CHICAGO – Can't do it. You just can't do it. You just can't touch a fan, can't even grab and shake and let go, can't even if you're in the heat of battle and he's clapping and he's wearing the same sweater as the guys you were fighting a few seconds before and it all happened so fast.
The NHL already has acted quickly to address Tuesday night's incident, suspending Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien(notes) for his altercation with a Minnesota Wild fan. Rypien will not play Wednesday against the Chicago Blackhawks. After holding a hearing, the league surely will – and certainly should – extend the suspension for several games.
If poor taste is worth a two-gamer, as it was for New York Islanders defenseman James Wisniewski's(notes) lewd gesture toward New York Rangers agitator Sean Avery(notes) on Oct. 11, then this is worth much, much more. This isn't offending our sensibilities. This is getting physical with a paying customer, crossing quite another line entirely.
Let's keep it in context, though. This wasn't the "Malice at the Palace," the players-into-the-stands melee Nov. 19, 2004, when a Detroit Pistons fan threw a cup at Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest and all hell broke loose. It doesn't indicate a larger problem. Make Rypien pay for his foolish mistake and move on.
"I saw it live and a replay of it," said Blackhawks enforcer John Scott(notes). "It was kind of strange. It looks like he kind of flipped a switch and grabbed the guy for no reason, because it didn't look like the fan was saying anything. He just kind of grabbed him. He kind of came to after he grabbed him. He was like, ‘Oh, not the time or the place,' and he let him go. But you can't be doing that. You can't be grabbing the fans out the stands."
Rypien had been scrapping with Wild forward Brad Staubitz(notes). Rypien punched Staubitz behind an official's back and then wrestled with an official, which the league also must consider. As he headed off the ice, Rypien saw a Wild fan standing and clapping up and to the right of the tunnel to the dressing room. Perhaps he heard something, too. Finally, Rypien grabbed the fan's right arm, shook it and left the picture.
Now, fans must be smart. Just because you pay for your ticket doesn't give you license to act like an idiot, but it happens all the time.
"There's a guy in Nashville that will be happy I'm mentioning him," said Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp(notes). "I don't know what his name is, but he gets on us pretty good in the penalty box. I wouldn't mind throwing him around outside, getting him on the ice."
Sharp was smiling as he said that. He was joking, just as Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith(notes) said he was joking when he squirted water at a taunting Predators fan from the penalty box during last season's playoffs.
"I was having fun with the fan," Keith said. "I thought I made his day."
This Wild fan wasn't acting like an idiot. He was clapping. Even if he said something he shouldn't have, Rypien had no business putting his hands on him. But fans have got to realize that the players are human beings with emotions, not machines.
"The guy just got in a fight," Keith said. "He's probably a little riled up. Who knows what could happen? I wouldn't get too close to a guy if I was a fan."
That said, players must keep their emotions in check, and they almost always do.
Rule 23.7 states that any player who becomes involved in an altercation with a spectator shall receive a game misconduct – which Rypien didn't, for some reason – and the commissioner shall have full power regarding further discipline. But the league doesn't harp on this with the players, nor does it need to. They know the line is there.
As Scott said, even Rypien seemed to know it – going temporarily insane, realizing he was doing something stupid as he was doing it, then taking off down the tunnel.
Scott has been in many fights in his hockey career. He has been spit upon by fans. He has had beer dumped on him. And …
"I've never had the impulse to grab a fan," Scott said. "I don't know. It doesn't happen that often, so it must not be that hard. … If I had a fan swing at me, then, yeah, sure. But they're paying to come to the games and say whatever they want. As long as they're just booing me, that's fine with me."
Almost every hockey player has stories about unruly fans. Sharp said he had been spit upon, too. Asked where, he hesitated, well aware of the context and Wednesday's opponent, and said: "Vancouver." A Canucks fan sent some saliva into his visor during the playoffs two years ago. Other fans threw beer bottles at the Blackhawks.
Sharp brought up the "Malice at the Palace."
"That kind of opened everyone's eyes that crazy things can happen," Sharp said. "I just think you've kind of got to draw the line with that stuff. But you've got to protect yourself and your teammates. You never know what's coming at you from the stands."
But Sharp also said he has never felt the need to protect himself or his teammates.
"I've been bothered, yeah, provoked, but never really threatened," Sharp said. "I think the NHL does a good job in each building with security. I've got 20 of my teammates and hockey equipment, so I always feel pretty safe."
Every time there is an ugly incident in hockey, it becomes a referendum on what's wrong with the sport – or at least the image of the sport. Taken with other recent events, from Wisniewski's lewd gesture to questionable hits, it does make the league look bad. The season is two weeks old, and already the league has handed out five suspensions and four fines for various offenses.
But altercations between players and fans are rare, and remember how the "Malice at the Palace" was supposed to mark the decline of western civilization? Now it seems like ancient history, like when Mike Milbury and the Boston Bruins went into the stands at Madison Square Garden three decades ago. Nothing like it has happened since, and Artest, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, is a champion.
The NHL needs to discipline Rypien, but that's it. No added security. No added distance or barriers between the fans and players.
"I don't think it's that big of an issue," Sharp said.