By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The days of insane line brawls, vigilante on-ice justice, and proper retaliation for perceived cheap shots are long gone in the NHL. As such, the “Big, Bad Bruins” have gradually morphed into a kinder, gentler hockey team in recent years.
They may have gone a little too far.
That seems to be the conclusion after the Bruins watched and did nothing as a relative unknown 20-year-old delivered either a punch or a butt-end to the temple of Boston’s all-star netminder on Tuesday night. The player — Emil Bemstrom — has no reputation whatsoever of being a weasel, or anything of the sort. But the play itself? It was as weaselly as weaselly gets.
Tuukka Rask left mid-game for the Bruins after sustaining this blow to the head in the first two minutes of the game pic.twitter.com/CPSTX0eWSz
— FanSided NHL (@FanSidedNHL) January 15, 2020
Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo did gently shove Bemstrom from behind prior to the contact with Rask, which Bemstrom used after the game as an excuse for the hit. But Bemstrom’s left hand was already extended and in position to hit Rask before Carlo delivered that light push.
A look at the elbow that sent Tuukka Rask to the dressing room. pic.twitter.com/RzJlNBHEgg
— Matt Castle (@Matt_Castle22) January 15, 2020
No Bruins on the ice saw the play, as it took place behind them. But after seeing the incident during the first intermission, they came out for the second period … moderately perturbed.
Carlo tried to engage Bemstrom, but with a massive size disadvantage, Bemstrom wanted no part.
Emil Bemstrom (the guy who injured Tuukka Rask) wanted no part of Brandon Carlo pic.twitter.com/Vx0pvriQRX
— Evan Marinofsky (@emarinofsky) January 15, 2020
Joakim Nordstrom also approached Bemstrom, but didn’t really do a whole lot.
Joakim Nordstrom “goes after” Emil Bemstrom after the whistle and somehow ends up in the box pic.twitter.com/zlWpiSYGIt
— Evan Marinofsky (@emarinofsky) January 15, 2020
Even for this tepid confrontation, Nordstrom was assessed a two-minute minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Apparently, saying words to an opponent and then having a different opponent rip your helmet off your head counts as unsportsmanlike conduct nowadays.
That NHL reality, as much as any potential lack of toughness on the Bruins roster, helped ensure that no retribution was taken on the ice during the game. And once Columbus carried a 3-0 lead into the final minutes of the game, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella kept Bemstrom on the bench for the final minutes of the game.
“I think it’s good for him to go through that a little bit. I mean, the league isn’t what it used to be when it comes to that stuff. But it’s good for him,” Tortorella said of Bemstrom being the target of the Bruins’ ire for two periods. “And he stood in there. He didn’t bow his head. He stood in there, looked at people, and played well, played a good hockey game. So yeah, we kept him out the last few minutes. We don’t need anything going on there.”
While the move to keep Bemstrom on the bench at the end of the game was precautionary, it probably was unnecessary. As Tortorella mentioned, the days of a player being made to pay for knocking an opposing goalie out of a game in the opening minutes of the first period are, for all intents and purposes, long gone.
“Listen,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy explained, “typically with that stuff, if they’re hard on your skill [players], you’re hard on their skill [players], or whatever the position. But we’re not going to go elbow their goalie in their head. It’s just not gonna happen.”
While the on-ice situation was its own matter, the Bruins found themselves getting mocked by whatever person was running the Blue Jackets’ Twitter account.
Love to see the boys defending our tendy 😤
— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) January 15, 2020
Cassidy likely didn’t know about the Twitter diss, but he was mostly OK with his team’s general lack of response to the punch.
“I don’t know if anybody saw it. Brandon’s kind of bumping with him on his pants, but it certainly didn’t affect his elbow. Should our guys, should there have been a better response? I think there could have been. But I don’t know if they saw it in real time,” Cassidy said. “It was pointed out after the first period, that our goaltender got bumped. But I mean listen, it’s a little bit late there. You can’t, you know, take the law into your own hands. You can certainly address it with the player on the ice if you felt it was inappropriate, and I think some of our guys did that. But you gotta get back to playing.”
This reality is difficult for many longtime hockey fans to properly accept, especially in Boston, where as recently as five years ago a Milan Lucic or Shawn Thornton would have ensured that Benstrom’s explanation of “it was an accident” would not matter one iota. Barbaric and primitive as it may have been, the collection of toughness on the Bruins roster would see to it that either Bemstrom or a number of his teammates would suffer some consequences for knocking out their goalie in the opening 70 seconds of the hockey game. For better and for worse, that type of mentality and roster-building was a critical element to the Bruins’ identity.
Those days, though, no longer exist. That much was clear when Zack Kassian felt as though Matthew Tkachuk had gotten away with a couple of cheap shots in a game between the Oilers and Flames last week.
— Sprattman (@Sprattman3) January 12, 2020
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 12, 2020
With the refs not helping him out, Kassian felt that he had to take matters into his own hands. And Kassian got his money’s worth when he treated Tkachuk like a punching bag for a solid 10 seconds before a linesman finally stepped in to stop the beating.
In the old days, this encounter might not have even made a VHS compiling the top 200 fights from an NHL season. As recently as 10 years ago, the confrontation might have barely garnered a national mention. But in 2020, this brief bout resulted in the NHL suspending Kassian for two games.
Despite getting walloped with a pair of borderline hits, Kassian was deemed the aggressor in this scrap, and he suffered the consequences for it.
That is the new reality of the NHL, as the league takes baby steps each year to push fighting out of the game. In many ways, those efforts represent positive growth as the sport advances out of the 20th century mentality. Yet when that system allows for dangerous hits to be delivered without fear of facing consequence, it proves to be a bit counterproductive.
As it relates to the Bruins, it’s unclear if there’s a real solution. Last year’s Stanley Cup Final will get held up as an indication that they lacked the requisite toughness to outlast the bigger, badder St. Louis Blues in a seven-game series. That’s partially true, as the Blues physically had their way with the Bruins all series long, most notably knocking Matt Grzelcyk in Game 2 as well as the infamous hit on Noel Acciari and a high hit to Marcus Johansson’s head and a hit to Torey Krug’s head, the latter three of which all came in the same game.
Unlike in the 2011 Cup Final, the Bruins were the bullied, not the bullies. That was a major reason why they weren’t able to hoist the Cup.
At the same time, the Bruins likely won’t feel overly compelled to overhaul their identity. In the three games they won during that series, they outscored St. Louis 16-5. On the road to reaching that Cup Final, they had absolutely no issue buzzing through the Blue Jackets in the conference semifinals and the Hurricanes in the conference finals, winning eight of 10 games to arrive on hockey’s biggest stage.
This year, the Bruins once again figure to be contending for a Cup. While the fans who have shoved greasy slices of pizza down their gullet across the street from the Garden while ogling ’80s hockey fight videos for the past 30 years while wearing “Ass Kicker” T-shirts may be yearning for a P.J. Stock type to descend from the rafters and save the day, it’s just not going to happen. (There’s no judgment here on the pregame pizza decision, by the way.)
“I just know our goalie got elbowed to the head and he’s out of the game and he’s not feeling well,” Cassidy said after the 3-0 loss. “That’s just what I see. I don’t know the player [Bemstrom] that well. He’s just going to play hockey, as he did. And we’ve just got to continue to play.”
The Bruins will continue to play, and though they may call up Trent Frederic to provide some juice in the toughness department, they’ll mostly hope that their skill is enough to get them deep into June again. In the meanwhile, David Pastrnak will get run over, Rask will get decked, and opponents will continue to take advantage of the Bruins, knowing that the only instances of response this year have come from John Moore (in his first game back from shoulder surgery) and Zdeno Chara (in one of his first games back from jaw surgery). Outside of that, it’s more or less open season for opponents who want to inflict pain.
This is the new reality for the Boston Bruins, who are no longer the big, bad unit they bragged of being for decades. That may not sit well with some, but the evidence is stacking up more and more with each hit against the Bruins that goes unanswered.