Whatever it was that transpired over the last forty minutes of the Pens-Islanders game this past Friday night wasn’t hockey by any real standard.
You could go to the lowest depths of the minor professional leagues – the very types of leagues parodied in Slapshot – and not see what we watched Friday night in Long Island. It’s tough to think back and find a game where one team endorsed such blatant disrespect for the health and well-being of the opposing players.
It was disgusting. It was ugly. It was scary to watch, especially as it escalated to the point that it became apparent that one team was not about seeking retribution via a scoreboard, but rather by attempting to have players carted off the ice on stretchers or backboards. And it was sickening to see that objective nearly achieved, with one player lost to a head injury and another who nearly could’ve been had he fallen to the ice the wrong way.
For both Pens fans and 99.9 % of the hockey fans not trying to resort to some hollow justification to excuse this behavior away, perhaps the most disconcerting thing of all about the events of Friday night’s game in Long Island was the way the NHL handled it all. And that goes for the before, the during, and the after. When you add it all up and consider it all in light of the current safety issues surrounding the game, the league comes off somewhere between horribly incompetent and frighteningly ignorant. It makes you wonder whether the league is really interested in changing the culture of the game to protect any of its players, let alone the most talented ones.
But we’ll come back to the league.
A NEW BASEMENT FOR THE GUTTER
This starts with the New York Islanders, a team that managed on Friday night to dig itself an entirely new basement for the gutter in which it used to reside.
The Islanders and their fans can claim that Friday night was revenge for a hit that Max Talbot laid on Blake Comeau in the teams’ previous matchup all they want. They can claim it was retaliation for Brent Johnson’s one-punch knockout of Isles’ goaltender Rick DiPietro that broke DiPietro’s face.
Through the first period on Friday night, the Isles took the play to the Penguins. They found themselves up 4-0 after the first period, and then scored two more goals within the first four minutes of the second period. In between it all were a couple of run-of-the-mill fights and maybe a post-whistle scrap or two; nothing out of the ordinary.
Any other team in any other game would’ve been thrilled to death with a 6-0 lead. The Isles were long out of playoff contention and have settled into a spoiler role. Just the night before, they put a dent in the playoff chances of the Canadiens by winning a shootout in Montreal. What better way to stick it to another opponent, especially another one in a playoff race battling so many significant injuries?
Nope. Because these were the New York Islanders. And a commanding lead just wasn’t enough. Already chasing Brent Johnson from the game wasn’t enough. Two fights during the first period weren’t enough. The Islanders wanted another pound of flesh and the Pens were going to pay, or Matt Martin was apparently going to take it.
In the replay from 2:07, you’ve got to love how Martin doesn’t say one word to him. Also love that clown admitting but completely downplaying the sucker punch.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it got uglier a period later.
About five minutes into the third period, the Islanders found themselves up 8-2. With the game in hand, it was Trevor Gillies’ turn for his 15 seconds of NHL infamy.
There are so many things wrong with what happens in this clip, it’s hard to determine which is the most egregious.
Gillies’ actions are unjustifiable. They’re sickening. He takes five deliberate strides towards Tangradi and then launches into him, with an elbow aimed square at the side of Tangradi’s head. If that wasn’t enough, he immediately throws of his gloves and starts raining punches to the back of a player that was clearly hurt. Upon getting thrown out, he stands in the runway and continues to taunt an injured player getting medical attention from the trainer. It looked like he was contemplating getting back on the ice while Stewart was there trying to do his job.
How can anyone even attempt to justify that? That’s like attempting to justify the Ron Artest melee. How did anything that happened with Talbot, Comeau, Johnson and DiPietro possibly be used to excuse any of Gillies’ actions there?
You seldom see anything close to that in low-lever minor pro hockey, let alone the NHL, and this is where we need to start getting some separation here. Sure, you see fights and you occasionally see some hits of questionable legality in relation to the rules doled out on NHL ice. But when was the last time we witnessed anything with that level of premeditation. What Gillies did should have been a textbook example…a cautionary tale that shows up on the films the league makes for players instructing them on what NOT to do, or how NOT to act. So you’d think that the NHL might be interested in sending some sort of a message in response.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
And that leads us back to the league.
In all the fallout of the events of the Islanders-Pens game, the one thing that stood out most was Gillies’s hit on Tangradi, and trying to figure out how something like that happened in today’s NHL.
It was Mike Richards knocking David Booth stupid that helped put head shots on the NHL map. Just as that was dying down, Matt Cooke laid out Marc Savard with a reckless hit and put the issue front-and-center.
The NHL responded with Rule 48 in lieu of the Cooke-Savard incident. It was a means to add some teeth to the enforcement of hits delivered to the heads of unsuspecting players. It wasn’t designed to eliminate concussions; you’re never going to eliminate concussions from the game, as evidence by Talbot’s hit on Comeau. And there are some headshots that will always be the result of incidental contact.
So with all these steps to enact rules designed to enforce the danger of hits to the head, and with the league currently missing some of its most talented and marketable players, we get two plain-as-day instances on Friday night of blatant disregard for the rules.
We see a blindside mugging at center ice complete with a sucker-punch to the head and imagery that immediately conjured up memories of the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident. And then we see a 32-year old, one-dimensional goon with 47 NHL games to his credit deliver a deliberate headshot to an opposing player.
Both smacked of intent to injure, just as much as they reeked of blatant disregard for the spirit of Rule 48, especially the hit by Gillies on Tangradi.
If that wasn’t a slap in the face to Rule 48, there never will be one.
And while Eric Tangradi lay on the ice trying to remember his own name, and Gillies stood ten feet away taunting him from the runway, the NHL was gift-wrapped golden chance to make an example of someone, just as the Ontario Hockey League did after this incident last season. Just be warned that this is not easy to watch, and even tougher to listen to:
That incident occurred in an OHL game on October 31, 2009 between the Erie Otters and the Kitchener Rangers. The perpetrator of that incident was Michael Liambas, a 20-year old fourth-line overage winger who made his name in the OHL thanks to his willingness to fight, forecheck and deliver a crushing body check. The kid convulsing on the ice is Ben Fanelli, a 16-year old defensive prospect for Kitchener, just seven games into his OHL career.
Fanelli suffered facial lacerations and a skull fracture on the hit. He still has yet to play a game since that incident.
About a week after that incident, OHL Commissioner David Branch suspended Liambas for the remainder of the season. As a 20-year old overage player, Liambas had no junior eligibility left, so the suspension effectively ended his junior hockey career.
The fact that Liambas was universally regarded as a great kid off the ice held little weight. The OHL four years prior had instituted Rule 44B, which made it at least a minor penalty for any check to the head of an opposing player. The officials also had discretion to assess a major plus a game misconduct for any hit to the head, or even elevate it to a match penalty if the officials believed there was deliberate intent to injure. The rule also drew the distinction that a shoulder check to the head was still a check to the head and therefore a penalty.
In other words, hits to the head – incidental or not - were not tolerated. No credence was given to any disadvantages caused by a player’s height (the old “What’s Zdeno Chara going to do?” defense). A hit to the head was a penalty. The player was responsible for adapting his game accordingly. Liambas knew the rules and failed to adapt. The OHL felt it far more important to draw a line in the sand than to salvage the career of a kid who knew the rules going in. It was about the bigger picture.
Thanks to at best a horrible act of stupidity and at worst a premeditated disregard for the rules of the league, the NHL now found itself faced with an opportunity to make a defined statement. The spirit of their rule already in place had been challenged. Some members of the media even said via Twitter and other outlets that it was time for the NHL to tighten its stance.
The character defenses began to trickle out. “Trevor Gillies was a good guy off the ice,” we were told. He had a wife and kids and he’s someone who worked his tail end off to get to this level, and throwing him to the dogs here would cost him a piece of his livelihood.
Maybe he should’ve thought about that about three strides before he leapt into Tangradi. What’s that they say - something about not putting your hand on the hot oven if you don’t want to get burned?
Gillies is a one-dimensional goon who three minutes a night on the nights that he dresses. He’s a career minor-leaguer who has spent most of his pro career bouncing between the AHL and ECHL. His game is intimidation, and that’s it. That’s all he brings. He’s worked up a reputation for sucker-punching players in fights in the AHL. He’s also hit players from behind in the AHL.
A 10-game or 15-game suspension probably doesn’t mean much to Trevor Gillies or to players like him. Not even sure a 20-game suspension would’ve fazed him. He doesn’t dress in enough games for it to matter. He knew the rules. He knew the culture of the game. He knew the issue that headshots presented to his fellow players. And so did his coach. But with an 8-2 third-period lead, still he got thrown out there, and still he took the run at Tangradi.
He was an easy sacrificial lamb for the league, if the league decided it was definitely and finally serious about curbing this head shot issue. Wasn’t it time to send that message? An 82-game suspension for a shot to the head of an opposing player, delivered with intent to injure. Hey, if nothing else, it could forever be known as the Gillies Rule, so his legacy could’ve been for something ultimately positive.
The news of the suspensions broke at about 11:30 Saturday night.
The Islanders organization was fined $100,000, which they will make back by selling 4000 tickets at $25 each.
Matt Martin was suspended for four games for sucker-punching and then hauling down Max Talbot.
For elbowing a player in the head, then throwing punches to the head of that player as he lay injured on the ice, and then taunting him from the runway, Trevor Gillies was suspended for nine games.
Epic fail, indeed. Again.
THE MATT COOKE BATTLE CRY
One of the strangest things to emerge from Friday night’s shenanigans and then the news of the suspensions was the way in which Islanders fans and eventually even some media types defended or at least attempted to justify it all from the Islanders side. It ramped up even further in the face of the criticisms of the league’s decisions and handling of the incidents in a statement he released on Sunday.
Outrage by Pens fans and media types attacking the Isles for their pathetic display on Friday night were met with five little words that became the battle cry for those defending or at least trying to justify what happened in Long Island.
The Pens have Matt Cooke.
Martin’s sucker punch of Talbot with a 6-0 lead? It’s OK. The Pens have Matt Cooke.
Not calling off the dogs after being up 8-2 in the third period? It’s OK. ThePens have Matt Cooke.
Gillies’ practicing his Ovechkin Leap into Eric Tangradi’s skull? It’s perfectly fine. The Pens have Matt Cooke.
That’s not to say there isn’t a point there. Cooke is a player who has made his career finding that edge between clean and reckless-if-not-sometimes-dirty play, and most of the time he plays with his skate edge teetering right on it. From time to time, he’s crossed the line.
But many who justified the attacks on the Isles by pointing out Cooke’s presence on the roster failed to recognize the following: Matt Cooke’s presence on the Pens roster and what the Islanders did on Friday are two separate things. The crest on Matt Cooke’s jersey in no way makes it OK to tee off at the head of an unsuspecting teammate of his. And the fact that Mario Lemieux cuts a paycheck to Matt Cooke doesn’t make his thoughts on the league’s methods and abilities to protect players from others who play with intent to injure any less valid.
The Penguins organization has addressed the situation with Cooke. They are aware – as are many Pens fans – of what some of Cooke’s actions have done to the current climate of the game. Sidney Crosby spoke out about it last year, as did Bill Guerin. Ray Shero mentioned before that he spoke to Cooke about needing to change his game in lieu of the Savard hit. We don’t agree with some of Cooke’s antics. Frankly, we want a league where we can cheer against Alex Ovechkin for the next 15 years, not watch footage of him watching from the pressbox because he has a concussion.
But still the backlash came. Still those sentiments were ignored in the debates, and it’s caused some of us to wonder just how much of it is really borne of predisposed opinions of the Penguins organization. How much of it are just non-Pens fans just wanting to see the team come crashing back to earth after being a media darling for the last five years?
Case in point: What if it had been Tampa instead of Pittsburgh on Friday night?
What if Martin jumped Ryan Malone at center ice? What if Gillies had tried to staplegun Stamkos’s head to the glass instead of Tangradi’s? What if it was Steve Yzerman speaking out instead of Lemieux?
Would those same defenses be directed at Tampa fans? Would Yzerman be subject to the same “hypocrite” accusations as Lemieux, given that Yzerman still has Steve Downie on his roster? Downie is a younger version of Cooke, an abrasive, talented player who often has lost sight of the line between clean and reckless play.
Where does it stop?
Are Dallas fans not allowed to complain about liberties taken with their team because of Steve Ott?
Can Mike Gillis not complain to league officials about any perceived slights to the Canucks because of Alex Burrows? What about Bryan Murray up in Ottawa with Chris Neil on his roster?
Or maybe this is just the pot trying to call the kettle black to curry some sympathy here.
The Islanders know what transpired on Friday night. They knew going in that it was about seeking retribution not through normal accepted conventions, but rather by overstepping the boundaries of clean, respectful play.
But then, this is what bottom-feeding teams do. They make excuses. They attempt to justify actions of cowardice and disrespect with baseless claims of favoritism towards other teams. They botch personnel decisions with degrees of ineptitude that make outside observers wonder if they’re actually trying to fail, or if they’re just really that stupid. More often than not, organizations like these reek of a festering blend of hubris, arrogance and ignorance, and it almost always rots from the top down (see Clippers, Los Angeles; Bengals, Cincinnati; Pirates, Pittsburgh). Witness the comments from general manager Garth Snow on Gillies’s hit, or those from team mouthpiece Zenon Konopka on the impact of Gillies’s suspension and the Lemieux statement.
All it’s done is to reinforce what was proven on Friday night.
What should’ve been a nice moment and a big win for a club having an awful year become nothing but another cautionary tale, a mark of embarrassment, a glaring lesson of what not to do.
But I guess that’s how they do things in the basement.