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Boston Bruins' Brad Marchand (R) punches Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin during the third period in Game 6 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoff in Boston, Massachusetts, June 13, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (BRIAN SNYDER)
Boston Bruins' Brad Marchand (R) punches Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin during the third period in Game 6 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoff in Boston, Massachusetts, June 13, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (BRIAN SNYDER)

The Usual Suspects

Cup loss shoots down Canucks' anti-goon approach Add to ...

In the excellent new film Moneyball, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) tells his assistant (played by Jonah Hill) to forget the excitement of the team’s 20-game win streak in 2002. Unless their team wins the final game of the season in the World Series, Beane says, no one will remember what they did or how. History is written by winners.

Beane was right for his team but not his strategy. Moneyball migrated to Boston for two World Series titles, and now everyone understands its tenets. So it’s fitting to ask on the cusp of the 2011-12 NHL season what might have been written and said on TV this fall had one game – Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final – gone Vancouver’s way. While the champion Bruins were a worthy winner, the Canucks were, like Beane’s A’s, a harbinger of something else. The Canucks were the team with no goons, who refused the obligatory dance after the whistle and who emphasized composure and self-restraint. They defied every tradition of Don Cherry/Brian Burke hockey.

Detroit perfected this formula in winning recent Stanley Cups, but if a Canadian city such as Vancouver had eschewed the code of intimidation and won the championship, it would have rippled throughout the business tenfold compared to Detroit. The Nucks were an orca of a different colour.

Ignoring the blood ’n’ guts formula in the heartland would have been a distinct message even the most embedded media could not avoid.

Yes, Alex Burrows obliged Patrice Bergeron with a chomp when the Bruins’ forward stuck his fingers in Burrows’s mouth, and Aaron Rome laid a pitiless bodycheck on Nathan Horton of the Bruins. In a copycat league, winning would have airbrushed those warts. The media would have written that the Canucks’ revolutionary message – goons be gone – should send teams in pursuit of speedy wingers, agile, puck-moving defencemen and phlegmatic stars such as the Sedins. Face washing after the whistle would have been so yesterday.

Instead, teams, including the Canucks, spent the summer looking for irritating pests like Brad Marchand and fourth-liners with size and Burke’s legendary “truculence.” The losing Canucks, meanwhile, were written up by the Toronto Star as floppers and fakers who had disgraced the manly art of hockey.

Forget that they were the NHL’s best team in the regular season and got to within 60 minutes of the Cup. The rash of suspensions for head hits and cheap shots launched this past month by NHL czar of player safety Brendan Shanahan speaks to how little effect the Canucks’ modus operandi had on players as they prepared for this year. Even the Canucks spent the off-season auditioning big-bodied forwards with a penchant for punching. Better to join ’em and fight ’em, you might say.

Perhaps the Canucks will rebound and win the Stanley Cup this year. Does their message finally get through? Only a Cup will validate the philosophy for sanguine writers and broadcasters who let one game speak for an entire season of messages, as happened last June.

THE KIPPER IS ‘KEEPIN IT REAL’

Shanahan told CBC’s Peter Mansbridge that the NHL might just have to look at the role of fighting in the sport. That sent a frisson of excitement through newsrooms, but the folks in the sports departments immediately started looking for a forecast of snow next August. A summer blizzard will coincide with the NHL’s owners getting fighting out of the sport.

Not that they’d tell you. So God bless Nick Kypreos of Rogers Sportsnet. While most of the tribal leaders refuse to be honest about fighting, the former brawler (whose own career was ended by a fight) is unapologetic about why fisticuffs remain in the game. Once again Friday, Kypreos and his Sportsnet sidekick, Daren Millard, engaged in the debate about the place of fighting in the sport on Sportsnet’s Hockeycentral at Noon.

As always, Millard made the logical connections between banning head shots and banning punches to the head (in effect, head shots). As always, Kypreos put his fingers in his ears and went “La-la-la-la, I can’t hear you.” Actually, Kypreos ignored Millard’s logic to express the essential truth of the matter: Fighting stays in the NHL because the league believes it makes them money. Lots of money. Not just in the United States, but also in Canada, where the nellies pretend we don’t like fighting.

You might not like Kypreos’s message, but at least he’s honest. And that makes him a rare commodity in the hockey establishment.

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