Here’s the thing about National Hockey League suspensions like the three-game bit Edmonton defenceman Darnell Nurse was handed on Thursday for jumping San Jose’s Roman Polak.
First comes the contrition on the part of the guilty party. He pays his fine, serves his suspension, and generally feels shame. It’s the standard, “I am responsible for what I put into my body,” admission.
“I like to stick up for my teammates,” said Nurse on Thursday, after dealing the Sharks defenceman a busted nose, a colourful shiner and a uniform fit for a Tide commercial Tuesday night in Edmonton. “It was probably a little overboard. As I get older I’ll probably learn to control my emotions a little bit.”
Next, the league gets to send its message; in this case, grabbing an opponent who has committed a perceived offence but does not wish to take part in the fight, then beating him to a bloody pulp as if it were 1982 again, is no longer an acceptable play in the NHL. Nurse did all of that, exacting revenge for what he thought was a dangerous play by Polak that injured Matt Hendricks.
(A penalty was called on Polak, and NHL players don’t get slo-mo replays mid-game. Polak was generally innocent of wrongdoing.)
Then the player’s coach has to feign disappointment. Not with the player, but with the act.
“The fact that he was willing to step up for a teammate is something that we like,” Nurse’s coach Todd McLellan said. “The way he went about it probably was the wrong way.”
That’s the on-the-record portion of the program.
Every single player and executive in the NHL who sees a replay of the fight will readjust their scouting report on Nurse. He is tougher and more unpredictable than most people thought, which are both good qualities for a potential top-pairing defenceman. And the Oilers organization, which may have considered moving Nurse in a deal for a more veteran defenceman like Travis Hamonic, will think that much more about it.
Look, while so many people outside of hockey decry the fact that fighting is still a part of the game, the people who play, coach and manage it tend to stay with the current reality. Fighting is still part of hockey.
You can’t have a fourth-line sluggo anymore, so a 20-minute defenceman with the kind of edge that Nurse has shown? Until they take fighting out of hockey, Nurse is what the new nuclear deterrent will look like.
Nurse’s three-game suspension will end next Wednesday, and he will assume his 20-plus minutes (tops among rookie defencemen) on Edmonton’s blue-line against St. Louis. The Blues players won’t play Edmonton any less physically than they normally would. However, the knowledge that Edmonton suddenly has this 6-foot-4 stud who fought Milan Lucic in his first NHL scrap, then took Polak apart in defence of teammate Hendricks?
No matter how far the game has come, that knowledge is still currency on an NHL ice surface.
Will the Blues still play physical on Connor McDavid? Of course they will. But who wants to be the guy who takes the next step, putting a dangerous check on the Oilers young star?
The next time San Jose meets Edmonton, which Shark gets to be the guy who rides Taylor Hall intentionally into the boards, on a play that perhaps could have been avoided? Who gets to throw the big open-ice hit at Jordan Eberle?
There are 30 coaches and 30 general managers who would publicly condemn the way Nurse jumped Polak. And yes, the kid needs to learn some tact.
However, they are the same 30 NHL coaches and GMs who covet a throwback player like Nurse; a 21-year-old who strikes legitimate fear into the opponent the way Behn Wilson, Dave Manson, Bob Probert and Clark Gillies did in a time when fighting was far more prevalent.
And that’s not to say the entire league is suddenly afraid of Nurse. Only about 85 per cent of them are, we’d guess, a much larger number than last week.
Those same players vote every year in a near-unanimous ballot to keep fighting in the game. Most of them know Nurse better today than a week ago, and all of them would be happy to count him as a teammate.
They’d even chip in on his fine. It’s the least they could do.