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The Flyers' way of violence-first needs to be checked
Posted: Monday October 15, 2007 1:01PM; Updated: Monday October 15, 2007 4:46PM
The slogan is catchy, give the Flyers that: Back with a Vengeance. (Certainly the motto is not open to interpretation, unlike the nearly ubiquitous One Team. One Goal. That one is trotted out during the playoffs, but it can also apply to watching the Oilers' bumbling power play for two weeks.)
At the Flyers' home opener in Philadelphia last Saturday, fans entering the New Spectrum were handed Halloween orange T-shirts with the '07-08 slogan, which helpfully included a definition of the word "vengeance"-- in case the school systems in the Delaware Valley and southern New Jersey aren't doing their jobs. That's your Flyers: no child left behind.
Of course, the rough stuff plays well in Philadelphia where, for the past three decades, the solution to any on-ice problem, at least according to the leather-lunged coaches in the stands, has been to "hit somebody." Coach John Stevens probably is right when he says the woeful Flyers of 2006-07 were "too easy to play against"-- which is hockey speak for ratcheting up the physicality.
The Flyers certainly turned their fourth line into a possible carnival this season with the signing of Jesse Boulerice, who joined pot-stirring Ben "Always" Eager and enforcer Riley Cote, who, one opponent told me with more amusement than disgust last week, "doesn't even know there's a puck on the ice."
In light of two incidents in the past three weeks, maybe the Flyers' marketing department should give its "vengeance" sloganeering a second thought. First, Steve Downie, a rookie with a rap sheet in junior hockey even more impressive than the nastiness he displayed on Team Canada's world championship teams, played cruise missile, leaping into Ottawa's Dean McAmmond during a preseason game and leaving the veteran forward with a concussion. The NHL suspended Downie for 20 games.
Then, last week, near the end of a blowout victory in Vancouver, Boulerice, who also had a horrific stick incident in his past, crosschecked the Canucks' Ryan Kesler in the face. This time the NHL assessed a 25-game suspension, tied for the longest in league history. Both times the Flyers accepted the punishments with understanding and a certain good grace.
Now, Downie and Boulerice falling into the disciplinary abyss is hardly a shock. The rate of recidivism among these sorts of players is astonishingly high, something NHL vice president for violence Colin Campbell certainly factors into his judgments -- as he did when he handed the Islanders' Chris Simon 25 games last March for a high stick to the face of Rangers' forward Ryan Hollweg, an act that Boulerice attempted to replicate. But given the spasmodic outbreaks of this sort of thuggery, it seems that lengthy suspensions are hardly the deterrents that the NHL had hoped they might be.
There is another way: institutional control. The Flyers, or any team, must be held accountable for the acts of its players. And this is the formula: If a team racks up a certain number of man-games in suspensions -- say 40 or 50 -- then the team should be fined $1 million and the coach suspended for a game. If the team picks up 10 man-games beyond the prescribed number, then the coach should be suspended for two games and the team dinged another $2 million.
The possible complicity of coaches in this comportment -- think Vancouver's Marc Crawford in L'Affaire Todd Bertuzzi -- must be examined. Will this alter the hockey landscape? Probably not. The culture of the sport, grounded in passion and intimidation, is not going to evolve into Stars on Ice. Nor should it. But if the coach or general manager leans on his players to stay within the already liberal bounds of acceptable on- and off-ice behavior, it is one more pressure point the league can apply in an effort to limit unseemly acts that tarnish the game. And it might also give a team pause before employing players who are walking rap sheets. Vengeance, indeed....
On the subject of violence: Islanders coach Ted Nolan, a native Ojibwa, thinks that the pigeonholing of First Nation players in enforcer roles has begun to change since San Jose's Jonathan Cheechoo, a Cree, scored 56 goals and won the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2006.
"The perception might change with Cheechoo," Nolan says. "But the fact is native kids have been turned into fighters because they aren't afraid. You look at Junior A clubs and there are native kids with lots of penalty minutes. In native tournaments you'll see kids fighting, battling. We'll go at you straight up. But now there's a new generation, better educated, and they don't want their kids to just be fighters. Cheechoo showed them that it was possible. Simon, too. (Simon is half Ojibwa.) He's tough, but he's skilled. It might take another generation, but I don't think [First Nation players] will have to fight their way into the league."
Certainly the latest native, or at least half-native, with star potential hasn't. The mother of Carey Price, the 20-year-old backup goalie in Montreal, who won his first NHL start last week in Pittsburgh, is chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation.