LA Sends the Wrong Message: None

There’s a rule in hockey: you respond. It’s not written down anywhere, but when something happens that puts your team at a disadvantage, you act. So for instance, when you see your best scorer go down from a hit, clean or not, you don’t think. You jump on whoever it was who hit him, and you kick some f&*^ing a#$.

Imagine this, if you’re a SoCal hockey fan. Teemu Selanne gets hit from the side, and he goes flying into the boards near the end of the ice. Corey Perry is on the ice with him. What does Perry do? Flies into the corner, fists flailing. Getzlaf follows. Or whoever it is out there (OK, maybe not Koivu).

So when the LA Kings’ superstar Anze Kopitar was hit by Kyle Brodziak in the Kings’ zone early in period two of their game against the Wild Thursday night, you might have expected to see the other guys on the ice answer. They didn’t.

Instead, they stood around like high school football players whose quarterback has just gone down. They watched. They probably worried. But they didn’t respond, at least, not in any way measurable to anyone not on the ice.

Then when they were awarded a power play of the five-minute variety, they stood around and watched some more, to the tune of getting only two shots on the chance. At the time, they were down 2-0 after having given up goals at the start of both periods. And they were coming off a loss to near cellar-dwelling Anaheim two nights prior. So where was the anger? Absent.

This passivity is simply not what hockey players are taught coming up. Go to a Major Junior game sometime and see what happens when the best player is knocked flying. The place breaks into a melee. Youtube the old days of Montreal versus Quebec and see what happens when one team ticks the other off. Everyone on the ice, and all of the players formerly on the benches, ends up fighting.

Before you say I’m simply advocating violence for its own sake, put those comments in context. If you’ve read much of what I’ve written, you’ll know that I don’t condone violence in the game, and I don’t get the needless fights between heavyweights that often characterize contemporary hockey.

But I do understand and support the evening up of scores, as when Jerome Iginla and Sheldon Souray went at it in retribution for an early season check where Iginla knocked Souray into the boards and out of the game for several weeks a couple of years ago. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta say enough’s enough.

So the question is, why didn’t the Kings do that? Why the passivity? Why the lack of response?

For weeks, fans on the call-in show after the game have asked why the team can’t score, and the answer they’ve been given time and time again is to the tune of, “Well, coaches can’t teach them to do that.” In other words, look for answers wherever you want to, but you won’t find them in firing Terry Murray and replacing him with another suit.

But if coaches can’t teach scoring, they can teach the core ethos of the game, and that’s simple: you don’t let someone screw with your superstar.

IH asked Kopitar after the game what he thought of his team’s lack of response on his behalf. He thought a while, then said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re in Europe or North America, I think whoever, uh, whoever is lying down on the ice when you [inaudible] . . . the guys pull together or stick together.” But when I followed up to say that the guys didn’t do anything, he said, “Well, it’s a matter of taking a guy’s head off or having a five minute power play, you be smart about it. They sure let him know, and that’s fine for me.”

One cannot doubt the truthfulness of the answer, having only seen the play from hundreds of feet away in the press box, but it didn’t look like there was much being done, and that was reflected in a question another reporter asked Terry Murray in his press conference.

“Did you want to see a better response, from your team, on that play?” I talked to the guy before, and I can tell you want he was indicating—a physical response. Murray seemed to get that, but he redirected, as Kopitar had done.

“Yeah, I wanted to see the power play come to life and score a couple of goals, that would be the right response. That’s the correct response. And then, after that, you know, we didn’t, uh, we started, we played better after that. We got our game going. We played well in the third period. But the response is that we need to score some goals on the five minute power play.”

Earlier, he had explained that the play had been irresponsible, something that never would have happened in his day, and a symbol of the general lack of respect that members of the PA [players’ association] have for one another these days.

None of that gets to the point. The event happened. Respect has to be earned. And to do that, you have to make guys pay, or they’re just going to do it again. Do you think players aren’t watching games and highlights from other cities? Do you seriously believe that this incident won’t be talked about at practice facilities around the league Friday morning? The message the Kings just sent to the league is that this is OK. And anyone who reads about or listens to the coach’s explanation of his definition of a response will go away with an even more tangible sense that the Kings are simply not going to stand up for their own.

Granted, scoring two goals on the major power play would have tied it, but it would have done nothing to speak to the issue, which is simple: don’t you dare take this kind of liberty. Not with Kopitar.

Brodziak is a big dude at 209 pounds, but not the biggest guy in the world. And nobody’s saying necessarily that you have to fight him. The crowd on the ice, after all, wasn’t the biggest or toughest of LA’s players. Doughty was out there, Scuderi too. Not Matt Greene or Kyle Clifford.

But get in his face. Use the glove. Keep your stick in your hands and take a good hard whack at his forearms in a crosscheck. Suck it up and earn your million bucks.

Would the New York Rangers stand for this? No. The Flyers? No way. How about Buffalo? Probably. And that tells you all you need to know about why they can’t win when the going gets tough in the playoffs.

Frightening for fans, you have to say, at least right now, ditto the Kings.

In the instant that Kopitar went down, and the few moments after that, after all the hand-wringing and all the speculating, the answer to what’s wrong with the Kings became clear. Most of them just don’t have the gumption to stand up for the guy who, if things were to go well, would be the one to lead them to the Promised Land.

And the person whose job it is to make them care is called Terry Murray. When they don’t respond, what they’re saying is that they’re not on board with what’s going on with the team. Their coach hasn’t created the kind of aggressive atmosphere of self-sacrifice that a team needs to win.

The lack of fight in the team with Kopitar lying facedown stems from exactly the same place that the lack of willingness to get into the corner or go hard to the front of the net comes from.

Can things change? Fans might have hoped they would between periods two and three. Those watching probably imagined that if Murray was ever going to go into the locker room and kick over a trash can, this would be the day.

Things did change as the third began. Though Minnesota came out and challenged with a puck that Darroll Powe stole and took toward the net for a dangerous wrister, Jonathan Quick was equal to it with the glove hand. The LA team then took the puck down to the other end and kept it there for several minutes, including scoring their first goal to make it 3-1.

On that one, Kopitar zoomed across the high slot with it, passed it to the right side to Jack Johnson, who one-timed it to the net. It went directly to the slot to Dustin Penner, who wristed it back in, and in (to the net). Brown was on the edge of the crease just off to the right.

Shortly after, the same line had two guys at the edge of the crease when Kopitar cruised across the low slot for a shot that went into the crowd and eventually got lost. But it was the right idea. Low zone pressure. Taking a whack to make a play.

Murray must have said something between periods to make the difference. But he couldn’t have said enough, because after this good start, the team stalled again. The Kings failed to score before Minnesota did, making it 4-1.

It was a turnover, or perhaps neutral zone pressure, which got the puck off the boards and into the middle of the ice to Cody Almond, who moved in on Quick and took a low, hard wrister which went through him, squibbing over the line. He was well out, on top of his crease.

The Kings got one back with about three minutes left, but the game ended like that, 4-2.

The Wild created turnovers and got chances. The shots ended 44-24 in LA’s favor, but that’s perhaps a bit deceiving because about the same number were dangerous for both sides. (And yes, I was one of those who criticized the team for not shooting all the way through last week. But there’s also the matter of quality shots to be considered.)

All of this can mean one of two things: Murray isn’t saying what he needs to in the locker room, or the team isn’t listening. Either way, things are a mess in LA right now.

***

My new book, My Country Is Hockey, discusses violence in the game, among many other things.

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