It's always difficult to understand the NHL when it decides to fine or suspend players and coaches for their on-ice conduct. According to the Associated Press (h/t Sports Illustrated), the league decided to fine Buffalo Sabres coach Ron Rolston an undisclosed amount of money for his conduct during Sunday's exhibition game between the Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.
The incident took place at the 10:01 mark of the third period. The Maple Leafs were up 4-3, so it's not like the game was out of reach, and there was still half of a period to play.
After a fight between Buffalo's Corey Tropp and Toronto's Jamie Devane, a faceoff was scheduled at center ice. Devane won the fight decisively, and Tropp's helmetless head hit the ice hard.
Rolston left John Scott on the ice, a man with one career goal and 305 career penalty minutes in 180 NHL games. Obviously, Scott was not left out there to score the tying goal.
Keep in mind this game was in Toronto and the Maple Leafs had the last change. Leafs coach Randy Carlyle clearly made a huge mistake by sending out his top goal scorer, Phil Kessel, after he saw Scott out there on the ice.
The result was hardly surprising. Scott challenged Kessel to drop the gloves. Kessel backed away and twice slashed Scott in the shins/ankles—and a line brawl broke out which featured all 12 players on the ice, including the two goalies.
Ultimately, 211 penalty minutes were handed out, with the Leafs' David Clarkson being suspended 10 games for leaving the bench and Kessel getting a three-game ban for slashing Scott.
But here's why the NHL was hypocritical to fine Rolston. The league allows and even tacitly condones fighting, which has been a part of the NHL since the league's birth nearly a century ago.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman even admitted as much in a 2007 interview with the Canadian Press. "My view on fighting hasn't changed," Bettman said. "We've never taken active steps or considered eliminating fighting from the game. I've always taken the view that it's a part of the game and it rises and lowers based on what the game dictates."
Participate in a fight in the NHL and you sit in the penalty box for five minutes while your opponent sits for five minutes. Engage in a brawl in the NFL, MLB or NBA and you're going to get fined and probably suspended for a few games.
So again, we set the stage for Sunday's exhibition game. Rolston just had a player badly beaten in a fight. The game was getting more physical and intense, but was still close. To protect his players or to send a message to the opposition, he sent out his enforcer, Scott, to start the next shift.
If a coach can't send out his enforcer under those circumstances, when can he use him? We all know why Scott is in the NHL. It's not because he has a great shot or because he's a fast skater. He's in the league because he can drop the gloves, protect his teammates and prevent opposing players from taking liberties with the more skilled players on his team.
Rolston used his enforcer in exactly the way the job description says he should. It was Carlyle who had the last change and chose to send out a goal scorer like Kessel opposite Scott. This is a foolish move at any time, but even more so in a meaningless preseason game. Nobody was surprised when Scott challenged the player lined up across from him. Kessel violently slashed Scott twice and earned himself a suspension for three preseason games.
If fighting is considered part of the game, then sending out a player to fight is part of a coach's job description. Fining Rolston for doing just that doesn't really make sense, especially when he was coaching the road team and didn't have the last change.
The reason that Rolston was fined is most likely twofold. First, Scott ended up challenging a star player, and enforcers are not supposed to challenge stars to fights. And second, the star player Scott went after was Kessel, the biggest star on the Maple Leafs, the team in Canada's biggest media market.
Let's face it, if Scott had dropped the gloves with either Frazer McLaren or Colton Orr, Rolston wouldn't have been and the line brawl that followed may have possibly been avoided.
In the end, it's tough to determine what Rolston did to deserve a fine. He used his enforcer in one of the roles he was expected to play, to respond when a teammate was badly beaten in a fight. If fighting is "part of the game," then what Rolston did is part of the game as well, and the league looks hypocritical for fining him.