PITTSBURGH – You know that an issue has exploded beyond any one game or practice when a coach opens a press conference not with an answer but a statement, as Vancouver Canucks’ boss Travis Green did Monday.
Aware of the uprising of rage among many fans back home over the Canucks’ lack of a physical response to the injuring Saturday of teenage star Elias Pettersson, the coach spoke uninterrupted and unscripted for four minutes after practice ended in Pittsburgh.
Green also confirmed that important checking centre Jay Beagle, a centrepiece on the Canucks’ penalty-kill that has allowed only three goals on 25 disadvantages, is out six weeks with a broken forearm after blocking Mike Hoffman’s shot late in the third period.
And then Green said the Canucks’ reaction to what occurred in the third period on Saturday probably would have been different had players actually seen Matheson take down Pettersson. But the coach reiterated the need for composure and praised his team’s focus at the end of the 3-2 victory.
“I know with Canuck fans . . . (their) reaction after the hit,” Green said. “I will say that I didn’t know what happened. None of the players on the ice knew, none of the players on the bench knew what happened. I still was trying to get it on my iPad to see what happened (when) we score the next shift to take the lead and our team wins a hockey game. And plays to win down the stretch.
“I do understand Canuck fans wondering (about the response to Matheson’s hit). I’ve been in the league a long time and I understand that part of the game extremely well. When I played, it was a lot different. I have said – and I stand by that – I want our team to be hard to play against. I do. By hard to play against, that means many things. That means playing fast. That means making good puck decisions, winning puck battles. For me, hard to play against is a burning desire to win. It comes from your group. And I want our group to stick up for each other and stick together. That’s what winning cultures have, and I want that in our group.
“I’m as mad as many fans about this with what happened. But I do stick by what happened the other night.”
It is important to understand that the fury in Canuck Nation far exceeds the anger in the Canuck dressing room. Make no mistake: players are upset about the hit, believe it was dangerous and unnecessary of Matheson to topple Pettersson and slam the 172-pound 19-year-old to the ice after a strong takeout on the end boards.
But there is no rage in the dressing room about the response to Matheson (or lack of it) by players who understand time and place and scale. And there is certainly no doubt among them that they have each other’s back.
Matheson logged five shifts after injuring Pettersson. Bo Horvat scored the winning goal for the Canucks on one of them, and the Panther’s other four shifts totalled 3:45. Matheson did not play in the final two-and-a-half minutes as the Canucks finished their best game of the season.
“From the reactions, some people might have liked it better if I went out and fought him instead of going out there and scoring the game-winner,” Horvat said. “It’s just the way it goes.
“We want to stick together, we want to play hard as a team. It’s tough, again, when you don’t see the hit … and how dirty and how bad it was until after the game. It’s tough to do something in that moment. And especially when we’re up 3-2 and trying to hold on to the lead and win a hockey game.”
Winger Antoine Roussel, signed July 1 to a four-year, $12-million-U.S. free-agent contract to provide leadership and protection, said players were asking each other on the bench if they knew what had happened to Pettersson.
He said there would have been some kind of response had Canuck players seen the body-slam. But he said no one would sacrifice winning a game to seek revenge.
“Retribution, it probably lasts for a week or so,” Roussel said. “But missing the playoffs lasts for a whole summer if you lose games like that because you are stupid. You’ve got to be really careful about what happens. I’ve missed playoffs by two points, four points, because of stuff like that. It’s a 3-2 game. It’s not really the time to go out there and just go crazy.
“If you think your teammates are not there for you, you don’t play team sports. You play tennis, you play ping pong, golf. But as soon as you play team sports, you believe the guys are going to have your back 99 per cent of the time. But when nobody sees it, nobody sees it. Everybody is looking for somebody to blame, but sometimes there’s nobody to blame.”
Asked if there will be a response when the Panthers visit Vancouver on Jan. 13, Roussel said: “Probably. We’ll have a talk (with Matheson), for sure. Everybody can contribute. It doesn’t have to be a fist.”
Green said: “(Players) didn’t have an emotional vision in their head about what happened. Plus, you’re playing to win the hockey game still. This is not the time to just start chasing people around the rink and jumping on top of people. That doesn’t happen anymore in this league. That’s why the league has these good young players that are fast and exciting to watch.
“We get a big goal and I’m telling our team keep our composure, let’s win the hockey game. That’s coaching. The days of tapping guys on the shoulder have long been gone, and rightfully so.”