John Blanchette: It ain’t the ballet …
but is it really necessary to turn it into the UFC?
Try this: pile the Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans on separate buses, have them meet halfway in Lind, herd them into the high school gym and lock the doors. Pair them up by size and age and have at it.
Coaches and general managers, too. Heck, maybe coaches and GMs first.
Then they can settle it, once and for all.
Oh, who are we kidding? This will never be settled, not really. Whatever the many high points have been in their two-decades-old rivalry, the Chiefs and Ams will also perpetuate for years to come the most adolescent bash-and-blamefest in our little sandbox because:
1) This is hockey, and junior hockey at that, where adults and accountability are in short supply, and
2) See No. 1.
The latest grenade exploded Saturday night in Spokane, when the Chiefs were enduring a 5-2 embarrassment and forward Ryan Letts saw an opportunity to plow over Ams goaltender Chet Pickard and set off a dungstorm in which coach Hardy Sauter’s Chiefs could get in some licks, since they weren’t getting anything else done.
Then came the predictable vigilante response from the Ams’ headhunters. Tri-City general manager Bob Tory prowled the pressbox, stopping at the door of the Chiefs radio booth to vent before engaging Spokane GM Tim Speltz in spirited debate.
The referees toted up 342 minutes in penalties and 21 game misconducts, and among other sanctions the Western Hockey League has suspended Letts and Tri’s Mitch McColm indefinitely.
No cops showed up at the dressing room door to arrest the Hanson brothers, but Ams coach Don Nachbaur did make like Reg Dunlop on the post-game horn to Dickie Dunn.
“A kid with no future runs a kid with a future,” Nachbaur told the Tri-City Herald. “(Sauter) is a primitive coach who put the game right back to the 1970s. There was a plan behind that.”
To which Sauter responded on Monday, “It’s simply untrue. We would never tell anybody to intentionally run a goalie.”
Speltz put it more artfully.
“I think that’s a coach talking when he shouldn’t have been talking,” he said. “I don’t believe Don honestly thinks that – just as I wouldn’t for a second say Don sent out McColm to go after Mitch Wahl.”
Of course not.
It is easy to make sport of these Yosemite Sam outbursts and lawyerly denials, except of course there’s a potentially grimmer side. Pickard was helped from the ice and sat out Tri’s Sunday game against Portland with what may be a concussion, though the Ams have issued no statement as to his condition. If he’s back in net Wednesday in Vancouver, there is bound to be considerable rolling of the eyes at Chiefs headquarters – and, in fact, apparently there already is.
“Was it enough to blow the goalie off his feet and land inside the net?” Sauter said. “That’s what happened, but I don’t believe it was that hard of a collision.”
Hmm. Let’s hope it’s not a concussion, then, not just for Pickard’s sake, but for Sauter’s in suggesting the goalie might have given it to himself.
Frankly, it’s unseemly to haggle on the degree of contact – whether it was, as Sauter called it, “a bump” or getting blown up. Letts’ act was egregiously thuggish, even for a so-called enforcer, and the cheap-shot retaliations no less so even as they’re rationalized by the you-did-it-to-our-guy-first school of thought. This series has been lurching along on this momentum for some time now, both sides being short on choir boys.
The WHL will likely match Letts’ suspension to Pickard’s absence and perhaps add some. It would be nice if the Chiefs – or any club in a similar situation – supplement the discipline, but that will never happen, requiring a level of organizational accountability hockey will never adopt.
“He wanted to try to get his team going,” Speltz said, “and this time he was misdirected.”
Here’s an idea to get your team going: play better.
But that’s not the hockey way. In a previous game in Spokane, the Ams were getting their doors blown off and decided to try to change their luck by dropping the gloves at the third-period faceoff. This was at least more straightforward than running the goalie, but again that’s parsing cement-headedness – and the bloodlust cheers of a packed house reinforce the message that it’s really what the fans want more than anything.
It would also be nice to see these teams cool off and get back to actual, you know, hockey – and fortunately the calendar will do that for them. The playoffs follow the teams’ next two meetings, and surely no one wants to incur a suspension and miss meaningful games.
Which, of course, is the final point about fighting and thuggery – it’s not part of the game in the game in the playoffs and doesn’t need to be now, except that the regular season has no real meaning and so there’s no particular risk to the reward of a cheap thrill.
Besides, when the going gets tough, the tough get gooning.