A bizarre week for the National Hockey League

Eric McErlain | Sports Blogger

After an offseason that saw the untimely deaths of three players and a jet crash that wiped out an entire team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, you could understand why the world of professional hockey would want to get back to talking about the action on the ice. But now, just a week before the start of the 2011-12 regular season, the talk in and around the NHL is dominated by just how far the league should go in policing the speech of its players.

The bizarre chain of events began a little more than a week ago when the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers played an exhibition game in London, Ontario. It was there that a fan tossed a banana peel at Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, one of the league’s few black players. The condemnation of the act was as swift as it was universal, and it only took a few days for local police to identify the knucklehead who threw the banana peel at Simmonds.

But just as that story started to fade from the headlines, Simmonds found himself in the middle of another media storm. This time the bigot’s skate was on the other foot, as Simmonds was accused of hurling an anti-gay slur at New York Rangers agitator Sean Avery (click here to watch the video if you’re interested in doing some lip reading). While Simmonds didn’t deny Avery’s accusation and the league neglected to discipline him due to insufficient evidence, that’s not enough for some folks. As of this morning, a petition calling for the league to fine Simmonds over the incident had collected more than 40,000 signatures.

If you think that gay rights and hockey seems like an odd combination at first blush, you probably haven’t been paying attention lately. Avery, no stranger to the league’s disciplinary process, raised some eyebrows around the league when he appeared in a public service ad promoting the legalization of gay marriage in New York State earlier this year. And Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has found himself cast in the unlikely role of gay rights advocate in the wake of the tragic death of his son Brendan. When the news hit concerning Simmonds, Burke was front and center demanding that the league take action if the accusations were proven to be true.

I’m glad that these sort of actions are subject to universal condemnation. Yet at the same time, we need to remember that ice hockey remains an incredibly brutal sport. It is the only major professional sport that permits — and in the minds of some, quietly encourages — fighting on the field of play. Meanwhile, the league continues to struggle mightily to police blows to the head that could potentially lead to a death on the ice.

So, by all means, the league should be encouraged to discipline players who engage in the sort of behavior that might harm its image with its fans and business partners. At the same time, I would hope it would devote the same energy and urgency to protecting its players from on-ice injuries that could permanently maim or even kill them.

ELSEWHERE: Like a few million other folks, I was up well past midnight earlier this week to follow an incredibly exciting end to Major League Baseball’s regular season. But despite all the hoopla, the best-rated cable television program on that night was the season premiere of “The Real World” on MTV.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.

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