Plenty of blame to go around for Jets-Leafs gong show

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It's been more than 48 hours since the gong stopped ringing at Canada Life Centre and the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs were sent to their dressing rooms to think about what they'd done. But that hasn't stopped the noise from continuing.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/12/2021 (249 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s been more than 48 hours since the gong stopped ringing at Canada Life Centre and the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs were sent to their dressing rooms to think about what they’d done. But that hasn’t stopped the noise from continuing.

A quick scan of social media reveals a raging tire fire right now. I’ll try to quickly sum up the respective positions for you. The Jets are the dirtiest team that ever played the game, a group of assassins on skates who should be kicked right out of the NHL. And the Maple Leafs are the biggest collection of crybabies ever assembled, hell bent on head-hunting violence.

There’s no grey area, no room for nuance. This a clear-cut case of good versus evil, of sinners versus saints. Who plays the respective roles is based entirely on which team you happen to root for.

Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press Pierre-Luc Dubois (left) tangles with Leafs forward Auston Matthews.

Pierre-Luc Dubois is either a hero or a villain for riding Auston Matthews like he was Secretariat during a bizarre third-period MMA-style melee. Neal Pionk is either an angel or the devil for a knee-on-knee hit on Rasmus Sandin that has sidelined the Toronto defenceman. Jason Spezza either deserves a medal or to be sent to the gallows for a subsequent hit on Pionk that has put him in concussion protocol. Wayne Simmonds is either a caped crusader or a coward for going after Josh Morrissey. Logan Stanley is a prince or a pariah for his spirited defence of his teammates and animated celebration.

You get the picture. It ain’t pretty.

Regardless of where your bias may lie, here is one indisputable truth emerging from Sunday’s spirited affair: As much as it represents a well-deserved black eye for hockey — Sandin and Pionk are out indefinitely with injuries, Pionk got a two-game ban, Spezza a six-game suspension and Simmonds was given the maximum fine — the reaction from the respective fan bases might be even more embarrassing that anything that went down on the ice.

Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press Toronto's Wayne Simmonds was determined to dish out some retribution to the Jets.

Normally, I hate to give keyboard warriors and anonymous trolls any kind of oxygen. It’s usually best to allow them to scream into the void to their typically tiny echo chamber. But the hyperbole has become so voluminous, and so vitriolic, that it’s impossible to ignore.

“We’ll happily lose the re-match game 8-0 as long as three of their starters are taken off on stretchers. Tear ligaments We’ll gladly crowd-fund your fine,” one delightful, Toronto-loving soul Tweeted Tuesday. “I hope (Kyle) Clifford knocks Dubois’ face in, I don’t care if Clifford gets suspended for the rest of the season,” said another.

That’s just the tip of the Twitter iceberg. One of the dozens who responded to the official Winnipeg Jets message about Pionk suffering a concussion simply replied “Good. He deserved it.” “Stay out of the kitchen if you can’t handle the heat,” another kind-hearted Leafs fan wrote. “You reap what you sow,” said a third. There were the expected profane insults about Winnipeg itself as the cesspool quickly began to overflow.

To be clear, some Jets fans don’t exactly have clean hands in this either. Many gave as good as they got, as the war of words got uglier by the minute. My mute button got a workout on Monday and Tuesday as threads I was somehow included in blew up to ridiculous levels. If only people would get this passionate about issues that really matter in life.

I found it interesting to hear the agent of Travis Hamonic, the pride of St. Malo, Man., open up last week about why he thinks so many hockey players have Canadian cities on their no-trade list. Kevin Epp was mainly pointing the finger at media — he was specifically talking about the Vancouver market — and suggesting they revel in the negative. But he also repeated a narrative that has been whispered by others in recent years, that the rise of social media and the toxic tone it often takes scares many potential free agents away.

We saw a smoking gun example of that around here last spring, when Mark Scheifele became Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of Montreal supporters after a dirty hit sent Canadiens forward Jake Evans off on a stretcher. Scheifele, who was suspended four games, tearfully spoke after the fact about how numerous family members in Ontario were being harassed online. The off-ice display ended up being uglier than what transpired in the game itself.

And now comes this latest dark chapter. It’s a shame, really, as the game itself between Winnipeg and Toronto was highly entertaining, with tons of talent on display and no shortage of offence and excitement. It got some fans salivating at the potential of a future playoff meeting between the two organizations. Frankly, I’d worry such an event might just be enough to spark a civil war.

I’d suggest all of this shows why the type of shenanigans that went down Sunday will never truly be eliminated from the sport. It’s too engrained in the so-called “hockey culture,” especially in this country where the sport can bring out the best, but also the worst, in people.

That goes for the players and coaches themselves, who didn’t exactly put on a clinic in class. Yes, I’m looking at you Sheldon Keefe, who essentially admitted following the game that he sent his toughest players over the boards with the idea of sending a message and righting what he perceived as wrongs. Memo to the NHL: Didn’t we learn a lesson from the whole Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore scandal in Vancouver, that pre-meditated violence is never the answer and would lean to severe sanctions.

Given Keefe’s candour, where’s his suspension and/or fine? Leafs forward William Nylander also poured a jerry can of gasoline over the inferno Tuesday, suggesting payback would be a you-know-what when the teams meet again in Toronto on March 31. “We’ll move on, until we play them later on… we’ll see what happens then.”

Just curious, but when is the hearing happening for referees Brad Meier and Reid Anderson? They allowed the madness to take over when they inexplicably looked the other and swallowed their whistles on both the Pionk-Sandin and Pionk-Spezza incidents. Perhaps the concussion spotter assigned to work the game should also be called on to the carpet for failing to have Pionk pulled for observation after he clearly took a knee to the head.

Yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around. And the fans who continue to feed the fire are right at the top of the list. As long as they keep banging the gong, I’m going to keep beating the drum.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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