Matt Cooke avoided suspension following his hit on Marc Savard that knocked the Bruins center out for the rest of the year. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The date has already been circled on many a New England calendar, but NHL chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell better get his red marker out, too.
March 18, 2010, is the day something very horrible may go down in Boston. And Campbell is to blame if it does.
He won’t be the only one, of course. Campbell surely solicited opinions from the game’s powerbrokers at the GM meetings and used those discussions to build his verdict. But there must be no quarter given to the NHL’s senior executive vice president of hockey operations should malice mar the game between the hometown Bruins and the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins as the buck ultimately stops with him.
Matt Cooke’s blindside knockout of Bruins ace Marc Savard the last time these two teams met is naturally the backdrop here. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has rightly voiced his dismay that Pittsburgh’s Cooke was not suspended for his head shot on Savard and the Boston media has been frothing at the fact no Bruins went after Cooke post-incident.
And, in a bit of cosmic irony/poor timing, the tilt against Pittsburgh will also be “Big, Bad Bruins Night” at TD Garden. Boston will honor some of its greatest players, all of whom won the 1970 Stanley Cup – legends such as Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk – and the expectation is the current members of the Black and Gold better not play like a bunch of hippies in front of them.
Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley put it thusly: “How could the B’s let Cooke off the hook on a night when the real Big, Bad Bruins are in the house? Think about that. If the B’s play 60 minutes of hockey against the Penguins and Cooke isn’t cooked, how is that going to sit with (Derek) Sanderson? (Johnny) McKenzie? Bucyk?
“If a five o’clock visit with the 1969-70 Bruins isn’t enough to inspire the current Bruins to take their game to a higher, tougher level, then ownership should just shut down what’s left of the season.”
Earlier in the week, suggestions out of the Herald ran the gamut from the Bruins fighting Cooke every shift he took, to zeroing in on Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Both sentiments I can understand Boston fans echoing in these passionate days.
Bruins coach Claude Julien will be the first line of defense in protecting hockey from another black eye – and I am talking about an incident Bertuzzi-esque in its vulgarity – and he is certainly a capable man of doing so. The Bruins themselves can also limit their revenge to punches to the front of Cooke’s face, not the back, and hits that he can see coming (and will no doubt be expecting).
But all this could have been prevented by Campbell. An old-school player if there ever was one during his days as an NHLer in the 1970s and ‘80s, Campbell has, unfortunately, become afraid to drop the gloves, so to speak.
In a Toronto radio interview, Campbell defended his non-action by claiming: “you can’t do the easy thing…you have to do the right thing.”
Well, the right thing would have been to suspend Cooke for at least five games, thus removing him from the upcoming game against Boston.
Even if Boston vengeance comes in the widely accepted traditional form of Milan Lucic or Shawn Thornton grabbing Cooke by the scruff of the neck and tossing fist-bombs, what if Crosby slips on a stick during the fracas, or Sergei Gonchar wrenches his back trying to pull someone off a teammate? What if Lucic breaks his hand on Cooke’s helmet? I know fights happen in almost every NHL game, but when it’s almost guaranteed and the forecast calls for a high-pressure system with chances of chaos, the NHL is entitled to do what it can to defuse the situation before it boils over.
Cooke has been suspended numerous times in his NHL career and is therefore considered a repeat offender, plus the ambiguity of the NHL’s own rule book, specifically Rule 29 (the Commissioner may, at his discretion, investigate any incident…and may assess additional fines and/or suspensions for any offense committed during the course of a game or any aftermath thereof by a player…whether or not such offense has been penalized by the Referee) gave the league an easy out to suspend him and not be subject to very much criticism from the Penguins organization.
There is a good chance this Boston-Pittsburgh showdown won’t reach “Welcome to the Terrordome” levels. These games rarely live up to the premeditative hype assigned to them anymore. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma could simply scratch Cooke from the game and deny Boston its revenge – it’s not like the Pens are desperate for his offensive contributions.
But both Boston and Pittsburgh have their own agendas. They will not put themselves at a perceived competitive disadvantage during the drive towards the playoffs by promising not to kill Cooke, or conversely, pulling Cooke out of the game.
The man who needed to stand up is Colin Campbell – and he didn’t.
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 Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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