Frei column: Uh, Gabe … fighting is not a good idea
On Thursday night in Denver, the Wild’s Ryan Hartman hit the Avalanche’s Nazem Kadri, who for the 12th consecutive season will not win the Lady Byng Trophy in 2021-22, high and from behind.
In response, Kadri cross-checked Hartman.
Seconds later, an enraged Gabe Landeskog wanted at Hartman.
Hartman returned the enmity in a mutual “let-me-at-him” ritual.
The zebras “prevented” them from engaging. (Quotemarks used because some of it might have been showmanship.)
All of which again raised the question: Should the Avalanche want Landeskog, their captain and usually a winger on the top line with center Nathan MacKinnon and winger Mikko Rantanen, to be their avenger?
Especially in an exhibition game?
Even if Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, whose journeyman minor-league playing career featured him earning the loyalty and enduring respect of teammates by having their backs, doesn’t have a problem with it.
To be certain, I asked Bednar about it after the Avalanche’s 6-4 win over the Wild at Ball Arena.
“I mean, it’s part of Gabe’s DNA, right?” Bednar responded. “He’s the captain of our team, he didn’t like the hit, he didn’t like the play, he thought it was dirty, so he was going to take care of it.
“We’ve got other guys who can do that now, for sure. But I think there’s instances where you want guys stepping up. Not just Gabe. Guys that maybe it doesn’t come naturally to them. But you want them to stick together if they don’t like a play that happens, that’s your job.”
This has come up many times before and it will again, of course, most notably because MacKinnon has shown a willingness to drop his gloves, politely return an opponent’s helmet, and then fight his own battles.
Discretion should be the better part of valor there, too.
I’ll concede: Landeskog’s responses have been purposeful. They’re neither one of the ridiculous “appointment” fights nor the absurd “your slug vs. my slug,” “wanna go?” or “light-a-spark” sideshows, mostly of yore.
I’m not saying never for either Landeskog or MacKinnon.
I’m saying under most conceivable circumstances, neither Landeskog nor MacKinnon should be dropping the gloves.
The risk is too great.
They’re too important.
In this instance, Landeskog curiously was playing on a night when neither of his usual linemates, MacKinnon and Rantanen, did.
Most of the time, when Landeskog is on the ice, any boiling-over emotions and temptation to police and/or “protect” teammates involves MacKinnon or Rantanen.
Landeskog is paying homage to, oh, Dave Semenko and Clark Gillies, and even former Avalanche winger Chris Simon and other wingers who have protected superstar linemates before and since.
(Semenko’s linemates were Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. The more multi-talented Gillies was with Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy. And in Colorado, Simon was with Joe Sakic and Scott Young.)
But that’s really not who Landeskog is, either.
Getting into nationality much here would involve summoning the “soft Swede” stereotype that long ago became archaic in this league. It also would risk a vicious cross check from Ulf Samuelsson. Even Peter Forsberg, while not a fighter, had a knack of often sneakily delivering pre-emptive or retaliatory strikes. So to speak. (Actually, he could be, well, nasty.)
But Landeskog also was a major junior “import,” playing two seasons for the Kitchener Rangers under the pseudo-NHL rules and schedule. So he was indoctrinated in the North American game as a teenager.
Can Landeskog as the avenger work? Well, I’ll concede it already has.
Landeskog went after the Blues’ Brayden Schenn after Schenn’s knee-on-knee hit on Rantanen in the first-round playoff series. The Colorado captain pummeled Schenn right up to the point he froze his cocked fist and passed on a chance to deliver a last devastating punch on a prone Schenn.
I don’t have an answer about drawing the lines for Landeskog or, especially, MacKinnon.
I just know that in the long run, the Avalanche is better off without them dropping their gloves.
Toughening up, Colorado brought in defenseman Kurtis MacDermid, billed as a throwback enforcer. But with that comes the reality that if he’s in the lineup, his ice-time involves diminishing returns or transparent agendas.
It comes down to this: The Avalanche shouldn’t want Landeskog or MacKinnon fighting.
Avoiding it doesn’t mean they have to be sheepish. It’s the smart thing to do, whether it’s about avoiding taking them off the ice for five minutes or about bigger issues.
I’m not implying stars’ health is more important than that of the rest of the roster, including those who know being a willing participant might help keep them in the league.
This is the part nobody really wants to talk about in hockey: “Nobody gets hurt in hockey fights” is a joke, whether the toll is a short-term concussion or miserable health in retirement because of a few or many accumulated blows.
Ask Adam Deadmarsh, who never was the same after taking a punch from Ed Jovanovski. At least, not for a while anyway. He was productive later with the KIngs but there’s no question that fight — as part of concussion issues — set him back. And he has had head problems in retirement.
Read about those involved in NHL concussion and brain injury litigation, or even those who succumbed to demons and are no longer with us.
Fighting isn’t the sole cause of concussions and brain injuries in hockey, but count me among those who consider the “banning’ of fighting to be inevitable for legal and liability reasons. It won’t happen because anyone in the game buys a turntable and a Cat Stevens vinyl album and plays “Peace Train” a few thousand times.
Overly melodramatic? Perhaps. Except consider that Landeskog himself wrote a thoughtful and compelling essay about concussions for the Players’ Tribune.
Keep the gloves on, guys.
Terry Frei (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go” “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age” and “March 1939: Before the Madness.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy. He was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html