The tempers have cooled. The wildfires of youth have been quenched. The priorities have been refocused. This is not your older brother’s Turnpike Rivalry. At least, not for the players of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Fliers.
Six years ago, these two teams engaged in one of the most ridiculous, brutal, and wild playoff series in the history of hockey. The word composure was a foreign word to the players on those teams. Here is just a quick run-down of some of the foolishness that took place during a single 3rd period of that six-game series in April of 2012, (with some lovely visuals):
• James Neal (PIT) brutally charged Sean Couturie (PHI) and elbowed Claude Giroux (PHI) in the head in the SAME PERIOD.
• Captains Sidney Crosby (PIT) and Claude Giroux (PHI) fought after Crosby flicked another Fliers’ players glove across the ice as he was trying to pick it up.
• Kris Letang (PIT) and Kimmo Timonen (PHI) fought only seconds later. Letang foolishly tried to shoosh the crowd afterward in reference to the legendary action by Max Talbot years before.
• Brayden Schenn (PHI) leveled Paul Martin (PIT) in the head, then Arron Asham (PIT) responded by cross-checking Schenn in the throat.
• During an end of game all out brawl that saw every single player on the ice pair off to fight, Coaches Tony Granato (PIT) and Peter Laviolette (PHI) climbed the partitions between the benches to yell at each other.
The series was also utterly undisciplined defensively, totaling 45 goals over the first four games of the series, with the winner of Games 2-4 scoring 8, 8, and 10 goals respectively. There was no structure, no loftier goals, and no conscience.
The series was hockey at its worst, an embarrassment on the history of both franchises, especially Pittsburgh, who completely imploded and were the instigators of much of the extracurriculars, and began the decline of both respective coaching staffs into losing their jobs. Neither team wants to see it happen again. Letang, said as much, saying that they have all grown up and should be more mature.
“We’re all over 30 years old now, we’re all supposed to be mature,” he said. “Whatever it was, it was in the moment, emotional. We have a different team, different experience, different coaching staff, so I don’t think we look at it anymore.”
It seems both sides hope this year’s rematch brings out the best in hockey, not the ugliness of their youth.
But here’s the thing. The same maybe cannot be said of the fans.
The two cities still hate each other when it comes to the game of hockey. Look at the venom with which Crosby is booed in Philly, and half of Pittsburgh still talks angrily about Philidelphia and Scott Hartnell in one breath like he’s still on the team. You’d be naïve to think, deep in their souls, both teams’ fans wouldn’t welcome another bloodbath. They haven’t changed in six years, even if the teams’ have. Though that infamous match-up is generally considered the ugly side of hockey, it was some of the highest ratings a first-round match-up had received in recent history.
Six years later, violent incidents in other sports still consistently jolt the tv ratings (See Pittsburgh/Cincinnati in the 2015 NFL playoffs). People love the violence, the raw emotion, and the primal sense of victory seeing the team they hate feel physical pain. And as much as they pay lip service to safer sports, they adore seeing athletes rip each other to shreds like caged animals.
The unfortunate truth is that, as far as we have come as a society, we are made up of the same stuff that made crowds of Romans roar with approval at the prospect of watching gladiators tear each other apart, or Mayans cheer wildly as the losing team of their ritual ballgame had their captain decapitated before the audience’s eyes (look it up). The brutality not only is still tolerated; it invigorates us on a primal level, for good or bad.
So though the players may be hoping to have a clean, skilled, respectful series, you’d be kidding yourself not to think the Flyers fans at Wells Fargo Center won’t be drooling over the prospect of seeing Sidney Crosby decapitated by a blindside hit, or that Pens fans at PPG Paints Arena won’t jump up in excitement if Fliers’ goalie Brian Elliot gets bowled over by Patric Hornqvist and has to hobble off the ice. The fans want their pound of flesh, half because we are not as evolved as we think, and half because they don’t have be the one hurting or getting hurt. It’s just one big show to them, live theater the way they like it best.
I will be fascinated to see what effect that has on the series over the course of 4-7 games. Maybe cooler heads really will prevail. Maybe the two teams have become so mature and focused they will not get sucked into the rabid atmosphere their fans will surely create. Maybe we will see the best of hockey. Or maybe, the Mob of Rome will prevail, and the players will realize they have not evolved as much as they thought either. We will all find out come Wednesday night.