TORONTO – Phil Kessel didn't quite know how to react when John Scott, a man looming eight inches higher with 60 pounds of extra weight, whispered the words of challenge as the two lined up at centre ice.
“He said he was going to jump me,” said Kessel, still befuddled by the surprise attack afterward. “He's a big boy so if he's coming after me what am I going to do?”
The attack on Kessel lit the fuse of a costly exhibition melee between the Leafs and Sabres that was both bizarre and shocking for the events that littered its record, including an impending 10-game suspension to David Clarkson and possible discipline for Kessel.
“Obviously we're not proud or happy of what went on, that's for sure,” Randy Carlyle observed shortly after the simmering had ceased.
The story begins with a goal.
A third round selection of the Sabres in 2007, Corey Tropp had redirected an effort from the point by Jamie McBain, one that beat Jonathan Bernier and cut the Toronto lead to one midway through the third period. Lining up at centre ice seconds after his first marker of the preseason, Tropp takes a tug at the sweater of Jamie Devane, a player looming high above weight class. The pair exchange a series of awkward fisticuffs, capped by Tropp losing his bucket, his head landing square on the ice with an alarming thud.
Derek Nansen, the linesman on scene, senses danger and waves his right hand immediately for help. Tropp is then aided off the ice by teammates and trainers. Standing in the home penalty box is Devane, his glove tapping repeatedly against the glass in deference to his defeated counterpart.
Blood is chipped off the ice during the television timeout and order is seemingly restored. Lingering near the Toronto bench though at left wing for Buffalo is Scott, he of 63 career fights, the 30-year-old with plans on redeeming his fallen teammate.
“He has his reasons obviously,” Carlyle bemoaned of Scott's decision to jump Kessel. “He didn't explain them to me.”
Hoping to diffuse the potentially meddlesome situation before it began, Carlyle keeps 6-foot-5 Troy Bodie on the bench, opting instead for the trio of Tyler Bozak, Carter Ashton, and Kessel. It's a choice he'd like to have back. “Obviously I was wrong,” he said in hindsight of the decision.
Thrusting his hands up at the instant of Scott's throttling, Kessel retreats while furiously swinging his stick at the shins of his attacker. “Well I got to back up right,” Kessel noted afterward. “What is he? 6-7? 6-8?” Hurtling in to their star's rescue are Ashton and T.J. Brennan, the pair using all their might to restrain the Buffalo giant.
“We've got 20 guys that are going to back Phil up,” Ashton claimed. “When we see someone go after him we're going to do our best to get in as quick as we can.”
Distracted by the sheer lunacy of the moment, Carlyle fails to notice Clarkson, the club's prized offseason acquisition, leaping off the bench and into the craziness. It's yet another decision that will prove haunting. “What happened is everybody was glued on the Scott attack on Phil Kessel,” Carlyle said, “everyone's attention was drawn to that and next thing you know all mayhem broke out.”
For his actions Clarkson will receive an automatic 10-game suspension, the outset of his Toronto thrust into a cloud while depleting the Leafs lineup for a stretch of three weeks.
“I think David Clarkson made a mistake,” Carlyle said, “and now we pay for it.”
With Clarkson wrestling with Scott, Kessel has, in the meantime, tangled with Brian Flynn and bloodied him. His linemate, Bozak, has engaged with Chad Ruhwedel, thrust around with little control. Their rookie teammate and potential dark horse on the blue line, Andrew MacWilliam, has knotted with longtime Marlie Mike Zigomanis, now a member of the Buffalo organization.
Twirling around the ice as the chaos clears, Kessel receives a round of cheers from his teammates on the bench. He takes a further jab at the midsection of Scott, enraging the St. Catharines native as linesman Tim Nowak attempts to restrain him. “We didn't dress anybody that can match up against him,” Carlyle said of Scott, though Bodie would have proved his best option with Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren injured and out of the lineup. “If they want to use that as their criteria then maybe Scott shouldn't get on the ice at all because I don't know if there's anybody in the league that's that big.”
Amped by the proceedings, Bernier decides it's his turn to wade into the action. Gliding past centre-ice, he engages the Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, a curious decision considering the risk for injury in this, the exhibition season. “I saw everyone on the ice so I just felt that I wanted to step up for my teammates,” Bernier said. “I asked him if he wanted to go. I don't think he actually wanted to go, but that's the way it goes. That's the hockey game. You get hyper and energy and I wanted to defend my teammates.”
For their efforts, the Leafs are handed 107 minutes of penalties, including five fighting majors, four 10-minute misconducts, a game misconduct, 10 minutes to Clarkson for leaving the bench and a match penalty to Kessel for his attempts to injure Scott.
All told the night will prove quite damaging to the Leafs.
Clarkson won't be eligible to make his Leafs debut until Oct. 25 when his team visits the Columbus Blue Jackets. Kessel too, could face additional discipline. According to the NHL rulebook, a player handed a match penalty “shall be automatically suspended from further competition until the Commissioner has ruled on the issue”.
Without Clarkson in their top-six for most of October, the need for an offensive flair would seem to increase, Mason Raymond – on a professional tryout – perhaps valued even further with the regular season nearly a week away. Additional opportunity would now seem likely for a player like Ashton, who made an impression over the weekend against Buffalo, adding two assists to his resume on Sunday.
Clarkson's contract also continues to count against the cap, squeezing the Leafs further and perhaps even damaging their chances to sign Cody Franson before the season begins.
It's adversity before the puck has even dropped.
“We're a team and that's the basis of what a team is made out of,” Carlyle said of moving forward without Clarkson. “When you lose an individual, somebody else gets an opportunity to get in line and pull on that rope and that's what we're going to look for.”