FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. – An eye for an eye makes everyone blind, but at least in Vancouver there would be a lot of happy people in the dark.
Canuck Nation, which is often angry (waiting 49 years for a Stanley Cup tends to perturb folks), was mostly apoplectic Saturday night when star rookie Elias Pettersson was body-slammed to the ice by Florida Panther defenceman Mike Matheson during Vancouver’s 3-2 win.
Pettersson had just scored his fifth goal in five game, leads all National Hockey League rookies in scoring and is the most electrifying Canuck prospect since Pavel Bure rocketed to the West Coast 27 years ago. And Matheson, who seconds earlier had looked silly on a Pettersson spinarama, clearly went hunting for the 19-year-old Canuck and instead of simply finishing a check on the end boards, also took advantage of the off-balance Swede by toppling him and driving him to the ice.
Pettersson banged his head, left the game five minutes into the final period and is now on concussion watch.
He was well enough Sunday to travel with the team to Pittsburgh and the Canucks are hopeful the rookie will not be out long. But for now, consider Pettersson’s absence indefinite. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety will review the incident.
At the very least, Matheson should have been penalized for roughing. But referees Jean Hebert and Francois St. Laurent called nothing, and instead allowed play to continue for several seconds while a player who appears to be one of the great, young talents in the game lay on the ice, dazed.
In this case, the rage from Canuck fans towards Matheson is understandable.
What’s perplexing is that there appeared to be nearly as much anger in Vancouver about the Canucks’ lack of a physical response – revenge – to Matheson as there was about the hit itself, which coach Travis Green called “a dirty play.”
Green also noted that Matheson has had one fight in his career and is not known as a dirty player. The 193-pound defenceman from Montreal, a 2012 first-round pick, has 103 penalty minutes in 168 NHL games.
What Green probably didn’t know is that there have been only 11 fights in the league this season through 70 games. There were none in the 14 games on Saturday, which included three blowouts.
What Green didn’t say, maybe because it should be self-evident, is that the landscape of vigilante justice in the NHL, the era when players policed the game instead of the league’s hockey-ops department, no longer exists.
Do the Canucks, or any team, want to demonstrate to opponents that they’ll stick up for one another and that it’s not OK to whack a talented, young teammate at the embryonic stage of his NHL career? Of course they do. That’s part of a team’s culture.
So is learning to win, playing with focus and discipline, and building trust and belief in a new system filled with new players. The Canucks made invaluable progress on those long-term ideals on Saturday.
The other Canucks on the ice for Matheson’s bady-slam were Loui Eriksson, Nikolay Goldobin, Derrick Pouliot and Troy Stecher. Goalie Anders Nilsson was probably the toughest Vancouver player.
Matheson played five shifts after injuring Pettersson. On the first of those, Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi torched him for the winning goal at 6:11 of the final period. And on Matheson’s other four shifts, the Canucks were diligently defending their lead, desperate to build momentum by sweeping two games in Florida for the first time since 2002. The Canucks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 on Thursday and are 2-2 on a difficult road trip that was supposed to bury them in October.
Would Matheson have actually engaged, say, Erik Gudbranson or Antoine Roussel had either come looking for him late in a one-goal game? Of course not. So the Canucks would have done what? Put a smelly glove in Matheson’s face and say mean things to him? Or, as Montreal Canadien Max Domi did to Florida’s Aaron Ekblad in the pre-season, simply drop him with an undefended punch that gets assessed a major penalty, game misconduct and suspension?
Elaborate conjecture that the Canucks could have taken a minor penalty on Matheson to prove a point, then either kill it off or surrender a tying goal to the Panthers but still get at least a point is pure fantasy.
No, this is professional sports. You are focussed on winning or you are focussed on something else.
And for the vocal minority of Canuck fans who were arguing on social media that winning doesn’t matter to a rebuilding team, then why the last spike of outrage when Vancouver went 1-6 in the pre-season? In the pre-season!
Winning matters to players. And if it doesn’t, you don’t want them on your team. Defending teammates matters, too. And maybe, if circumstances allow it, the Canucks will try to make Matheson accountable when the Panthers visit Vancouver on Jan. 13. Too bad it’s not a Friday.
In the meantime, let’s hope Pettersson is back soon because the NHL, not just the Canucks, is better with him. Let’s hope the league takes some action against Matheson, although there is little precedent for suspension on a hit like his. And let’s hope the NHL, amid a renaissance in speed and skill, never returns to the dark age when goons could throttle opponents with impunity.