It was only a matter of time until the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and Baie-Comeau Drakkar series boiled over.
The tipping point came in the dying moments of Game 4, when Armada forward Cedric Paquette celebrated his team’s victory by pumping his arms in the air near some Drakkar players. A linesman followed, but the presence of an official did little to prevent a brawl that became the trending topic on social media.
With the game over, both benches cleared and several fights quickly broke out, including two goalie bouts featuring starters and backups. After moments of madness, order was eventually restored, as both teams’ coaching and training staffs helped separate combatants.
There are many opinions on who’s to blame for the incident, with many pointing to Paquette for his manner in celebrating the victory. Drakkar head coach Eric Veilleux said Paquette was taunting his players.
"I found that unnecessary, what happened," Veilleux said in his post-game press conference. "I don’t think they had to do that."
Armada head coach Jean-Francois Houle saw nothing wrong with the way his player celebrated.
"He was coming towards our bench and they jumped on the ice and cornered him," he said. "I thought regulations said they had to stay on their bench.
"I think that Paquette was really happy to win. We won tonight, really happy about that and really happy Cedric celebrated. I think that’s normal when a team wins."
The fallout from Wednesday’s brawl, however, goes beyond one player’s celebration as the same could actually have happened at the end of Game 2 in Baie-Comeau on Saturday. As time expired in that game, Paquette was taken down behind the play, which wasn’t caught on video.
Paquette lay on his side near the far blue line by Baie-Comeau’s bench, while several Drakkar players hopped on the ice and began celebrating near him. When Paquette’s teammates tried skating to their fallen teammate, a few Drakkar players stood in front, preventing them from reaching him.
The officials quickly stepped in and shooed Armada players back to their side, while giving Paquette some breathing space and allowing the trainer to get to him.
"They did the same thing in Baie-Comeau when they won and we stayed at our bench," Houle said. "Even Paquette was on the ice after their victory and we stayed quiet, like good people on our bench, and that’s it."
It didn’t end there.
With the Armada leading Game 3 3-0 late in the third period, nary a whistle wasn’t followed with some nastiness. Paquette was given a hooking penalty when he took down Frederic Gamelin with more than six minutes to play, and as the play went up ice, Gamelin gave Paquette a high shove from behind near his head which wasn’t called.
Later, Drakkar forward Gabryel Paquin-Boudreau dropped Armada forward Samuel Hodhod after a whistle with a quick right. There were several more penalties in the final minute of that game.
"They came after us," Houle said. "We all know Baie-Comeau plays like that. It’s two games (in a row) now. The 3-0 game (on Tuesday), towards the last 10 minutes they weren’t even playing hockey anymore."
Paquette was involved in so many of these instances that it’s hardly a coincidence - his antagonizing style is well-known throughout the league.
But the fact is neither team is innocent here. Each developed a reputation around the league this season for their grittiness and sometimes antagonistic play. Now you’ve got two teams who play similar styles meeting for the right to advance to the league championship series on the line; it was never going to be a squeaky-clean series.
There’s little the officials could have done to prevent it. In fact, perhaps the league should have set the record straight on end-of-game procedures after Game 2’s near outbreak.
"We’re a team that has character and we won’t be pushed around by anyone," Houle said.
No matter how you look at it, it’s a sad state of affairs for the league. Rather than being recognized for the good things the league is doing or the excellent game that had been played, junior hockey will once again be painted with an unfair brush.
Perhaps even more disappointing are reports that some fans finished what the players started outside the arena, which required police presence.
"It doesn’t belong in hockey," Houle concluded. "It’s not nice to see. There were a lot of kids watching tonight."
Not to mention the league’s disciplinary prefect, Raymond Bolduc. It’ll be his job to clean up the mess and hand out fines and suspensions from this ugly incident. The league needs to set the tone now as the series shifts to a best-of-three.