Pre-season game misdeeds lead to regular-season game suspensions, injuries and problems for NHL teams.
OTTAWA — Brawls. Suspensions. Stick-swinging. Enforcers maligned for alleged “code” violations, leading to, strangely enough … more jobs for enforcers!
Welcome to the National Hockey League pre-season. Imagine if these games actually counted?
There’s the rub. If they needed one, players and coaches are receiving a cold, hard reminder that broken jaws and suspensions for leaving a player’s bench are very real even if they stem from “exhibition” play.
“They’re still real games,” Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza said Monday, the day after a wild brawl in Toronto sent the NHL war-room folks back to the drawing board to sort out yet another mess that their own culture has created.
This is the same NHL pre-season that has witnessed 10-game suspensions to Phoenix Coyotes enforcer Paul Bissonnette and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ David Clarkson for leaving the players’ benches to join fights and Edmonton Oilers centre Sam Gagner suffering a broken jaw from a stick swung carelessly by Vancouver Canucks winger Zack Kassian, who was suspended for the rest of the pre-season and five regular-season games.
Whatever happened to the days when pre-season hockey meant feisty play by the prospects while veterans quietly tuned up for the season? Exhibition games have been predictably sloppy, but also nasty, this fall.
“People laugh about them and say they’re not good hockey. We’ve been sitting around all summer waiting to play these games,” Spezza said. “They’re still intense. There’s still a lot at stake. If you’re not ready for them, that’s how you get hurt.”
Certainly, Phil Kessel of the Maple Leafs was not “ready” for a behemoth enforcer to engage with him in a fight, which led to Clarkson, the Maple Leafs’ prize off-season acquisition, leaving the bench to join the brawl and, on Monday, receiving notice of his 10-game suspension.
Senators winger Zack Smith believes this case qualifies , with Buffalo Sabres goon John Scott all 6-8 and 270 pounds of him and one goal in 180 career NHL games, going after the Leafs’ best player, Kessel.
“That guy (Scott) is probably the worst player in the league and he goes after a guy like Kessel?” Smith said. “Who knows, maybe Kessel said something or he ran over his dog or something. I don’t know what would make him want to do that.”
What would make him do that might have something to do with Sabres head coach Ron Rolston. It would be refreshing to see the NHL make Rolston accountable for this mess, which began when Scott went after Kessel following a faceoff.
This event was preceded by a fight between Buffalo’s Corey Tropp and Toronto’s Jamie Devane, who put a hurt on Tropp. To avenge that, or God knows what other perceived slights between two teams playing back-to-back games, Scott told Kessel they were going to have to engage.
Why was Kessel even out there? Because Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle didn’t feel like escalating hostilities. He thought having Kessel’s line on the ice would defuse things. On it goes. The old-school guys in the war room can sort out this old-school mess of codes, honour among thugs and little guys wielding big sticks.
The fact is that the NHL creates a place for big men, so-called policemen, who fight and cannot otherwise play the game. The Oilers went out and acquired one on Monday, Steve MacIntyre, to protect Edmonton’s other stars now that Gagner has been injured.
Scott, of course, was brought in by the Sabres last year after they felt they had been taken advantage of by the Boston Bruins.
Senators enforcer Matt Kassian, a former teammate of Scott, figures his pal had his reasons for pursuing Kessel.
“You hope a situation would never arise where you go after a smaller skilled guy,” Kassian said. “But, at the same time, you’ve got to look out for your teammates, protect your teammates.”
Kassian said he was OK with Kessel’s first use of his stick on a charging Scott, but didn’t like the followup swing.
“The first whack, he’s trying to create space and defend himself, basically, and I wouldn’t have a problem with that one,” Kassian said. “The one I didn’t like was when he was skating around the pile afterwards, and he takes a baseball swing. I think that’s unwarranted.”
As to the last jab, a weak spear attempt by Kessel, Kassian said it was “just kind of funny.”
The Senators should be laughing, all the way to the second game of the regular season, in Toronto on Oct. 5, when Clarkson will be out of Toronto’s lineup for his dumb decision to leave the bench. Even Carlyle could find no excuse for that move.
In Ottawa, head coach Paul MacLean says the ramifications bear repeating to his own players.
“We would certainly tell them not to do that, not to jump off a bench,” MacLean said. “We would really encourage them not to do that. We might have to address that.”
Meanwhile, Spezza was feeling horrible for his buddy “Gags” in Edmonton, dropped by Kassian’s reckless swing of the stick.
“I know Gags,” Spezza said. “He works hard all summer, has a great summer, is looking forward to a new coach.”
And then his mouth is a bloody mess.
“He sent me a picture. It was bad. His teeth were all out,” Spezza said.
Gagner is not expected back in action before late November.
“He will be wired, then wear a cage, for maybe half the year,” Spezza said. “It’s (crappy).”
Like a lot of events in this NHL pre-season.
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