October 19, 2011
In the third period of the New York Rangers' 4-0 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night, Kevin Bieksa(notes) took an end-boards run at Brandon Dubinsky(notes). The Rangers forward took exception, glaring at Bieksa as the Canucks defenseman dropped his gloves.
What ensued wasn't so much a fight between the two as it was a wrestling match. Appropriate, then, that what followed would have made Vince McMahon grin fiendishly:
That, friends, was Kevin Bieksa pantomiming a bear hug, mocking the way Dubinsky fought in a dance he appeared eager to join; followed by Dubinsky giving Bieksa a Degeneration X-style crotch chop, most likely with the accompanying catchphrases.
Ah, sweet taunting.
Granted, this might not be your particular brand of whimsy. I don't mind an in-the-moment emotional response after a fight or a goal or a touchdown or a dunk. The adrenaline is pumping. One chest is puffed out larger than the other. Hey, look, you're trying to show up the other guy ... what an odd concept in competitive sports.
It's not exactly a model of sportsmanship - DearGodWon'tSomeoneThinkOfTheChildren — but I can't deny its entertainment quotient. We ran a series of "Guilty Pleasures" two months ago, and I'll cop this being one. When's the last time you heard about someone taunting an opponent and didn't at least make a cursory attempt to find the footage?
In many cases, the taunting symbolizes a larger narrative. Bieksa's reaction was born of total frustration: At his team's inability to solve Henrik Lundqvist(notes), having come up short in what was an unimaginable emotional soup for Bieksa given the Rick Rypien ceremony to start the game.
Dubinsky's reaction was of pure defiance. "No, sir, I'm not going to give you want you expected. We did it on my terms. If you don't like it, I've got two words for you … and they're not necessarily 'score' and 'board.'" Which is what you'd expect a winning road team to think.
It was a little moment of spontaneous unsportsmanlike conduct that resonated given the context. In terms of taunting, it was palatable. But no two taunts are alike, given their particular circumstances.
Taunting in the NHL is usually verbal, usually vile and typically unplanned … although some pests have admitted to boning up on their foreign language taunts before games against international opponents.
Planned taunts are as inauthentic as a prop-comedy touchdown dance. Like Alex Ovechin's hot-stick dance for his 50th goal in 2009:
As yes: The night AO became TO.
Ovechkin's glass-leaping goal celebrations were seen a sign of disrespect by some, but those were genuine, in-the-moment outpourings of emotion. This was a taunt, and a premeditated one at that.
No, the best taunts are spontaneous, and the best of the best are referential. Comedy is context — the clearer the punchline, the more effective the taunt.
All three of these incidents were hilarious. All three got the fans buzzing. All three were in the moment.
Alas, the first one had the NHL threatening misconduct penalties when the "bite this" miming started to appear in every Boston Bruins game against the Canucks. And Wisniewski was given a 2-game 'pole' tax because the NHL is like Hollywood: Demonizing sexual content while marketing violence.
As we've written before, Asham was caught up in the moment and was unaware that Beagle was injured that grotesquely on the play. He apologized after the game, called himself classless and then avoided suspension or fines for his "Go To Sleep" move.
Let's say Beagle wasn't badly injured: Would there still have been a firestorm? Would Asham have been fined for it? Would the majority of fans have loathed it?
Would it have been any different than what Tie Domi used to do after a fight?
After you beat the hell out of a guy, is mocking him afterwards really that much more egregious?
On that clip, you heard the Rangers announcers bemoaning the scrap, and could almost feel them shaking their heads in disdain; yet, at the same time, you heard the New York Rangers fans roar when Domi did that annoying little circle thing with his arms.
As a Devils fan, I hated seeing that, almost as much as I hated Domi. But that was the point; he was taking the piss out of his opponent, playing to the faithful and enraging everyone else.
All of it in the heat of the moment.
There are a lot of things I love about hockey. Chief among them is emotional honesty. You leave everything on the ice: Your stamina, your effort, your inhibitions, your internal filters. There's no time to think twice about an action, either because of the speed of the game or the overwhelming emotions or because you're too damn gassed to have a second thought.
I've always seen these moments of unsportsmanlike conduct as an extension of that. Maybe they tarnish the game, or undermine the pristine notion of hockey that those who call the post-playoff handshake line "our sport's grandest tradition!" envision.
To those people … well, Brandon Dubinsky's got two words for ya.