Rick Rypien, the embattled Vancouver Canucks' forward, had his day in court (NHL style) Friday, and received a six-game suspension from commissioner Gary Bettman pushing a fan midway through a one-sided loss to the Minnesota Wild.
It was about what I expected. I predicted five games, maybe more, the day after the incident occurred. Bob McKenzie, the TSN analyst, nailed it exactly right. He said it would be six games, on the grounds that his co-worker and former NHL enforcer, Matt Barnaby, received a four-game ban a decade ago - and you need to account for inflation. Seems reasonable. The NHL response was about you'd expect too. Players are advised, in pre-season briefings, that you cannot have physical contact with fans or attempt to enter the stands to go after a loudmouth under any circumstances. Forewarned is forearmed and Bettman implied that Rypien's clean record entered into his decision-making process; and kept him from upping the suspension count.
Ultimately, what surprised me most in the aftermath of this matter was how Rypien's conduct raised a separate, but parallel issue - that is, how much should boorish fan behaviour be factored in as a mitigating circumstance. For example, ESPN's SportsNation conducted a poll and discovered that an astonishing 37 per cent of respondents believe there might be a legitimate reason for a player to attack a fan. More than one in three!
E-mail traffic was similarly provocative. While a lot of people saw it the way Bettman did - as a black-and-white issue - some wanted to use the incident as a forum on the conduct of fans at sporting games, and how sick and tired they were/are of having to tolerate the drunken musings of the loudmouth in the next row, who is constantly spilling beer; using profanity within earshot of their children; and generally acting in a way that makes them vow never to spend $100 or more to enjoy (!?) the live fan experience.
One reader summed it up nicely. When he was a child, his father took him to games in a suit; and the overall experience was far more civilized. Now, after a series of discouraging experiences with fans behaving badly, he is no longer prepared to subject his children to "the spillers and the droolers."
So the question arises: Is it really that bad out there in the stands; and if it is, does there need to be a code of conduct for fans at some point? Arena security personnel do occasionally eject the worst of the worst; and at some point in the evening, the public address announcer usually issues a friendly warning about tasteful cheering. But is there more work to be done? In Rypien's case, it sounded as if he had his professionalism questioned by the fan that he eventually pushed. If there'd been physical contact in both directions - say, if a beer had been poured on him, the way it was on Calgary Flames' assistant Guy Lapointe some years ago by a spectator in Edmonton - would that constitute a mitigating circumstance?
Don't know, but am interested in a response, and will leave you with this - and how you can defuse a potentially volatile situation with humour. When Lapointe had that beer spilled on him, a Flames' player named Sasha Lakovic tried to scramble up the glass to exact his pound of flesh against the fan - unsuccessfully as it turned out, since plexiglass doesn't give much purchase, especially when you're wearing hockey skates. But afterwards, Lapointe - a fun-loving jokester if there ever was one - shrugged the whole thing off. When asked afterwards about the matter, Lapointe - in wonderfully deadpan fashion - answered huffily: "Doesn't he know, I don't drink beer? I drink rum and coke."
CAROLINA'S MONSTER ROAD TRIP: Another hot button topic in the early going has been the impact of travel on a team's results. Following a lifeless loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the Carolina Hurricanes' Joe Corvo opined the team's world tour to the start the season might have been in their best interests, if the idea was to get off to a good start. Carolina had the worst record in the NHL off the start last year, which ultimately cost Peter Laviolette his coaching job, so getting off to a better beginning was a clear priority.
But then came their four-corners of the world odyssey that for the record went this way: Raleigh to St. Petersburg Russia to Helsinki Finland and then off to Ottawa, Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix, where they wrap up with a game against the Coyotes Saturday before heading home. In all, they would travel 23,767 kilometres, with the longest legs coming being the first (7,564 kilometres between home and Russia), the third (3,663 Helsinki to Ottawa) and the fourth (3,663 between Ottawa and Vancouver).
No wonder Corvo's outburst came after a shellacking at the hands of the Canucks. They must have been running on fumes at that point. Subsequently, they recovered to split games in San Jose and Los Angeles and, after winning twice in Europe, aren't too badly positioned (3-3) considering their home opener doesn't occur until Wednesday.
Boston, by contrast, travelled about 10,000 kilometres less and of all the teams that began in Europe, seemed the least affected by the rigors' of their journey. The Bruins split games with Phoenix overseas and then promptly rattled off three important wins in a row - the first against New Jersey and then a home-and-home sweep of the Washington Capitals, the top team in the Eastern Conference last season.
Naturally, what it tells you is that there are both pros and cons to getting out on the road. On the one hand, it is difficult to play the game at a high level when facing jet lag and fatigue - and the fact that Carolina had to deal not only with the Europe to North America time change, but then EST compared to PST made Corvo's point worth listening too. On the other hand, the Bruins were at least able to return to their own time zone.
To Milan Lucic, the resurgent third-year winger, the trip - which included a memorable visit to Belfast at the start - served as a useful team-building exercise.
"Right now guys are having fun playing with one another," Lucic said to the Boston Globe. "I think it all goes back to the Vermont trip (in preseason) and the Europe trip. That's where we were able to bond as a team. We're having a lot of fun out there, everyone's got each other's back and we're real competitive."
Then there were the Atlanta Thrashers, who had a more modest trip at the start of the season, heading west to do the California swing. The Thrashers had a very decent 3-2 start and then came home and laid an egg last Wednesday against the Buffalo Sabres. When asked if travel were a factor, goaltender Chris Mason wasn't buying it. "That's a typical excuse you can use," Mason said to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "The travel in this league, everyone has to do it. There is no reason. Maybe the first couple of shifts, but there is no reason to have a whole game like that."
MANY HAPPY RETURNS: Popular journeyman Steve Begin, who has logged a lot of miles in a 12-year career that began with the 1997-98 Calgary Flames, landed a gig for this season finally, when he signed a two-way deal with the Nashville Predators for the bargain-basement price of $550,000. Begin, who will start the year with AHL Milwaukee, is closing in on 500 NHL games (he was 486 at the moment) after playing 77 games with Boston a year ago. Begin is a former junior teammate of the Predators' J.P. Dumont - they along with Roberto Luongo won a Quebec League championship with Val d'Or back in 1998 ... Also back on the job: Christine Simpson, who will work as the host for the Devils' MSG Plus broadcast team. Simpson's brother is Craig, the former Battle of the Blades champion who works alongside Jim Hughson on Hockey Night in Canada telecasts. Simpson will work on a team that includes with Doc Emrick, Chico Resch and Ken Daneyko. "Christine has grown up around hockey, and her knowledge and passion for the sport shine through on air," said Jeff Filippi, senior vice-president and executive producer of MSG Networks. We agree.
AND FINALLY: Still looking for work: Bill Guerin, a 45-point player for Pittsburgh last year who also contributed nine points in 11 playoff games, didn't stick after a tryout with the Philadelphia Flyers; and Owen Nolan, who had a decent 33-point season for Minnesota last year, wasn't able to land a contract either. Nolan, according to ESPN.com, took a pro-active step this past week and signed a contract with Zurich of the Swiss League that includes an escape clause permitting him to return to the NHL if there's any interest. Injuries are their best hopes; that and time because as the season advances and the dollars daily click off the salary cap, teams might be more inclined to gamble on a veteran insurance policy.