Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eye for an eye

The Buffalo Sabres play the Boston Bruins Wednesday night in Buffalo. It's probably one of the most anticipated games of the season ... for, perhaps, all of the wrong reasons.

Let's review for a moment. Last week, a loose puck floated into the Sabres' end in a game in Boston. Ryan Miller, the Sabres' goalie went out to get the puck and knock it away to prevent a possible breakaway. Milan Lucic, the Bruins' physical forward who won't be described as shifty any time soon, knocked (if you are a Sabres' fan, use "slammed" instead) Miller over. Miller went down, the referee stopped play, and there was a mild scrum afterwards as a few Sabres gave Lucic a shove. Lucic picked up a two-minute charging penalty.

The Sabres seemed to go down meekly after that, and reaction from there quickly multiplied. On one hand, the Sabres weren't happy that someone had hit their goaltender -- it's one of the unwritten laws of the game, although officials only treat goalies a little different than skaters when it comes to contact in open ice. The fans and media all pounded the Sabres for their timid reaction to the play, in some cases saying the team was "soft." NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan reviewed the play and decided not to hand out a suspension on the play, even though Miller suffered a concussion and has not returned to action yet.

The episode points out that there's something of a faultline when it comes to such matters along the fan base of hockey.

One on side is the "old time hockey" crowd, for lack of a better name. This is the crowd that likes a good hit and loves a good fight. These are the ones who called for the firing of Ruff and/or the trading of some current Sabres for some tough guys.

The other side sees actions like this and wonders what the fuss is all about. Those fans don't want to see the Sabres take the law into their own hands -- that's why we have referees. "Frontier justice" supposedly went out with the Jesse James era.

Both sides have a right to their viewpoint. The traditionalists grew up with hockey that was played in a certain way, and like it. The newcomers prefer to watch speed and skill, and if they don't get it, they stay home or switch the channel. Hockey always has had some trouble attracting the newcomers, particularly in areas where the game isn't part of the culture (think the Mason-Dixon Line and south). It doesn't want to offend the old fans, but wants to attract new ones. Remember, it's the only major team sport that allows fighting within the context of the game.

The new way of thinking has been winning the argument over the last 30 years, but an episode like this comes up every so often and reminds us that we have a ways to go before reaching any sort of settlement. In fact, an agreement by a Congressional super-committee on budget cuts seems more likely.

On Wednesday, Lucic will be booed by the sellout crowd when he comes out on the ice and touches the puck. He'll be drawn into a fight by one of the Sabres, they will exchange punches for a while and sit in the penalty box for five minutes, and the game will go on. Some sort of point will be proven, I guess. We'll then more or less forget about it.

And so it goes.

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