Last night, I was reminded why I stopped following hockey for a decade. If you haven't seen the attack the Vancouver Canucks' Rick Rypien made on a Minnesota Wild fan Tuesday in Minnesota, here it is:
Hockey is a rough sport. It's designed to be a rough sport -- players skate fast and push and shove their opponents to get them off the puck; they're allowed, within limits, to push them into the boards.
But when hockey began to become a sport of fistfights, I became less interested in it. And when the 1998 US Olympic hockey team trashed their hotel rooms in Nagano and the "code of silence" led to none of them admitting to the damage, I quit following hockey. What was this, junior high? No one would man up and admit this?
But the beauty of the game brought me back. The death of "Dollar Bill" Wirtz and the subsequent good play of the Blackhawks began to get me interested again, and the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field brought me back into hockey, for I had loved the Blackhawks as a kid; the exploits of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito had me riveted. Unfortunately, that was only to the radio, with the Wirtz's Stone Age approach to local TV, but I was nearly as much a Hawks fan as a Cubs fan in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That was before major league hockey became a street brawl, which is what was breaking out last night in Minnesota, with Rypien and the Wild's Brad Staubitz about to duke it out -- for what? What's the point? Why do fistfights have to be part of hockey?
And what on Earth could possibly be the excuse for a professional hockey player to attempt to attack a fan who, based on the video above, was simply clapping his hands together? Wait -- Rypien's teammate Manny Malhotra has the answer:
Malhotra thought the fan “got a little bit too involved.”
“There’s boundaries that should never be crossed. We’re in our area of work,” he said. “We’re all for the hooting and hollering and supporting your team and saying whatever is tasteful. But as soon as you cross that line and want to become physical with a player then we have to make sure we take care of ourselves. … We have no idea of what their intentions are.”
Malhotra is 100% incorrect. The video is clear -- Rypien was the one who initiated contact. This is confirmed by SB Nation bloggers of both teams -- Nathan Eide of the Wild blog Hockey Wilderness, after posting the Malhotra quote above:
Has Manny Malhotra lost his mind? Watch the replay again. Malhotra is staring right at the fans. At no point did the fans reach over the boundary or "cross the line". At no point, until Rypien reaches up and over the wall and grabs the young man, do the fans make contact with Rypien. Unreal.
The replay showed the fan did nothing wrong. He mock-clapped and probably mouthed off, the same thing thousands of others do on a nightly basis in any arena. The difference was Rypien - already steamed about the score or another run-in with Staubitz - could hear him and lost it. Badly.
The NHL and its officials have already screwed this up -- and this incident included, from some reports, Rypien pushing one of the officials. From Michael Russo of the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, this tweet last night:
Rulebook states automatic game misconduct fan interaction. Yet Rypien returns to this game in the third period. Complete goof up
So the officials should have given Rypien -- by the rules -- a game misconduct. They didn't, although Rypien only briefly returned to the ice in the third period (the incident happened with 6:22 to go in the second). And only a game misconduct? For behavior that would put someone in jail if they did it outside the arena instead of inside? The YouTube clip above is headlined "Rick Rypien assault on Minnesota Wild fan." Assault carries criminal penalties. Why should Rypien be exempt because he's wearing a hockey sweater?
Rick Rypien should get at least as severe a penalty as Ron Artest got for that NBA player/fan brawl in Detroit several years ago -- 73 games, which would pretty much be the rest of the 2010-11 season, an appropriate penalty. There's no call for anything like this, and the NHL ought to clean up its act and get rid of the fistfights forever. Rough sport? Sure. But fistfights? Where is that in the rulebook? And where does it say that an "enforcer" can go after a fan?
I'd be surprised if the NHL did anything. Gary Bettman's almost as feckless a league commissioner as Bud Selig. What we'll likely get is some embarrassed throat-clearing, a non-apology apology from Rypien, and he'll be suspended for maybe three or four games and then go back on the ice, gooning it up again.
Shame on the NHL if that's the result.
UPDATE at 1:40 pm CDT Wednesday: Rypien has been suspended "indefinitely." Good. If "indefinitely" means "forever", that'd be fine with me.