By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The National Hockey League would like fans to be talking about Connor McDavid's push for a 100-point season or focus on Auston Matthews' bid for 40 goals.
But they aren't.
What has the hockey world in a lather is Washington Capitals' Tom Wilson, a tank of man with a Grim Reaper reputation, tossing around New York Rangers' Artemi Panarin, an NHL most valuable player candidate, like a rag doll.
Just prior to taking down Panarin, Wilson had punched Rangers' Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head while he lay prone on the ice.
Wilson, a repeat offender who has been suspended five times for violent acts, was fined $5,000 (he earns $4.1 million per season). Panarin will miss the Rangers' final three games with injury.
Outrage was instant.
Social media exploded while sport stations replayed the incident on an almost continuous loop.
Anyone even remotely connected to the NHL was on sport radio providing an opinion.
New York Post columnist Larry Brooks wrote: “NHL must ban agitator for nearly killing Rangers star."
The Rangers issued a statement that described what occurred as a "horrifying act of violence" while calling for the removal of George Parros, the NHL head of player safety in charge of handing out punishment, for "dereliction of duty".
Some, however, have viewed it the same way the NHL did, as just another routine incident that was elevated to hysteria because it involved the league's most notorious figure.
Either way the altercation has developed into a crossover story that has migrated from sports to news and in the process made Wednesday's Rangers and Capitals rematch one of the most anticipated games this season.
For years the NHL has been trying to evolve from its caveman image.
Too much blood had become bad for business and along with the growing threat of lawsuits over head shots and concussions stemming from brawls, the NHL moved to dial down the violence to an acceptable level but stopped short of eliminating fights.
Now the league is facing the worrying prospect of a re-escalation in the arms race.
The debate is not unlike the one over guns in the United States.
On one side is a group that want to get rid of all guns. On the other a group that believe they need guns to protect themselves.
So it is in the NHL.
The league says there is no place for thuggery but at the same time signalled it is willing to look the other way even in the face of a social media backlash.
Teams, meanwhile, are once again taking matters into their own hands, searching out players who provide more of a menacing presence than goals to act as a deterrent to those who take liberties.
For all the angst Wilson has generated, it has put a spotlight on Wednesday's rematch, which could well be the NHL's most watched game this season.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)