The NHL’s revenge culture is a danger to the health of players

The fallout from the Max Domi and Aaron Ekblad incident is serving as a reminder that the NHL’s old ways are best left in the past.

When Max Domi threw a punch that broke Aaron Ekblad’s nose and got him ejected from a pre-season hockey game, it was widely expected that it wouldn’t go without repercussions. Domi ended up suspended until the start of the regular season, but in the eyes of the Florida Panthers’ players, that wasn’t enough.

Goaltender Roberto Luongo condemned the play as “gutless” and something the Panthers “won’t forget about in the future”. While harsh, the victim of Domi’s punch took it a step further than that.

“I think he’s stupid for doing it. In the end, it’s hockey. That’s the way it goes. Scores will get settled at a later date.”

Two very important things were mentioned there that shouldn’t be ignored, the first being that the incident was “just hockey” and the second pertaining to the threat of retribution.

Neither the punch itself nor the seemingly impending fight that will happen when Domi faces off against the Panthers next should be considered hockey in the slightest. The bigger fear is that of retaliation against another player on the Montreal Canadiens’ roster, and that’s part of an archaic revenge culture in the NHL that needs to be put out to pasture immediately.

Having the onus put on players to deal out a “fair” punishment for an illegal act on the ice is a terrible precedent to have, and years of inconsistency from the Department of Player Safety have done nothing but foster that attitude.

Sometimes players do settle things one-on-one, but it’s becoming increasingly rare that other players aren’t caught in the crossfire at various points. Look at the 2014 NHL playoff series between Montreal and the New York Rangers, or the previous year against the Ottawa Senators. Devastating injuries that weren’t met with discipline sent the series careering into dangerous territory. Brandon Prust made a late, high hit that broke Derek Stepan’s jaw, which in turn led to John Moore blindsiding Dale Weise in the next game. Following all of that was Dan Carcillo attacking a referee as he tried to get at Prust upon his return.

In even more recent memory, two seasons ago, Evgeni Malkin hit Blake Wheeler high in a game, and in the rematch between the Winnipeg Jets and Pittsburgh Penguins, Wheeler and Malkin settled their beef in a fight. That is all well and good and should have been the end of everything, however the Penguins made a very important lineup change for the game, inserting Tom Sestito in for added protection.

Sestito obviously protected absolutely nobody as Malkin fought for himself, while Sestito fought Chris Thorburn for some reason or another. What came next is the danger of putting a talentless player in the modern game, as Sestito crushed Tobias Enstrom against the boards from behind and injured the Jets defender.

There was no reason for Sestito to be in the game in the first place, outside of the fear of retribution from the Jets. Sestito played a total of 62 seconds in that game, got in a fight with someone who wasn’t involved in the previous incident, and injured a player who also wasn’t involved, all in the name of “protection.”

If the NHL had punished Malkin in any way, would Wheeler have felt the need to settle his own score, and forced the interjection of Sestito? It’s hard to say because it’s well ingrained in the hockey culture that sometimes you have to take things into your own hands, and it leads to disastrous results in many cases.

Just ask Steve Moore who had his career ended thanks to one of the most disgusting plays in NHL history, when Todd Bertuzzi sucker punched him, and then drove his head into the ice.

Moore had previously had a questionable hit on Markus Naslund and was not suspended, but drew the ire of many of the Vancouver Canucks’ players. Brad May put a “bounty” on Moore, while Bertuzzi himself disparaged his opponent.

In one of their following meetings, Moore stood up for himself, fought Matt Cooke and by all means should have ended everything. Bertuzzi then spent the rest of the game hunting him down, while Moore ignored him believing the score to be settled, and the rest is a stain on the history books of the NHL. Bertuzzi’s assault broke three vertebrae, gave Moore a grade-three concussion among numerous other injuries, ultimately ending his career.

This isn’t to say that Domi will have to deal with a similar issue, but based on the statements from the opposing players and the animosity between the two, it’s something that should be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Currently on the Panthers’ roster is one Micheal Haley, he of 25 career points and 562 penalty minutes, largely from his history of pugilism on the ice. Last year alone, Haley racked up 212 penalty minutes, and has a laundry list of plays revolving around him losing his temper, including his participation in the infamous “Fight Night” between the Penguins and New York Islanders, and punching an unsuspecting Calle Jarnkrok two seasons ago.

It’s a powder keg waiting to go off when Montreal visits Florida on December 28, and if the NHL is smart they’ll have parameters in place to mitigate what could turn into an ugly affair. Part of this hostility lays at their feet as it was the punishment handed out by the Department of Player Safety that Ekblad and his teammates found to be not nearly enough.

The long history of revenge culture on the ice is littered with horrifying examples of unsportsmanlike conduct, cheap shots, and generally terrible conduct in all aspects. It’s something that needs to be put to rest quickly, and if the Panthers do attempt to make good on their threats, the NHL needs to come down swiftly and harshly. The league, in the midst of a major concussion lawsuit, cannot allow players to threaten, and possibly follow through on injuring, opponents.

It’s not safe, and it’s certainly not hockey.

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