It’s fair to say after Saturday night’s 4-3 win by the Calgary Flames over the Edmonton Oilers, The Battle of Alberta is back on. First, both teams are simultaneously relevant and in playoff contention for only the second time since 2005-06, albeit in the league’s worst division, albeit being the only playoff teams with negative goals differentials and albeit with the Oilers actually out of the playoffs when you measure by points percentage.
But we’ll take it. Hey, maybe these two teams will even meet in the playoffs, something that will not have happened, if you can believe it, in 28 years. It’s not what it once was because neither team looks particularly close to winning a Stanley Cup anytime soon, but the Oilers once again have the best player in the world – which doesn’t seem fair. And well, the bad blood is still there, as evidenced by what happened Saturday night.
The game had everything. Physical play, an outstanding rush by Connor McDavid, back-and-forth lead changes and even a little skatey-punchey for those who think the game needs that stuff as long as they’re not the ones getting smacked in the face. But most of all, what The Battle of Alberta has now is a villain. Matthew Tkachuk has no problem wearing the black hat, something he’s wearing with pride right about now knowing that he not only drove Zach Kassian into the boards, but also into a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
There was nothing about Tkachuk’s hit on Kassian late in the second period – or another one earlier in the game – that was anything more than a hockey play. In fact, the second one embodied everything that makes the game special. It was hard, it was clean and it was impactful. No charging, no head contact, no arms up. In fact, you could argue that Tkachuk might have even pulled up a little before delivering the hit. But there’s a certain sector of observers – and you can obviously count Kassian as one of them – who believe that sort of hit means Tkachuk should have been prepared to “answer the bell” and fight Kassian. But Tkachuk wouldn’t. Instead, he allowed Kassian to lose his cool and get an inexplicable double minor for roughing instead of a five-minute fighting major. (Kassian dropped his gloves and pounded on Tkachuk. On the same night, Vince Dunn and Jacob Trouba threw their gloves off and exchanged a flurry of punches with Dunn receiving a minor for roughing. Exactly what game are these referees watching?) And Calgary used the advantage to score the game-winner on the power play.
Predictably, Tkachuk was vilified by the pro-Oiler crowd, with Kassian leading the crusade by calling Tkachuk “a young punk” and “a pu—y.” Said Tkachuk wouldn’t fight him two years ago because he was a fourth-liner and still won’t even though Kassian has 13 goals. “What’s the excuse now?” Kassian said. Well, perhaps the excuse is that it’s ridiculous to think a player should have to fight because he’s had the temerity to throw a couple of hard, clean checks. If anyone should have to answer for his actions, it was McDavid, who threw a dirty and potentially dangerous hit on Tkachuk from behind into the boards in response to the hit on Kassian. If you want to be outraged, the McDavid hit was the one that has no place in the game.
Somehow in the past 10 years or so, this blight has foisted itself upon the game. There was a time when a player – regardless of whether he was a star player or a fourth-liner – would occasionally get blown up by a clean, hard hit and respond by picking himself up and getting back into the play. There was no sense that it needed to be avenged and everyone understood that. Then it became taboo to hit star players without having to deal with repercussions. Now you can’t even hit a superstar 13-goal scorer such as Zack Kassian without having to fight. If you really want to remove hitting from the game, this is a perfect way to do it.
It all goes back to this notion that has found its way into hockey that any slight – perceived or real, large or small – absolutely has to be avenged with gusto. It’s the kind of thinking that gave us the Todd Bertuzzi incident, but you know, people are slow to learn in this game sometimes. As Tkachuk said, the Flames took the power play and the goal and first place in the division. And all he had to do for it was take a flurry of punches from a player who has doled out 1,067 hits during his career, but can’t seem to take one himself.
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