Even at his cuddliest, Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice can look like a man trying to break rocks with the power of his mind.
So when Maurice gets angry – as he was Saturday, and only marginally less so on Sunday – it’s a daunting experience.
Two days into the resumption of the NHL, the league has already generated its most reliable sort of newsmaker – an ugly collision that, depending on your perspective, is either an assassination attempt or Playing the Game the Right Way™. Arguing about the difference is the reason Canada employs so many sports journalists.
A bunch of factors determine how big a story this is – Who did the hurting? Who got hurt? How badly hurt? And has anyone else been hurt as a result?
Saturday’s Matthew Tkachuk on Mark Scheifele hit-and-run is a perfect example of the genre. The play is easy enough to describe – Scheifele approaching the side boards at speed and, after dumping the puck, attempting to turn back up the ice; Tkachuk right behind him and determined to finish his check; Tkachuk either losing his balance or purposely raising his skate to clip the back of Scheifele’s heel; Scheifele down on the ice writhing and then carried off.
But one of the perverse beauties of hockey is that it’s often nearly impossible to say what someone intended to do after they’ve put someone else on a stretcher. The laws of Newtonian hockey physics dictate that when one body is in motion, it does not stop until it has decapitated another body.
Add to this uncertainty Scheifele’s reputation as one of the league’s stand-up guys, and Tkachuk’s as one of the NHL’s kamikaze pilots, and you have yourself a good ol’ fashioned drama.
No penalty was called on the play, but the Calgary Flames player probably feared a retroactive one. Although not apologetic – that would imply intent – he was regretful.
“It’s such an accident,” he said. “I felt terrible.”
Maurice wasn’t moved.
“It was intentional. That is a filthy, dirty kick to the back of the leg,” he said. “He could’ve ended his career. It’s an absolutely filthy, disgusting hit.”
Did Tkachuk mean to filet Scheifele in view of a dozen cameras? An elbow to the head is one thing. Using your skate as a boning knife is another. Back when hockey was a true bloodsport, the toughest old-school tough guys would not have considered doing such a thing.
That is not to say it’s impossible. Only Tkachuk knows what Tkachuk was thinking. But in lieu of better evidence, I suppose you have to take him at his word.
By Sunday, Maurice had calmed, but just a bit. He is a thoughtful man who speaks carefully. He asked that people recognize just how carefully.
“I would stick by every word that I said, but specifically every word that I said” – a very small climb-down. Does he think Tkachuk is (and I’m not sure how this became the worst thing you can say about someone, because several of the greats were exactly this) a “dirty” player?
“I don’t know,” Maurice said, as though he knew. “If you sin once, are you sinner? Sin 10 times?”
The NHL is more and more like the medieval church. You come for the violence, but you stay for the moral philosophy.
Proxies on either side lined up to defend their colleagues.
Jets centre Adam Lowry: “I agree with what Paul said last night. I don’t think it’s accidental. I think it’s intentional.”
Flames centre Sean Monahan: “It’s a hockey play. Stuff like that happens in games. … Chucky’s playing hard and it’s playoffs now, so he stepped up and stepped up for himself afterwards and he did a great job.”
Flames coach Geoff Ward understands that saying anything about this is counterproductive. He also understands he has to say something or appear complicit. So he decided to counter with passive-aggressive compliments.
“[Maurice] is trying to get an elite player in our lineup either taken out or suspended. And he’s trying to create some energy probably in his own room. He’s a veteran coach. He’s a really good coach.”
So this comes down to posturing.
But posturing is what defines the modern NHL. There was a time when on-ice actions resulted in an equal and opposite on-ice reaction without any need of explanation. People understood the symbology of cruelty.
But those actions no longer align with the mores of society at large. So instead we’ve subbed in smouldering words and bad blood.
Fighting was good for business, but so is this. Battles in the press drum up interest as reliably as actual ones. All of a sudden, Winnipeg-Calgary is the most fascinating thing going on in sport.
In order for this new way of doing things to work, you need players like Tkachuk. They are every bit as important as the Connor McDavids.
Once they removed fighting as a regular feature of the game, you were guaranteeing that dirty tricksters would thrive. Tkachuk is fabulous at this work. You may not like him, but you would dance in the streets if he ended up on your team.
In this case, it actually did come to a fight. Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler stepped up to defend Scheifele’s honour. Tkachuk flattened him.
So what exactly can Winnipeg do now?
Maybe this is why Maurice was so enraged. He just got beat by the other team’s weasel and has no useful weasel of his own.
In defending him, Tkachuk’s teammates repeatedly used the phrase “playing on the edge.” Maurice used the same formulation. Both parties meant the same thing, but saw it in a very different way.
People who play on the edge do awful things and they also win hockey games. That’s why they’re paid so much.
In the new NHL, you no longer have instigators, agitators or tough guys in the traditional sense. You have a few people looking to head over the edge and other people who end up complaining about those people. I’ll leave it you to decide which sort you’d prefer on your team.