Late in the first period of Monday afternoon’s game between the Rangers and Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum, Islanders’ defenseman James Wisniewski made an obscene gesture directed at Rangers forward Sean Avery.
The gesture simulated oral sex being performed on a male genital organ. It took place on the ice, just after a whistle stopped play deep in the Islanders zone.
Here’s a clip of the gesture for those who missed it.
The NHL should now take some kind of disciplinary action against Wisniewski to show that this kind of behavior is unacceptable and does not set forth the image that the league wants to convey.
That Avery was involved in the incident should come as little surprise. The 30-year-old native of Pickering, Ontario, is known as an agitator who is most effective when he gets opponents off their game. He is known for provoking other players with his mouth as well as with his stick and was recently voted as the least popular player in the league in a poll conducted of players throughout the league by Sports Illustrated.
Avery was suspended for six games in 2008 for telling reporters that other players were dating his “sloppy seconds.” He was also made to enter a counseling program by the league before he could be reinstated.
Avery was upset after Monday’s incident.
“It’s pretty obvious what the guy was doing,” Avery told reporters after the game. “I’m sure nothing will happen to him because nothing ever happens. It’s interesting he’d get a warning for something like that. Can you imagine if I did something like that? They sent me to rehab the last time I did something. It’s crazy.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was in attendance at the game but refused to comment on the incident when addressing reporters during the second intermission.
“From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see it,” Bettman said. “My guess is that hockey operations (the league office) will do what needs to be done, if anything.”
Wisniewski has been disciplined by the league in the past, but never for this kind of behavior. He was suspended for eight games by the league last March for a “hit to the head of an unsuspecting opponent” for a check to Chicago’s Brent Seabrook and two games earlier last season for a hit on Shane Doan of the Coyotes. But those hits were for dangerous plays or breaking the rules, not for gestures or comments.
In this case, Wisniewski essentially made a lewd gesture on the ice during a game while the cameras were rolling. Worse yet, it took place during a game that was being played on a holiday afternoon, when plenty of kids were certain to be watching.
“When are these players going to figure it out? We do have cameras at games,” a league source told ESPN.com.
It didn’t take long for the video to spread throughout the Internet. It was up on YouTube before the game was even over and was being widely discussed in the press box afterwards.
Do players say things worse than this to each other all the time in the heat of battle? Sure, it happens all the time and usually, it’s not big deal. But usually, it’s also not obvious to everybody attending or watching the game.
This is exactly what Wisniewski said after the game. He admitted he and Avery have no prior history of animosity and then added, “What happens on the ice stays on the ice. What he said to me, what I said, who cares? He’s playing hard, I’m playing hard. Leave it on the ice.”
But what Wisniewski did took what was said beyond the ice. It basically made a spectacle of what was said and made it perfectly clear to everyone watching the game in person and on television what was said. That message was also conveyed in a lewd and inappropriate manner.
There is a precedent for suspending a player for making a gesture on the ice. The NHL made Chicago’s Nick Boynton sit out for one game last season for making a throat slashing gesture at the Lightning’s Blair Jones during an exhibition game. Boynton was suspended for one regular season game as a result of the incident.
Boynton’s action was not obscene or lewd but was clearly inappropriate. Wisniewski’s actions are at least as improper as Boynton’s.
There is also a bigoted element to Wisniewski’s actions that needs to be addressed. Essentially, Wisniewski’s gesture was an attempt to insult Avery by saying he engaged in homosexual acts. It can easily be interpreted that Wisniewski was using “gay” as an insult against Avery.
The recent suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi shows how bigotry can hurt people when taken to an extreme. Wisniewski’s actions were not necessarily intended to be anti-gay and are nowhere near as extreme as what Clementi’s classmates did to him, but they do contribute in a small but definite way to an atmosphere that says that it’s OK to use “gay” as an insult.
The NHL has suspended players in the past for making bigoted statements. Chris Simon sat out three games in 1997 after allegedly calling Edmonton’s Mike Grier a racist word. Grier is African American.
If the league just fines Wisniewski, it will not send a strong a signal that his behavior is completely inappropriate.
The NHL should take a stand and make it clear that these gestures are not acceptable in the game today. Wisniewski should sit out at least one game.