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Puck Talk With Popchock: A Slap In The Face

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Penguins/Islanders brawl

(Courtesy of Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

Every game has a story, and every story has a lesson.  For anyone who witnessed Friday night’s impromptu “Slap Shot” remake filmed exclusively with the help of the good–and not-so-good–folks of Long Island, especially aspiring NHL-ers or parents thereof, there are two critical lessons to be learned.

Number one, if you want something done right, don’t leave it up to the NHL to do it.  Number two, be humble in victory, because the day will come when the skate is on the other foot and you’re the one getting embarrassed. As Wilkes-Barre/Scranton go-between Eric Tangradi said before the debacle at Nassau Coliseum, no one at that level will feel sorry for you.

Here’s looking at you, Jack Capuano.

For the Islanders’ interim bench boss, that day has already come.

I know very little about Capuano, aside from his midseason replacement of former Isles head coach Scott Green, because until Friday night I never heard him speak.  It might seem unfair to decide if Capuano is a “good” coach or a “bad” coach after just three months of action, but first impressions being what they are, I’m now convinced he’s something far worse.

An irresponsible coach.

Whenever I hear someone balk at the issue of senseless violence in professional sports–especially hockey–the way Capuano did after New York’s blowout win, I get the dying urge to see it practiced upon him.

Too much information?

I don’t think so.  He deserves as much blame as any party for what happened.  No one will ever be able to completely control players’ behavior, but as a head coach, you are, in essence, the next closest thing to a referee.  You are the last bastion of accountability, the last line of defense between what your players do and what they do not, largely because you determine who gets ice time and when.  Given that variable, there is no excuse for Capuano letting his team get as out of hand as it did Friday.

The NHL Rule Book will say his counterpart, Dan Bylsma, does not deserve a free pass, at least not for an ill-conceived decision by Eric Godard to leave the bench in defense of goaltender Brent Johnson.  Godard’s punishment is justifiable–and after all, Johnny has already proven against the Islanders that he can take care of himself just fine. But it’s quite obvious the Pens were fighting in the name of self-defense, not message-sending.

About the only thing you can blame Bylsma for is fielding a team that didn’t look ready to play and got its doors blown off by a subpar opponent.  However, by making clear afterward his contempt for Friday’s events (“One half of that was a hockey game, the other half was not”), he still comes out looking better than Capuano.  Why couldn’t the latter have done the same?

The Long Island Mafia didn’t have to be out on the ice.  Trevor Gillies, Michael Haley, and Matt Martin were there because Jack Capuano put them there and because Islanders’ GM Garth Snow put them on Capuano’s bench.

A reliable source once said Snow was one of the most unpleasant ex-Penguins to be around.  This incident isn’t helping his reputation up there either, no matter how much Islander fans think it does.

The Islanders, like the Penguins, have been ripped apart by injuries and have had to dip into the AHL well to replenish their roster.  The well is never dry when it comes to the minor-league systems of all 30 NHL teams, and Snow could have called up anybody he wanted.  He chose three knuckle-draggers, effectively giving them the green light to go after anything in a white shirt that moved at any cost, and later nonchalantly defended their actions.

Why?  I’ll give you a hint: Rick DiPietro.

Recently I underscored DiPietro’s stupidity for agreeing to drop the gloves with Johnson Feb. 2 in Pittsburgh, and I certainly won’t back off my words now.  There was a colossal misconception within the Islanders organization, punctuated by Snow’s indifference, that the Penguins were rubbing it in that night, partially by laughing at the injury-prone goalie when Johnson KO’d him with one punch.  Stoking their fire is the notion that Max Talbot deliberately concussed Blake Comeau in the same game, and again, nothing could be further from the truth.

If the Islanders knew Talbot and the so-called “code of hockey” that players constantly speak of as well as they think they do, they’d know that, in the context of NHL rules, Talbot made a clean hit that carried with it an unfortunate, though unintended, side effect.  At any rate, the “code of hockey” does not justify Matt Martin rabbit-punching a virtually defenseless Talbot in a manner that could have cut short Max’s career much like Todd Bertuzzi did Steve Moore’s career seven years ago.

Furthermore, if the Islanders knew Marc-Andre Fleury (who was seen on camera smiling at the end of that game) and his teammates as well as they think they do, they’d know they weren’t laughing at DiPietro.  They were laughing in disbelief that Johnson, regarded by his peers as one of the most cordial, mild-mannered guys in the locker room, actually had it in him to pick a fight, and win.  Johnson even checked on his fellow netminder later to see if he was okay.

However, I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for laughing at the Isles’ star-crossed franchise goalie at this point.  A lot of what happened Friday could have been nipped in the bud if one of the most injury-prone players in the league–who now, because of Johnny’s left hook, is back on the shelf for the foreseeable future–had not put himself in an awkward position by taking an inexplicable shot at Matt Cooke and subsequently choosing to drop his own gloves and fight.

Oh, Matt, you little rascal…you’re just ticking everyone off these days, aren’t you?

Cooke–specifically, his own reputation–has been caught in the middle of this firestorm since Mario Lemieux came forward with his scathing indictment of the NHL.  The core of Mario’s message could not be more correct, and the fact that a number of past and present NHL players, including a couple ex-teammates, have endorsed it further proves the big guy is not completely off his rocker. Yet some of those folks, and some of you reading this, agree that Lemieux’s words carry less weight than normal because Cooke works for him.

Yeah, right, because the Penguins are the only team in the NHL to employ a guy like Matt Cooke (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).

Does the name Scottie Hartnell ring a bell?  What about Sean Avery?  Or, speaking of glass houses and stone-throwing, what about Zenon Konopka?

Every team has a Cooke.  Some are just better at hiding it than others.  Konopka, like a 12-year-old, vowed to tear down the Lemieux poster in his room after Mario issued his statement, and the NHL penalty minute leader whined that Trevor Gillies wouldn’t be able to take care of his family because of the fine levied against him.

Sorry, Mr. Konopka, but as a professional athlete, you make your own bed.  Gillies should have thought of what you said before he went out of his way to cripple Eric Tangradi.

Cooke has done some things I wish he wouldn’t have, including leaving his feet to hit Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets last week, and last year’s unforgettable Marc Savard incident.  Not that I condone it all, but typically those things happen within the heat of the game.  I’d wager you’ll never see Cooke stand in the runway and taunt a clearly incapacitated player, and it should be noted that Cooke, in the past, has reached out to Savard, albeit unsuccessfully.  I wonder if Gillies will do the same for Tangradi, who never did anything to merit such classless physical and/or verbal abuse.

Hearing people question Lemieux’s credibility irks me, and it illustrates not only the moral decaying of sports in my lifetime, but the dumbing down of those involved with it.  Once again, a lot of us are having trouble seeing the forest for the tree.  A lot of us want to turn the fallout from the Long Island Massacre into a three-way (urinating) contest with Lemieux and Cooke, getting out our poking sticks and playing the “gotcha” game, instead of heeding his all-encompassing message.  I strongly suggest we all listen, as the words of an all-time great, a player who thrived in spite of what the NHL tolerated in his time, and a man without whom there would be no hockey around here to discuss, carry a great deal of validity.

Pfew…okay, time to address the league itself.  Thanks for waiting, fellas.

Maybe Bill Daly of the Board of Governors was right.  Maybe Mario should be more proactive if he cares so much about the integrity of the game.  Should he have to be?

It is not his fault that the NHL has chosen Colin Campbell, a goon in his own time, as its discipline czar.  Campbell’s heated interview on “Seibel, Starkey, & Miller” (weekdays 2-6 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan) after the Cooke-Savard incident is still fresh in my mind, and his unwillingness to dole out greater individual punishments to Gillies and Martin further demonstrates he is too emotionally invested in his job to do it properly.  How is what those two did any different than what Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley did to defenseless players once upon a time?  Both Islanders got what they deserved, but could have and should have gotten more, because knowing Campbell’s onetime reputation as an aggressor, he could never truly understand what a guy like Eric Tangradi is going through right now.

Fining the Islander organization $100,000 is a start, but in the long run, exactly how effective is that punishment?  For excessive violence that seemed to be of a premeditated nature, the league should hit them where it hurts by taking away draft picks, or better yet, roster spots.  Due to the actions of Gillies, Martin, and to a lesser extent, Haley, imagine forcing the Islanders to play with three less forwards for the length of the longest suspension (nine games to Gillies).  Due to Eric Godard’s ten-game misdemeanor, imagine the already-depleted Penguins being forced to play ten games without a player they’re not allowed to replace.

Message received, yes?

The NHL has changed its standard of enforcement since the 2004-05 lockout, but unless there is uniformity and resolve in its discipline, the standard is meaningless.  In that respect, Mario, who acknowledges and respects the physical open-mindedness of the sport in his opening sentence, is right on the money.  If we look at the way the incriminated Islanders were dealt with compared to past globally embarrassing on-ice indiscretions, we’ll see there really isn’t any consistency at all.

They dropped the ball–or the puck, as it were–with the Savard incident and with David Steckel’s unpunished hit on Sidney Crosby, and once again, the league fell on its own sword Friday.  It all started by ignoring the feud between the two teams in the previous meeting, and not acknowledging the potential for ugliness.

How do I know that was the case?  The league assigned Dave Banfield and Dan O’Halloran to referee Friday’s game.  Banfield is a younger guy with little NHL experience, and O’Halloran is a veteran who some believe has a knack for letting games get out of hand.

Then again, with all this in mind, why do we care what Mario thinks?  Clearly, we don’t need his help to figure out the league is poorly run and has been for some time a “garage league,” as Lemieux himself infamously put it a generation ago.

We care because for every one of me, there’s five or six Americans who still don’t give a rat’s rear end about hockey, and won’t because of things like Friday’s brawling on Long Island.  Their dollars and Nielsen points are the same ones the NHL is pursuing in order to stay financially healthy, and that’s a problem.  We care because apathy does not breed enhanced player safety and off-ice penalties. Assertiveness and awareness does.  We care because the more often respected members of the hockey community speak out against Friday’s foolishness, and the subsequent foolishness, the more likely that foolishness will subside.

Because of what comedian Woody Allen, to quote one of his movies, would call a travesty of a mockery of a sham last week, the NHL has received national attention for all the wrong reasons.  Only when the right people listen to Mario will the NHL get national attention for the right ones.

For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins and the NHL, be sure to tune into “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan!

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