Mar 21, 2004
It nearly happened again.
New Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ossi Vaananen could have easily suffered a major injury Saturday night in Toronto, but luckily escaped with only a headache.
Toronto's Wade Belak was jostling in front of the Colorado net with Vaananen, when he swung around and violently hit Vaananen in the side of the head and neck with his stick. Luckily the defenseman wears a visor, or he would have been seriously hurt.
Belak - who was given a match penalty for attempting to injure - was ejected, and will meet with Colin Campbell on Monday.
Maple Leafs' defenseman Bryan McCabe said after the game his teammate didn't intend to hit Vaananen.
"He was off-balance. The guy tried to kick his knee out and he tried to brace himself and the stick hit him," McCabe said. "Stuff like that happens."
Stuff like that does happen, but at the same time, one wouldn't expect McCabe to accuse his teammate of dirty play, even if it were true. And, in light of Todd Bertuzzi's "stuff" earlier this month, a closer look by the NHL is guaranteed. Four years ago Brad May received a 15-game suspension for slashing, that was very close in time to Marty McSorley's incident with Donald Brashear.
Add to that the fact that it looked like Belak - the Leafs' designated tough man - was itching for action the entire game, and it doesn't look like he will escape without at least a few game suspension accompanied with a fine. (Belak and Colorado's enforcer Peter Worrell got into a good tussle in the first period, soon after Belak put Riku Hahl hard into the boards.)
While Belak was playing aggressively Saturday, this doesn't mean he intended what happened. Nonetheless, players need to be held accountable for their actions on the ice - intended or not. The problem in this incident is that it may be impossible to decide whether or not this was yet another vicious attack or just a stupid, careless mistake.
Toronto is battling with Boston for the No. 1 spot in the Northeast right now, and while Belak isn't nearly on Bertuzzi's level, losing players at this point of the season is not helpful to say the least.
Understandably, Colorado players are upset. They already have one teammate in the hospital who may or may not play again. Teemu Selanne voiced his opinion to reporters after the game as well.
"That has got to stop. I think every team has to have a meeting and talk about this stuff because we can't let this happen," Selanne said. "The guys are so strong these days. I know the intensity level is high every game, and the coaches tell us to play hard and finish your checks, be tough, but there is a line between stupidity and playing hard."
Selanne's right. This does have to stop.
Hockey is already a fringe sport, and what casual viewers it does have will certainly be put off by this continued, unnecessary violence. The only real solution is to put in place such severe penalties for Bertuzziesque actions, players will be forced to curtail this sort of attack.
And let's hope it happens soon - the NHL can't afford for it not to.
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