By Stu Hackel
If ever one needed a visual representation of what separates hockey from other sports, Thursday night's little rumpus at Madison Square Garden could be Exhibit A. Showboating and taunting, while discouraged in other sports, is more strictly verboten in hockey. And when someone crosses the hotdog line, the game's vigilante impulses kick in.
These are things that fans of other sports cannot always understand about hockey. Each sport has its unwritten codes, but only in hockey does enforcement of that code lead to players self-policing certain situations with actions that are accepted by the players themselves as well as the officials who administer the game.
When conversations turn to eliminating fighting from the NHL -- as they have again in recent days after John Branch's excellent The New York Times series on Derek Boogaard -- the advocates for a ban should not be blind to how deeply engrained it is. Not only do owners like fighting because they believe the fans like it (which they do), players, too, believe it has a central place in the game. Its watchdog function is a main reason.
None of the combattants in the Lightning-Rangers tussle were given fighting majors by the referees, who recognized that the flare up was payback to a transgressor. Minor penalties for roughing were issued instead. The only supplemental discipline that might come of it is will be to Tampa Bay's Steve Downie, who left the bench to engage in the fight. That's a rule the NHL regularly enforces.
By most accounts, Artem Anisimov is not a player given to boastful acts, and hockey prefers its citizens behave with some modesty and discretion. Yes, there have been others who celebrated their goals with a flourish. TSN threw this compilation together a couple of years ago:
In truth, these are mostly fun, and many fans and observers enjoy them. Still, even some mild
goal celebrations, like Alex Ovechkin's "hot stick" dance a couple of years ago (seen in the video above), are not considered kosher by traditionalists. There is an element of "look-at-me" showboating intrinsic to these displays that others find more irritating than inspiring. That school of thought is content to leave the dancing to touchdown celebrants in the NFL and the theatrics of pitchers who work out of jams in tight games.
Narcissism is just not very widespread in hockey. As we wrote when we looked at this phenomenon a year ago, "The sport is marinated in a team-first mentality — and not without good reason, because it requires an inordinate amount of teamwork to succeed while selfishness generally leads to defeat. Players who call undue attention to themselves, on or off the ice, create an undesired sideshow that tends to disrupt a team’s smooth functioning."
Sure enough, Anisimov's act -- which was more inflammatory than any of the 10 in TSN's video -- drew instant criticism from the opposition. Lightning winger Steven Stamkos called it "classless," and intimated that the matter may not be closed, saying, "He'll know it's in the back of our minds the next time we see him."
Tampa Bay's captain, Vinny Lecavalier, who got to Anisimov first, said, "He points his stick like he fires at our net, I'm sure his teammates and their coach were not impressed with that. We were offended and it's disrespectful. It's not like he was happy to score a goal and did some type of (fist) pump; it was directly at our net and our goalie."
Lecavalier was right. Anisimov's coach, John Tortorella, acknowledged that his player crossed the line, telling reporters after the game (video), "He's apologized to his team right away....It was wrong. He knows that. I know the leadership of the club will take over to work him through this. He's a young guy, a pretty innocent guy....I still don't think he understands what he was doing there....He's not an idiot. There's some idiots in our league and he isn't an idiot."
Apart from the non-idiot defense, Tortorella absolved the Lightning for their pugalistic reaction. "I don't blame Tampa at all," he said. "I'd expect our team to do the same thing."
You can't get more engrained than that.