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Hockey Notes

Fighting words

GMs will have say on engagement

By Kevin Paul Dupont
March 8, 2009
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NHL general managers, fresh off their dealings during last week's trade deadline, will sit down in Naples, Fla., tomorrow to begin their annual March meeting, and the subject of fighting will be high on their agenda.

Commissioner Gary Bettman will attend, and he plans to engage the 30 team managers in a "thorough discussion" on what he terms "rules of engagement" governing the fight game. The recent tragedy of Don Sanderson, a 21-year-old amateur player who died from a head injury incurred while fighting in an Ontario senior league game, has raised the level of concern and discussion on the subject, but it's a good bet the GMs won't leave Naples Wednesday night with a mandate to ban it from the NHL.

"I think it should remain," said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, whose roster includes Shawn Thornton, Milan Lucic, and captain Zdeno Chara as accomplished pugilists. "Our sport is unique, and fighting is part of the institution, part of the fabric of the game. I wouldn't want to see that change."

Chiarelli is hardly alone in that thought. Over the years, his fellow GMs have supported fighting, by a large majority, and he is expected to be met with much the same support in Florida.

The ever-present politically correct crowd bemoans fighting as a vulgar display of violence, certain to trigger aggression and hatred in our youth, but the NHL has shrugged off such criticism through the decades and kept it in the game. It doesn't have the place in the game it once did, because brawling and donnybrooks are no longer tolerated, but it remains an ongoing hot topic, now in part because of Sanderson's death, as well as the fact that it's another very dangerous aspect of what is a very dangerous sport.

According to Chiarelli, he expects the discussion will focus on staged fights, not the spontaneous dustups that grow out of heated, physical play. Staged fights often have two designated combatants, guys well-known for their fisticuffs, coming together in bouts that are so contrived and calculated that one might figure ubiquitous promoter Don King could come scurrying over the boards with contracts in hand for each to sign.

The staged fights probably cannot be banned, but how the fighters conduct themselves probably will come under scrutiny. The GMs, with the likes of league disciplinarian Colin Campbell and Bettman guiding the discussion, figure to ask:

  • Must helmets remain on for all fights? If so, what penalties would be given players who take off their helmets or force off the helmet of another player during a fight?
  • What of slew-footing (using one's feet to knock an opponent to the ice) during a fight?
  • What of other takedown methods, including wrestling, tripping, or running a fellow combatant backward against the boards, causing him to buckle and drop?
  • It's that kind of scrutiny that could lead GMs to leave Naples with a list of recommendations for the Board of Governors to consider and possibly ratify. Given the tenor of the times, they are likely to tighten the code.

    "Tripping, slew-footing . . . you see those a lot, and they can be dangerous," said Chiarelli. "Those could be good criteria, a place for us to start the discussion, anyway.

    "But I don't think you're going to see [fighting] removed altogether. It's part of hockey, and always has been. It's kind of, 'OK, look, if you're going to run around and use your stick like that, then you're going to have to answer for it.' It's not about retribution and revenge."

    Whine from Grapes

    Saying and doing outrageous things on TV is part of the genre, and many days there is a case to be made that it is the genre.

    In the world of sports TV, ex-Bruins coach Don Cherry figured that out long before Jerry Springer, and it made Grapes a fortune.

    Are some of us in the staid print journalism world jealous of that? Without a doubt. A good number of TV journalists are, too, no doubt. How were we to know that shtick would win over substance?

    Last Saturday, during one of his popular "Coach's Corner" hits, the 75-year-old Cherry was back at it, this time ranting on Alexander Ovechkin. By Grapes's figuring, A.O. is a shameless showoff. He compared the brilliant Washington winger's goal celebrations to what he believes are (paraphrasing here) the crazed histrionics of soccer players around the world.

    Cherry also said, in effect, that Ovechkin hits too hard and that the Russian star's reckoning is sure to come. Someone, mused Cherry, is "going to cut him in half."

    To round off the lunacy, Cherry implored young players not to emulate Ovechkin, but rather to play the game with humility, in the manner of, say, good ol' Canadian boys Joe Thornton, Joe Sakic, Jarome Iginla, Brendan Shanahan, Bobby Orr, and Steve Yzerman. Yessir, hockey humble is the way to go. Just look to what heights it has lifted the NHL's profile through the decades.

    Now, look, who is going to argue against humility? Most all of us, including staid print journalists, could use a few large dollops of "aw-shucks-ism."

    But the point Cherry missed is that Ovechkin, beyond question, is the most exciting player the game has ever seen. Yes, ever. More exciting than Orr, Pavel Bure, or Wayne Gretzky. He is also the NHL's No. 1 showman, its greatest entertainer, and if there is any hope of the game even dipping its toe into the mainstream North American sports industry, A.O. is it. Game, set, penalty shot.

    Yes, his celebrations are wild, but fans love it. Even those who aren't Capitals fans.

    Yes, his hitting is raw and hard. But fans love that, too. Last we knew, Cherry seemed to prefer a physical game. Or maybe it's only OK for Canadians to play that way. Good bet it would be OK if a Canadian-born defenseman was the guy to cut Ovechkin "in half."

    In terms of embracing humility, well, gee, how can a guy with Cherry's outrageous wardrobe and his armoire full of outlandish, sometimes xenophobic and homophobic references and antics be telling us that the world doesn't like a showoff?

    Yes, I know, it's just an old man doing shtick. Leave him alone. But boy, has Cherry's bombastic act ever grown old.

    "He's not interesting to me," said Ovechkin, when asked the next day about Cherry's comments. "So he can say whatever he wants. I don't care about him."

    But so many still do, especially across the great land of Canada. But why?

    Etc.

    What happens in Vegas
    Well, this year something new will play out in the Nevada desert. The NHL's annual awards ceremony is headed to Las Vegas, in its familiar time frame, between the awarding of the Stanley Cup (perhaps as late as June 16) and prior to the June 26-27 draft in Montreal. Messrs. Hart, Norris, Vezina, Richard et al are giving up the comfy confines of downtown Toronto, long the stodgy stage of the gala, and are headed with hardware in hand for the world's gambling mecca. Union boss Paul Kelly, appearing last Saturday on the New England Hockey Journal radio show, confirmed the venue change and emphatically placed the NHLPA stamp of approval on it (this officially drops the "Just Say No Players Association" from the Sunday Hockey Notes lexicon). The shift to L.V., mused Kelly, will offer the event a greater and glitzier profile, possibly attracting more media coverage and high-profile entertainers from other sports and industries (see: Hollywood). Not to worry, the move will be totally endorsed by the priggish Professional Hockey Writers' Association, whose charge it is to vote on the awards. One senior PHWA member has graciously volunteered to head to L.V. on or about June 1, if not earlier, to tabulate the votes.

    Life of Brian
    Toronto GM Brian Burke, when asked if he was pleased with the deals he made Wednesday prior to the NHL's 3 p.m. trade deadline: "Yes. The trainers won't have to tape my wrists so I can go out there and do cartwheels, but yes, I'm happy." The Maple Leafs chiseled a second-round pick out of the Rangers for the 6-foot-6-inch Nik Antropov and they'll pick up a conditional pick (fourth-rounder) if the Blueshirts make it to the conference finals. They also netted another second-rounder by shipping ex-Harvard center Dominic Moore to the Sabres. Moore, having a career year with the Blue and White, was offered $1.7 million (nearly a 100 percent raise over his current $900,000) to stay but wouldn't take anything less than $2.2 million, convinced that he will do even better when he hits the market as an unrestricted free agent July 1. Seems high, but Moore has been in lockstep for points this season with Boston's Michael Ryder, who landed a three-year, $12 million deal last July after only a 31-point season with Montreal.

    Bend it like Ovechkin
    Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, looking more and more these days like the pre-concussion Bergy, was robbed of a goal last Saturday by Washington's Jose Theodore. The left side of the net wide open, Bergeron downshifted to the drop-knee-and-shoot position, only to watch Theodore scurry across and turn away his bid. Play soon stopped, but not before Bergeron and Alex Ovechkin traded a smack and a push, nothing overly aggressive. As the two young guns broke apart and skated away, they chatted briefly. What did they say? Bergeron: "Guess I would have had it with your shot, huh?" Ovechkin: "Yeah, you should have my curve." Oh, if only it were that simple.

    Juicy acquisition
    Olli Jokinen, who packed up his bags and sticks Wednesday afternoon at the Garden (where the Coyotes were practicing), potted two goals the next night for the Flames, his new club, in their 5-1 win at Philadelphia. People forget that the big-bodied Jokinen (6-3, 215) was the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft, behind Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and he does have outrageous skills. Now he's reunited with Mike Keenan, the Calgary coach who squeezed so much juice out of OJ when they were together in Florida. Of the top 10 picks in that '97 draft, not one has played for a Cup winner. The first one to win in the top end of the class: Dan Cleary, now with Detroit, who was selected No. 13 by the Blackhawks.

    Blues couldn't get Phil
    The big trade that the Bruins and Blues talked about in general terms but never shaped into a specific deal: Phil Kessel for Keith Tkachuk and David Perron, the 20-year-old left winger picked 26th overall in the 2007 draft. It would have given the Bruins their big body up front for this season and a highly-skilled prospect. Perron has a slick skill set and took stats of 9-29 -38 through 63 games into last night's action.

    Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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