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.