A shouting match erupted at the Montreal Canadiens practice Tuesday, with an angry assistant coach tearing a strip off the team's highest paid player.
An argument between forward Scott Gomez and assistant coach Randy Ladouceur was so long and intense that some media observers thought it might turn into a fistfight.
With emotions running high in the stretch run of a difficult season, the assistant coach was apparently upset at what he considered a lack of intensity during a drill, and began shouting at Gomez.
The underperforming centre — who is among the league's highest-paid players at $7.5 million but has only one goal this year — responded.
The spat continued for several minutes, first in front of other players before the men left to exchange words in a corner.
The on-ice argument had reporters asking whether Gomez had lost his will to play. A visibly irritated Gomez scoffed at the question, saying that nothing could be further from the truth.
“That's not even the right question,” Gomez said.
“I'm a professional, I've always been. No one wants to win in Montreal more than me, I'll never let down my teammates.”
Gomez downplayed the incident at practice; he said he simply messed up an exercise and the coach let him have it. He said things like that happen every day.
“I screwed up on the drill and he (Ladouceur) let me know about it... I'm sure everyone has had their boss yell at them, it's just that mine is in front of a bunch of cameras and that's the way it is,” Gomez told a scrum following practice.
“It's not the first time, it's not the last time. It's part of hockey, it happens all the time and right now it just shows you how crucial it is right now.”
The Canadiens were eight points out of a playoff spot entering Tuesday night's games.
Informed that head coach Randy Cunneyworth wasn't pleased with his effort Monday in a loss against Carolina, Gomez said he'd have to work harder.
Cunneyworth never intervened in the dispute. He said later, with a smile, that his assistant had the situation under control.
With the Habs struggling this year, this isn't the first tense moment at practice. In fact, Ladouceur also provided young defenceman P.K. Subban with a tongue-lashing recently.
But veteran team observers say it's been many years since they've seen a spat like Tuesday's, and compared it to a memorable 1996 argument between then-coach Mario Tremblay and enforcer Donald Brashear. That one got so bad that Brashear was sent to the dressing room, and was traded a few days later to the Vancouver Canucks.
For his part, Gomez surprised reporters by denying that he'd argued back at Ladouceur.
“I was listening to him, he's the coach. It was a conversation. There was no argument,” Gomez said. “It was just a coach yelling at a player for messing up a drill.”
Head coach Cunneyworth refused to say during a news conference after practice if Gomez will play Wednesday night against the Boston Bruins. He would also not confirm the presence of Andrei Kostitsyn in the lineup.
The two veteran forwards logged the least ice time all forwards dressed on Monday. Gomez logged just 7:49 and Kostitsyn played just 4:20.
“For me, I was playing the guys that would give us the best opportunity to win at this time,” Cunneyworth said.
The coach said the attributes behind the Canadiens' recent success — puck management, a steady forecheck and driving to the net — were missing against Carolina. The team is 6-4 in its last 10 games, including Monday night's Carolina loss.
While the coach was non-commital about Gomez and Kostitsyn, he did say that Ryan White would make his season debut on Wednesday against Boston.
“We're looking for the lineup that wants to play the right way and battle hard against a very good Boston Bruins team,” Cunneyworth said.
Defenceman Yannick Weber practiced on Tuesday but isn't likely to return against Boston while injured forward Travis Moen didn't skate.