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The Straight Edge: Players need to use good judgment away from the rink

Ryan VandenBussche collected more than 700 PIM in 310 NHL games. (Photo By Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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Ryan VandenBussche collected more than 700 PIM in 310 NHL games. (Photo By Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

At this point in the off-season, players are generally engaged in two activities: training and golfing. The training takes place in the morning, the golf in the afternoon.

What happens in the evenings? Well that’s where a beautiful summer outing can turn into a nightmare.

Working at The Hockey News, I am privy to many stories not fit for print for a variety of reasons – they’re impossible to substantiate, your source would only tell the tale off the record, or they’re simply too wild to believe.

What I can tell you is, being an NHLer – and therefore a celebrity in many locales – unfortunately invites trouble during the off-season. Sometimes it’s the player’s fault, sometimes it’s the local goon’s fault, but only one of them has something to lose.

Now I’m not advocating that pro hockey stars become shut-ins. NHLers have as much of a right as anyone to go out and down a couple pops at the local watering hole, but a recently closed court case provides a very good lesson for players; in the wrong situation, you will be the target for any lunkhead who wants to prove he’s tougher than Mr. Fancy NHL Man. Knowing what kind of environment you’re putting yourself in is a key personal and professional decision.

Two summers ago, on July 3, 2006, former Pittsburgh Penguins enforcer Ryan VandenBussche was out at a notorious roadhouse-style bar in Turkey Point, Ont., a resort town on Lake Ontario. VandenBussche was partying with, among other friends, his cousin. When a brawl at the bar spilled out into the parking lot – as is apparently frequent at this establishment – VandenBussche leapt to the defense of his cousin.

The problem was he was defending him from the cops. According to published reports, VandenBussche swung at several officers, getting tasered three times and pepper sprayed once in the process.

Earlier this week, VandenBussche was cleared of all charges stemming from the incident. His lawyer, Gerry Smits, proved to the court that his client, who sustained multiple concussions as the result of his on-ice fights in the NHL, had blacked out when police shoved him up against a wall and his resulting violent actions were a case of “non-insane automatism,” rendering him not responsible.

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According to Smits, the bar in question is known for trouble and the police actually have a paddywagon and several cruisers stationed there for last call on the weekends.

VandenBussche, who is from nearby Simcoe, Ont., likely knew this. Smits said his client hadn’t been doing anything wrong before the police grabbed him, but here’s where the lesson comes in: As a former NHLer (he played in Finland last season), VandenBussche should have been aware he would eventually be targeted by someone that night.

Should VandenBussche, an aspring real estate agent, avoid going to bars? Of course not. But maybe he should go to places with taxis, not paddywagons, waiting for patrons at the end of the night.

Some people have a strange, double-edged relationship with hockey players. They love watching them, but also envy the fame. Tie Domi, for example, was apparently frequently approached by dudes looking to mess with him during his career.

While some look for a physical confrontation, others spread rumors about alleged bad behavior from NHLers in public. Sometimes these stories are true, sometimes they aren’t, but this is where the players need to protect themselves most this summer: As I said before, those who wish to harm the players have little to lose.

NHLers must set a higher standard for themselves because of their status. With great fame (and lofty salaries) comes great responsibility. Here’s hoping for a summer without incident.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every second Friday, and his feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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