(by Ken Campbell)“Hey Grandpa, tell us all about your first game in the NHL,” Kellen Lain might be asked by a starry-eyed child 50 years from now. At that point, he’ll probably fix his tie, mumble something unintelligible and try to quickly change the subject.
What Vancouver Canucks coach John Tortorella did to Lain Saturday night was indefensible. To his credit, Tortorella apologized and acknowledge he was wrong to have Lain out for the opening faceoff of Hockey Brawl Day in Canada ™ in his first-ever NHL game. Much has been made of the notion that Tortorella, who got off lucky with a 15-day suspension for the ensuing incident, had no choice but to start the players he did when Calgary counterpart Bob Hartley decided to ice his own version of Dancing Bears on Skates ™. But Tortorella did have a choice. He had Zack Kassian sitting on the bench.
Instead, he decided to throw a kid out there who had never played a second in the NHL before, which is just two fewer than he has played now. What was Lain to do? He’s a rookie trying to make an impression as a fourth-liner and he gets thrown into that? Lain had no choice but to blindly oblige and Tortorella should be ashamed for putting the kid in an impossible situation.
Much of what I hear from the pro-fighting contingent is that players have a choice as to whether or not they want to engage in a fight. Kellen Lain had no choice. Brooks Orpik had no choice, so let’s dispense with that notion right away. In fact, things haven’t really changed since 1982 when Paul Mulvey of the Los Angeles Kings was told by his coach Don Perry to go over the boards, “and don’t dance.” Mulvey refused and he was out of the NHL for good by the next season. (Ironically, that game took place in Vancouver and Perry received a 15-day suspension from president John Zeigler for his actions. So, yeah, really nothing has changed.)
The person people should really feel sorry most for here is Kellen Lain. It was his first NHL game and he had flown his parents and brother in to watch. If the Canucks have any class whatsoever, they’ll pay all the expenses for all three of them to come back to watch a game in which Lain will actually play.
And apparently the kid can play. Lain is 6-foot-6 and 222 pounds, so there is little concern about him being able to take care of himself. And apparently he’s not just a meathead with a penchant for dropping the gloves. He leads the Utica Comets with five fights in the American League, but there are 50 players in the AHL with more fights than he has this season. One pro scout I talked to said Lain has been kicked out of a couple of games he’s seen this season, largely because he was coming to the defense of a teammate who had been wronged.
The scout said Lain plays a smart game and could find employment as a defensive, penalty-killing, physical center in the NHL – a bigger, more effective version of Zenon Konopka. “He can play,” the scout said. “He’s not just a piece of meat. He’s good enough that he could play as a fourth-line center in the NHL.”
It’s important to note that all 10 of the players who fought Saturday night have no reason to be ashamed, because there’s plenty of shame to go around, starting with Tortorella and Hartley.
But the league should be embarrassed about the way this was handled as well. Where’s the leadership on all of this? Why, for goodness sake, did neither referee Dave Jackson or Kyle Rehman see fit not to give an instigator penalty to Kevin Westgarth? Normally a right winger, Westgarth lined up at center and dropped his gloves the instant the puck was dropped. Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who shooed Lain out of the faceoff circle and took the draw, had no interest in fighting and kept his gloves on while Westgarth started punching. That’s not an instigator penalty?
In fact, one GM pointed out to me that if the league had chosen, it could have really gone after Westgarth by identifying him as both the instigator and the aggressor. Rule 46.2 states that: “The aggressor in an altercation shall be the player who continues to throw punches in an attempt to inflict punishment on his opponent who is in a defenseless position or who is an unwilling combatant.” And when a player is deemed to be the instigator and aggressor, he receives a minor for instigating, a major for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct for being the instigator and a game misconduct for being the aggressor.
In that case, Westgarth would have been identified as both instigator and aggressor and that would have gone on his record.
But the NHL – which loves fighting, but hates when it goes awry – punished Tortorella for his trip to the Flames dressing room with a suspension and fined Hartley $25,000 for, “conduct prejudicial to or against the welfare of the league.” Campbell stated that Tortorella’s attempts to get to the Flames dressing room, “were both dangerous and an embarrassment to the league.”
The fact is that when you provide an environment and a culture where guys such as Brian McGrattan, Kevin Westgarth, Dale Weise and Tom Sestito can find employment because their lone skill is their ability to beat people up, these things are going to happen. And for that, the league is an embarrassment to the league.