Kovalchuk had better get his act together, plus more notes
Don't be surprised if Devils GM Lou Lamoriello acts to preserve "team first"
Players may feel like caged animals, but can't act like them with jeering fans
Returning to ESPN is attractive, but is the NHL best served by that move?
There are numerous problems with the early season play of the New Jersey Devils, but the one that seems to garner the most attention is the issue of supposed scoring star Ilya Kovalchuk being late for a team meeting and drawing the healthy scratch card from rookie coach John MacLean. It made noise throughout the NHL, but comes as no surprise to players who played with Kovalchuk in Atlanta.
Former Thrasher Bobby Holik told Hockey Night in Canada radio that he wasn't surprised Kovalchuk was late for a meeting, saying "that was not unusual for Ilya."
Kovalchuk denied the allegation, but Holik, who also played for the Devils and New York Rangers and was uniquely blunt throughout his NHL career, went on to say that the entire Kovalchuk signing made no sense to him.
"It's still something that doesn't make sense. The trade at the deadline didn't make sense; the Devils signing him didn't make sense. If you want to talk about the team first and everybody plays for the team, why do you sign (a) player who's not exactly known for that? If I want to take my team to the next level, that's not the player I'm going to go after."
Kovalchuk, who has become the marketed face of the Devils this season largely because of his 15-year, $100 million contract rather than anything he's done on the ice so far, seemed shocked by Holik's words. "Bobby Holik said that? Good," Kovalchuk told the Newark Star Ledger. "That's his opinion."
Kovalchuk was once a healthy scratch in Atlanta as well. According to reporters covering the Thrashers at the time, he showed up late for a team meeting and began knocking on the door. Then-coach Bob Hartley refused to allow it to be opened and told the team that Kovalchuk would not be playing that night and team captain Shawn McEachern could inform him of that change.
It was a power play by Hartley, a Stanley Cup-winning coach before he got to Atlanta, and it seemed to have an impact on both Kovalchuk and the team at that time. Hartley was eventually fired (though not for that incident), but Kovalchuk may be testing MacLean. With a 15-year contact, Kovalchuk may well win over time, but the betting in New Jersey is that Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello will back his coach first and his multi-million dollar man will either become a part of the "team first" mentality in New Jersey or spend more than one game in the press box wondering why he's not in the lineup.
According to hockey writer Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, James Engquist, the "victim" of Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien's "assault," had this to say about the incident that earned Rypien a six-game suspension:
"I was just standing straight up applauding as he was getting kicked out. He was out of control. So then I said, 'Way to be professional,' and he obviously didn't care for that comment and decided to grab me and almost dragged me over the rail. I understand he got ejected, he got into two fights, and he got into a tussle with the ref. But it's no excuse for him being set off and trying to fight me."
Engquist is correct in that assessment, but he's drawn some criticism of his own regarding the incident.
Recent U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Jeremy Roenick said, "He (Rypien) was coming off the ice, after being in a fight, he's raging mad, he's flipping out, the adrenaline is flowing, they're losing and the frustration level is high. And then you have a fan who yaps his mouth off and acts really tough. ... The fear on that kid's face was immense. If he could have run up the stairs, he would have done it. The reason I say that is we have to deal with that every day."
Roenick's remark is an indication of the gulf between athletes and some fans. The players know it's wrong to go after them even if they are being taunted or sometimes doused with beer, but there's always the old "heat of the moment" argument, the unanswerable question of exactly how much leeway a fan has for the price of a ticket, and the matter of how much protection a player should be afforded. (There is a fan barrier in place at Minnesota's Xcel Energy Center, but it was not extended when Rypien was ordered off the ice and out of the October 20 game.)
Said Steve MacIntyre of the Edmonton Oilers: "It's like you're a caged animal and somebody keeps poking you with a stick. Eventually, you're going to take a bite out of his arm."
True enough, Steve, but when that happens in a zoo, the animal is usually put to death. Overall, it's better for players to get control of their emotions and it's always prudent to keep the fans at a safe distance.