By Stu Hackel
The NHL regular season won't start until Oct. 1, but the game's occasional stupidity and embarrassment can't wait. That's already in midseason form.
There have been seven suspensions so far, the most-discussed incident -- even making national newscasts in Canada -- occurring last Sunday in Toronto, where all the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres on the ice -- and one Leaf who jumped on the ice from the bench -- took a break from chasing the puck and began chasing each other instead in an elongated brawl. There's little doubt that the fact it happened in a major market like Toronto and not, say, Columbus, helped make the news go somewhat viral.
The exhibition schedule is often marred by fisticuffs, usually by rookies or fringe players trying to grab the coaches' attention and prove they have the stuff to play at this level. Veterans, who aren't fond of preseason games anyway, don't often waste their energy. Not so on Sunday.
It began rather typically when two minor leaguers, Toronto's Jamie Devane and Buffalo's Corey Tropp, went at it just two seconds after a faceoff that followed a goal by Tropp. But it was a mismatch. Devane is five inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, and, to make matters worse, Tropp's helmet came off in the fight and he hit his bare head on the ice as he tried to pull Devane down, Devane getting in one last swing as the pair fell. Tropp, who had a chance to make the Sabres varsity, suffered a concussion and a broken jaw.
(Not coincidentally, the NHL is trying to keep helmets on fighters for just that reason as a safety measure -- yes, a safety measure in a fight, which is quite a concept. A new rule further penalizes players who purposely remove their headgear before throwing punches. That led to the comical dust-up last week when the Devils' Krys Barch and the Islanders' Brett Gallant conspired to remove each other's helmets, circumventing the new rule in the second of their three fights during a preseason game in New Jersey. The solution is really very easy: Once a fighter's helmet comes off, however it happens, the linesmen must step in and stop the fight. How this has eluded the NHL is a mystery.)
Well, the Sabres, who are on a mission to recast themselves as a team that won't be pushed around, weren't going to stand for one of their teammates getting beat up by a larger foe. Before the puck was dropped again, coach Ron Rolston sent out John Scott, who is 6-foot-8, 270 pounds and in has scored only one NHL career goal in 180 games but has totaled 305 penalty minutes. His role on the team is obvious and, as Scott said later, "I knew I had to kinda have a response for what happened the shift before ... I would have gone after whoever they put up next to me."
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle didn't send out one of his tough guys to engage Scott, however. He tried to diffuse the situation by sending out his top line, including his best player, Phil Kessel, who is not only much smaller -- most hockey players are smaller than John Scott -- but also not a guy who fights at all. Kessel lined up next to Scott, and before the faceoff, Scott told Kessel "Phil, we're going to have to go here, just to let you know."
"I wasn't going to try and hurt him," Scott said. "I was just trying to send a message ... I was just doing my job."
Hockey fighters supposedly live by an unwritten "code," and part of it dictates that you fight in your weight class and there will be retribution if you don't. Yet, another part of it is that goons don't fight skill players. If such a code actually exists -- and some consider it a myth to justify mayhem -- Scott decided to enforce it and violate it at the same time.
Well, here's the video of what transpired, starting with the Devane-Tropp fight, followed by Scott trying to get at Kessel, who defended himself by whacking Scott a couple of times on the leg and later nudging him gently in the midsection. Then everyone joined in, including the goalies and new Leaf David Clarkson, who was on the bench but jumped off to come to Kessel's aid:
"It was pretty stupid, right?" Kessel said afterward, his eyes nearly shielded by the brim of a cap, not as proud of his actions as Scott was of his. "He said he was going to jump me. ... He's a big boy. So if he's going to come after me, what am I going to do?"
Few blamed Kessel considering the situation. Many long-time observers reason that the world of the NHL is inherently rough and a skilled player finds his stick is a great equalizer when he's confronted by a thug.
Still, stick swinging has long been frowned upon. For much of the NHL's first half century, it was commonplace. But two notorious late '60s stick duels -- a bloody one in 1968 between Boston's Eddie Shack and Philadelphia's Larry Zeidel and a 1969 preseason clash between St. Louis' Wayne Maki and Boston's Ted Green, in which Green's skull was fractured, requiring two brain operations and plates put in his head -- caused the NHL to adopt strict punitive measures for transgressors. When the NHL wants something out of the game bad enough, they ratchet up the penalties. Very quickly, the stick problem vanished.
The same harsh approach was employed in the 1980s to successfully curb bench-clearing brawls. The first player off the bench gets an automatic 10-game suspension without pay. So after signing him to a big free agent contract in the summer, Toronto will have to start the 82-game season without Clarkson. Plus, his docked pay still will count against the team's salary cap.
But the NHL sometimes forgets that this sort of tough love can be quite useful elsewhere and the other principles in this little drama were spared onerous sanctions.
Kessel was suspended for only the remainder of the preseason games and no regular season games, a decision greeted by the Maple Leafs with great relief. Some in the media joked this is less punishment than a vacation (but not with pay -- players aren't paid during preseason, but still…). And while others called it a victory for common sense, especially because Kessel didn't swing for the fences and Scott's head, Kessel himself acknowledged on Wednesday that his actions after the initial chop at Scott ankles were "uncalled for." Perhaps because the league didn't want to punish Toronto any further beyond losing Clarkson for 10 games, Kessel got off easy. Still, his missing a game or two in the regular season would have not been inappropriate.
Rolston was fined an undisclosed amount (believed to be in the neighborhood of $10,000) for what the league called "player selection and team conduct." The team conduct part was easy to justify but the player selection part caused some minor freakouts, especially in hockey's Twitter-verse, because a coach's job is to put the players on the ice they want. How can the league fine a coach for doing his job?
Sadly, the league couldn't find an official sounding way to say, "You sent a guy out for the purpose of starting a fight and we don't like that. And we really don't like that he decided to fight a star player." With no explicit rule to cite, they concocted something that makes little sense, even though it got the job done.
But the punch line, so to speak, is that John Scott, the guy who really set fire to the evening, was not punished at all, precisely because there is no rule the NHL could cite to give him over and above his on-ice penalties, a five minute fighting major and two additional minutes for instigating the fight. There are provisions for supplementary discipline for players who instigate fights, but they kick in only after a third instigation infraction. Had the league tried to invent something, the NHL Players' Association would have rightly objected. Essentially, Rolston took the hit for Scott. There is no NHL Coaches' Association to collectively bargain that group's working conditions. It's a situation that screams "Fix this!"
Of course, the huge issue hiding in plain sight here is fighting in hockey. For some, fighting itself is the reason the sport lags behind others in popularity, although there's little proof that is true. For its part, the hockey world itself has little problem with it and a case can be made for fighting's role as a deterrent against dirty play. NHL players have been nearly unanimous in their annual poll about keeping it as part of the game, the fans as a whole don't support a blanket outlawing of it and the owners certainly listen to what the paying customers say.
And yet, in so many ways, hockey becomes its own worst enemy whenever the obvious detriments of fighting show themselves. In 2009, for example, the league's general managers tried unsuccessfully to pass a rule against so-called staged fights, those that start for no apparent reason immediately after a faceoff, when two players mutually contrive to drop their gloves. The owners and general managers as a group have few objections to fights that just occur spontaneously, driven by the emotions of a game's action. But the league does not want to sell punch-ups that look like set-ups.
The measure failed, however. The NHL Players' Association, spurred by the league's designated fighters -- the John Scotts of the NHL -- blocked the adoption of the rule. The enforcers feared for their jobs, and their union felt obliged to back them. The league hasn't tried to revive that rule since.
The Scott-Kessel conflagration came right at the faceoff. Come to think of it, the Tropp-Devane fight came at a puck drop as well. But as things stand, the league is powerless to do anything about them.
The NHL has suffered countless black eyes from similar incidents and likely will continue to suffer them. It remains unable or unwilling to crack down on the one-dimensional players who bring very little to the game's top league other than their ability to punch another player, at which point the rationalizations fly as fast as the fists.
The Sabres and Leafs play for real on Nov. 18. Circle your calendars.
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The former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine and The Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club.