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The Washington Capitals had a practice scheduled for early last Thursday in Buffalo, but only one player showed up: Chris Simon.
The Caps had routed Pittsburgh a night earlier, so Coach Ron Wilson rewarded his squad by making the morning skate before the Sabres game an optional affair. Simon didn’t need any rest, however. He’d sat out the Penguins game and the one before that against Florida. And he knew he wouldn’t see any ice time in Buffalo, either. The 25-year-old left winger/enforcer had called Edmonton Oiler Mike Grier a “fucking nigger” during a scrum and had been suspended, first by the Caps and then by the NHL, for a total of three games.
When the NHL announced the punishment, it asserted that Simon was being penalized for violating a league directive that “racial taunts are not acceptable.” That’s not a hard and fast rule, of course. In today’s polyethnic NHL, racial taunts are as common as faceoffsthe ice is littered with taunts of “froggy,” “kraut,” “kike,” and “mick”but Simon stands as the only player ever penalized by the league for using hateful language. The commissioner would be cranking out more suspensions than General Motors if all violators of the slur rule got Simonized.
When asked what slurs breach that directive, an NHL spokesman conceded, “We do not have an explicit list of [banned] names.”
It would be a very short list. Like, say, a single-slur list, with that slur being what Simon said, minus the “fucking.”
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Why is one racial slur more not acceptable than all the others? Chances are, the league’s selective enforcement of its taunting rule is motivated by marketing goals. If the NHL wants to grow to a level approaching the Big Three professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball), it must shake its image as a game only for the overwhelmingly white Great White North. So far, the NHL has fared very poorly in attracting black athletesa recent USA Today survey counted just nine black playersand, probably not coincidentally, black fans. And while punishing Simon to appease a minority market seems a whole lot more patronizing than it does noble, well, business is still business.
The NHL, however, couched its suspension of Simon in terms of righteousness. That’s a huge joke. Hockey can be a beautiful game, but righteous it ain’t. Man’s inhumanity to man isn’t only tolerated in the NHL, it’s promoted. You know the real rules: Violent physical assault brings the perpetrator a two-minute penalty, except when the victim of the assault retaliates, in which case both get five-minute penalties, except in overtime or while playing shorthanded, in which case…anything goes. The sad truth is that had Simon pummeled Grier into unconsciousnesswhich is, remember, what he really, really wanted to dobefore uttering his vile verbiage, league officials wouldn’t have done anything other than make sure the brawl made SportsCenter.
Simon, however, wasn’t bright or lucky enough to let his fists do all the talking. Whether or not he is a racist pig is something only Simon knows, but his linguisticuffs aroused everybody who argues that sticks and stones are less hurtful than words. Or rather, one word.
“The guy has to be punished! It’s not like all he did was call somebody a ‘dumb polack!’” railed a self-described African-American caller to Tony Kornheiser’s now-defunct radio show on WTEM-AM. A similar sentiment, dubious logic and all, dominated the discussion of the Simon case on the sports radio station, regardless of the race of the callers. None of the faithful listeners commented on the hypocrisy of using the airwaves of WTEM, a station that favors “Hail to the Redskins” as theme music, to condemn a hockey player for uttering a racial slur during a brawl. (Oh, yeah: Simon happens to be a member of the Ojibwa tribebastardized to “Chippewa” by whiteywho was raised on a reservation in Canada; think of the problems the NHL could cause for this town if it lives up to its directive and suspends the next player who yells “Redskin!” his way.)
Simon served out the last morning of his sentence in Buffalo at the Marine Midland Arena, arriving while his teammates were still back at the hotel in bed. As the host Sabres went through a low-pressure skate-around, he set up shop in a runway below the stadium with a blowtorch and a file and, wearing shorts and sandals, readied a new batch of sticks for his return to the active roster. After the Sabres had hit their locker room, Simon laced up his skates, put on his Capitals warmups, and set out to get his body in game shape as well.
At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, with huge arms and long straight hair and a body dotted with tattoos and hockey scars, Simon is, objectively speaking, a scary-looking guy. He’ll never lack for work if biker movies come back into vogue. But skating alone in front of about 20,000 empty seats, with only a bucket of pucks to keep him company, he made a pitiable outcast.
Nobody, save his inner demons, pushed him during his workout on the Buffalo rink, but Simon couldn’t have skated harder. He concluded the half-hour exercise with a brutal series of wind-sprints between the goal line and center ice, circling around the goal, picking up a puck, and ending each dash with a slap shot. After turning six or seven laps at full speed, he blasted one last slapper into the empty net and slumped to his hands and knees at the end line. A Capitals attendant came over to the panting player to pep him up.
“That’s it, Chris. After tonight, it’s over,” Simon was told. “After tonight, you’ll be right back where you left off.”
Yes, he will. And so will the rest of us.Dave McKenna