BATTLE LINES CROSSED

 

With the playoffs less than two weeks away, and yet another Battle of Ontario looking to become a reality, the ongoing rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators was recently boosted another notch, if such a thing is possible.  As we speak, government officials who call Ottawa home are trying to pass legislation which will ban the wearing of Leafs jerseys at the Corel Centre.

Of course, this rivalry has escalated through three straight playoff series since the dawn of the new millennium, all three won by the boys in blue.  With revenge on Ottawa’s mind ever since, down the stretch, I can’t help but think Ottawa and Toronto both are playing to play each other, but maybe I’m just reading too much into the scores and standings.

Having lived in Ottawa for a significant portion of my life, I can’t begin to tell you what it would mean to this city when and if the Senators get over the proverbial hump and actually beat the Leafs.  I think even if Ottawa didn’t win the Stanley Cup, they’d hold a parade downtown to commemorate the event.  Then again, the emotional lift the team would get over such a victory would make them virtually unstoppable, at least in my mind.  If they didn’t win the Cup after such a victory, they don’t deserve to win it – ever, and I think for the most part local fans would agree with me! 

Of all the major rivalries in hockey, this seems to be one of the few one-sided ones in recent memory.  Throughout the past couple of decades, there have been victories on both ends of some of the more memorable recurring playoff series: Colorado-Detroit, New York Rangers vs Islanders, Calgary-Edmonton, Montreal-Quebec, Ottawa-New Jersey.  Obviously the people at the top who run things have recognized this, otherwise wouldn’t have come up with such an idea.  Even if they didn’t, there’s nothing wrong with trying to have a little fun.

In recent years, it’s been no secret – Ottawa-Toronto – these two teams simply hate each other, period, and the fans have gotten in on the act as well.  There were a couple of unfortunate fans who made the trip to Toronto in 2000 or 2001 to watch one of the games, only to be accosted by some Leaf fans who took the rivalry too far.  The unsuspecting Sens fans were stripped of their jerseys and were then forced to watch them burn in effigy!  In a couple of games I attended, I saw more than a couple of fights erupt in the stands, and in 2001 when Mats Sundin scored the goal seen and heard all over Ottawa, it’s a wonder a riot didn’t break out.  And I don’t think I need to tell you of all the ill will between both teams during regular season matches.

Nowadays, when you go to an Ottawa game the same night Toronto plays, when the score shows up on the jumbo screen you can hear the chants of “Leafs Suck” ringing through the rink.  I know they probably got the idea from New Jersey fans, but it illustrates just how heated this rivalry has become.

The whole story is a captivating one to say the least.  The idea is not to pass a law banning the blue and white throughout the city and especially at the rink, it is simply what city council hopes will generate some revenue for a few good causes around the city.  It’s not as if they’d be able to enforce such a law anyway, people will go out and buy Toronto jerseys just to show spite, even if they’re not even a hockey fan.  So they’ve taken a less lawful approach, wear the home team’s jersey, or else drop a donation for charity. 

The Ottawa Food Bank is the supposed benefactor of this, as they’re going to ask anybody wearing a Leafs jersey at the April 3rd game or during a possible playoff series to bring a non-perishable food item or donate a few bucks to help feed the needy.

To add fuel to the fire, the Leafs organization donated $5,000 to the Ottawa Food Bank and Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank in an effort to support the Leaf fans.  They also challenged the Senators to match or exceed their donation to both food banks.

It all got me to thinking, what a novel idea!  You could do this for any game and in any market. Insert rivalry here: Rangers-Devils, Oilers-Flames, Leafs-Habs, Red Wings-Avalanche, Sharks-Kings, Flyers-Penguins, Lightning-Panthers, the list goes on.  The whole idea is so crazy it just might work, and will leave people scratching their heads thinking “why didn’t I think of that?”

And you know what the best part of it all is?  Nobody will get hurt.

In the past, given my usual neutral approach, I’ve made no secret of my allegiance to the blue and gold, the Oilers of Edmonton, and I don’t ever miss them when they come to town.  Do you think I wear the Ottawa colors during the game?  No way.  I’ll tell you what, if I’d have to donate a food item or some cash for the privilege of wearing the opposing team’s jersey, I’m all for it.  Not only can you feel good about supporting your favorite team, but help someone who isn’t as fortunate.  Why not?

On the other hand, there will undoubtedly be a few folks who will be totally against the proposed policy.  I can hear them now, “Why should I have to”, “This is a free country”, “Try and make me”, “I already have to pay for my ticket, my parking, my concessions, I draw the line here”, “If they do that I’ll never buy a ticket again”.  Good for them I say, don’t buy a ticket, we don’t want or even need you there anyway.  It’s all in fun, and the last thing we need heading into the playoffs, possibly the last for awhile (and promising to be the best in a long time), are party poopers.  Stay home and watch the game on television.

With all the bad blood and isolated ugly incidents we’ve seen around the NHL this season, especially recently, it appears the government may actually be on to something here (for a change).  It should help take the heat off Don Cherry at least until next Saturday night.

THE LAST WORD

NHL Hall of Famer Mike Bossy, an integral part of the New York Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s, has come forth in an article for both the New York Times and Toronto Star, calling for the NHL to implement a zero tolerance policy against the violence displayed not only in the Todd Bertuzzi incident but in a few isolated incidents since.  In case you missed it, Toronto’s Wade Belak was suspended for eight games (six regular season and two playoff games) for his careless swing on Colorado defenseman Ossi Vaananen, and New York Rangers forward Mark Messier was suspended two for spearing Pittsburgh’s Martin Strbak.  A brawl infested end of a game between Calgary and Nashville, and a knee on knee incident between Calgary’s Chris Simon and Dallas’ Sergei Zubov has yielded another two game suspension for Simon and has rounded out what can only be perceived as yet another week of carnage in the NHL.  Bossy’s take on the whole situation is when something like this happens, the NHL should simply put their foot down and tell the player they can’t play ever again, just like they used to do on the frozen ponds.

Former NHL player and Rogers Sportsnet hockey commentator Nick Kypreos offers up an interesting perspective.  While he is unanimous with everybody over the fact the Bertuzzi hit was wrong, he goes on to boldly state “violence is part of the game’s sex appeal”, and argues people would lose interest if the game didn’t push the envelope every night.  He goes on to say the reason there is no respect amongst the players is because the first thing a player is told upon entering the junior and pro ranks is not to show your opponent any respect.  “They want to take a run at you, give you a cheap shot?  You get your stick up and make them eat it.”  Hockey is a game of skill as much as it is about physical play, and intimidation.  In Kypreos’ opinion, the fans want the full package, and he hopes the Bertuzzi incident doesn’t spook everyone into making drastic changes, the game will overcome this once the playoffs start up.  No argument from me there.

Colorado’s Teemu Selanne went so far as to suggest if the NHL won't do anything to protect the players, the players should take matters into their own hands and simply refuse to play, stating many of his team mates wanted to simply forfeit the game after seeing Steve Moore lying defenseless on the ice.  It’s not a nice thought to have, I know, but he’s probably right when he says somebody may have to die before the NHL realizes the severity of the situation.  You just need to watch a game where the officials ignore the hooking, hacking, and slashing, yet call a penalty on an obvious dive by a star player, and with the playoffs around the corner it won’t get much better, the only difference is the players won’t care either, they just want to win.

Lots of perspectives, lots of opinions, but in my mind it all comes back to what I said last time around, and it bears repeating because it happened.  Get retribution on the scoreboard.  Unfortunately, for Pittsburgh it’s too late to make a difference, but I’ll bet it felt good to beat the New York Rangers not once, but twice since the Messier spear.

It should be noted and clarified violence in hockey is not limited to the NHL.  It happens throughout the sport, in every league around the world.  Need proof?  Look no further than in Slovakia where a player is awaiting his fate after attacking a linesman, and a player for the ECHL’s Fresno Falcons has been suspended five games for leaving the bench after an opposing player high-sticked a teammate.  Sound familiar?  Just search your favorite internet search engine for hockey violence and you’ll be sure to have reading material for a month, two months if you search for high sticking.

Well here we are folks, just a week and a half until April Madness, a.k.a. The Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Join me next time around as we’ll explore all the first round playoff matches and I’ll yet again predict who’ll move on and who’ll be golfing in three weeks.

Until then, keep up with the playoff race and join our playoff hockey pool - just click on the Playoff Pool link at the left – admission is free and it promises to be a lot of fun!  Just think bragging rights.

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