A day later, Cam Janssen was still feeling the adrenaline rush of the Devils opening-faceoff brawl with the New York Rangers.
Shirtless and beaming, the New Jersey tough guy sat in a corner stall in the visitors’ room at Scotiabank Place following an optional game day skate that most of the Devils skipped. A lengthy nap for the Devils prior to Tuesday’s game against the Senators was in order after a wild night of battle at Madison Square Garden, familiar enough to denizens of the once famed boxing venue.
But Janssen? He was a healthy scratch against the Senators, and so made do with a morning skate before engaging a friendly mob of media.
Janssen was one of the six brawlers at the drop of the puck Monday in New York, along with teammates Eric Boulton and Ryan Carter against Rangers Brandon Prust, Mike Rupp and Stu Bickel, a defenceman who lined up at centre to fight Carter, taking him down at fight’s end, opening a gash that left a pool of blood on the ice.
The scene had a Slapshot quality to it, in part because there was no pretense involved: the opening lineup and recent history dictated what was to come – this was the third time this season the two teams have fought to open a game.
“You know, the Devils-Rangers are a huge rivalry, and we’ve been battling with them all year,” Jansssen said, instantly warming to his audience. “It’s an absolute grind out there. This has happened before this year, we both started our fourth lines.”
Janssen insists the brawl was not “planned” by the players involved.
“We didn’t text or facebook each other, this was spur of the moment, ‘hey, you want to do it?’”
“Planned” by coaches acting like vengeful school kids is a more accurate description of events. Devils coach Pete DeBoer put his tough guys in the starting lineup, tit for tat, as the Rangers John Tortorella had done on his last trip into New Jersey. After the brawl, Tortorella fired off a string of obscenities at DeBoer (wasn’t hard to read lips via the NBC camera) for no good reason. With last change, the Rangers coach could have avoided the brawl by putting his first line on the ice and dancing around the Jersey thugs for an early goal.
A day later, Tortorella sounded remorseful, saying the game had taken a “backwards step” the night before and that it was “disrespectful” to the players to manufacture fights. In Ottawa, DeBoer had nothing to add to the dialogue, telling media he didn’t need a night’s sleep to think about it. He delivered his shot post-game.
“I guess in John’s world you can come into our building and start your tough guys, but we can’t do the same here,” DeBoer told reporters at MSG. “He’s either got short-term memory loss or he’s a hypocrite.”
It might have been more appropriate for the coaches themselves to go at it – DeBoer, with height and reach advantage, Torts the intangible go-nuts-temper factor — rather than risking their players health.
“Players were nothing but pawns in the coaches game,” Hall of Fame defenceman Denis Potvin, now a Senators broadcaster, said on Tuesday.
“You have two coaches that were really ticked off at one another, and the timing was right. It’s the last time they’re going to play (against each other). They might meet in the playoffs. They’re a rivalry.”
That’s the fine line the NHL walks, paying lip service to player safety while concussions are epidemic and brain studies alarm the general public, but still mining the fights for all they’re worth. Once the sideshow ended, much of Monday’s game at MSG was pure gold – passionate, physical play by two fierce rivals, on a national broadcast. That the building was shaking was apparent even from one’s living room TV.
Tuesday, the NHL had nothing to say about the coaches tactics, the line brawl or shouting match. Business as usual. Or maybe the power was out in NYC.
When he was a superstar defenceman for the New York Islanders, Potvin lived through a similar rivalry with the Rangers.
“Islanders-Rangers was as big as any rivalry in any sport, Yankees-Red Sox, whatever,” Potvin said. The fans got involved. I mean, we had them throwing full beer bottles at the bus when we were leaving the arena.”
Fans in the eastern seaboard fuel the fires of longstanding grudges between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers (on display this past weekend) and the Ranger-Isles-Devils teams clustered around New York. And long memories? More than two decades after his last NHL game, fans at MSG still chant “Potvin sucks” at Rangers games, even when the Isles are not involved. They chanted it on Monday with the Devils in the house.
“Whenever anyone plays at MSG, they have Islander fans there, Flyer fans,” Potvin says. “You don’t have that with Vancouver-L.A. You don’t have that with Vancouver-Calgary, even. The proximity of the teams’ fan bases is a big contributor to the heightened intensity.”
As Janssen put it, “that’s what hockey wants. In St. Louis, the Blues and Blackhawks, same kind of thing. That’s what the league needs, they need that kind of rivalry.”
Minus the goon show at the drop of the puck.