Bettman shows character, strength with 21-game suspension of Caps' Hunter


Twenty-one games wipes the smirk off Dale Hunter's face.

Twenty-one games sets a match to Gil Stein's pantywaist system of "discipline," which suspended players only for practices and non-game, non-travel days.

Twenty-one games dares any other player in the NHL to find out whether this is the outer limit of Gary Bettman's justice, or whether it's just the starting point.

Twenty-one games leaves a massive hole in the heart of the Washington Capitals. Even if you hate him, and he certainly gives you reason, you cannot overlook the fact that Hunter is a pivotal performer for his team. Hunter's selfish, gutless moment last week distracts from the fact his seven goals in the series against the New York Islanders were as many as the rest of the Capitals' forwards added together.

The Capitals never recovered from the loss, by trade, of Dino Ciccarelli -- their spark plug. Now, without Hunter for the first quarter of their season, the Capitals face a monumental disadvantage from an intangible standpoint.

And 21 games sends an even louder message across the desks of the other commissioners. You find me one other commissioner with the guts to crank one of his major players for one-quarter of a season and take $150,000 out of his wallet. In baseball, you can't even find a commissioner.

Now, the only thing on Dale Hunter's face is Gary Bettman's thumbprint.

Now, before a cheap-shot player commits injurious mayhem, he might want to ask himself, "Is what I am about to do worth one-fourth of my annual income?"

Now, players know -- in case they may have forgotten -- that playing a professional sport is a privilege, not a right. You hurt somebody, you're going down. You're going to get hurt back.

Now, Dale Hunter has hurt the Islanders for the short run but he has hurt his team -- which needs him, which depends on him -- much worse. And he has hurt it for the long run.

If you see this penalty as "only" 21 games, you are missing a point. It took the Washington Capitals 45 days to play their first 21 games in the 1992-93 season. Since Hunter will be allowed to practice for two weeks before his return, that means 31 days Hunter cannot practice, cannot play, cannot lead. He becomes a non-player, a nonentity.

His team will need him and he will not be able to help his team because of injury -- the one he caused Pierre Turgeon. David Shaw missed 12 games for high sticking Mario Lemieux a few years back; you ask David Shaw what that month of his life was like, and how many more months it took to get back together.

Let's remember something else here: Until last week's incident and yesterday's declaration, you had to trip a linesman to get suspended 20 games. To get suspended for longer, you had to do drugs and get caught. That is different now.

In fact, a lot is different, now that Dale Hunter has been reduced to powder. After years of "getting around to" supplementary discipline, Bettman has proved a player's action can be met by a swift, direct action.

Moreover, he showed a cooler head is not necessarily a calmer one. Bettman took some heat last week for not announcing his decision immediately, while the heat of the furor over Hunter's action was at its height. What was he supposed to do? Get the Capitals back in the playoffs? Start the regular season now, so the suspension can commence?

No. The regular season will be starting soon enough.

And it will be starting without Dale Hunter, who got hammered yesterday. Hunter will have all summer to sit with that sick feeling in his stomach. Then he will have the first month or so of the season to sit with that sick feeling in his stomach. Then, once the players start getting paid again, in October, he gets to watch them go to the bank and make deposits while he has to make withdrawals.

Bravo, Bettman. You got it right.

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