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Bush League

Posted by Jason Chen, 12 February 2011 · 346 views

Canadiens Bruins Max Talbot Trevor Gillies Micheal Haley Penguins Islanders
I love hockey fights. They should stay in the league. But there comes a time when it goes too far and hockey becomes a petty, score-settling, free-for-all that becomes an absolute disgrace to the best game in the world. That Islanders-Penguins tilt last night was the prime example.

Did it all start with Wednesday night's Bruins-Habs match-up that resulted in 14 goals and 12 fighting majors, now known as the "Beantown Beatdown" in Boston? I thoroughly enjoyed the first two and half periods of the game. Carey Price and Tim Thomas' fight was laughable but neither team really came in danger of really hurting each other until close to the end of the game when the Habs got jumped. I'm not exonerating either team for what they did, but what did Greg Campbell think he was accomplishing by fighting Tom Pyatt? What were Shawn Thornton and Johnny Boychuk trying to accomplish by fighting Jaroslav Spacek and Roman Hamrlik? It was an 8-5 game at this point with just 49 seconds remaining in the game. The game was obviously over.

Then came the Islanders and Penguins ridiculous show of gamesmanship last night with 14 fighting majors and 346 penalty minutes. Even if you factor in the context, a pissed off Islanders team that's absolutely tired of becoming the butt of the league's jokes, facing a Penguins team that knocked out starter Rick DiPietro in a fight (a fair one, mind you), the whole fiasco set the Islanders' reputation back at least another five years. Try climbing out of THAT hole.

I get where the Islanders are coming from. They're headed to yet another lottery pick, ownership is bleeding money, they get almost zero support from their fans, there's been talk of relocation, and there's been few bright spots the past fifteen years. You have to be crazy to not think that coach Jack Capuano isn't playing that "us against the world" angle like Pete Carroll. The franchise is frustrated and took their frustration out on a Penguins squad when their failures as a franchise should be burdened by poor ownership and management.

Whatever sort of "revenge" the Isles were seeking for Brent Johnson punching out DiPietro in a fair fight should've ended with a middleweight fight between Craig Adams and Michael Haley and a heavyweight matchup featuring Eric Godard and Trevor Gillies. That should've been the end of it. The Islanders were up 3-0, rare territory for them, but instead of trying to win the game it became an absolute gong show. Max Talbot, who's hit on Blake Comeau sparked the entire penalty parade, wasn't clean, but it wasn't dirty either. Comeau didn't have the puck and Talbot came in at an angle that could be argued as the blindside. Regardless, the Islanders didn't like that.

In a 6-0 game the score has been settled. The Islanders were blanked 3-0 in their last match-up against the Penguins and have two fighting majors already. But Matt Martin thought it fitting to creep up behind Talbot and sucker punch him. It was eerily similar to the one Todd Bertuzzi landed on Steve Moore seven years ago (more on that in a bit). As many concussions caused by missed head shots and boarding calls, a sucker punch is worse. It's the biggest gesture of disrespect in a league whose players have a tradition of policing themselves. It was already ugly then and it got even uglier.

I'm not sure exactly what sort of impact the Islanders think Trevor Gillies can bring to a game but one thing's for certain: you don't win hockey games with a 32-year old journeyman who's scored never scored more than two goals in any professional season and makes a living with his fists. Dan Bylsma deserves some blame here because I don't think Capuano would've dressed Gillies had Eric Godard been scratched. Regardless, I thought it was absolutely gutless of him to go after Eric Tangradi, a player ten years his junior who, despite his 6'4", 220 lbs. frame, is actually known more for his offensive game than his physicality. It was pretty clear that Tangradi was shaken up by a high hit from Gillies yet Gillies felt it necessary to start turning Tangradi into a punching bag. Even after Gillies was sent off the ice he had the nerve to stand at the gate and continue to talk trash while the Penguins' trainer was tending to Tangradi. You know right then and there that Gillies was out there looking to hurt, not to play hockey.

What's more ridiculous was rookie Micheal (that's not a typo) Haley, after taking down Talbot, skating all the way to the end of the rink to challenge Brent Johnson, Johnson's second fight in as many starts. If Mike Richards thinks PK Subban's trash-talking and general disrespect for the game and its veterans was bad, I'd love to hear him sound off on Haley, who, like Gillies, has made a name for himself with his fists rather than his skill. I understand that young players who can't score to want make an impression and think they have to drop the mitts to catch the coach's attention, but that's negative attention the Islanders don't need. A young rookie like Haley, who begins the game mouthing off an establish veteran like Adams, ignores the referees after taking down Talbot, and then skates half the rink just to challenge another veteran goalie in Johnson, won't win any brownie points.

The Islanders want respect, and to do that you need to win games, but what good memories the Islanders have of in a 9-3 drubbing of a Cup-wining team were completely erased. This game won't be known as the game the Islanders started to gain some respect, but rather a game in which a young, rudderless team got their priorities mixed up and gave hockey another black eye. The whole thing was bush league. But let's not put the blame entire on either of the organizations. Should the league had seen it coming? Perhaps, but there's only so much the league can do in regards to referee assignments and warnings before their jurisdiction ends at the edge of the ice. But the league really has an opportunity here to really throw the book at both teams.

Martin's sucker punch requires the most attention because it was certainly pre-meditated. He was eying Talbot, who the Islanders felt wasn't punished enough already, the entire way. Analogous to Bertuzzi's case, Moore had fought Matt Cooke earlier in the game but Bertuzzi was obviously dissatisfied. If Bertuzzi's actions led to an indefinite suspension, which ultimately ended up being close to a one-year ban from competitive hockey, then I fail to see why Martin shouldn't be suspended for the rest of the season. Both games were in blowouts, the Islanders up 6-0 at that point and the Avs holding a similar 6-goal lead in a 8-2 game in the third period. Anything short of that and Bertuzzi looks like a martyr. He's the ultimate poster boy for a league that really picks its spots when it comes to suspensions. Haley and Godard will both have suspensions forthcoming.

Both teams should be fined for failure to control their respective teams. The NHL shouldn't publish articles that praise the Islanders' pugilistic methods either with opening sentences like "The New York Islanders exacted the NHL's version of revenge on the Pittsburgh Penguins." Call it what it was - a complete disgrace. Whoever wrote that article needs to give his head a good shake and pack his bags for another profession.

It also doesn't help the atmosphere when fans at Nassau were cheering "Crosby sucks!" the entire time, a cheer that's now synonymous with any anti-Penguins sentiment. It was the loudest I've heard Nassau in a long time but for all the wrong reasons. The Islanders were a joke entering the game and now a bigger joke after it. John Tavares can say whatever he wants but even if he does someday find himself having the same scoring touch as Mike Bossy, nobody's going to respect a guy who fails to differentiate between "entertaining" and "ridiculous." First the Evgeni Nabokov fiasco and now this. Will it ever stop for the once-storied Islanders? An owner who knows nothing about hockey but likes to call the shots in Charles Wang, an aggressive and hot-tempered but ultimately under-qualified GM in Garth Snow, and a lack of veteran presence in the locker room is a recipe for disaster. 34-year old Radek Martinek was the oldest Islander to play but he's never been one to count on for leadership. If the Islanders want to get serious about winning they better change that locker room culture. And fast. It's almost out of control.

"Respect" is a word that's been tossed around way too much these days. It's a concept that I think has really evolved into something else that means entirely different than what it meant fifty, thirty, or even ten years ago. Let's shelve that word for the time being because it's obviously missing in today's game and not worth talking about until the players get their heads screwed on straight.

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