Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ryan White and the ugly business of acquiring grit

In the game of hockey, it is inevitable that high-speed contact occurs between two players, but unfortunate when that contact results in injury to one or both parties.

Whether it's in the normal course of action or in the settling of scores per the Code, the intention between two agents always seems to be to temporarily incapacitate and not to injure. It's all in the process of laying one's body down in the line of fire to help his team win, or whatever cliche is convenient to mask one or the other's true intentions.

All 30 NHL teams have, at one time or another, reached out to stock their NHL or minor league lines with players who previously did some kind of dirt -- to put it nicely -- to an existing member of that club's roster.  Just as the old British maxim about the newspaper industry held that today's news is tomorrow's fish wrapping, in hockey, today's Public Enemy #1 is tomorrow's hard-nosed player that will help his new team win at any cost.

The Philadelphia Flyers are no strangers to this idea, though the news towards the end of last week that new GM Ron Hextall reached out to sign Ryan White to a two-way deal where he's expected to be a role player with the Phantoms, brought a recent incident against his new club to the forefront.

On April 15, 2013,  with the visiting Orange and Black leading 2-0 early in the first period of an eventual 7-3 win at Bell Centre, White delivered a flying elbow directly to the head of defenseman Kent Huskins. The force of the blow caused the towering blueliner and 2007 Stanley Cup winner with Anaheim to drop limply, sprawled out and skidding on the ice in the right circle.

White was immediately tossed from the game with a match penalty, and thanks to the fact that he hadn't accumulated previous supplemental discipline from the NHL, was given a five-game suspension and was forced to forfeit more than $18,000 in salary which automatically goes to the Players' Emergency Assistance Fund.

Huskins never played for the Flyers again, having missed the remaining six-plus games of the regular season while recovering from a concussion.

Less than 18 months later, White has been invited to join the franchise against which he violated the rules in spectacular fashion. Has he learned his lesson, or will he simply ply his trade for a team which holds dear its history in the dark arts of retribution? It's the nature of the business, and front office members need to have short memories and a cool head for evaluating talent.

White, thought Hextall, filled a need that someone like the dear, departed Zack FitzGerald couldn't perform adequately, and so one is brought in after the other is let go. The 26-year-old White has played on the up-and-up since that incident, carrying 17 points and 232 PIM over 147 career appearances for Montreal.

Perhaps the most puzzling and enraging example of this phenomenon occurred on July 20, 1998, when then-GM Bob Clarke signed free agent bottom-six forward Marc Bureau to a three-year deal. At the time, Bureau was on the downside of his career, age 32, with parts of nine NHL seasons to his credit. While Clarke exhibited a fetish for signing players just after their peak in order to round out the roster with veteran talent, that's not why the move came under fire.

What occurred in the second period of a Canadiens-Flyers game on February 1, 1996, and at the 1:25 mark of the following video did the trick:

Bureau gained a beating by Craig MacTavish later on in the clip, a well-deserved one-way bout in which the decidedly old-school MacT was banished for instigation as his prey covered up. In what was a major leap in discipline for the time under league vice president Brian Burke, the native of Quebec was slapped with a five-game suspension for this egregious slight.

Svoboda, miraculously, missed just one game and returned to the lineup after one calendar week. By the time Bureau was acquired, Svoboda was at full strength, but to outsiders, the fact that both players were now on the same side seemed awkward at best. Any lingering issues between the two had to wait to be resolved when Svoboda was shipped to the Lightning in December of 1998 in a one-for-one swap which netted defenseman Karl Dykhuis.

Bureau spent less than two seasons here, totaling 14 points and only 20 penalty minutes in 125 games before Clarke bundled him off to the Calgary Flames in March of 2000 for a forgettable player and a sixth-round draft choice.

The very next season, Clarke reached out to a former nemesis for defensive assistance. With Paul Coffey sidelined due to a concussion, Kjell Samuelsson out long term due to injury and Dykhuis soon to be on the shelf for a month, he plucked Michel Petit off the waiver wire from Edmonton in January of 1997.

This was the same journeyman rearguard who was ordered by former Flyer and then-Lightning head coach Terry Crisp during the opening round of the 1996 playoffs to double team Eric Lindros along with Igor Ulanov. Ulanov generally went low and Petit went high. The nonsense from Petit went on until Lindros did some cosmetic surgery on Petit's face in Game 5 of that series at the Spectrum.

When he arrived in Philadelphia, Petit was used as much as a 33-year-old career middling defender could be, then gradually reduced to a spare part once his defense and discipline became suspect. He appeared in just 20 regular-season and three playoff games, picking up 57 PIM before being released.

Even the beloved Boxcar had a history with Philadelphia before he was picked up from the Hartford Whalers prior to the 1984-85 season.

In Game 34 of The Streak, on January 4, 1980, Pat Quinn's Flyers took on the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Trailing by an insurmountable 4-0 margin late in the second period, a scrum broke loose in the left-wing corner, and Ed Hospodar's frustrations and not being able to continue his bout with Flyers center Mel Bridgman spilled over into a line-crossing event off the ice which rarely happened back then:

Hospodar was the perfect darling under Mike Keenan, filling in at wing and defense over parts of three seasons, with the exception of the brawl which preceded the Flyers-Canadiens 1987 Wales Conference Game 6 at the Forum -- an action which left Hospodar suspended for the entire Stanley Cup playoffs and never to play in Philly again.

Honorable mention goes to Randy Holt, who finished his 10-year NHL career with a 26-game, zero-point, 74-PIM stint under head coach Bob McCammon in 1983-84. Holt was most infamous for participating in what was then a record-setting brawl with the Flyers, as a member of the Los Angeles Kings, in March of 1979 at the Spectrum. Holt still holds the league's single-game penalty-minute record with 67 in that contest.

Mark Bell gained an invitation to Flyers' training camp in 2009, 2 1/2 years after delivering a questionable shoulder/elbow hit to defenseman Alex Picard in the second period of a 6-1 Sharks victory at San Jose in November of '06, one which knocked the rookie blueliner from the contest with a concussion.

Also worth including on the list, is Ulf Samuelsson. The irrepressible Swede completed his career with 49 games on the Philadelphia defense under both Roger Neilson and Craig Ramsay during the 1999-2000 season, collecting three points and 58 penalty minutes. While not directly involved with the harming of a Flyers player during his years skating for the Whalers, Penguins and Rangers, Samuelsson was tainted by reputation by the time of his arrival.

Judging from the statistics of the above examples, it appears that Hextall's best move in bringing White here, is that he's not going to be depended on to fill a role at the NHL level. Any lingering issues in his play or discipline will be reason enough to keep him entrenched at Allentown until either his improvement or unforeseen circumstances permit a recall.

Nonetheless, on a one-year deal, the circle may remain unbroken if White is called into service by another club next year whose player or players White engaged in less than legal fashion. As long as White continues to exhibit the qualities which have kept him on the recall list since arriving in the NHL in 2009, there will be a market no matter his misdeeds.

The same can be said for any other player Hextall deems worthy of including in future plans, because nobody can stay angry or hold a grudge for long in the Show.

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