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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Getting Ugly Early On

Now, look, I get what pre-season hockey is generally all about.

It's about the stars not getting hurt.

It's about goalies not tweaking their groins (Mr. Hasek and Mr. Lehtonen I'm looking at you).

It's about young guys trying to make a name for themselves.

It's also about tough guys fighting each other to show that they can earn that one spot on the big-time roster for themselves. You know, have just enough skill and a lot of pugilistic integrity - enough to keep the big money earners on the team safe from the lazy cheap-shot artists and true goons (think of Jarkko Ruutu).

It's also the time of year when a lot of the AHL influence wears an NHL sweater. While the AHL isn't exactly the Federal League from Slap Shot fame, there's plenty of fighting to go around. After all, after the new rules reinforcement of the NHL, the AHL is where the true cementheads (and I say that with all the respect in the world, those guys would get a laugh in about it) went to roost.

In the NHL pre-season though, things can get a bit out of control. TSN's Bob McKenzie took note of a situation that developed between the Sabres and Blue Jackets recently:

On Friday night, the two teams met in Buffalo and there was a quasi line brawl,
just another pre-season game where it seems the gloves are coming off with great
regularity, including a nasty sucker-punch from Buffalo tough guy Andrew Peters
on Columbus rookie Jared Boll, the Plymouth Whaler grad who has a good chance to
make Ken Hitchcock's team as a tough guy/energy player.

Sabre rookie Patrick Kaleta picked up a charging penalty. Boll instigated a fight as a
result. After the gloves came off and the scrum ensued. Columbus' Tom Sestito, a
tough guy grad of the OHL, raced in and grabbed Sabre veteran defenceman Tony
Lydman and whaled away on him.

Take a look at that matchup again.

Tom Sestito - A 6'4" 209-pound left wing from Utica, NY. He's spent three years in the OHL, of which in his last two seasons he racked up 176 PIMs in 57 regular-season games in 2005-2006 and last season piled up another 135 PIMs in 60 games. The guy knows his way around the rink when the gloves are off.

Toni Lydman, on the other hand, in his full professional hockey career, going back to the Finnish Leagues and his time spent in the NHL, has piled up a total of 129 PIMs in 431 career games played.

To call Toni Lydman a lightweight would be an understatement when it comes to fights and scrums. Fighting in Finland isn't really their specialty.

We saw a matchup like this in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the opening round. It involved Brad May (lifetime PIMs: 2,040 in 882 games) of the Anaheim Ducks going after Swedish defenseman and non-threat to punch your lights out, Kim Johnsson (lifetime PIMs: 290 PIMs in 518 games) of the Minnesota Wild. Much like what happened to Lydman, May jumped Johnsson from behind and made him effectively useless for the rest of the playoffs.

What transpired tonight in Ottawa, however, was the reason why some guys will never make it out of the AHL - and probably a good reason why the NHL has already cut back on the number of pre-season games as it is.

Steve Downie spears Dean McAmmond as if he was Goldberg.

What you see there is Philadelphia's Steve Downie, who's claim to fame before this was being the guy who brought about the ire of Canadian fans after getting hit by Jack Johnson during World Juniors a couple years back. Canadian fans claimed that Johnson elbowed Downie in the face after Canada scored an empty-net goal to salt away the victory. While the replays from where the cameras are located are shoddy at best in the video seen here, Downie appears to take a dive and there are some scattered reports that Downie admitted to doing as much. The remainder of the tournament saw the U.S. team get booed at all costs by the Canadian fans and even resulting in the ever-tasteful show of respect and booing the National Anthem.

Downie is no stranger to dirty pool, and it's always been a rule that you absolutely cannot leave your feet to deliver a hit. It rarely does happen, which is good, but when it does happen... it's quite often missed or played off as part of a height discrepancy.

So what does the league do for this sort of junk? In Steve Downie's case, he's got at least a one-game suspension coming thanks to being served with a Match Penalty for intent to injure. Downie also got some post-hit justice because he timed it out poorly enough so that Ottawa enforcer Brian McGrattan was already on the ice and found his way to Downie rather quickly. Light-fighting Ottawa forward/defenseman Christoph Schubert also got his shots in as well.

How does the NHL manage to punish a guy that wasn't going to make the NHL team in the first place? Sit him down in the AHL? Big deal - he'll be back out on the ice soon enough and right back to his old tricks and never amounting to anything better in his career. Ben Eager already does his job better than he could ever dream. The problem here is that there's no punishment that can be dished out that fits the situation. He'll learn no lesson, he'll have no remorse and worse yet - he'll just keep pushing the edge in order to get noticed by the big club. You can't suspend a guy like this for the whole year, its excessive and crazy. Sitting him down for one game does nothing.

I'd say that the league will likely come down with something in the 10-15 game range because of the severity of the hit. Not only did he leave his feet, he led with his shoulder and connected with McAmmond's head. If it were possible to get three strikes on one play, Downie just figured it out.

Dean McAmmond, by the way, had to leave the game on a stretcher. It's unknown as of this writing what his injuries are, but seeing him get knocked out cold...you'd have to speculate that there's a concussion is involved. The league abhors blows to the head and something like this just looks so horrible and obvious what the intent was it makes me cringe and get angry. If there's anything about this that can be seen as a "good" thing it's that this occurred during the pre-season and the usual choir of writers who only talk about hockey when something bad happens will be kept out of the scene with their ignorance of all things that go on.

I'd like to think that this kind of hit is the type of thing that would go beyond such typical pathetic analysis and would be very obvious about what the problem is, but it's likely that talking about this hit would devolve into an argument about the physicality and danger of hockey and about how fighting should be eliminated if the NHL wants to have mainstream appeal and....

Well I'll stop there, we've heard it all before and I'd rather not just give them their head start on berating the game once again. This will probably be the only time you hear about Steve Downie this year and hopefully we'll get to hear more about Dean McAmmond this year after his career saw a resurgence in a new role last season in Ottawa. I just hope that the news we get about him is about a quick return to the ice and not about concussion symptoms that linger on too long and his career being in danger.

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