Wednesday, January 29, 2020

What the NHL’s history of player rivalries tells us about how Tkachuk vs. Kassian could end

Tonight’s NHL schedule features one of the most anticipated matchups of the season so far, as the Oilers host the Flames. It’s an important game, one that could help decide an incredibly close Pacific Division race. But of course, that’s not why everyone is focused on it.

No, for that we can thank Matthew Tkachuk and Zack Kassian. This will be their first meeting since the Jan. 11 game in Calgary that featured several controversial hits, a one-sided fight, and more than a few postgame soundbites. It also earned Kassian a suspension, and led the hockey world to wonder: What comes next?

We didn’t have to wait long to find out, because the Oilers and Flames play twice this week, with tonight’s game followed by a rematch in Calgary on Saturday. Kassian hasn’t exactly been shy about suggesting that he’ll be looking for further payback. Tkachuk’s options are a little more complicated, but it’s fair to say that all eyes will be on both players as we wait to see what – if anything – happens when they cross paths.

So that will be the next chapter in the story. But at the risk of skipping ahead, how will it end? This is hardly the first time that two players have developed some bad blood, so we have plenty of examples of how this might go. So today, let’s dig back into the archives and try to figure out what the end game might look like here.

This can end: With a decisive moment

What happens: After months or even years of a back-and-forth, give-and-take sort of rivalry, something finally happens that tilts the scale. Maybe it’s a crushing hit or some sort of altercation, or maybe one guy just goes out there and wins the big game for his team by actually playing hockey. But either way, everyone remembers the moment, and everyone remembers who won.

Why it’s good: This is the exclamation point on the story, and while it may not end the rivalry completely, it’s pretty definitive. It happens, we all see it, and then everyone moves on.

Why it’s not: Often, “decisive” can mean that somebody gets hurt.

Historical example: Scott Stevens vs. Eric Lindros. They were natural rivals from the moment Lindros arrived in the league, two big physical alpha dogs staking out their territory as franchise players and captains of teams in the same division. They fought in Lindros’ rookie year, traded big hits, always seemed to be in each other’s faces, and competed for the title of the league’s most-feared physical presence.

We all know how it ended.

That was pretty much it for the rivalry. And in some sense, that was also it for Lindros as an elite NHL star. The devastating hit looks very different through today’s eyes than it did at the time. But whether you see it as a clean hit or a predatory headshot – or maybe, based on the rules of the day, both at the same time – it became the rivalry’s definitive moment. And its last.

This can end: With a signature fight

What happens: Enough is enough. Two guys who hate each other and who’ve spent a chunk of their careers exchanging shots on and off the ice decide to settle things the old-fashioned way. They drop the gloves, everyone else clears out, and may the best man win.

Why it’s good: Even if you hate fighting, there’s a certain old-school appeal to seeing two rivals go this route. It’s almost honorable.

Why it’s not: Depending on how you view fighting, two professional athletes settling a score with bare-knuckles fisticuffs can seem silly, if not barbaric. There’s the risk of injury. And half the time, the guy who loses will insist on a rematch, so nothing really gets settled at all.

Historical example: Scott Stevens vs. Dave Manson. Before he was battling Lindros in the Patrick Division, Stevens had an epic rivalry with Blackhawks blueliner Manson. They tangled when Stevens was in Washington, in a controversial fight that resulted in multiple suspensions for biting and eye-gouging. A year later, Stevens wound up playing for the Hawks’ top rival. It wasn’t hard to see where this was headed, and during a brawl that would be remembered as The St. Patrick’s Day Massacre, it got there.

One of the most memorable fights of the ’90s didn’t exactly smooth over the bad blood, but it served as a climax to the rivalry. And at least nobody got bitten or gouged.

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