December 10, 2008
One of the many facets of Sloppy-Seconds Gate was that it was a violation of the time-honored "code" that maintains the integrity of the game and serves healthy portions of frontier justice on the ice.
Sean Avery made things personal in the media, and players like Jarkko Ruutu felt that violated the code. Yet, at the same time, the NHL's swift suspension of Avery prior to the Dallas Stars' game against the Calgary Flames also robbed an aggrieved party like Dion Phaneuf his opportunity for rebuttal on the ice.
Ross Bernstein, author of the hockey book "The Code," once told me that "there's a certain amount of liability when you're a man and you sign up for this game." And while the code may have been violated and undermined in the Avery affair, it was alive and well in two games last night. We begin in Colorado, with Ian Laperriere taking on John Zeiler of the Los Angeles Kings.
Recall that Zeiler injured Colorado Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote with an illegal hit late last month. The beginning of his supplemental discipline was a three-game suspension from the NHL; he was well aware that the second part of it would likely be handed out from an Avalanche player in this game. Assuming Zeiler isn't a masochist, he'd fight back. That's the code, and as Adrian Dater pointed out for the Denver Post, it worked to perfection last night:
The Lappy-Zeiler fight was basically a quick, necessary piece of business at the start and that was that for the night. I talked to Lappy about it, and he said he knew what he had to do with Zeiler - and Zeiler knew it too. Zeiler dropped the gloves and went through with the hockey code and stood up for himself and Lappy got some good shots in and that was it.
I think that's why there was nothing else involving Zeiler the rest of the game. In the hockey way of things, Zeiler was held accountable and fought man to man, and in that sense he probably gained Lappy's respect. In fact, one thing Lappy said was "I've been in his shoes many times like tonight."
Meanwhile, in Nashville, we witnessed a much more contentious example of the code in action.
The Vancouver Canucks defeated the Nashville Predators, 3-1, to reclaim first place in the Northwest, but no one was talking about that after the game. Rather, it was a trio of controversial hits from the Canucks that had the Predators steamed: Rod Davison's vicious check that injured Scott Nichol, that actually knocked Davison into the Canucks' bench; Alex Burrows's leaping forearm into J.P. Dumont, which didn't receive a penalty; and Ryan Kesler's hit from behind on Shea Weber that earned five minutes for boarding.
The Burrows hit led to Jason Arnott stepping up to defend his linemate, searching out Burrows and pounding him to the tune of 17 penalty minutes, including an instigator:
"The league will handle it ... I'm trying to protect my players. There's two things that's unwritten. Don't go after the head, and you don't go after the knees. I think in the hockey code, I think they crossed the line a few times."
Trotz had more to say in the Vancouver Province, although Burrows saw it differently:
"Hands or forearms to the head are the things we're trying to get out of the game," said Predators coach Barry Trotz. "I don't mind running guys over with a shoulder check -- that stuff is fine. But we are talking about people's lives, and head injuries are the main subject in the NHL right now. We thought there was a lot of that."
Trotz praised Jason Arnott for leaping on Burrows and pounding him to the ice, even though the Canuck didn't want to fight.
"We knew we had to play hard on their good players, and that's what we did," Burrows said. "I didn't see the replay. I thought it was [clean]. I jumped? ... I don't want to injure the guy. I work out with him in the summer. That's the last thing I want -- to hurt a guy like that. I was just trying to finish my checks out there."
There is a fine line, however, between needless scrums after a good check and enforcing the code. Nashville's actions were, in my opinion, warranted and not superfluous.
The NHL will decide whether any punishment is handed out to the Canucks. (While the hits by Kesler and Burrows were reckless and suitable for League review, neither of them mentioned their ex-girlfriends in a press conference, so suspensions are naturally a long shot.)
But as a hockey fan, it was a kick to see the code play out like this in two different cities and manners last night. It all comes back to a basic theme, which is allowing players to police themselves. Laperriere did, and the Zeiler case is closed. The Predators started the process last night; one assumes Kesler and Burrows have been put on notice for the next round.
There's nothing circus-like or sideshow about it. Those of us who appreciate fighting in hockey understand the valor in these actions.