On its Tuesday night broadcast, TSN ran the first of a very good two-part piece on the decline of fighting in the NHL. In the story, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, who presided over a team that won the Stanley Cup after having just nine fighting majors in 2015-16 – a year after they had 33 and lost in the first round – had this to say about the future of designated fighters: “Right now we have a very fast, high-skilled game. We have guys in the game that can fight and can play also, but we’ve got to the point where the intimidators, the staged fights, are now a thing of the past.”
Not long before that piece aired, Rutherford signed off on the decision to call up Tom Sestito from the Penguins’ minor league team for a game against the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday night. Sestito is a 29-year-old goon with limited hockey talents, unless you consider the ability to beat people up as a talent. At the NHL level, he averages a goal every 15 games. But hey, it’s lucrative. For the past three seasons, Sestito has earned a total of $1.2 million for his dancing bear act in the AHL, the place where the talentless goons who used to have a place in the NHL now inhabit.
Well, Sestito made his mark. In three shifts that covered 1:02 of ice time, Sestito got into a fight with Chris Thorburn and delivered a cheap shot from behind to Jets defenseman Tobias Enstrom that left Enstrom injured and Sestito called on the carpet for a probable suspension. Everything that led up to Sestito even being in a position to inflict that damage is like a Russian doll. It’s also a perfect example of how the culture of violence and revenge runs rampant in the NHL.
All this goes back to a game between the Jets and Penguins on Feb. 16. In that game, Dustin Byfuglien took Justin Shultz into the boards and knocked him out of the game, causing him to miss the next three with a concussion. It was not an egregious hit, but it was right in the numbers from behind on a vulnerable player. No penalty. Then a little later in the game, Olli Maatta had his hand broken on a vicious open ice hit from Adam Lowry that was administered despite the fact Maatta wasn’t even carrying the puck. No penalty, no supplementary discipline.
Then late in the game, Evgeni Malkin left his feet to drill Blake Wheeler with a high hit to the head that resulted in a two-minute penalty for interference.
So that brought us to Wednesday night. Rutherford, who is an anti-fighting advocate and one of the most decent men in the game, four years ago said, “We’ve got to get rid of fighting, it’s got to go.” Does Rutherford calling Sestito up make him a hypocrite? No, it makes him a realist, because he knew the Jets would have revenge on their minds and he felt he needed someone in the lineup to respond to that. Even though it appeared that Malkin and Wheeler had settled the score by fighting themselves – in a staged fight, by the way, since Malkin said after the game that Wheeler asked him to fight – Sestito felt he needed to justify his existence. There isn’t much Rutherford, or anyone else, could do about that.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how guys such as Sestito are supposed to be there to keep the peace, yet it’s players like him who cause an inordinate amount of mayhem? Please forgive me if this sounds like a broken record, but it’s sure a good thing the NHL has players like Tom Sestito around to protect skilled players from guys like Tom Sestito.
What this highlights more than anything is how skewed the culture of the game is. In hockey more than any other sport, any perceived slight, no matter how big or small, has to be avenged. And why is that the case? Because the NHL, while having people believe that it has the safety of its players at heart, really loves it when this kind of stuff happens. In that first game between the Jets and Penguins, there were three serious hits that resulted in two injuries and the only penalty that went in the book’s was Malkin’s two minutes for interference. For reasons only the NHL’s Department of Player Safety can explain, it did not even consider giving Malkin a more severe penalty.
So no wonder the Jets were hell-bent on revenge. They certainly weren’t going to get any justice from the NHL. And neither were the Penguins, who lost Maatta for six weeks with a broken hand because of the Lowry hit. One incident begets another, which begets another and the next thing you know some kid who had nothing to do with any of it is splayed and crumpled in the corner because some guy who belongs in the Federal League decided he needed to teach someone a lesson.
The NHL will likely get around to suspending Sestito. So as Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons would say, “Good work, boys.” That’ll show the Penguins. Suspend a guy who was there for one game and was getting a one-way ticket back to the minors anyway. Then everyone can cluck their tongues and claim this has nothing to do with fighting and has no place in the NHL.
Where does the insanity end? Well, to some degree, it probably never will. Because the NHL is run by former players who have a soft spot for guys who devote their lives to being able to beat people up. Nothing will change until this ridiculous culture does.
So, carry on then.