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By any stretch, be it imagination or the reality of watching Mike Millbury and Terry O'Reilly climb into the crowd at Madison Square Garden one infamous night in 1979 to lay a beating on fans (Milbury using one's shoe to pound away at its owner), Rick Rypien's recent slapdown of a seemingly rowdy fan hovering behind the Vancouver Canucks' bench in Minnesota does not rise to the level of a serious assault.
It was, at best, a kerfuffle, a momentary skirmish and one that would have been well served if all parties could just utter a quick "sorry, that was stupid" and move on. But as with most things in pro sports, it can never be that simple and on Friday Rypien came face to face with the consequences of his actions: a six game suspension. His team was also fined $25,000.
I have no problem with that.
I get the Wild West mentality about the whole thing. Supporters of Rypien or at least the "Hey this used to be a man's game" school of thought argue with some reason that it was "just one of those things"-- a momentary lapse. But it's a different world now in pro sports.
You can't apply the "boys-will-be-boys" approach or even simple logic when you're the head of a league and dealing with these kinds of events. You have to employ the idea that if you don't do something, you leave yourself wide open to widespread media attacks, class action suits, lawyers looking to make a name for themselves or some significant cash for a client, and adverse fan reaction along the lines of: I went to a hockey game and a debacle broke out. I'm going to sue.
It's hardly the stuff alleged family entertainment is made of.
Bettman knows that. So do Daly and Campbell, and it's a given that even if they wanted to sweep this one aside, they simply can't. Rypien did what no sports boss ever wants to see. He left the field of play after a heated engagement involving an opponent and, depending upon how you view the tape, an on-ice official. He then moved through the bench area directly into a passage surrounded by Wild fans (including one who could be better described by using a lower case w) and engaged said fan in a brief but obvious physical confrontation.
We'll make no excuses for the Neanderthal actions of the fan or the inability or unwillingness of arena management to provide some sort of shield between the player and the crowd, some of whom appear to be consuming alcoholic beverages, but there is no absolution for a player in a situation like that.
Rypien engaged with a paying customer and that's something no team or league can overlook. That's why the league made noise in March 2001 when a whale-like fan of the Philadelphia Flyers fell into the penalty box sequestering then-Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tie Domi. Domi wasn't suspended for that incident, but he was fined $1,000 (max at the time) for spraying a water bottle at fans. Flyers management got an earful and, reportedly, a fine, for not having better crowd control and security in place. And while Milbury got six games way back when, Matthew Barnaby -- like Domi a tough guy for several teams during a long NHL career -- got four for an altercation in Florida in 2000 that was similar to Rypien's.
"There are so many things that happen in the game and it's so emotional that sometimes you lose your mind," Barnaby, now a hockey commentator in both the US and Canada, told Globe and Mail reporter Eric Duhatschek after the Rypien incident. "My experience was, I got beat up by Peter Worrell in Florida. I hadn't played much that game. The fans were yelling obscenities at me. All of a sudden, I just snapped. I lost it for a split second and wanted a piece of the guy that was yelling at me.
"Once you get to the locker room, you realize what you did. You feel bad. You think, what did I just do? You know you're going to get suspended and fined. You know you're going to lose $50,000, and for what? To be stupid. To be an idiot."
Well, in a word, yes.
Not to say it hasn't been done before. The one most often mentioned is when New York Rangers coach John Tortorella was forced to sit out a 2009 playoff game after tossing a water bottle at a fan in Washington. In truth, long time NHL-watchers were surprised that Tortorella didn't get more for that one, given that he had built a reputation as a serial fan abuser complete with league suspensions as an assistant coach to John Muckler in Buffalo. (Both men were suspended and fined in what was then a noteworthy altercation with a fan.) There was also an incident when Tortorella applied the heel of his hand to the head of a fan while he was coaching the AHL's Rochester Americans, but hey, we all know that rules, including for suspensions, are different in the playoffs.
There have been other incidents as well, and while few of them rise to the level of Milbury and O'Reilly at Madison Square, or certainly Ron Artest and company in the NBA. (Artest got the remainder of a season off.)
Each time it happens, the offended league must make a show of seeking to assure fans that it will not happen again. That's why Rypien was suspended indefinitely even before he went from Minnesota directly to New York. Given that he also got himself tossed from the game for his on-ice actions and appeared to engage a Minnesota player on the bench and linesmen before his run-in with the fan, this was going to outside the bounds of even the NHL's sometime inexplicable supplementary discipline rulings.
And it's not that Rypien gave the NHL any leeway. The league had a great 2009-10 season, what with the Olympics in Vancouver and a noteworthy postseason culminating with Chicago winning the Stanley Cup. It intended to come off that with a big splash for 2010-11, but, in the first week of play alone, the news has been dominated by suspensions, fines, the ever-vexing issue of how to deal with blows to the head, and some ugly incidents involving perceived obscene gestures and remarks. There's already been one public intoxication event and the seemingly ever-present throat-slash gesture.
To follow all that with an altercation with a fan, well, someone is going to have to pay a price. Rypien is that man. I suspected that we'd see something close to or even beyond 10 games.
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