Of all the things a player can do, getting into a physical altercation with a fan is the worst.
No doubt Vancouver’s Rick Rypien crossed that line Tuesday night in Minnesota, and commissioner Gary Bettman will have to deal with it.
In a league that depends on the paying fan as its No.1 revenue vehicle, having players threaten a fan’s safety is the last thing the NHL can afford. It’s one thing to jaw back and forth with spectators while you’re on the bench, but making physical contact with a fan is strictly a no-no.
It’s just not acceptable.
Most players know this, and it appears Rypien had one of those moments where he lost a sense of reality. Not throwing a punch certainly will help his argument, but that doesn’t excuse what he did. Rypien got to the fan and had the potential to do a lot of damage. The league will likely come down hard on Rypien when they make their ruling. On Wednesday Rypien was suspended indefinitely until the league decides on the exact length. Now the Vancouver Canucks also have to do some damage control.
The Canucks are a team that’s reeling, and new captain Henrik Sedin has his first real test of leadership, especially going into Wednesday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks. He has to make sure his team is ready to play despite the distractions of Rypien’s incident and the lousy play of goalie Roberto Luongo.
But it won’t end with the game. Henrik has to get involved with Rypien – take him out to lunch or sit him down, whatever, and build him back up again. That’s what captains have to do.
The organization also has to stand behind Rypien. They have to acknowledge that what he did was wrong and that he will take his punishment, but GM Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault can’t abandon him. You don’t bail on a guy. They like him and need him.
If there’s another level of responsibility in this incident it’s the fans. One of the great things about the NHL is the interaction between players and fans – whether it’s a pat on the back walking out from the room, or banter while on the bench.
But fans have to keep it respectful, too. Fans have never felt closer to the players. Whether its cameras in dressing rooms, the penalty box or following them on Twitter, the sense of all-access to players has never been greater. But what it doesn’t do is give fans a free pass to try to challenge them.
Who wants to take their kid to a game and have them sit beside some loudmouth spewing profanity? Even the silent ones can tick off others around them, like the one-piece costumed green fans behind the visiting penalty box in Vancouver. You don’t think the fans around them are having their patience tried with their obnoxious behaviour behind the glass? When fans in general start pushing the envelope of what’s acceptable and what’s not, security should be there to make tough decisions, like chucking them to the curb.
I saw far worse in my time as a player than what Rypien pulled off in Minny, but let me tell you, things have improved since then. If today’s standard of what is unacceptable existed when I played, the league would have shut down.
Believe it or not, the messages are getting through to the players. Can there be zero incidents? Let’s get real. But the number of these incidents is way down. The league is making progress. The game’s being cleaned up, both on and off the ice. The percentages will tell you that.