Ignore Sun Tzu At Your Peril, Rick

“Ha, ha, goalie fight!” the guy beside me said.

I turned to the monitors above me in the Anaheim press box Wednesday night in time to see Brent Johnson skate down the ice and pop Rick DiPietro to start and end their fight in the Penguins-Islanders game.

I didn’t think it was funny. Still don’t. In fact, the more I think about it, the more the incident bugs me. And the more I think that the league, once again, missed it in not giving Johnson a suspension.

There are a number of disturbing things that keep ringing in my head about this fight.

First, Johnson purposely avoided the referee who confronted him to try to avert the situation. While he didn’t hit the ref (no Richard Riot possibilities here), he did step around him.

A quick scan of the rulebook doesn’t show any specific directive against doing this, though I might have missed it. But there are three sections, rules 32, 40, and 41, which all seem to generally assume that players will abide by referees’ commands. You can make the argument that these are two wilfull participants, but what about the next time, when someone is vulnerable or defenseless? When what the ref says doesn’t go, chaos can follow.

Secondly, Johnson was simply using this as an excuse to attack a weaker foe. Media reports Thursday cited him as saying (bragging) that he had been in a lot of fights earlier in his career, especially in Junior hockey. DiPietro has been in one NHL fight in the past, according to hockeyfights.com (They have no record of Johnson’s fisticuffs).

There’s an old joke about boxing, which is that it’s the only sport where the players have to be told the rules RIGHT before the contest. But it would have done DiPietro good to keep the advice to “protect yourself at all times” in mind as the Pittsburgh netminder came down on him. DiPietro was smiling. Johnson was not, and he cold-cocked the guy with a left.

What this suggests is that he had a strategy and that he was simply looking for a place to unload it. He’s a bully with a history, in other words, and even if the other guy put his dukes up, the move is still thuggish.

It’s no fault of DiPietro’s for not expecting a left hand. Most people are right-handed, and most NHL fights are primarily initiated with that hand (an admittedly unscientific claim, but an impression). However, he can take the blame for ignoring Sun Tzu’s advice in The Art of War, which says that you should never think you know the enemy. It’s unlikely he’ll underestimate another goalie again, but that doesn’t excuse Johnson.

Third of all, the guy Johnson was “defending,” Matt Cooke, isn’t worth it. One Canadian radio show/podcast this week described him as a “piece of garbage” for what he did to Marc Savard. Watch the hit again, and remind yourself what it was—a cheapshot elbow directly to the head.

That incident was reprised by the fight between Cooke and Shawn Thornton a week later that was supposed to settle that problem. Perhaps it did, and cowboy justice was served. Thornton did land one good punch (with his right hand, not his left).

But nearly a year later, that hit looks to have been the beginning of the end for Savard’s career, which should be remembered everytime Cooke takes a shift. He still has the privilege of playing.

This is all a bit ironic given that Sidney Crosby is out with concussion problems after himself taking two completely cheap shots. But maybe it all makes sense, given that the suits in New York don’t act to protect their stars.

Savard is probably done. Crosby is out. Cooke is still taking shifts. Am I the only one who sees something wrong with this?

Fourth, Cooke doesn’t need defending. He can fight his own battles, in other words. The fight against Thornton was just one of six fights hockeyfights.com has him in last year, and his career total in the NHL stretches to over 20.

Now, you’ll say, he can’t fight a goalie, and so had no recourse against DiPietro. Granted. But really, would he ever need to? DiPietro didn’t exactly take his head off, as he did to Savard. The whole thing should have been a non-issue, which leads to my last point.

And finally, what Johnson was defending was hardly more than a push. Look at the video below to judge for yourself. And if you saw the whole game, write in with a comment and let me know whether there had been an ongoing antagonism between the two earlier in the game. I’ll gladly be corrected if DiPietro was the aggressor and the aggression sufficient to warrant NHL-style “justice.”

The bottom line is that either that fight was either great entertainment, a needful settling of a score, or a senseless, willful act of taking advantage of someone, who didn’t do his homework to know his opponent’s capabilities.


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3 Responses to “Ignore Sun Tzu At Your Peril, Rick”

  1. jay
    February 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    I’m a sports junkie, but not a huge fan of hockey, and this fight reminds me why. But this is an awesome article — very well reasoned.

    One problem though is that suspending Johnson wouldnt do much good, b/c he’s a scrub… You’d have to suspend Fleury (1st stringer, like Rick D) which doesnt seem fair to him, right?

  2. Brian Kennedy
    February 7, 2011 at 1:54 am #

    Thanks for your reply. You´re right that suspending Johnson wouldn´t do much. Fleury plays most of the games, obviously, as the starting goalie. Putting Johnson on suspension costs him money, of course, but it doesn´t do anything to the team (though perhaps it shouldn’t).

    Fleury can’t be suspended for this, since he was smiling on the bench the whole time. So I guess the league didn’t see any point in acting at all.

    The real trouble is that there’s no way to pay this back. Oops, there I go talking like “the code” is how things should be governed. That’s the weird thing about the violent cycle of things in the NHL.

    All of this aside, I hope you’ll start to watch the games more. It’s a magical game rich with tradition.

    And thanks again for your interest in IH.

  3. Thomas Huynh
    February 13, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Sun Tzu would have advised them to see the cost-benefit of the situation. But then again that was war and this is hockey. The consequences aren’t as dire.

    Thomas Huynh, founder of Sonshi.com, a website dedicated to Sun Tzu’s Art of War