Friday, 22 October 2010

Give Him Six

After watching what Vancouver's Rick Rypien did on Tuesday night to a fan in Minnesota, it was fairly elementary to think that he would get himself some time off. If there is one thing that a professional in any industry cannot do, it's to confront a fan in a physical manner. It isn't tolerated in Hollywood, and it's certainly never tolerated in sports. We have numerous examples of where players have crossed that line, and, in most cases, the proverbial book has been thrown at those players. In knowing that, I waited in anticipation for the ruling that Gary Bettman would make regarding Rick Rypien's actions.

It was announced Friday afternoon that Rick Rypien would be suspended for six games. I have a read a few articles that seem to express outrage that Rypien's suspension would be this short, while others have supported the NHL in their decision not to make an example out of Rypien. I'm not here to debate what is right or wrong in terms of the length of the suspension today. What I want to look at is the accessibility that fans and players have to one another in the player's realm.

We've seen altercations in Hollywood where an actor will confront a heckling fan or paparazzi. Normally, the heckler feels they have the right to speak their mind, and I am not here to squash any First Amendment rights in the United States. If the actor confronts the heckler with physicality, the lawsuit procedure ususally plays out with the heckler claiming "extreme emotional and physical distress".

But what would happen if that fan confronted the actor on the set of their next movie or TV show? Could the heckler claim "extreme emotional and physical distress" if he or she was pummeled by the actor or security for being in an area he or she shouldn't be?

The reason I ask this is that hockey is a very fan-friendly sport. The players are approachable and welcoming for the most part, and the fans are extremely knowledgeable in terms of knowing who each player is. The proximity of the fans to the players isn't as intimate as, say, the NBA, but there is a lot of opportunity to interact with players while they are in their arena of play.

The chutes where the players get from the dressing to the ice in are one of the most exposed areas where fans and players can interact. Normally, the chute extends out to the bench during the intermissions so that the players can safely approach the ice without a lot of fan interference, especially on the visitors' side. Not only is this a safety idea for both players and fans, but it allows separation between the players and fans when the players are focusing on the job they are needing to do.

However, when a heckling fan confronts a player in his arena of play, the results are normally nothing to report. We've had incidents where fans have engaged players - Tie Domi's penalty box fight with a fan - and we've have incidents where players have engaged fans - Mike Milbury's infamous shoe fracas in New York - but where is the line drawn when something like this happens? Why is the fan normally exonerated of any responsibility in the situation?

Look, I'm not saying that what Rypien did is in any way acceptable. He had a lapse in judgment after a fan heckled him, and he certainly should be punished for not showing some restraint in that situation. Six games is a very good lesson that Gary Bettman has handed down, and I'm quite certain that Rypien will not make the same mistake again.

Gary Bettman, in a very good PR move, has reached out to the fan to apologize on behalf of the league, and I think this is a very classy move from the Commissioner that shows that the NHL is serious about taking care of its fans. The offer of dinner and a couple of free tickets only goes to show that the NHL wants to keep Mr. James Engquist as a fan of the NHL and the Minnesota Wild, and the Commissioner deserves praise for fostering some good rapport with Mr. Engquist.

We, as fans, still need to remember one thing: we are not to enter the playing field at any time, and the chute to the dressing room is the player's domain. Regardless of whether Mr. Engquist was in the playing field, he was very accessible to Rypien, and Rypien reacted poorly. The six-game suspension is worthy of the grab-and-push that Rypien delivered on Mr. Engquist.

My only example of this would be at a zoo. Just because you can touch a lion or tiger or bear (oh my!) by sticking your hands between the bars doesn't mean you should. Just because you can tease an animal by throwing popcorn at it doesn't mean you should. We still need to be cognizant that there are dangers in stressing a wild animal. I'm not suggesting that Rypien is a wild animal, but he was stressed in terms of being angry, and then he made a serious error in judgment in reacting poorly to heckling and teasing from a fan.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that if the NHL wants to have the retractable chute down to the dressing rooms, they may want to look at having more security in areas that allow the fan and player to meet in the player's domain. It's the only way I can see this incident from never repeating itself again. While it may reduce the fan experience for some people, it will also help to foster better player-fan relationships where the player isn't tempted to relinquish restraint in a stressful situation.

A few things are certain, though: Mr. Bettman did the right thing in reaching out to Mr. Engquist to help foster Mr. Engquist's relationship with the NHL, and Rick Rypien will probably never make this mistake again. If he does, I'm sure it will cost more than a two-week vacation.

Or we could simply prevent this by having security there to keep the players and fans at a reasonable distance from one another.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

S Robertson said...

You ever see that footage of a Boston Fan reaching over and punching an opposing player in the head? I was looking for the clip but couldn't find it. Old time hockey for sure.

Fair suspension... all in all.