So the Calgary Flames play the Edmonton Oilers tomorrow night. Should be one heck of a tilt, eh? As long as you’re not the one getting punched in the face, this is probably one of the most anticipated games of the season.
Is it because it’s a huge four-point game in a division where four teams are currently tied for second place, the Oilers and Flames among them? Nope. All the hype around this particular game is about whether or not Matthew Tkachuk is going to get the comeuppance he deserves or whether or not he’ll turtle when the eventual invitations to fight come from the Edmonton Oilers.
Meanwhile, nobody at the moment is talking about what the next incredible thing Connor McDavid has up his sleeve and whether or not he’ll pad his scoring lead and Hart Trophy credentials because nobody gets retribution in this league by scoring goals and winning games. Nobody is wondering whether the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan or Elias Lindholm will use the game to break out of their season-long malaise. After all, this is The Battle of Alberta and if that can’t get these guys keyed up, what’s it going to take? In any event, nobody is talking about those things, which is just the way a lot of people in the game like it.
The NHL will be watching this game closely and has already placed calls to both GMs warning them to tell their players not to let emotions run out of control. And then there was the All-Star Game where Tkachuk played on a line with Leon Draisaitl of the Oilers and assisted on one of his goals. That has some people, like the headline writers for the Edmonton Journal’s website (‘Did the All-Star Game civility dilute Oilers-Flames rivalry? Let’s hope not’) a little concerned there might not be any fireworks after all. Adding to the concern is the voice of reason of Zack Kassian of the Oilers himself, who absorbed two borderline hits from Tkachuk, then filled him in with punches the last time the two teams met almost three weeks ago. The actions led to a two-game suspension for Kassian for instigating. “I think you (media) guys are hyping it up,” Kassian told reporters. “It’s still lingering, which is pretty crazy. I guess you guys need something to talk about.”
What people might not realize is it was exactly this kind of rhetoric that led to the Todd Bertuzzi attack on Steve Moore almost 16 years ago that dragged the game back into the dark ages and ended Moore’s career. At the time, Todd Bertuzzi called Moore “a piece of sh--” for his headshot on Vancouver Canucks’ star Markus Naslund that knocked Naslund out of the lineup for three games. After the Calgary-Edmonton game, Kassian called Tkachuk, “a p---y”. Like Moore, Tkachuk was an unwilling participant when it came to fighting.
But what is most concerning about all of this was a rather innocuous quote Kassian gave the night the incident occurred. Here’s what Kassian said about getting retribution on Tkachuk, either tomorrow night or in the future: “It’s going to be one of those games where I know he’s not going to fight. But maybe it’s my turn to deliver something, to follow him around and wait until he gets in a bad situation. Simple.”
Read those words and absorb them. Because that is precisely what Bertuzzi did to Moore the night of March 8, 2004. Moore had no interest in fighting Bertuzzi, despite Bertuzzi trying to goad him into a fight all night. Moore did, however, oblige by fighting Matt Cooke less than seven minutes into the game. It was one of four fights that occurred prior to the 8:41 mark of the third period when, in a game that his team was trailing 8-2 at the time, Bertuzzi followed Moore around and waited until he got into a bad situation.
Perhaps this all much ado about nothing. Maybe the Oilers and Flames will decide that there’s too much at stake and will be focused on hockey. Perhaps both teams will send out a couple of dancing bears who will punch each other in the face for everyone’s pleasure and be done with it. Maybe Tkachuk will even answer the bell this time and get into an obligatory fight to tamp down the emotions early before they get on to playing hockey.
But here’s the thing. There’s absolutely no guarantee that is going to be the end of this. It should be noted that the Bertuzzi-Moore incident happened in the second game between the Canucks and Avalanche after the Moore hit on Naslund. There was no incident in the first game, which came five days later. And as Kassian suggested, there remains an attitude in hockey that no slight, regardless of whether it’s real or perceived, whether it’s big or small in scale, can go without equal or excessive retribution.
Matthew Tkachuk is going to have to watch himself against the Oilers, not just tomorrow night, but when the teams play again in Calgary Feb. 1 and in the last game of the season April 4 and for the foreseeable future. Because as Kassian himself said, “I don’t think he realizes we’re in the same division and I have a great memory.”
And we can only hope the result is not as tragic as it was 16 years ago. If it is, don’t say you weren’t warned.
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