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Frei: Avs got lucky on MacKinnon injury. Don’t push the luck any further



Shortly after taking the Ball Arena ice for the Avalanche morning skate Thursday, Nathan MacKinnon noticed the media contingent in the lower bowl intently shooting pictures and video of him — getting proof that he indeed was out there.

On the move, he waved.

Hey, Nathan

Fears that MacKinnon suffered a broken hand in his fight with the Wild’s Matt Dumba Sunday night in St. Paul turned out to be overreaction. When MacKinnon returned to Denver for additional examination and wasn’t in the lineup for Tuesday night’s 2-1 Avalanche in at Calgary, those fears were understandable. But he was back in the lineup as Colorado beat San Jose 4-2 Thursday night.

Even if it was just a scare, it reconfirms a point the Avalanche need to make their policy moving forward.


Never say never, concede there might be exceptional, extreme circumstances that make it defensible, but short of those …


Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, though, continued to insist after the morning skate that he can’t “harness” MacKinnon and emphasized that he won’t issue anything approaching a no-fighting edict.

After his initial and succinct, “No…,” I asked why not.

“The game has to be played with passion and it has to be played with physicality,” Bednar said. “Would I like (MacKinnon) to make a different decision in the moment? Sure. Yeah. I wish he wouldn’t have fought. But the game has to be played with passion and physicality. If you don’t play it with passion and physicality, in my opinion, you’re gonna come up with more injuries … It’s hockey. It’s a physical sport. It’d be like telling a linebacker in football, ‘Hey, we’re almost to the playoffs, so make sure you don’t hit anybody hard, you might hurt your shoulder.’ It’s not going to happen.”

If you’re reading this, you probably know I’ve been critically discussing fighting’s role in the NHL for, well, a long time. For the record, though this was a hot topic since Sunday, I didn’t climb aboard the train. I’ve been on it for eons. And on Sunday I tweeted that “29” shouldn’t be fighting moments after the altercation, and an early version of this column appeared on my web site.

Fighting remains in the game, I realize, so you have to deal with it. But the issue here is whether one of the best players in the game should assume the role of avenger. It’s heat-of-the-moment passion, absolutely, as MacKinnon stands up for himself and teammates — in this case for Mikko Rantanen after Dumba delivered what even Bednar considered a clean and hard hit.

I wrote about Gabriel Landeskog in October, during the exhibition season, saying Landeskog fighting is not a good idea. Not in the regular season, either.

And in a subsequent piece, I mused that sometimes I think he’s from Flin Flon, not Stockholm.

To a major extent, you can substitute MacKinnon’s name for Landeskog’s and my point stands. MacKinnon arguably was responding to Dumba’s hit on Rantanen because Landeskog is out of the lineup following knee surgery.

Landeskog had stepped up and was additionally playing the policeman role, dropping gloves in the regular season as he reacted to hits on his linemates, whether MacKinnon and Rantanen or otherwise.

To his credit, Landeskog also has refused to pander to the lowest common denominator mentality and portray the offending hits as worse than they were.

“I mean, it’s part of Gabe’s DNA, right?” Bednar said in October responded when I asked him about Landeskog’s reaction to the exhibition game hit. “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.”

Yes, but …

The risk outweighs the “reward.”

Now? When all your moves are geared toward the playoffs and erasing the label as second-round failures, having MacKinnon add to the risk of being knocked out of the lineup in an already physical game is potentially counterproductive. That was true in the past when he dropped the gloves and it’s true now. And please don’t tell me the deterrence value offsets the risk. It doesn’t.

That’s especially if it follows an unpenalized, hard, clean hit and it’s part of the maddening tendency consider those sorts of hits, especially on stars, to be objectionable.

You hit a star (yes, whether MacKinnon or anyone else) in a game that prides itself on its physicality, you fight or be pronounced gutless.

That’s an insult to the stars and to the game.

I’ll grant that in the game of speed and instant reaction, there isn’t time to review the video and to confirm the point of contact on your teammate before dropping the gloves.

But it has reached the point that whether the hit is “clean” or otherwise doesn’t matter.

Here’s what Bednar, beloved by his ECHL teammates for having their backs, said Sunday night in St. Paul, responding to Mike Chambers’ question about MacKinnon’s reaction: “You expect it. He’s a competitor. He didn’t like it. Clean hit. Hard hit. But he jumps in and sticks up for his teammate. I’ve come to expect that from him.”


But the mandate should be …


Let’s say you concede that even clean hits are subject to vigilante justice.

If that means recognizing that retribution might have to wait a few minutes until — or if — Kurtis MacDermid can be sent on the ice at the right time with a mission that doesn’t need to be spelled out to him or anyone else, so be it. (Yes, in the playoffs, if the current injury list has been shortened, Bednar will be deciding in what situations to have MacDermid in the lineup … and how to use him.)

I asked about where MacDermid fits in all of this.

“Well, MacDermid knows his role,” Bednar said. “Are you trying to tell me MacDermid’s not doing his job, not fulfilling his role?”

“Right, so he’s doing the jjob to the best of his ability,” Bednar said. “MacDermid’s not the only one on our team we acquired to play physical and have some pushback if things go sideways or we don’t like something. Our whole team has to do it. It’s the way it is. I don’t care who you are. If you have no pushback in your game, you’re not going to be in the league long. I’m not referring to Nathan. But he’s a passionate player. He’s the leader on our hockey team. You don’t harness that. You’re trying to bring it out in guys.

“Do I want him fighting every night? No. But it’s part of the game. I don’t tell Nathan MacKinnon how to go out and play with passion … That’s what makes Nathan Nathan. that’s why he’d one of the best players in the world. It’s not just that he’s a good skater and he has a good skill set and good hockey IQ. It’s the way he plays the game. Bull in the china shop. When he’s good, that’s the way he plays.”

You also have to accept that it works both ways.

If an Avalanche defenseman lays a hit on an opponent, and is challenged to fight, don’t whine about how it “obviously was a clean hit, so what’s that guy’s problem?” Whether that whining is at the bar, at the keyboard, or on the broadcast.

I’ll close with this.


Terry Frei (, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter 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 five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” 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 and his bio is available at

His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here

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