Years ago, ages ago to the point I can't find a source on the Internet to verify this, World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment -- or commonly referred to as the WWE) chairman Vince McMahon was supposed to have mused about how he'd be interested in running the NHL -- mixing the sport and highlighting the personalities of the game.
That's right, the man who helped turn Terry Bolea into Hulk Hogan, popularized "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and inserted "Wrestlemania" into the pop culture's psyche over the past 30+ years, wanted to try his hand at the proverbial "coolest game on earth". At least, supposedly.
While I can't back it up with a link (turning the entire suggestion into hearsay), you can confirm that McMahon had ties to hockey in the past.
Of course, McMahon and the NHL never happened. Vince did try to remake the pro-sports game with his brand of sports-entertainment via the eXtreme Football League, but the XFL never got to the point in popularity to be seen as anything more than a gimmick at best. That's not to say the XFL doesn't have legacies. Any time you see a camera dangling over the field of play (giving the view from behind center), or see reporters interviewing coaches and players during gameplay, or even camera views from the locker rooms during intermissions, thank Vince and company.
Flash forward to 2010-11 and the inception of HBO's documentary series "HBO 24/7 Road to the Winter Classic" and you were intimately introduced to the in's and outs of the National Hockey League, by way of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. You were exposed to the banter, the blow-ups, and other aspects of the game and the sport that are usually out of reach for the fans. "The Road To the Winter Classic" isn't breaking new ground, as HBO has been running documentary-sport-entertainment series' for a few years now (I'm thinking specifically of Hard Knocks, which chronicles an NFL team during the training camp and the preseason), but it is a fresh take on a sport that doesn't get as much exposure as it could.
The novelty of "24 / 7" (in its second season) has bloomed with the antics of the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. Ilya Bryzgalov turned into a household name, and a repeat reason to tune in to see what odd remarks he'd be trumpeting in each episode.
Yet, I'm troubled. I'm not troubled at the idea of this series, nor the Winter Classic (which, actually, has nothing to do with my troubles at all). It's more about how the show is affecting players and influencing their actions.
Last Tuesday night (December 27th), we saw Scott Hartnell decide to venture over to the Lightning bench to find out what was going on in Guy Boucher's huddle. To say that something like this is a no-no in hockey would be an understatement. This isn't just something a seasoned veteran like Hartnell would momentarily forgot.
The entire motivation of the moment was likely for television. It was for "24 / 7". It was for the cameras and premium cable.
This brings me back to Vince McMahon, who specializes in manufactured incidents for the sake of the camera. Professional wrestling is an entirely scripted, manufactured contest between physical actors. The guys don't just perform in the ring (with predetermined outcomes to matches) and for the crowd, but for the television camera that films their moves.
For Hartnell (or any of the other Flyers, or Rangers for that matter) to do things on ice, during gameplay, to gain face-time during "24 / 7", doesn't that cheapen games (as well as the authenticity of the show)? Doesn't it cause a bit of doubt on the sincerity of the effort - how much they really care about the outcome of a game - if they're trying to do things to gain face-time in an ongoing documentary?
I'm not trying to be high-and-mighty here. It's not like players in the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NFL, or even college sports haven't and don't do stuff specifically for the camera. Showmanship is one of the keys to becoming Sportscenter-worthy. Chad Ochocinco will do something outrageous, or an NBA player will embellish a slam dunk for the "WOW" factor of it... But these type of incidents don't lead to infractions that effect both teams, as the Hartnell incident did.
And it's not like this should be a secret that NHL players do want to grab extra attention on the TV. Back on March 19th, 2009, Alex Ovechkin's famed "Stick on Fire" incident during a game against the Bolts (where he scored his 50th goal of the season) turned heads and raised ire.
But Alex loved it. When asked how Hockey Night in Canada personality Don Cherry would react, Alex seemed tickled at the looming backlash:
"Oh yeah, he's going to be ticked off for sure. I love it," Ovechkin said. "I can't wait till he says something about me. Old coaches, old system, you know?"
Players aren't supposed to be robots, and while the Bolts didn't take kindly to Ovechkin's antics - they also didn't react on ice. In the case of Hartnell, they didn't take things lying down this time around.
But in light of a lack of video evidence (except, perhaps, video from "HBO 24 / 7" ), the entire incident turned into a he-said, he-said moment, where you're more likely to back the guy you root for, while further obfuscating what really happened.
And to that end, I guess Vince McMahon really did gain some control of the NHL. After all, this entire situation played out like a storyline anecdote from "WWE Raw" or "Smackdown!", but we'll have to tune in to the next episode of "24 / 7" to know what really happened.