That Escalated Quickly: Your Guide to Toronto and Buffalo's Crazy NHL Preseason BrawlSteve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Last night, television sets across the continent were tuned in to a depraved world of unimaginable violence, horrifying bloodshed, and an almost total absence of morality on the part of everyone involved.
Or, if you wanted something a little less intense, you switched away from the Toronto-Buffalo preseason game and watched Breaking Bad instead.
Yes, the Maple Leafs and Sabres got a little bit rowdy on Sunday. The game was the second half of a home-and-home that hadn’t actually featured all that much bad blood. Sure, there had been a few scraps, because this is the preseason and it’s practically mandatory that every game feature several meaningless fights between guys who are about to be cut. But the overall mood had been almost chipper, even including some comic relief in the form of a novelty shootout attempt by Paul Ranger during Saturday night’s game.
That all changed quickly midway through the third period on Sunday. Sabres forward Corey Tropp scored a goal, then fought Leafs tough guy Jamie Devane on the ensuing faceoff. Tropp was a willing participant with some fighting experience but was badly outmatched here against a much bigger opponent, and it showed.
That set the stage for one of the wildest — and most bizarre — line brawls in recent memory.
Let’s run through some of the highlights.
John Scott wants a dance partner
Scott could be described as a traditional NHL enforcer, which is a nice way of saying that punching guys in the face is pretty much his only hockey-related skill. He’s also massive — at 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, he’s the biggest player in the league. Let’s just say that when the Sabres sent him out for the shift immediately after Tropp’s loss, it wasn’t to establish a forecheck.
But Scott has a problem. The code says that enforcers are only supposed to fight other enforcers, and the Leafs didn’t make any available. Instead, coach Randy Carlyle had sent out a line of skill players. It’s possible he thought he was taking the high road and defusing a potentially ugly situation, but given that the Leafs usually dress two enforcers of their own and led the league in fights by a wide margin last year, it’s more accurate to say he just didn’t have anyone else available.
So Scott finds himself lined up next to Phil Kessel, a star player who doesn’t fight and has never intimidated anyone unless you count posing for photos like this. Surely Scott wouldn’t go after adorable, harmless little Kessel, would he?
Scott goes after Kessel
The camera catches Scott and Kessel having a pre-faceoff conversation, during which Kessel claims that Scott said he was going to “jump” him. As soon as the puck drops, Scott sheds his gloves and goes after Kessel, who responds pretty much the way I would if a guy who outweighed me by 100 pounds was trying to put his fist through my face. [Double-checks tape.] Wait, no, it turns out he didn’t curl up in a little ball and soil himself. My mistake.
Instead, Kessel opts for the next best option and hacks away at Scott’s ankles while retreating. That earns him a match penalty, but also buys him just enough time for the cavalry to arrive. Kind of.
All hell breaks loose
Remember, none of the Leafs on the ice have much experience with fighting. But they’re all smart enough to realize that if they let Scott have his way with their best player, Carlyle will be waiting to cut them as soon as they get back to the bench. (Not cut them from the roster. Cut them with a knife.)
So they charge at him as a group, and it briefly looks like Scott is about to get a chance to answer that age-old Internet question, “How many 5-year-olds could you take in a fight?” But wait! Reinforcements are on the way, because …
David Clarkson jumps off the bench
Upon seeing a goon targeting his team’s best player, Leafs forward (and reasonably accomplished fighter) David Clarkson makes the decision to leave the bench and intervene.
This isn’t an easy call, because leaving the bench to fight is one of the few infractions in the NHL that has a heavy suspension attached to it. It’s an automatic 10 games (as Paul Bissonnette found out last week), and there’s little hope of winning an appeal. That’s an enormous price to pay for a player like Clarkson, the Leafs’ prize free-agent signing and a key part of their playoff hopes.
But still, Kessel is in trouble. Clarkson makes up his mind. He leaps over the boards. He makes a beeline for Scott. And then …
It takes Clarkson roughly three strides before he realizes that he’s not actually needed. The linesmen and the Toronto players on the ice have already swarmed Scott and effectively neutralized him, so by the time he arrives on the scene, Clarkson doesn’t actually have anything to do besides make the Gob Bluth “I’ve made a huge mistake” face in the direction of the referee.
But it’s too late by that point, so Clarkson spends the rest of the festivities halfheartedly trying to get at Scott in an effort to disguise the fact that he just took a 10-game suspension for absolutely nothing.
Everyone else fights, too, sort of
All the other skaters on the ice pair off and earn fighting majors of their own, although they “earn” those majors in the “it’s the preseason and the refs are just going to kick everyone out of the game rather than deal with this nonsense” sense of the word.
In fact, only one of those duos actually produces anything that you’d really call a legitimate hockey fight. And of all people, that pairing includes …
Phil Kessel vs. Brian Flynn
Scott’s largely out of the picture at this point, but that doesn’t mean Kessel is off the hook. He winds up pairing off with Brian Flynn, in what will be just Kessel’s second career NHL fight. And he wins! While nobody will ever mistake the scrap for Probert-Coxe, Kessel manages to land several solid punches and bloody Flynn. Right around this point, both combatants spontaneously realize that this is all futile.
At this point the brawl is over, except that it will apparently be over when Jonathan Bernier damn well says it is over.
You see, people, this is what happens when we let Patrick Roy back into the league.
Yes, just as it appears that order has been restored, Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier decides the time has come to challenge Sabres counterpart Ryan Miller. They engage in a spirited scrap, the first of both careers, which even features all the other players circling around them to get a better view like it’s 1986.
All of which leaves us with several questions, such as:
• On what possible level can you even begin to justify having more than $9 million worth of starting goalies fighting each other in a meaningless exhibition game?
• Notwithstanding the above, can we all agree that goalie fights are the greatest?
• Why doesn’t that new rule about taking your helmet off before a fight apply to goalies?
• Will I use this as an excuse to link to a video of Felix Potvin’s legendary destruction of Ron Hextall?
• Did you correctly answer that question with “Yes, of course you will”?
• Who exactly was it that looked at the Sabres uniforms and said, “I know what these need: simulated pit stains!”
• How great was this?
Clarkson will be suspended for 10 games, meaning he won’t make his Maple Leafs regular-season debut until October 25. Not only does that hurt the Leafs on the ice, but it further complicates a salary-cap situation that they’ve already messed up pretty badly (a player’s cap hit stays on the books when he’s suspended). His coach was not pleased.
Kessel could also be facing suspension for his stickwork, and it’s even possible the league will at least pretend to be mad at the Sabres for the way they deployed Scott.
The Leafs and Sabres don’t meet again until November 15. That’s when they’ll face off in Buffalo, before a rematch the next night in Toronto.
That’s right, a home-and-home on consecutive nights. Sounds vaguely familiar. Hey, what’s the worst that could happen?