Atoms put NHL coaches to shame

Let me begin with some full disclosure. I like hockey fights when they arise out of the heat of battle during a game.
I also watch “Coach’s Corner” almost weekly, featuring Don Cherry, creator of the “Rock ’em, Sock ’em Hockey” long-running video/DVD series.
I think there has been—and always will be—a place for fighting in hockey, which I consider a better alternative than a barrage of stick-wielding assaults that might happen should fighting go the way of the dodo bird or (hopefully soon) the entertainment career of the Kardashian family.
Now that that’s out in the open, let me be clear.
Last Saturday’s premeditated, game-opening line brawl between the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks was a prime example of what is hurting hockey’s image in the eyes of those who refuse to take the sport at the professional level seriously.
That concept was reinforced to me less than 24 hours later by the Fort Frances Gillons’ Sharks and Lake of the Woods Maroon team from Rainy River/Baudette in the ‘C’ final of the Fort Frances Minor Hockey Association’s annual Atom ‘A’ tournament.
Amazing how a group of nine- and 10-year-old kids can become role models for a sport which some coaches at the NHL level apparently don’t understand that it’s not professional wrestling (which I also enjoy, but I digress).
On Saturday night, Flames’ head coach Bob Hartley started the game with his fourth line, which included (cue sarcasm) noted snipers Brian McGrattan, Kevin Westgarth, and Blair Jones.
A quick primer: the last time these two teams met, McGrattan tried to put his elbow through Vancouver defenceman Andrew Alberts’ head, resulting in a game misconduct but no suspension—much to the ire of the Canucks.
Hartley explained after Saturday’s game that he was rewarding the fourth line for having scored the previous game and that he had no intentions of starting any trouble.
Sure, Bob. By the way, do you have a side job selling swampland in New Jersey?
Simply put, it was a move designed to safeguard against the Canucks trying to seek retribution for what happened to Alberts.
So how does Vancouver head coach John Tortorella respond? By putting out his own fourth line of heavyweights Tom Sestito, Dale Wiese, and Kellan Lain—a guy making his NHL debut and who had brought in family and friends for the game.
Gasoline on a fire, anyone?
Westgarth, a winger, moved into take the opening face-off. That was countered by bruising Canucks’ defenceman Kevin Bieksa skating in to take the draw. Gee, what could possibly go wrong?
The puck hit the ice and immediately all gloves and sticks not used by goalies were discarded and the brawl was on, with everyone but Sestito and McGrattan given game misconducts for being involved in secondary fights.
Tortorella proceeded to throw a temper tantrum at Hartley from the Vancouver bench and didn’t stop there. The former N.Y. Rangers’ bench boss then tried to barge his way into the Flames’ dressing room during the first intermission—only to be turned away by McGrattan and a host of Flames’ players and coaches congregated in the hallway.
After the game, Tortorella said putting out his top scorers—the Sedin twins—would not have helped deflate the situation.
Of course not, John. I mean, what self-respecting enforcer doesn’t dream about attacking a 40-goal scorer who fights as often as I play lead clarinet for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra?
Tortorella talked about having to protect his players and criticized anyone who had a problem with his decision, or who even wanted to ask him questions about his foray into the Flames’ hallway.
So you want to act like a spoiled toddler who didn’t get his favourite Christmas toy and then not get called out for it, John? Got it.
I’m a diehard Oilers’ fan who detests the Flames—and even I can’t find any justification for Tortorella’s behaviour.
Tortorella even had the audacity to first berate himself for getting Lain kicked out of his first NHL game two seconds into it, then turning around the next breath and saying he would do it all over again if the situation occurred.
Such sincerity brings a lump to my throat (oh, wait, that’s just my nausea trying to escape).
For their efforts, Tortorella was suspended 15 days by the NHL while Hartley was fined $25,000.
They should consider themselves having got off easy. If I was NHL executive Colin Campbell, who issued the supplementary discipline, both of them would have been lucky to be on the bench for the rest of the season.
Fast forward to the next day and the Atom game I watched. Fort Frances and Lake of the Woods played as competitive, clean, and exciting a game as I’ve ever seen in minor hockey.
The home squad scored 20 seconds into the game, only to have the visitors reply.
The Sharks went up by two goals on some beautiful back-and-forth teamwork by Josh Ward and Nathan Smith, only to have Lake of the Woods score three-straight to take the momentum away midway through the third period.
Then Isabelle Taylor, whose beaming mom, Julie, told me after the game had scored only once all season, went on a scintillating rush started on her own side of centre and ending with her powering to the net and scoring the equalizer while being dragged down.
You want more? How about a penalty shot for the Fort’s Ashton Barnes, who made a great move only to be denied by Lake of the Woods’ goalie Riley Stromlund?
How about the acrobatic goaltending of Sharks’ goalie Tanner Williamson, who used seemingly every part of his body to stop the puck at various points of the game?
How about a multitude of near misses on both sides in search of the game-winner, which had fans from both sides testing how many times they could hold their breath in the course of a few minutes?
How about the toughness of Sharks’ blueliners Kathryn Fischer (blocked shot) and Tatum Glowasky (collision with boards), who both looked done for the day but shook off their injuries and still continued to try and help their team win?
How about a six-round shootout that featured a number of great saves and a terrific wrist shot by Jackson Lebrasseur that ended the heart-pounding affair?
The best part? Despite the loss, the Sharks held their heads up high in the post-game handshake line and, according to their coach, Myron Williams, all were smiling afterwards because of the fun they had being part of such a wonderful game.
I’m not naive enough to think Tortorella or Hartley would change their philosophies if they had been in attendance here Sunday.
It’s just nice to know that, at some level, there still are players and coaches who understand hockey is a game to be enjoyed and cherished—not tainted and turned into a pugilistic sideshow.
Here’s to you, Sharks, and to your conquering foes, as well.
You did the game proud, ladies and gentlemen. Keep holding those heads up high.

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