horribly dangerous hit because he could. He knew his role on the Sabres, and it was to impact the game in whatever way his limited skill set would allow. Loui Eriksson may still feel that impact twenty years from now.
John Scott would also be suspended twice in the 2014-15 season. The first time was for coming off the bench just to fight Tim Jackman. The second one was for butt-ending the same Tim Jackman in the side of the head. Scott maintained the second incident to be accidental. Tim Jackman has spent most of this season with the Ducks' AHL affiliate in San Diego.
This is the John Scott a lot of fans are feeling bad for, and there isn't much point separating him from the soon-to-be-father of four that just got banished to Newfoundland. The fans chose to vote for a bad hockey player with a history of suspensions, and they ended up paying the price for it when their choice couldn't stick in the league by way of one contrivance or another. The shady trade to Montreal gives the NHL plausible reason to render Scott ineligible for the game, but that doesn't mean anyone is happy about it, and they shouldn't be.
No matter what side of the discussion you're on, there is blame to be handed out. A player wanted to go to the All-Star Game after the fans played by the league's rules and elected him, and a few general managers conspired on a trade that made that outcome almost impossible.
Ron MacLean has my (so far) favorite take on the situation over at his blog:
The league needs to be good if it wishes to be great. John Scott, by the ideals of meritocracy, has worked hard, received a four-year education at Michigan Tech, and sustained a career in professional hockey since 2006. He has earned our admiration and respect. He will not be an embarrassment.
I don’t like the way John Scott is being treated, nor do I accept what’s being implied about the fans and their place in this equation. Alexis de Tocqueville also warned, "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money."
Now, I think of what is happening to John Scott. I think of the paying customers being told what’s in their best interest.
And I ponder the lessons of democracy.
MacLean knows the avarice of those running the league all too well to adopt any naïveté about their will to be good. The league does not care about being good to the fans unless it can profit as a result, and it does not care all that much about being good to the players unless it means keeping them healthy enough to play games and sell the product more. The NHL is a business, and Gary Bettman is the frontman for the various Gordon Gekkos that constitute the cadre of "powerful" owners who tell Bettman what to do. These are your Bostons, your Torontos, your Montreals, etc. To expect them to unite over anything that doesn't fill their coffers is disingenuous at best.
Still, the league is absolutely guilty here. And unlike the illogical analogy of a certain former beat writer about playing a cruel joke on an outcast, this is more akin to the following scenario:
Popular girl Alicia declares that she will go to the Winter Formal with whomever her classmates vote for, and the school sanctions the campaign. A large portion of her classmates (but none of her closest friends) proceed to vote for the least popular person they can find: Pat. Alicia is stuck, but it's just one Winter Formal after all, and there doesn't seem to be any harm in going through with it. Pat isn't popular, but he is a student, and he won't set the building on fire or anything during the Winter Formal. In fact Pat wants to bring his parents along to enjoy it with him. Pat is really excited about this!
Alicia's parents feel differently, however, and they coerce the school into expelling Pat altogether. The students are incensed, but Alicia's parents (and her friends' parents) proceed to blame the voting students: "You should have known you were only supposed to vote for popular people," they said. "Besides, you didn't even like Pat that much. It was just a dumb joke."
Pat, meanwhile, is now going to school in Newfoundland. He likely will never see his old school again.
The NHL's leaders were embarrassed by the John Scott vote, and they have been pushing for him to forgo participating in the contest since day one:
"I wanted to ask him if he was sure," the [Coyotes] GM said. "If it was five-on-five, there’d be no problem. But it’s three-on-three, which is much different. He really wanted to play. It became important to him, something he wanted to do."
According to a couple of sources, the NHL offered Scott’s family a free trip to the game — the ability to participate in the weekend without play. It was rejected. What’s uncertain is if that offer still exists. (The league has not commented.) It’s also uncertain if the league added other incentives, such as a winner’s share of the All-Star money or another family vacation at another time.
The other unknown is how the conversations with the league went. We know the NHL was not successful in getting him to step away, but there have been rumours those talks did not go well at all. Scott, suspended three times, losing almost $80,000 in salary, may not have been too inclined to listen.
Given the NHL's request, you cannot say John Scott couldn't have, ahem, seen this coming. To expect the league to stand idle while the brand-new All-Star Game format was rolled out with one of the worst players in hockey captaining a team was, again, a bit naïve. John Scott has made no friends in the commissioner's office, and that's not solely because he's only scored five career goals.
But then, let us remember: John Scott has scored five career goals in the NHL. And they weren't all of the lucky-to-have-been-there variety, either:
(Okay, maybe that third one was precisely of the "lucky-to-have-been-there variety, but still. That first goal is downright pretty.)
John Scott is was playing in the NHL primarily because of his size and pugilistic abilities, but even he could likely embarrass every single one of us in a game of hockey. In fact, since the summer of 2014, he's been as prolific a scorer on a per-minute basis as another former Stars player:
Alex Chiasson has the same Goals/60 (EV) as John Scott since being traded to Ottawa.— Travis Yost (@travisyost) January 7, 2016
To say Scott would have been an embarrassment at the All-Star Game is patently absurd. Players are already going half-speed in the exhibition, so even if that means Scott would have had to hit the nitro to keep up, it's still something that tons of fans were hoping to see. John Scott would have cared about scoring in the All-Star Game, and that's something far too rare. And if you think his teammates wouldn't have made twelve passes in a row just to set him up, you don't know hockey players. They were never going to try to embarrass him in this competition, at least not outright.
But because everyone is bent on taking sides and assigning ultimate culpability, here's the bottom line: The NHL has consistently allowed undeserving players in the All-Star Game as Sean McIndoe recounted last January and James Mirtle wrote about just this morning. This has always angered fans of the worthy players left out of the game, but the NHL continually responded with--surprise--ignoring such complaints while offering vague praise of those elected, even when that praise stretched the boundaries of credibility ("He's a top shot-blocker on his team!") Once a player was elected, that was that, and the NHL grit its teeth and went along with it. Whether it was Mike Millbury choosing Chris Nilan or the province of Quebec electing anyone with a Canadiens car flag, the NHL took its medicine and moved along.
In fact, the NHL has even selected unworthy candidates themselves. The most recent such choice is, of course, Pekka Rinne, who has been an objectively bad goaltender this season. The Predators were already given two All-Stars in Roman Josi and Shea Weber (who has also played below the level of many non-All-Stars this year), but the league apparently decided that Nashville needed three players, even with the roster crunch imposed by the new four-division format. That had the direct result of disenfranchising other worthy All-Stars, but somehow that's just something the league has tacitly permitted. It's okay to allow sub-par All Stars when the host city does it, which is to say that it's okay to allow players in the game who don't deserve to be there when the host city might sell more All-Star sweaters as a result.
In years past, the fans reacted here and there. The Vote for Rory campaign was a clear backlash to the sins of the All-Star Game's past, but the NHL's hubris that time around led them to throw out a nebulous quantity of votes in order to exclude Fitzpatrick. It was obvious that the NHL was desperate to avoid granting the campaign's wish, but there was a veneer of plausible deniability due to "invalid" votes created by "the internet," and so the wave of fan anger passed. For the moment.
This time around, the NHL knew they couldn't get away with a similar tactic with Scott. Still, I began to think they might try it again when the vote totals stopped being released like they usually were. Instead, Scott's election was announced (again, without vote totals), and the Reddit voters (and Puck Daddy/Steve Dangle fans) rejoiced. They had stuck it to the Man. For the moment.
But just as the NHL paid for its past folly when the fans' efforts finally coalesced into the Scott campaign, so too did the fans pay for their choice of a thrice-suspended player for whom even the NHL wouldn't be able to find a paper-thin plaudit to list on its press notes. Scott's selection was intended to embarrass the league for its disrespect of the term "All-Star" in years past, and it did that. But to think the league would eat humble pie in the one year when a bottom-six plug couldn't be hidden among ten skaters was a bit too much to hope for. The NHL paid for its pride, but that doesn't mean it had to change. It did what it did in 2012 and in 2005: it flexed its muscles.
John Scott spent the last few years periodically breaking the rules and hurting other players in order to cement his role on his team. He refused to apologize for being the flashpoint of the Ffns' revolt. He is now in Newfoundland, playing in the AHL for a franchise that didn't even want him in the first place.
The fans refused to select even a slightly even a slightly less offensive candidate for their campaign. They are now without an elected Pacific Division captain, and their ballot list will almost assuredly be even more restricted next year.
The league refused to fix its voting process (well, 2007 was pretty clearly a "fix") and allowed this to happen. Now, in a twisted bit of fate, they have the Scott debacle to thank for an excuse to further reduce the voting powers of the Fans, which is what they should have done some time ago.
One would assume they will find a way to do so that leaves the inevitable 2017 All-Star vote without an avenue for the fans to choose the least deserving candidate; however, given the NHL's incompetence with managing even its own danged stats page, I'm not exactly confident that they'll find a way to do this. But then, the NHL clearly cares far more about its All-Star rosters than it does about keeping its fans informed, and that is not sarcasm. So, maybe they can pull it off. If so, that will be the victory many fans have been hoping to accomplish ever since the Rory Fitzpatrick campaign. It was never about the player being voted for back in 2007, and it wasn't about him this time.
From the outside, the league is pulling the shadiest maneuver here in refusing to play by their own rules. But once the situation became more about pride--pride in Scott's own appearance in the game, pride in sticking it to the league, or pride in upholding the game's integrity--than it did about honor, there was never going to be a good outcome to this situation.
At this point, it seems somewhat likely that the league will offer a(nother) token gesture to Scott in order to appear that they've taken swallowed their pride and taken some sort of moral high ground. Scott can choose to swallow his pride this time around and accept, or he can toil away in Newfoundland as his wife gives birth to twins. As we've seen once again, the NHL really has no need to humble itself when it wields the biggest (and only) club. For Scott and the Fans to have expected them to lay down that club without a financial incentive is perhaps the greatest mistake of all.