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roy macgregor

Revenge dates going out of fashion in the NHL Add to ...

Check the calendar.

If there's no circle around March 24, then hockey may have finally learned a lesson.

Thursday, at TD Garden, the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins will meet for the first time since Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara rammed Habs forward Max Pacioretty into a Bell Centre stanchion two weeks ago. That singular collision sent Pacioretty to hospital with a fractured vertebra and set off an explosion of negative public opinion toward professional hockey that hadn't been seen since … well, the last time a circle appeared on the NHL calendar.

That would be a year ago.

It was also a March day - same city, same rink, same speculation that the unstated rules of hockey (some foolishly still call it "the code") would require some retribution, revenge, payback.

A year ago it was the Pittsburgh Penguins coming to Boston, the first game between the two since, 11 days earlier, Pittsburgh agitator Matt Cooke had nearly taken the head off Marc Savard, then one of the game's most-skilled players, today a player so hampered by concussions that his career is in some doubt.

That game was set up like a UFC spectacle: The Boston Herald ran a "Wanted" poster of Cooke on the front page, demanding that one of the Bruins step up "to teach this bum a lesson."

That role fell, by unstated agreement, to Shawn (I know my job) Thornton, who, 1 minute 58 seconds into the game, began flailing away at will on Cooke, who promptly fell to the ice to the greatest cheers of the night. Actually, the only cheers of the night, as the Penguins defeated the hometown heroes 3-0.

It's much different this time, though. The supposedly avenging team is the Canadiens. Not only do the Habs not have an official enforcer, such as Thornton, but flailing away on Cooke is not even remotely the same as flailing away on the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Chara, who once picked up Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe and shook him in the air as if he were a paper doll.

But that, still, is not the real difference.

Back then, there was such general acceptance of "the code" that even Sidney Crosby approved of what had happened. "He knew what he had to do," he said of Cooke's tangling with Thornton, "and he went out there and did it. That is something you have to do."

One year later and Crosby has joined Savard among the truly skilled players not playing because of injuries to the fragile human brain. Crosby now has even spoken out against all head shots, while the league has instituted Rule 48, otherwise known as The Matt Cooke Rule, to at least ban such blind-side hits as Cooke laid on Savard.

And even that is still not the difference.

One year later and Cooke is suspended for 10 games and the first round of the playoffs for yet another hit to the head of a player. His own team has virtually disowned him. His general manager has, in a reversal of the usual NHL form, welcomed the suspension. His team owner, Mario Lemieux, has called on the league to bring an end to the "travesty" of violence that has so turned people against the game this winter.

As for Pacioretty, Canadiens owner Geoff Molson has called on all team owners to join him in declaring that "we do not accept any violent behaviour that will put the players' health and safety at risk."

It really is a different time. The NHL general managers couldn't bring themselves to ban all head shots, but they are moving, slowly, toward the inevitable. (Mad) Mike Milbury is now counted among those who realize that fighting - Thornton's attack on Cooke a perfect example - has no effect whatsoever on the outcome of games and should, as it is in other team sports, be banned.

Let us hope, then, that Thursday marks the end of the circled date on the calendar, an NHL tradition that dates from Dec. 2, 1992, when New York Rangers thug Tie Domi openly promoted the day he planned to get even with Detroit Red Wings tough guy Bob Probert, and it includes March 8, 2004, when the Vancouver Canucks vowed to get revenge on the Colorado Avalanche's Steve Moore for hurting their captain - a vow that led to Todd Bertuzzi jumping Moore and breaking his neck.

Thursday is March 24, 2011. Moore has never played a game since he was attacked seven years ago.

And Probert is dead, his life over at 45 and the brain he left to science the inarguable evidence that hits to the head - whether delivered by stanchion, as Pacioretty's was, by elbow, as Savard's was, by hits, as Crosby's was, or by fists, as in the case of Probert - never, ever go away.

It's time to move on. The match Thursday will be tough, as all games in history have been between these two great rivals.

"We don't like them and they don't like us," Thornton said on Wednesday. "And I don't think that will ever change."

Probably not - though almost everything else has changed.

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