The NHL's wheel of justice can be unpredictable and puzzling. It can occasionally deliver a harsh and stern verdict, especially when commissioner Gary Bettman gets involved, and it can occasionally produce a light and unexpectedly irrelevant punishment. It all depends upon how clear and strong a message the league wants to send.
On that basis, you can assume that the Vancouver Canucks will be looking for a new fourth-line energy guy and enforcer to take over from Rick Rypien for an extended period of time. Rypien is suspended indefinitely, pending a hearing with NHL brass, for his confrontation with a Minnesota Wild fan in St. Paul during Vancouver's 6-2 loss Tuesday night.
Rypien committed a cardinal and unpardonable sin in professional sport. As he left the ice in the second period of a game that was already hopelessly lost, he pushed a fan who was yammering at him from a seat behind the team's bench. Rypien was already having a bad night, even before his monumental brain cramp. He fought the Wild's Brad Staubitz once, tried to fight him again, and was being sent off to the dressing room when the incident occurred.
Say what you will about the varying standards of NHL discipline, but the one place where there is no grey area is getting into an altercation with a fan.
It is something that former NHL player and current TSN analyst Matthew Barnaby understands only too well. Nine years ago, playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Barnaby received a four-game suspension for a similar incident involving a fan in Florida.
"There are so many things that happen in the game and it's so emotional that sometimes you lose your mind," Barnaby said. "My experience was, I got beat up by Peter Worrell in Florida. I hadn't played much that game. The fans were yelling obscenities at me. All of a sudden, I just snapped. I lost it for a split second and wanted a piece of the guy that was yelling at me.
"Once you get to the locker room, you realize what you did. You feel bad. You think, what did I just do? You know you're going to get suspended and fined. You know you're going to lose $50,000, and for what? To be stupid. To be an idiot."
Presumably, it took Rypien only a second to have one of the same "my gawd, what have I done?" realizations that Barnaby had. Probably he wished he could have undone his actions immediately.
By then, it was too late. Bettman will look at the big picture and discover it falls somewhere between basketball player Ron Artest going into the stands to start a brawl (for which he was suspended an entire year) and the four games Barnaby received nine years ago, following a telephone hearing with Colin Campbell, the league's czar of discipline.
Barnaby remembers trying to explain his frustration level to Campbell, and Rypien will likely mount a similar defence. The Canucks were getting crushed, goaltender Roberto Luongo was having a bad night, and they were about to drop to 0-3 on the road.
All good reasons why Rypien, as one of the team's spark plugs, was trying to change the momentum of the game by showing that he at least wasn't going quietly into the night.
Still, it is one thing for a player to lose his cool in the heat of the moment, on the ice. It is something else again to have it spill into the stands.
"Obviously, the fans make the game," Barnaby said. "You have to protect them and a statement has to be made. I knew I was getting suspended. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it's going to be twice as bad. The cameras are there. There's a sensitivity toward it. They have to stop it. It's just a black eye on the game."
True enough. Sometimes, when there are mitigating circumstances, the wheel of NHL justice can spin and produce an expected result. This time, it shouldn't surprise anyone when Bettman throws the book at Rypien. It really is that basic, that black and white.