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Rypien had to pay for NHL's sins

By any stretch, be it imagination or the reality of watching Mike Millbury and Terry O'Reillyclimb into the crowd at Madison Square Garden one infamous night in 1979 to lay a beating on fans (Milbury using one's shoe to pound away at its owner), Rick Rypien's recent slapdown of a seemingly rowdy fan hovering behind the Vancouver Canucks' bench in Minnesota does not rise to the level of a serious assault.

It was, at best, a kerfuffle, a momentary skirmish and one that would have been well served if all parties could just utter a quick "sorry, that was stupid" and move on. But as with most things in pro sports, it can never be that simple and on Friday Rypien came face to face with the consequences of his actions: a six game suspension. His team was also fined $25,000.

I have no problem with that.

I get the Wild West mentality about the whole thing. Supporters of Rypien or at least the "Hey this used to be a man's game" school of thought argue with some reason that it was "just one of those things"-- a momentary lapse. But it's a different world now in pro sports.

You can't apply the "boys-will-be-boys" approach or even simple logic when you're the head of a league and dealing with these kinds of events. You have to employ the idea that if you don't do something, you leave yourself wide open to widespread media attacks, class action suits, lawyers looking to make a name for themselves or some significant cash for a client, and adverse fan reaction along the lines of: I went to a hockey game and a debacle broke out. I'm going to sue.

It's hardly the stuff alleged family entertainment is made of.

Bettman knows that. So do Daly and Campbell, and it's a given that even if they wanted to sweep this one aside, they simply can't. Rypien did what no sports boss ever wants to see. He left the field of play after a heated engagement involving an opponent and, depending upon how you view the tape, an on-ice official. He then moved through the bench area directly into a passage surrounded by Wild fans (including one who could be better described by using a lower case w) and engaged said fan in a brief but obvious physical confrontation.

We'll make no excuses for the Neanderthal actions of the fan or the inability or unwillingness of arena management to provide some sort of shield between the player and the crowd, some of whom appear to be consuming alcoholic beverages, but there is no absolution for a player in a situation like that.

Rypien engaged with a paying customer and that's something no team or league can overlook. That's why the league made noise in March 2001 when a whale-like fan of the Philadelphia Flyers fell into the penalty box sequestering then-Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tie Domi. Domi wasn't suspended for that incident, but he was fined $1,000 (max at the time) for spraying a water bottle at fans. Flyers management got an earful and, reportedly, a fine, for not having better crowd control and security in place. And while Milbury got six games way back when, Matthew Barnaby -- like Domi a tough guy for several teams during a long NHL career -- got four for an altercation in Florida in 2000 that was similar to Rypien's.

"There are so many things that happen in the game and it's so emotional that sometimes you lose your mind," Barnaby, now a hockey commentator in both the US and Canada, told Globe and Mail reporter Eric Duhatschek after the Rypien incident. "My experience was, I got beat up by Peter Worrell in Florida. I hadn't played much that game. The fans were yelling obscenities at me. All of a sudden, I just snapped. I lost it for a split second and wanted a piece of the guy that was yelling at me.

"Once you get to the locker room, you realize what you did. You feel bad. You think, what did I just do? You know you're going to get suspended and fined. You know you're going to lose $50,000, and for what? To be stupid. To be an idiot."

Well, in a word, yes.

Not to say it hasn't been done before. The one most often mentioned is when New York Rangers coach John Tortorella was forced to sit out a 2009 playoff game after tossing a water bottle at a fan in Washington. In truth, long time NHL-watchers were surprised that Tortorella didn't get more for that one, given that he had built a reputation as a serial fan abuser complete with league suspensions as an assistant coach to John Muckler in Buffalo. (Both men were suspended and fined in what was then a noteworthy altercation with a fan.) There was also an incident when Tortorella applied the heel of his hand to the head of a fan while he was coaching the AHL's Rochester Americans, but hey, we all know that rules, including for suspensions, are different in the playoffs.

There have been other incidents as well, and while few of them rise to the level of Milbury and O'Reilly at Madison Square, or certainly Ron Artest and company in the NBA. (Artest got the remainder of a season off.)

GALLERY:Notorious player-fan altercations in sports

Each time it happens, the offended league must make a show of seeking to assure fans that it will not happen again. That's why Rypien was suspended indefinitely even before he went from Minnesota directly to New York. Given that he also got himself tossed from the game for his on-ice actions and appeared to engage a Minnesota player on the bench and linesmen before his run-in with the fan, this was going to outside the bounds of even the NHL's sometime inexplicable supplementary discipline rulings.

And it's not that Rypien gave the NHL any leeway. The league had a great 2009-10 season, what with the Olympics in Vancouver and a noteworthy postseason culminating with Chicago winning the Stanley Cup. It intended to come off that with a big splash for 2010-11, but, in the first week of play alone, the news has been dominated by suspensions, fines, the ever-vexing issue of how to deal with blows to the head, and some ugly incidents involving perceived obscene gestures and remarks. There's already been one public intoxication event and the seemingly ever-present throat-slash gesture.

To follow all that with an altercation with a fan, well, someone is going to have to pay a price. Rypien is that man. I suspected that we'd see something close to or even beyond 10 games.

Rick Dudley, the new general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers, doesn't wear a headband to work anymore. The self-acknowledged "something of a hippy" back in his playing days in the 1970s more often than not can be seen in the requisite blue suit, white shirt and professionally acceptable tie. His coach, Craig Ramsay, doesn't wear his hair in the longish fashion of that time, either. Truth be told, he doesn't wear any hair at all any more, choosing long ago to remove what little he had left in an effort to get both a cleaner look and an earlier start on each day.

But there are things about the two that are "old school" all the way.

They played together back in the 70s with Buffalo where both had success as fan favorites (Dudley for his wildly physical style of play, and Ramsay for his cerebral approach to the game on offense and defense, as well as his iron-man status). They kept in touch over the years even as they went their separate ways -- Dudley into management and coaching at the minor league and then NHL levels, then on to a string of GM jobs in the NHL. Ramsay was an occasional scout and seemingly a career assistant coach. They always admired the work the other man was capable of producing. So it was a surprise to no one that when Dudley got the GM job in Atlanta, he asked Ramsay to be his coach.

"I think we both see the game the same way," the now 59-year-old Ramsay said. "I'm considered a defensive minded coach, but I like to defend with an aggressive style of play in the other team's end. Duds played that style. We both know it can work, but it takes time to install, patience and some sophisticated understanding from the players to make it work."

Ramsay never really got that time in his brief stints as a head coach in Buffalo and Philadelphia that lasted only parts of seasons while management looked for a longer-term replacement, but there's a good chance he'll have it in Atlanta. Dudley is building a team in an image of the way he wants hockey to be played. He's brought in a lot of big bodies, but he also has players with above average skill sets. He wants Ramsay to blend all that into a mix that can play with physicality, but also with a high-tempo attack, the kind of game that appeals to a fan's sense of entertainment as well as any hope of winning.

"So far we've had a few ups and downs, but everybody is getting to know one another a bit and nobody has quit on what we're trying to do," noted Ramsay, who happened to play a huge role in Tampa Bay's 2004 Stanley Cup championship.

The idea of "safe is death" -- a rallying cry the Lightning used to describe their attacking style of play -- was largely Ramsay's doing. It came from a time when the Sabres were an attacking team and even members of the checking lines -- including Ramsay and Dudley -- were expected to, and did, produce noteworthy offensive totals.

Now, with Dudley at his back, Ramsay is getting his chance to try it his way in Atlanta. It's been a long wait, well more than half a lifetime, but he's going back to a future with the backing of a player and friend who's been a big part of his past.

And for the Thrashers, it just might be the "old school" connection that ignites a passion for the game there.

You pretty much have to live under a rock or the floor below where the elephants are housed in Madison Square Garden when the circus is in town not to know that October has become Cancer Awareness Month in the sporting world. It's especially obvious in the NFL with all those head-hunting defensive backs launching themselves like rockets from their pink-tipped shoes while making a statement for Brest Cancer Awareness. Even Major League Baseball has gotten involved with pink batting gloves and ribbons for the playoff announcers. The NBA, albeit still in its preseason, has gotten into the spirit of the event as well.

We here at SI.com do not treat that lightly. Though it's fair to say that breast cancer may already be the one most in the mind of the general public, we salute those leagues for reinforcing the point that all cancers are dangerous and for projects that make people aware of their risks and the importance of helping to work to find a cure.

That said, however, we hold a special place here for the NHL and its Hockey Fights Cancer program that is also in full swing this month.

The NHL and the NHL Players Association, along with the individual teams and just about every professional organization associated with the game, has taken a much more hands-on approach, identifying several deadly cancers that don't get nearly enough attention while bringing both fiscal and moral support to the cause.

This year, Hockey Fights Cancer has added the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network to its list of groups it will support with both checks and team and league support. That's a cause near and dear to me as pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms. It strikes some 41,000 people per year across North America, most often with fatal results.

HFC is also teaming with The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, The Project to End Prostate Cancer, Prostate Cancer Canada, and a handful of other groups that truly need financial and logistical support.

To date, HFC has donated over $11 million to cancer research and treatment across the U.S. and Canada in an effort to raise the support level for both national and local research institutions, children's cancer hospitals, player's charities and local organizations. The money spent isn't just to raise awareness, but to help find a cure for various cancers with research efforts that are woefully underfunded, and to help support patients in need.

If you can help, each team has a variety of ways to do so at the local level. Check with your local team or NHL.com to find out how to get involved. You won't regret the effort and more than one person will truly thank you for it.

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