ON OCT. 8, in only his third NHL game, Tomas Hertl, the 19-year-old rookie forward for San Jose, broke hockey. He destroyed the game he loves by scoring his fourth goal of the night against the poor, defenseless Rangers, an otherwise forgettable goal if it hadn't ruined everything. It wasn't so much that Hertl scored when the Sharks were leading 7-2 -- although that was a mistake we can only hope he'll never make again -- but that he scored by pushing the puck back between his own legs, along with his stick, before he lifted it high into the net. There is no room in hockey for such a bloodless display of creativity and skill.
"I'm upset," said Capitals coach Adam Oates, who selflessly took it upon himself to be mad on New York's behalf. "Don't disrespect the league."
Oates knows that many other sports are more popular than hockey because they do a better job of making sure their participants abide by unwritten standards of behavior, otherwise referred to as "Codes." These are not to be confused with the formal laws of each sport, known as "Rules," except in basketball, which calls them "Suggestions."
Perhaps no sport better demonstrates the importance of rigorous code enforcement than our beloved national pastime, supervised this season by Officer Brian McCann of the Atlanta Baseball PD. (McCann famously stood between Carlos Gomez and home plate after the Brewers star chirped during his home run trot; McCann also stood between us and anarchy that night.) Any perceived violation -- daring to watch a ball you've hit really far, running the bases too slow or too fast, being Yasiel Puig -- is met with swift justice, normally delivered by losing pitchers who won't come up to bat again.
Most other sports have seen the benefit of such self-enforced conformity and followed suit. Although not as intricate as baseball's spectacularly successful code -- what other sport could have turned a blue-haired free spirit like Barry Zito into a married Christian? -- the NBA's system of peer review has achieved what was once thought impossible: Basketball players now actually compete to see who can dress like the biggest dork. Even lawless football has developed its unique brand of morality, saving its players from crippling brain injury by forbidding dangerous touchdown celebrations and lime-green shoes.
But hockey has continued to allow youngsters who don't understand how the game should be played (cough, Europeans, cough) to desecrate its otherwise shining ice. It's been nearly three years since Edmonton's Linus Omark did a pirouette during a shootout before scoring on Tampa Bay's Dan Ellis, and it still raises the ire of non-figure skaters everywhere. "It's embarrassing for him," said Ellis, who no doubt let the puck through his legs to teach Omark a lesson. Permissive Edmonton was the scene of yet another disgusting display last season, when Nail Yakupov slid on his knees after he batted a puck out of midair to tie a game against the Kings with 4.7 seconds left, as though that were some kind of big deal.
Hertl's goal, however, might prove the finishing blow for a league that's unfortunately seen only a handful of its players smash their faces into unconsciousness this season. Not only did Hertl celebrate the way some 19-year-old rookie might celebrate a four-goal game in front of 17,500 screaming fans, including his weeping mother, but he scored with dramatic flair (cough, specifically the Czech Republic, cough). Millions of corruptible viewers have watched this flagrant demonstration of amazing on YouTube, and for a sport already struggling with its reputation for occasional beauty, Hertl's ridiculous talent for goal-scoring couldn't have come at a worse time.
The biggest travesty? There was a chance for redemption in San Jose's very next game, when Vancouver's Alex Edler nobly put his shoulder square into Hertl's head, potentially sparing us all from having to watch any more of his clear-minded gorgeousness. Hertl wasn't even knocked out, and yet the NHL still sent exactly the wrong message by suspending Edler for three games for what it deemed an "illegal check to the head."
What kind of stupid made-up rule is that?