Think back, for a moment, to all the things that got you in trouble as a kid in grade school.
Sure, there were things that got you busted at home too, but school was the place that posted a list of dos and don'ts, gave you a gold star for good behavior, a check mark on the board for bad behavior and a hierarchy of consequences for breaking the rules.
Again, thinking back, which do you think would get you in deeper trouble: calling someone a name, or physically attacking someone?
While neither are appropriate classroom behavior, clearly, one would have drawn a stiffer penalty than the other.
So, imagine if a school suspended one student for pushing a classmate to the ground, and expelled another for calling someone a "poo-poo face."
There would be no shortage of eyebrows raised at this apparent mismatch of crime and punishment.
If you're not clear on where I'm going with this, let me edify you with one phrase - "sloppy-seconds."
Two years ago, Sean Avery, then with the Dallas Stars, used this term to describe an ex-girlfriend.
Avery said this in a locker room, after practice.
As a result, Avery was suspended indefinitely by the Dallas Stars, then suspended for six games by the NHL, he was forced into anger-management therapy and was eventually released by the Dallas Stars.
Now, clearly, Avery acted very inappropriately, and the Stars and the NHL were duty bound to do something to punish him.
However, the NHL handed down one of the harshest sentences in recent memory to a player for saying something about an ex-lover, who, though absolutely undeserving of such a degrading label, was hardly as pure as the driven snow.
As callous and disgusting as Avery's words were, his punishment suggested he had done something really stupid—like attack a paying fan during a game.
Ah, now we're all caught up.
Rick Rypien was suspended six games for grabbing and shoving a fan who was doing nothing more than clapping his hands.
He didn't throw anything at him, he didn't spit on him, by all accounts, he didn't even curse at him.
He was simply applauding as Rypien headed to the locker-room after being ejected from the game.
Rypien didn't injure the fan, and the act, in and of itself, wasn't exactly heinous, but the NHL threw the book at Avery for talking bad about an actress.
Rick Rypien attacked a fan and will be back on the ice in about two weeks.
The NHL is a league that is still desperately trying to gain relevance in the American sports conversation, it can ill-afford PR disasters such as this.
However, the ripple effect from Rypien's actions saddle the NHL with a marketing and PR nightmare.
The average non-hockey, casual sports fan still thinks Slapshot is an accurate depiction of the NHL in 2010.
Try telling one of these people you're going to a hockey game and you'll undoubtedly hear the ever-witty quip, "Hey, I went to a fight once, and a hockey game broke out."
In the business of PR and marketing, perception is everything.
No matter how wrong the perception may be, if the general public thinks your product could injure them, they're not likely to try it to find out.
Any avid NHL fan knows there's essentially no chance they'll be attacked by a player at a game, and if you were, you might even think it was a good thing.
Hell, I'd be willing to take a few punches to the face for season tickets, a luxury suite or whatever else the team would throw at me if one of their employees busted my lip.
But, when a mom or dad who knows nothing about hockey, save for the fact that the players attack the fans, considers taking little Billy to an NHL game, the cold, hard cash they'd shell out for tickets, a program, a souvenir stick, hot dogs and soda might very well be spent on something "less dangerous."
Die hard fans know how stupid such a reaction would be, but that's not who will be effected by the fallout from Rypien's stupidity.
Casual sports fans who think hockey is a mindless, violent game will latch onto this as evidence of exactly that, and others, who had no opinion about hockey to begin with, will now form one based on this incident.
Rypien's actions have potentially damaged the reputation of the league, and thus, the NHL's efforts to grow it's fanbase.
Because of this, Rypien could very well have been suspended indefinitely by the Canucks, and then by the NHL. He might have been forced into anger-management therapy, and perhaps eventually released by his team.
But, punishments that stiff are reserved for potty-mouths, not players who attack fans.
That reminds me of something else I heard in grade school, a re-working of the old "sticks and stones" saying: "Sticks and stones may brake my bones, but words hurt worse than anything."
That was old Mrs. Ford's take on the matter. Apparently, the NHL agrees with her.
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