Monday, 23 September 2013
No Surprises From Leafs – Sabres Brawl
So last night the Buffalo Sabres visited the Toronto Maple Leafs for a meaningless preseason game and anyone who is a hockey fan has read an article or watched the video. If you missed then you can catch up on the news here at the National Post or at The Toronto Star. Any long-time hockey watchers wouldn’t be surprised by the action or the results.
If you use a roster spot for a player whose only role is to exact revenge on your competition then you have to expect that the violence will get out of hand. Enforcers are emotional and biased and generally need to continually prove that they can do the job of punching other players in the face. The moment that they stop being aggressive in their role is the moment that they will find themselves in the minors. If everything unfolds as it should, meaning that players follow “the code” then a few punches are traded, the odd concussion is sustained and the game goes back to that skating, passing and shooting stuff. But if a competitor didn’t read the unwritten rules of “the code” then it will get ugly.
Every time an enforcer goes over the boards in the NHL the potential for disaster exists. In 2000 Marty McSorley was chasing Donald Brashear late in the 3rd period and trying to get him to fight. They had already fought earlier in the game but Vancouver was winning 6 – 1 over Boston and Brashear was not taking the bait. McSorley tried to goad him into dropping the gloves by putting his stick across McSorley’s head. first entered the NHL, he figured his career might last seven seasons. In 2004, Steve Moore fought Matt Cooke early in a game, having to answer for a hit on Markus Naslund in a prior match. Apparently following “the code” wasn’t enough for the Canucks and Todd Bertuzzi challenged Moore later in the game and refused to take no for an answer.
What about near misses? I can’t remember who sent me the tweet (if they read this they can take credit in the comments) but the Bourque – Hendricks fight had the potential for additional carnage. On January 5th, 2012, Rene Bourque, then a Calgary Flame, knocked Nicklas Backstrom out of Washington’s line-up with a vicious elbow to the head and was suspended for 5 games. Upon his return he was traded to Montreal and came up against Washington on January 19th. For a week before the game there were numerous media stories that previewed the match and the expectation that Bourque would have to answer for his hit on the Capitals star center. Matt Hendricks, who hadn’t played in the previous 3 games, was dressed for the night. It only took 1:15 for Hendricks to go over the boards and deliver some enforcement.
“It’s part of ‘The Code,’ part of the game,” Hendricks said. “There are consequences for all actions. He was a great sport about it. He knows the game; I’m sure he wanted to get it out of the way as soon as he could.”
What if Bourque chose not to fight and instead focused on playing hockey? Would Hendricks chase him around the ice for a few shifts before using his stick to get his attention? What if Bourque got lucky and dropped Hendricks to the ice with the first punch? I somehow think that the Capitals would not have been satisfied and would then spend the rest of that game, or the next game, constantly harassing Bourque to drop the gloves. The escalation of violence is controlled only by the discipline of the player and the level of emotion in a particular game. In the minds of the players there is certainly nothing that the officials or the league has ever done that would to deter them from taking the matter into their own hands.
Certainly talking about attacking a star player is not a cause for concern for the NHL. If you want to look forward to another example of a game that could get out of control then be sure to watch the next Canuck – Oilers game. In a preseason match earlier this week, Zack Kassian carelessly swung his stick and broke the jaw of Sam Gagner. There is already media reports about the Oiler’s enforcer Ben Eager talking about getting revenge when they next meet the Canucks. Here is a quote from the story:
Via Mark Spector of Sportsnet, Eager said on Monday about the Canucks:
“We play them a lot down the stretch, and we’re going to go after their skill players also."
So when does Eager pull the Brad May and claim the comments are ‘tongue-in-cheek’: Before or after someone gets Bertuzzi’d?
The collective NHL – league executives, team owners, general managers, coaches and players – see absolutely nothing wrong with everything mentioned above. They rarely make any statement condemning the behaviour and instead seem to ignore the issue. The precedent was set in 1905 when Allan Loney was charged with manslaughter in the on-ice clubbing death of Alcide Laurin. Loney claimed self-defence, and was found not guilty Move along, nothing to see here, everything is perfectly normal.
The NHL and NHLPA don’t see an image problem or take seriously the feedback from the media that a lack of control over the violence in the game paints hockey as a fringe sport. They grew up in the culture of fighting and enforcers and don’t understand what the problem is. And that’s the problem.