Sports In Briefs

Sports rants from an industry exec who maintains the passion of a fan

Superstar vs. Enforcer: The rules of the rink

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Thursday night, the Philadelphia Flyers skated to a 2-0 shutout of the New York Rangers, a game that sparked debate throughout the hockey world. (Editor’s note: Before we get to far into this, and in the spirit of full disclosure, let the record show that I am a lifelong Flyers fan.)

No one was arguing about whether the resurgent Flyers are a playoff team, or if goalie Ray Emery is back in form following abdominal surgery. The fact that there were four fights between the fierce rivals wasn’t a surprise, either.

Daniel Carcillo fighting Sean Avery

But fisticuffs were at the core of the controversy – that, and the unwritten code that players in all sports adopt when they put on a uniform. In this case, it was a fight between Philadelphia enforcer Daniel Carcillo and Rangers sniper Marion Gaborik, a leading contender for NHL MVP.

In hockey, fighting is a penalized but still legal element of the game. But while anyone can skate, pass, and shoot, it’s understood that only fighters fight. Leave the other team’s star players alone, unless you want your own stars targeted.

And so the Rangers were all sorts of fired up.

When order was restored and the penalized were escorted to the box, Brandon Dubinsky let fly some unprintable words at Carcillo, prompting off-ice officials to calm both players. Rangers coach John Tortorella turned his verbal abuse towards the Flyers bench and coach Peter Laviolette.

The final whistle did nothing to temper emotions.

“I think it’s disrespectful,” said New York defenseman Marc Staal. “He doesn’t look that smart to me, and he showed it tonight,” quipped goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

Added Tortorella, “There’s simply no honor in that at all. It’s pretty embarrassing.” Later, he sarcastically called Carcillo a “brave guy”.

The one thing these Rangers have completely ignored is this simple fact: Gaborik dropped his gloves first. When the scuffle began in front of the Philadelphia net, Carcillo ended up paired with Gaborik, and the two locked together and spun behind the net. The Ranger forward was the first to drop the gloves and begin swinging… well, maybe flailing is a better term.

So what was Carcillo to do? Wait for a more appropriate opponent to step forward and then engage him? Stand there and take it with a smile?

Laviolette said it best after the game: “Gaborik dropped his gloves first. Danny [Carcillo] can either get punched or drop his and fight.”

The unwritten rule about protecting star players offers one equally unwritten caveat: You can’t protect an opposing star player from himself.

If Gaborik was going to drop the gloves with Carcillo, he knew quite well what he was getting into. After all, Carcillo had twelve fighting majors thus far this season, and he’s led the NHL in penalty minutes each of the last two years. In contrast, Gaborik had one prior fight in 550 career NHL games.

Gaborik slapped at a surprised Carcillo a few times to open the bout. Then the Flyers tough guy lobbed back a few solid punches that sent his opponent to the ice. Once Gaborik fell, Carcillo stopped punching, adhering to another part of the code: A pugilist doesn’t hit an opponent once he’s gone down or he’s defenseless.

Maybe Gaborik figured he could surprise Carcillo. Perhaps he’s tired of getting pushed around, so he thought a well-timed fight could send a message to future opponents. Or maybe he wants to plead temporary insanity.

John Tortorella was fighting mad

The truth of the matter is that all the Ranger vitriol should be directed at each other, particularly New York defenseman Dan Girardi. Girardi was only feet away from his star teammate at the time of the fight, and he did little more than lean over and ask Gaborik if he was OK when the altercation concluded.

Which brings us to another tenet of the code: In an altercation, the willing and able defend their less-combative teammates. In other words, fighters stand up for snipers. New York had to look back little more than a week for a widely-publicized example of how this is done.

On January 12, perpetual pest Steve Downie of the Tampa Bay Lightning coaxed reigning MVP Alex Ovechkin into dropping the gloves. But just as they were about to engage, Matt Bradley, Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals teammate, flew in to fight Downie. The superstar got to play the tough, but his teammates knew where to draw the line.

And perhaps that’s who the Rangers were so angry with Thursday night. Not at Carcillo for picking on their star, and not at the Flyers for cultivating such perceived thuggery. Maybe they were just mad at each other, because no one in that locker room had the stones to stand up for their man.

Sure, now the Rangers are in a collective huff. They say they’ve circled March 14 on their calendar, which is when the two teams meet again, this time at Madison Square Garden.

Lundqvist even went as far as to say, “We will remember this for sure, and he should be ready for it.”

Well the Rangers have nearly two months to decide just who is going to defend their honor, because nobody bothered to do anything more than talk about it Thursday.

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Written by sportsinbriefs

January 22, 2010 at 8:53 pm

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