Truth in Consequences

Anthony Patrick

November 1st, 2001

Has it been a wacky start to the NHL season, or what?

I'm not talking about the inverted standings (where are the real Calgary Flames and who the heck are these guys?) I'm talking about the cowardly violence and lack of regard for fellow players that is being shown out there on the ice.

It's getting to be out of control!

The NHL has a problem brewing and I don't think they have a clue as how to deal with it.

The problem in question? Cowards.

Cowards are infiltrating the ranks of NHL rosters and causing bedlam with their actions. Many of these "cowards" pose as NHL tough-guys. Some of them are labeled "agitators". But the bottom line is that these players, these cowards, refuse to accept the consequences of their actions. They ignore the fact they have to finish what they start and do so in a fashion that is acceptable by the long-standing unwritten code of conduct that has been in the game of hockey for generations.

This "unwritten code of conduct" has been around for decades. It is the pact shared by players that they treat each other with dignity and look out for each other's safety while on the ice. Players once understood that the goal of the game was victory, but not at the expense of another player's well being. This "old-time hockey" way of looking at things has been passed from generation to generation. Players used to hate each other, because of team affiliations, but they respected each other and looked out for each other's safety while playing the game they loved. If there was an issue about how someone was playing, or if someone was out of control, the matter was settled immediately with two players dropping their mitts and chuckin' the knuckles. It was a matter decided between men, like men. There was no room in the game for cheap shots, and old scores were not settled with play that fell outside the code of conduct.

The game has changed dramatically over the years. Players no longer "hate" each other, and they no longer worry about the well being of the other player. There are very few throwback players in the game today as money has bought loyalties, and self-interest has surpassed honor in professional sport. Clean play is an exception, and no longer the norm. Old scores are normally settled with a stick or a blind side cheap shot when the referee is looking the other way. Players who antagonize are rewarded and never have to deal with the consequences of their actions. These "antagonists" are the bane of the game and are what could spell its downfall in the long run.

Examples of such behavior are everywhere. Everyone can remember Tie Domi skating backwards around the surface of Maple Leafs gardens while incensed Philadelphia Flyer tough guys Sandy McCarthy and Craig Berube tried to get at him. Instead of taking his lumps for his actions, Domi hid behind the officials and let the other players on his line (Alan McCauley and Igor Korolev) take a beating.

Or how about Donald Brashear taking a Marty McSorley stick to the noggin? As it turns out this was precipitated by Brashear's refusal to fight McSorley.

Or how about Tie Domi's (again) cheap shot against New Jersey's Rob Niedermayer in the playoffs? He tried to sneak one in away from the play and then was more than happy to get off the ice before Scott Stevens could get at him. These are all examples of cowardice from the past few seasons, but what about examples this season?

The first incident that really caught my attention to this was an October thirteenth contest between the Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks. I was intrigued to see a contest so early in the season where the tension in the air could be cut with a chainsaw. But this game was tense from the drop of the puck. Cheap shots were happening on both sides of the ice, so no one team could shoulder the responsibility completely when it came to the inevitable. Colorado tough guy Scott Parker had openly challenged Vancouver tough guy Donald Brashear on two or three occasions in the first period. Each time Brashear declined and skated away mouthing off up the ice. The antagonism was evident. Normally a fight between two heavy weights helps release built up tension. It is actually a healthy thing and allows the players to focus on the game. But this was a situation where one of the tough guys was refusing to engage his opposite, even when openly challenged. This did not alleviate the situation, but exacerbated it entirely. The game became more and more chippy.

Todd Bertuzzi leveled Ville Nieminen with what Colorado thought was a vicious elbow, a play he got away with. Again, more fuel was tossed on a raging fire. Finally, in the third period, the game erupted.

Vancouver's Jarkko Ruutu stuck out a knee and injured Colorado's Stephane Yelle with yet another cheap shot. Tempers flared and a donnybrook ensued. Scott Parker engaged the biggest, and toughest, player on the ice (following that unwritten code of conduct) by squaring off with Ed Jovanovski. These two tough customers looked to be set for a pretty even fight. Unfortunately one player on the Vancouver bench didn't see the contest as being fair and decided to intervene. Todd Bertuzzi left the Canucks' bench to engage Parker in a WWF-esque tag team affair with Jovanovski. This is of course a major no-no in NHL circles and Bertuzzi got the mandatory ten game suspension he deserved. But this whole fiasco was not a positive thing for the NHL. It looked horrible on highlight packages everywhere. But what could have diffused the situation and potentially altered the course of the game?

I suspect that had Brashear not played the coward, and had the intestinal fortitude to do his job as the team's hired goon, and ended up fighting with Parker in the first period when challenged, the tension in the game would have dissipated and the teams could have got down to playing some serious hockey.

The fact that the game deteriorated from that point forward is a good indication that frustration on both benches continued to build. Parker did his job in trying to find a partner, but Brashear refused to risk taking a beating for his open antagonism. (It should be noted that Vancouver faced Edmonton this past weekend and on more than one occasion Oiler heavy weight George Laraque openly challenged Brashear, and each time Brashear failed to answer the call. Coincidence? I don't think so.)

The second major incident that happened this past Friday, October twenty-sixth, and the one that gave me the incentive to write this column, took place in Montreal in a game versus the Buffalo Sabres. An incident that I feel is one of the more cowardly that I have seen in all my years of watching hockey.

The play in question took place late in the first period. A puck had been dumped up the ice and the closest player to the free disk was Vaclav Varada. Not wanting to give up a scoring opportunity Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore left his crease and scrambled out after the free puck. He dove out onto the free puck, covering it up, about 15 feet inside the blue line. Varada was close, but it appeared had enough room to avoid the goaltender. Instead of leaping over the goaltender, or trying to avoid him all together, Varada leaned into Theodore and his shin pad contacted the goaltender's head. This was not a clean play, and was pretty well a cheap shot, which the Montreal players took exception to this, which I would have expected. Unfortunately one player on the Montreal side over-stepped the boundaries of what could be considered fair and equitable retribution by the long-standing unwritten player code of conduct. This is where the real cowardly act came into play.

As Varada was skating back up ice, preparing to accept his penalty and the physical confrontation that was sure to ensue, Doug Gilmour came in at top speed and attempted to take out Varada's knees with what could be described as a flagrant blindside submarine maneuver attempting to injure the player. Fortunately Gilmore glanced Varada and only sent him sprawling and did not cause a major injury for the player. While Varada's actions were wrong, Gilmour's actions were inexcusable and cowardly. One cheap shot does not deserve another. If Gilmour had half the guts he likes to tell people he does, he would have dropped the gloves and engaged Varada like a man. He would have "tuned him in" on what he had just done was not right. But alas this is not Doug Gilmour's nature and never has been. The ex-Blue, ex-Flame, ex-Leaf, ex-Sabre has always had a penchant for causing problems, and them letting others deal with the consequences. This was just another in a long line of examples why the instigator rule must go, and referees take a less active role in policing the game. Players police the game much better than even the best referees, especially when the referees allow the cowards of the game a buffer of protection.

Are there any real men left in the game of hockey? Are there any players that still follow the code of conduct that the "old time hockey" players used to follow? Yes, and that was displayed in Detroit on October tenth in a game between the Redwings and the Calgary Flames.

The incident in question took place early on the first period. Detroit's Darren McCarty had just taken a healthy run at the Flames Marc Savard. Savard attempted to avoid the hit and the two players locked knees. Savard was down for the count, and ended up leaving the game with the third degree sprain to the medial collateral ligament. The Flames on the ice saw this as a cheap shot and retaliated immediately. Calgary's Jarome Iginla immediately doffed the gloves and engaged McCarty in a fair, but one-sided fight. Iginla got a minor, a major and a ten-minute misconduct for his troubles, but he had sent a message to the Redwings that they could not take liberties with his teammates. He also sent a message to his teammates that they could take pride in being on his team and to play the game honestly. While Iginla was in the penalty box he watched his teammates fall behind by a goal, which gave the young power forward more fuel for his fire. When he was finally freed from the sin bin, he went out and played a very physical game, assisted on the Flames first goal, and then scored the Flames insurance goal in a come from behind victory at the Joe Louis. Iginla had scored a Gordie Howe hat-trick (a fight, a goal and an assist) while showing that there still is some honor in today's NHL.

Fighting has been a problem for the NHL, and its reputation, for the better part of the past thirty years. But is fighting really the problem for the NHL? Or is the lack of respect for that time honored unwritten code of conduct between players the problem?

It seems the examples shown by players like Domi, Brashear, Betruzzi, Gilmour and their like are more a problem for the NHL than the odd dust up that occurs between two equal combatants. Remove these "antagonists" and you remove the aspect of the game that allows matches to quickly spiral out of control.

Larger penalties and suspensions for cowardly acts should be enforced, not only on the individual players, but the coaches and teams that employ them. Marty McSorley's career was ended because of the league's rightful ban imposed upon him (not coincidentally caused by Donald Brashear's refusal to engage McSorley), so why not other players who commit these cowardly acts?

It's time for the NHL to get serious about cleaning up the game. Fighting isn't the evil that the talking heads in New York have to worry about, cowards who have infiltrated the game are. Remove the cowards from the game and the game will clean itself up. If the league is not prepared to do this, then the players must show these cowards that there are consequences to their actions. Let them see "the" truth "in" consequences.