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Two instances, similar circumstances and different calls. Can you explain?
Early in last night's Boston-Toronto game, two heavyweights - Fraser and McQuaid - squared off to fight, circled and drifted to centre ice. The officials cleared out of the way - I even saw one kicking equipment out of the way to clear the area - and let the fight proceed.
Last time Chicago played St. Louis played in St. Louis, Reaves and Bollig did the same thing - make contact, agree to fight, drop the gloves, relocate to center ice and circle menacingly. This time, however, the officials interceded and prevented the fight from taking place. An official got in the face of each fighter and physically prevented them from closing. Reaves, in particular, was upset. I had never seen the officials intercede so assertively to prevent a fight between two willing partners.
Just curious about how the officials judge when to let them go and when to prevent the fights.
During the bench-clearing, brawling era of the 1970's through early '80's, the three most feared words for some players to hear was when the ref said, "Let 'em go!"
Thankfully, bench-clearings and full-blown line brawls can only be viewed on Youtube and not on the ice in the modern day NHL. Hefty fines and suspensions for leaving the bench to start a fight or during an altercation, along with the instigator rule, have brought about a much more 'civilized' game, wouldn't you agree? I will provide more on the 'old days' if you care to read farther down the article.)
Both of the altercations you question, Don, were initiated by a player who rushed to the defence of a teammate that had received a 'legal' body check less than five and half minutes after the opening puck drop. Linesman Tim Nowak was a member of the officiating crew in both of these games. That being the case, your question might be further expanded to wonder why the linesmen demonstrated an opposite or inconsistent approach to dealing with two potential fight situations prior to them getting underway.
In last night's heavyweight bout between Adam McQuaid of the Bruins and plus-minus leader of the Leafs, tough guy Mark Fraser, the linesmen cleared debris from the ring and stood by ready to score a fight they were prepared to let go the distance. In St. Louis, Ryan Reaves and Brandon Bollig were quickly grabbed and separated before a jab was thrown. The answer can be found in the set-up of the fight.
Last night after Adam McQuaid took exception to Mark Fraser's minor bump from behind on Jay Pandolfo, McQuaid stepped up quickly to the centre ice area and issued a challenge to Fraser in a very 'intelligent' fashion so he would not incur an instigator penalty. When Fraser accepted the challenge in open ice, the gloves came off simultaneously for both players. The remaining players on the ice peeled away to watch the event from a distance, eliminating any potential of a third member jumping into the altercation. At this point, the linesmen wisely allowed the mutually agreed upon fight to take place.
In the St. Louis-Chicago game on February 28, Reaves made a hard check on Brandon Saad at the half wall in the Hawks end zone in traffic. Bollig was not as 'diplomatic' in the invitation he extended to fight with Reaves. Instead, Bollig charged at the Blues player with gloves off, grabbed and spun his adversary.
Reaves instinctively dropped his gloves but now had his back turned to Saad, who was back on his feet from the check Reaves had felled him with. Saad then pushed Reaves from behind, causing the Blues' player to slightly lose his balance. At this point, there was the potential for at least a three-party altercation, in addition to Bollig being deemed the instigator if the fight were to be allowed to commence.
The closest linesman to the altercation was Brian Mach, who read the situation perfectly as I just described it. Mach quickly jumped from his blue line position and got in front of Reaves and moved the player a further distance from Bollig as linesman Nowak arrived on the scene shortly thereafter to contain Bollig. I give full marks to Mach for squashing this potential fight prior to it getting underway. Bollig received an extra minor penalty for roughing on the play as opposed to the 17 minutes he would have gotten as the instigator if the fight had been allowed to take place. The potential for a third man entering the altercation was also eliminated by Mach's good judgment and quick response on the play.
This incident occurred just 5:39 into the game. After serving their minor penalties, there was no further incident between Bollig and Reaves throughout the remainder of the game.
Don, the linesmen will exercise their best judgment to prevent a fight, especially when other players might become involved as in a high traffic area. You will see the linesmen quickly jump in during a scrum situation due to the volume of traffic and the potential for bad things to happen. If it appears that a mismatch is about to take place, they might also be quick to intervene and prevent it from happening.
In open space however, when two willing combatants want to duke it out, the linesmen will stand back and most often let it happen. They might even clear away gloves and sticks so an unfair advantage is not gained through a slip.
The Old Days
I now offer a quick story from the 'old days' during a line brawl for anyone that is interested. The game was in the old St. Louis Arena and the Chicago Blackhawks were the visitors. It was always war between players on the ice and with the fans in the stands whenever these two teams met in St. Louis. Extra police were always added to the detail, complete with "billy clubs", which they weren't afraid to use.
A line brawl broke out on the ice and I noticed Hawks defenceman Steve Smith heading straight for little Bobby Bassen of the Blues. I thought this would be a real mismatch and felt I needed to intervene quickly in order to save Bassen's butt before Smith got rolling.
I stepped between the two players and held them an arm length apart. I was focused on Smith and was reading him the riot act that if he started to fight with the little guy (Bassen), I would throw the book at him and do everything within my authority to get him (Smith) suspended. I was starting to get arm weary when the next thing I knew, Bassen grabbed my jersey from behind and flung me aside. As I went airborne, Bassen then proceeded to lay a beating on Smith the likes of which I had never seen before. Little Bobby Bassen speed-bagged his much larger opponent with both hands to the point where Smith's face was cut to ribbons and he became a bloodied pulp. I stood back and watched just like the guys did in Toronto the other night.
Depending upon the circumstance, officials might try to prevent a fight before it starts. Other times, those three most feared words can still be heard; "Let 'em Go!"