In a 1955 comedy titled “The Mouse That Roared,” the tiny, fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick invades the United States led by actor Peter Sellers and armed with just bows and arrows. After much hilarity, they improbably win the war.
Change the dates and names and that plot summary nicely sums up pro hockey’s latest kerfuffle. Only tin-eared NHL boss Gary Bettman isn’t laughing anymore.
A few weeks ago, some hockey fans with a sense of humour took advantage of a rule change in the league’s balloting for the Jan. 31 All-Star Game and launched an internet campaign to vote enforcer John Scott onto the team. It was a lark to begin with, little more than a half-hearted attempt to add some fun to an event annually lacking in that department.
To be clear: The 6-foot-8 Scott is hardly an All-Star; his skill set pretty much begins and ends at his fists. He’s collected just five goals to go along with 542 penalty minutes, which explains how he wound up playing for seven different organizations in a 10-year pro career. Making matters worse, Scott isn’t on an NHL roster at the moment, having been traded only last Friday by the Arizona Coyotes to Montreal, which in turn shipped him out to the club’s AHL affiliate in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
And that’s when things got interesting.
Scott’s journeyman status is a reminder that there isn’t much demand for enforcers in today’s fast-paced NHL. The Coyotes tried putting the 33-year-old left wing on waivers four times in the previous six months, but found no takers until his name shot to the top of the All-Star balloting and stubbornly stayed there. Conspiracy theories abounded.
In short order, the league was accused of throwing technicalities in Scott’s path to keep him off the ice; manipulating the online voting; trying to buy him off with the offer of a free trip to All-Star weekend in Nashville for him and his family; even pressuring the teams involved in the trade to bury him quietly in the minors. The reactions of Scott and Bettman, the two principles in this wearying drama, was telling.
Scott long ago proved his commitment to hockey and has plenty of scars to prove it. He anguished about embarrassing the game. He talked with teammates and then his family. It didn’t hurt, of course, that he did the math, too.
Scott’s contract is for
$700,000 per year, though less the longer he plays in the minors. His wife is expecting to deliver twins at any moment. He’s also lost nearly $80,000 in suspensions and fines — a sum that would be erased by the roughly $100,000 share doled out to each All-Star on the winning side.
Eventually he concluded it was “a huge opportunity for me. I never ever thought I could ever go,” he told the New York Times on Wednesday, after playing his first game for the St. John’s IceCaps in Bridgeport, Connecticut, “so I’m kind of making the best of it and taking a positive spin on it.”
Bettman, on the other hand, is still spinning.
Although the NHL blanched at the thought of Scott ruining the flow of its new 3-on-3 format — meant to showcase finesse players like Alex Ovechkin and Jaromir Jagr — he insisted the league intended to go along with the joke all the time.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntoshGary Bettman is still spinning.
“The fans spoke in large numbers for the process and he’s going to be joining us in Nashville. There was never any doubt about that,” the commissioner said during an appearance Tuesday in San Jose, California, for the Sharks 25th anniversary celebration. But he followed that soon after with an implied threat.
“Obviously the fans decided it was important to vote for him and we respect that. Whether or not we need to make adjustments into the future and ensure that truly All-Star players are there,” Bettman added, “is something we’ll worry about after we go to Nashville.”
But whether we’re talking about sanctioning votes at the United Nations, wet T-shirt contests in bars or balloting for the All-Star Game, what we’re conducting is a popularity test. If All-Star games are supposed to be for the fans — as opposed to just another marketing opportunity — the league better be prepared to live with the outcome. The NHL already reduced the number of available slots fan balloting could decide from a dozen players previously to just four this time around.
Scott still has no idea which team’s jersey he’ll wear, but that’s the least of his worries. With babies on the way and a career to resuscitate, he’s got enough on his plate.
“It was something I didn’t want to deal with — something that was thrust upon me,” Scott said. “But now I can move on and play hockey and hopefully work my way back to the NHL.”