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    Friday, February 13, 1998

    Fighting for justice

    By AL STRACHAN -- At The Olympics

      At one point in yesterday's news conference, Team Canada general manager Bob Clarke, who never counted a Lady Byng Trophy among his playing honors, was asked about Gary Suter's cross-check of Paul Kariya.
     Isn't it true, Clarke was asked, that if Kariya had played for the Philadelphia Flyers in the era of the Broad Street Bullies, they would have retaliated the next time they faced Suter?
      Those who remember those Flyers know it certainly was not true.
     The Flyers wouldn't have waited until the next game. They'd have pounded Suter to a pulp within seconds of his stick making contact with Kariya's head.
     Clarke was a little more diplomatic -- but not much. In that era, he asked, "Would the same player cross-check a player in the face like he did with Paul Kariya?"
      CONTROLLED BY LAWYERS
     Clarke's message is clear. And it is one that he freely delivers under most circumstances. He didn't want to expand on it in front of the Olympic media, he said, "because we really prefer to talk about the Olympics."
     But anyone who knows Clarke knows that he is not happy about the game being turned over to the lawyers. The only hockey person in the upper echelon is Brian Burke, and although Burke played minor-league hockey, it is important to note that he was not -- to put it mildly -- a skilled player.
     He was low on the depth chart, got only a few minutes of playing time and rarely handled the puck. He has no idea what it is like to be the target of either a persistent checker or the other team's hatchet man.
     And even if he did, he played the game years ago -- before he and lawyers like him decided to alter the balance of power.
     Today, Team Canada is without Paul Kariya, arguably the best player in the world, for the Olympic tournament while the U.S. is free to use Suter.
     However Suter isn't really the problem. There are lots of players in the NHL who could have done what he did.
     He is not a dirty player but he is rugged. He did not intend to injure Kariya and he feels terrible that he did. But even so, he did have a split-second to think about what he was doing and you can be sure that in his subconscious, the ramifications were being weighed.
     Against the Flyers circa 1973, his brain would have screamed at him, "Stop right now! If you don't, this may be the last time you play hockey."
     But playing for the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 1, 1998, his brain said, "This isn't right and there will be a punishment but it won't be bad."
     Every NHL player knows that if he intentionally injures an opponent, the chances of getting away with it are good. Burke tends to be far too lenient, perhaps because he doesn't understand the subtleties of the game.
     The previous time that point was made in this column -- in reference to Tomas Sandstrom's slash that broke Brett Hull's arm -- Burke was furious. He had seen the tapes, he said, and anyone who hadn't done so had no right to be critical.
     But judges evaluate guilt or innocence all the time without seeing the crime. They do it by listening to witnesses -- sometimes expert witnesses -- and making their decision.
     In this case, the players are expert witnesses because they understand the game the way Burke never did. They said that Sandstrom knew exactly what he was doing with his stick and that he should have received a suspension of longer than two games.
      PLAYERS ARE TARGETS
     Sandstrom is not a particularly brave player. If he, or the many other players like him, knew that they would get punched repeatedly in the head by a much bigger player as retribution for slashing a star, they wouldn't be so free with their sticks.
     But the NHL geniuses decided that anyone who instigates a fight should get an extra penalty and an extra misconduct. If that player gets three instigation penalties in a season, he gets suspended. And the more instigators he gets, the longer the subsequent suspension.
     No wonder then, that skilled players are targets these days. The tough guys in the league are the lowest-paid. They can't afford to be suspended. More importantly, in today's low-scoring games, they often can't afford to take an extra two-minute penalty.
     So they end up fighting willing co-combatants -- other enforcers. It's like the middle ages when the young princes had whipping boys. If the prince misbehaved, the whipping boy got a beating. No wonder there were so many weird kings in those days.
     But that's what we have in the NHL these days. We have players who are not held responsible for their actions.
     And as a result, Canada doesn't have Paul Kariya.