VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are supporting the six-game suspension handed to forward Rick Rypien for an altercation with a fan, but feel NHL arenas need better barriers between players and the stands.
Rypien was given the punishment Friday at league headquarters in New York, after grabbing a fan as he exited the ice during a 6-2 road loss Tuesday at the Minnesota Wild.
In Vancouver, following the team’s morning skate ahead of a rematch with the Wild, Rypien’s teammates agreed that players have no business getting into it with fans.
Still, they said that needs to be the case for fans, too.
“It’s tough,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “It’s one of those situations where you almost wish there was no exposure to the fans when you’re walking down the tunnel (to the dressing room).
“There’s a lot of times throughout the course of the season where we’re being spit on … beer … stuff like that. Verbal abuse is one thing but there is physical confrontation there among the fans and players and there shouldn’t be anything.
“Obviously there’s no excuse for us to touch a fan, and it should go the other way as well.”
The incident occurred at 13:38 of the second period and after Rypien had a second scrap with Brad Staubitz of the Wild.
He received a double minor for roughing and a misconduct and was on his way to the dressing room when he briefly grabbed a fan who was applauding at the railing.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported Friday that commissioner Gary Bettman phoned the fan to apologize for the incident.
“Prior to each season, all clubs and players are advised that under no circumstances are club personnel permitted to have physical contact with fans, or enter, or attempt to enter the stands,” Bettman said in a release. “We hold NHL players to a high standard and there simply is no excuse for conduct of this nature.
“Fortunately, this incident is not typical of the way NHL players conduct themselves and is not typical of the way Mr. Rypien had conducted himself during his career.”
Rypien, a 26-year-old fourth-line centre who averages seven minutes a game, will not be paid during the suspension. The team was also fined US$25,000.
“We understand and respect the league’s decision today regarding Rick Rypien,” Canucks GM Mike Gillis said in a statement.
“While this game is played with passion and intensity, the safety of all of our fans and players is of the utmost importance at all times.”
Rypien, who has nine goals and six assists in 113 career NHL games, will be eligible to return on Nov. 6 against Detroit.
A willing fighter who often takes on players in higher weight classes, Rypien’s NHL career has been plagued by injuries and personal problems.
He missed most of the 2008-09 season with what the club called a personal issue.
“He’s run into a series of bad luck as far as hockey is concerned and that can be challenging,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault who called the fan incident unfortunate.
“He’s trying to face the challenge the best way he can and obviously it hasn’t been easy on him but in our mind he’s got the full support of myself, my coaching staff, his teammates and the organization and we’re going to continue to support him.”
Bieksa said the team was also “supporting” the NHL’s decision, one that Tanner Glass believes Rypien, his linemate, will understand.
“Any time you cross the boundary into the stands it’s going to be a fairly large suspension,” he said, “so I’m sure Ryp will accept it and move on from there.”
But he also felt sometimes fans can get too close to players.
“It’s only a couple of feet from us,” he said, “especially in a situation like that, Ryp was so angry on the ice.”
Centre Manny Malhotra said the league did a good job setting the length of the suspension but suggested safety measures for players and fans at the Excel Energy Centre will be examined.
Ryan Kesler said the five-foot-11, 190-pound Rypien wasn’t totally to blame.
“I think it’s part of the rink’s fault,” Kesler said. “The cover should have been pulled and I don’t think we should have access like that to the fans.
“I’m not saying Ryp should have done what he did but at the same time you need to take more precautions that way.”
The last time a player was suspended for more than four games for making physical contact with a spectator was March 20, 1982, when Canucks defenceman Doug Halward was suspended seven games for an altercation with fans.
Matthew Barnaby was suspended four games in December 2000 for an incident that looked quite similar to the Rypien altercation. While playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Barnaby got into it with a fan in the tunnel on his way to the dressing room.
Former Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy Tie Domi received a $1,000 fine in March 2001 after mixing it up with a fan in Philadelphia. Domi squirted the man with a water bottle from the penalty box before punching him a couple times after he pushed on the glass and fell in.
The last suspension stemming from a fan incident went to New York Rangers coach John Tortorella, who was forced to miss one game during the 2009 playoffs after throwing a water bottle into the stands in Washington.
Sports leagues are understandably sensitive when players get involved with the paying customers—particularly after the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons went in the stands and fought with fans in November 2004.