There’s Something About Pittsburgh, Apparently

What is it about the Pittsburgh Penguins that encourages their players to flagrantly attempt to injure others?

Lest you think I’m simply showing an anti-Penguins bias, here’s Exhibit A to the contrary, from tonight’s game in Tampa Bay:

[updated video courtesy of The Score]

Look, I don’t care what team you support: Is there a doubt in anyone’s mind that Chris Kunitz intentionally hammered his elbow into the head of Simon Gagne? Is there any question this behavior must not be tolerated in the NHL?

In hockey, elbows fly. Sticks jab. Shoulders crush. It’s a brutal game we love, and that’s as it should be. But no one should so blatantly intend to injure their opponents—for while all may be fair in love and war, anyone elevating professional sports to that level is deluded.

I was willing to write off Matt Cooke as an aberration—someone whose violent nature couldn’t be reined in by Penguins coach Dan Bylsma or owner Mario Lemieux (though was there any evidence that they tried?). But this latest instance makes me wonder . . . what is it about the Penguins’ culture that encourages this violence?

Please don’t think my outrage is in any way an indictment of Pittsburgh in general—every time I’ve visited that city I’ve had a wonderful time. I’m just genuinely curious as to why the Penguins seem to have evolved into the cartoonish villains of hockey.

Mind you, this infraction wasn’t Kunitz’s first attempt-to-injure moment; while his rap sheet is nowhere near as embarrassing as Matt Cooke’s, Exhibit B will still resonate, particularly with Capitals fans:

This video captures another moment when some contact with another player, in this case Semyon Varlamov, would have been totally understandable. Yet Kunitz clearly, and intentionally, cross-checks the Caps’ netminder in the head. Penguins’ management mustn’t have disciplined Kunitz, because he still plays that way today.

One might expect this sort of behavior from the Broad Street Bullies of old. To be fair, even the Caps’ beloved Dale Hunter had a meltdown moment when he attacked Pierre Turgeon. Examples of inexcusable hockey behavior abound.

But what is it specifically about the Penguins club that condones (and therefore encourages) this sort of repeated violation of not just the rules of the game, but the boundaries of common decency? When team leadership consistently did nothing to punish Matt Cooke, they silently helped similar behavior flourish. Kunitz is no Cooke, of course; but last night, for a moment, he was.

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34 Responses to There’s Something About Pittsburgh, Apparently

  1. Greg Wyshynski had a nice turn of phrase about the hit:
    “That was a tad Cooke-ian in its violent nonchalance.”

  2. Jesse Sandivall says:

    You are absolutely right. There’s something about Pittsburgh.

  3. Barry Pyren says:

    That’s OK, don’t mention Downie’s blantant leaving his feet and charging into Lovejoy or Ovie intentionally high sticking to the face in the first game. But that’s OK. If you guys make it to the second, the Penguins will “Grind you bitches down”.

  4. Colin Campbell says:

    Conveniently disregarding the Downie “hit”? That’s OK…your post reads better that way.

  5. Colin says:

    It really is a player centered issue. Some seem to have no problem going for the head and others do. Elbowing to the head or leaving your feet for a hit should be an automatic 5 and a game followed by a 5 game suspension in the regular season and a three game suspension in the playoffs (longer if the opposing player is injured and unable to play because of the hit).

    As much as I hate the Pens, I don’t see this a Pittsburgh issue. Many teams have players that do this kind of crap. Downie is a good example. As was Hunter once upon a time.

    Oh, and Barry, I’d love nothing better than to face the Pens this year. But I think it will probably have to wait for the conference finals, if at all, because I don’t see Philly AND Boston winning, meaning the Caps would play Buffalo or MTL next.

    Until then, stay classy Barry.

  6. Dark Stranger says:

    There are some teams that seem to encourage that crap more than others. One of those teams is Pittsburgh. There’s a reason I root for ANY team against Pittsburgh.

  7. SA-Town says:

    OK McPhee. I think he needs to get some answers on why Staal’s head shot on Green was any different?

  8. Sean says:

    We don’t call them the PenGoons because they are fine examples of upstanding, fair play, professional hockey players. Great post on specifically why the PenGoons of past and present are Ice thugs first and professional hockey players second.

    Yeah the Caps have had a couple brusiers that have done some flagrant things over the years, but the consistency of the thuggish play of the Goons over the course of their history since the late 1980s is amazing. Remember that clown Stevens from the Pengoons with Mario, Jagr, and Barrasso? Seemed all he could do was damage to other players.

    Although, in a strange way, it is good to see that some things never change.

    Hopefully, with a little luck, good playing, and solid goaltending, we can get further into the playoffs, run into the Ice Thugs from Pittsburgh, and exercise the demons of playoffs years’ past.

  9. Josh says:

    Sooo, you felt the need to single Kunitz out, yet Steve Downie launched himself 5 steps early, left his feet and put both hands directly into the head of Ben Lovejoy. You people (and i speak of those folks whose teams have yet to bring them the joy of winning a cup) seem to feel it necessary to vilify the Penguins at every turn. Yes, Matt Cookes hit was dirty, he was punished. But so was Zdeno Chara’s hit that potentially could have killed Paccioretti (sic). If you want to be a consistent journalist and not sound like a 14-year old bitter fan from Backwoods, FL, you need to establish a aire of impartiality. But, alas, for you I think theres no hope. You are doomed to follow a sport in a part of the country where it doesnt belong. I can hear the first bars of “dueling banjos”, so i think I hear ya’ll gettin called to supper. War Burt Reynolds, Go Pens!

  10. Rob says:

    I don’t think using one and done examples (Chara and that was iffy) is a good argument to counter the repeat offenses of Cooke and Kunitz….both have been dirty for a long time. Kunitz should get 8 games, and he might get one…sad. I don’t think Downie is a “culture” as the article reads….

  11. Regarding Downie hit: I agree that was a blatant charge and he should be punished for it — he obviously launched himself. And yes, as I said, “Examples of inexcusable hockey behavior abound,” and no team skates choir boys.

    But Cooke is the worst in the league, and the Kunitz elbow was so clearly targeting someone’s head that it seemed Cooke snuck onto the ice in Kunitz’s jersey. Seriously, watch it again — *exactly* the sort of hit Cooke does all the time.

  12. @SA-Town: You’re right, the hit to Green’s head seemed another intent-to-injure moment. I don’t know how he got away with it.

    But seeing Kunitz’s attack reminded me so much of Cooke that it got me wondering.

  13. Check out Ed Frankovic’s story today for more on the Rangers’ targeting of Mike Green:

  14. sonja says:

    The Penguins play dirty because they can. They push the envelope in every game. They are like the playground bully who is so horrible that the teacher is only going haul him in front of the principal for the really, really egregious stuff. But the rest of the little things he will get away with. So that’s what they do. And while they’re doing that they get under the skin of the opposing team and force them to take penalties as well. It’s nasty gritty hockey, but it’s what you gotta do when you haven’t got any talent.

  15. penguin pete says:

    i’ll try to stay above the historical arguments of our respective teams here, as i refuse to use dale’s darkest hour to support my own argument, so…

    there is absolutely NO excuse for what kunitz did. it’s a chickensh!t play. an act i often used in high school hockey, because i was afraid of actual contact. i hate saying it, but drop 2 games on him, as it wasn’t even in the ballpark of a “hockey play.”

    downie? he needs to be suspended to, but at least (vomiting in my mouth as i type this) his blatant cheapshot involved a bodycheck.

    and fellow pens fans, you’re wrong to come here and attack the blog. some of the commenters, sure, but the writers here are fair when discussing the penguins. not an easy task in a rivalry climate.

    and as far as green goes, welcome to playoff hockey. it’s not always clean, noble, or moral, but it’s the best tournament in sports.

  16. penguin pete says:

    @sonja:have you seen how well forcing the other team to take penalties has worked out for the team with no talent?

  17. Me says:

    Kuntiz’ elbow is good for two games, no doubt, really dumb play by him. That said, there is nothing significantly different with the Pens and the rest of the league. The Pens have Cooke, a guy who can be dirty, but the rules have changed and now what once were legit hits are no longer. Besides Cooke the rest of the team is par for the league. There’s not “something about Pittsburgh,” any more than there’s something about the league.

  18. @ME, you’re right, the league overall needs the intent-to-injure hits stopped, or at least dramatically reduced. But Cooke is a special sort of psycho; my point is that the Kunitz hit is so similar to Cooke’s “style”… one wonders if management’s permissiveness with regards to Cooke has infected others on the team.

  19. mike-in-Erie says:

    And David Steckels on Sid was what..? accidental contact? right..go sell crazy somewhere else

  20. @ Mike-in-Erie: Steckel’s hit on Crosby was nothing like Kunitz’s hit yesterday. Seriously, go watch a clip of it, then re-watch Kunitz winding up and clocking Gagne in the head. No comparison.

    Mind you, it sucks for hockey that Crosby has been out for so long — while I heartily root for him to fail, his incredible skill is undeniable and I don’t wish serious injury to any player… though after a few beers I might make an exception for Avery. 😉

  21. penguin pete says:

    1 game for kunitz (and downie for that matter). for what it’s worth, kunitz said the right stuff…

    “I was coming though the middle and getting ready to finish a check like I usually do and the puck was reaching on him,” Kunitz said. “I had my arms in a bad spot up in the air anyways, and he (Gagne) kind of spun and turned back towards me. I went to brush him in the shoulder and I got him in the head. Not very responsible on my side. I got got definitely be careful. I’m glad he is okay and finished the game.”

  22. mike-in-Erie says:

    @ chaos, well I reviewed both hits, and imho, I didn’t really see Kunitz “wind-up” he simply saw gagne coming and raised a cheap shot elbow. In Steckels case, Sid would have probably faired better if he was hit with an elbow rather than the entire weight of Steckels body by using his shoulder.
    But the point you make, is employment of Kunitz,Cooke. While a team such as Washington employes equal parts. Ovie’s attempt to ruin Gonchar knee could be viewed as equally egregious and his attempts at beheading Malkin while leaving his feet at these boarding attempts. So all teams and players seem to have lost respect for their competition.

  23. @ PETE: Thanks for the update. And you’re right — it’s good to hear Kunitz take responsibility for what one hopes was a mistake.

    @ MIKE: One possible reason players seem to respect opponents less than in the past is that they’re all outfitted in, basically, heavy high-tech armor. As in football, if one feels nigh-invulnerable, one is more likely to launch one’s self like a missle at opponents.

  24. penguin pete says:

    @Mike: you bring up a great point regarding equipment, much like Shanny…

  25. saintex says:

    I find it strange that the Crosby v. Steckel thing still comes up. It was a nasty collision and it sucks that Crosby is out. But, and I think I recall all of this correctly, the Pens (and Coach Bylsma) pointed out in interviews after Sid left the following game and was out, that there was no concussion from the Classic collision. The team did it’s due diligence and checked him out before putting him back on the ice that night – and, in fact, for the next game. There were/was no symptoms. Then, he takes a second hit, game over for the season, and suddenly revisionist history comes into play. One of two things happened: Crosby was in fact concussed at the Classic and the Pens’ organization put him back on the ice that night and in the next game, or, he wasn’t concussed on that collision, but it’s easier to blame a rival than yourselves. There are no other options. Pick one.

    And, if you reviewed that play, there is no way you can come to the conclusion that it was anything be an unfortunate hockey collision. Steckel is actually leaning to avoid contact as he tries to get up ice.

    Believe it or not, I want Crosby on the ice. I don’t want half a season played without one of the World’s best out there.

    As far as Mike-in-Erie, you’re crazy

  26. saintex says:

    And since Mike-in-Erie will no doubt fail to remember, here’s your coach. You only have to listen for a minute. Pretty easy to understand.

  27. sonicbluex says:

    I don’t take offense to the words that the author has written. The plays were cheap shots and we all seem to agree on that. As a Pittsburgh native serving in the military, I do get a bit wound up when blogs like this one attempt to portray the actions of the minority with the team as a whole. Hockey is tough and things happen. It’s the agressive style that makes teams want a player like Kunitz or Cooke. Cooke was suspended for his actions well before he played for the Pens (plenty of Youtube vids on that). They have a name for these guys, “grinders” and every team in the playoffs right now has one. It does no one any good to compair suspensions across the NHL right now, because the NHL hasn’t decided what is fair or punishable yet.

  28. Dre says:

    This kind of crap from Cooke and Kunitz is made worse by the fact that Mario Lemieux cries about cheap hits every time someone even breathes on one of his players. If he wants the league to clean it up, he should start with his own team. Remove the instigator penalty and let teams go back to policing these jokers. The league has proven they won’t do it.

  29. sonja says:

    @Pete … mea culpa, I had a 😉 when I wrote the last sentence originally, but I did some editing and it got inadvertently cut. I do believe, however, that your Penguins is one of the most heavily penalized teams in the league on a somewhat regular basis. So there is that …

  30. Laura says:

    Wow. It’s hard to decide where to begin after reading all of the above.

    @Colin Campbell: The title of the article is about Pittsburgh, and with all of the controversy surrounding the most recent actions of Cooke, Kunitz’s hit is without a doubt blog-worthy. IMHO, the fact that some members of Mario’s team continue to play in a dangerous manner, even after the suspension of their own teammate, leads to additional scrutiny of their organization. Had Downie and one of his teammates played as controversial this year as Cooke, and Kunitz, I’m pretty sure Mike would be giving that story coverage.

    @Sonja: I see your point, but I’m going to have to disagree with you. I’m a HUGE Caps fan, but I would never go as far as saying the Penguins don’t have any talent. Losing both Crosby and Malkin should’ve KILLED their numbers, but it didn’t. The call-ups from WB/S have been incredible assets, and vital in the team’s success post super-star injuries. That team’s FULL of talent, and the fact that they continue to win is evidence of that.

    @Josh: Really? You’re kidding, right? Direct quote: “You people (and i speak of those folks whose teams have yet to bring them the joy of winning a cup) seem to feel it necessary to vilify the Penguins at every turn.” So, only teams who haven’t won a Stanley Cup are upset at the actions of Cooke and Kunitz? I’m pretty sure Henrik Zetterberg has won the Stanley Cup, and he certainly isn’t praising Matt Cooke or the Penguins. My distaste for the Penguins (and this is coming from someone whose team has NOT hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup) has nothing to do with the fact that they’re a ‘winning’ team. I respect athleticism, greatness, and talent. I DO NOT respect hypocrites and DIRTY PLAYERS who take away the integrity of such a great sport.

    Also, I can’t even wrap my head around the fact that you said, “You are doomed to follow a sport in a part of the country where it doesnt belong.” The fact that you said hockey doesn’t belong in certain parts of the country is absolutely ridiculous, and shows that you don’t have a true appreciation or love for the game. Hockey is one of the greatest sports there is, and I personally would LOVE to see it in every state, city and town.

    P.S. Way to keep it classy when addressing Mike Rucki.

    @ Saintex: Amen.

  31. @ SONICBLUEX, you make a good point about the NHL’s inconsistent enforcement. Now the Kunitz elbow-attack is clearly wrong to anyone watching the game… but is it clear to the NHL? Would they have suspended him for more games had Gagne been concussed?

    I bet the answer’s yes, though it shouldn’t be; the NHL must punish the act itself, not base suspensions on the targeted player’s resulting injuries. An infraction like Kunitz’s should result in X games — it shouldn’t matter whether Gagne bounced right back up or was concussed into retirement.

    Any parent can tell you: if you don’t enforce your rules with consistency, your kids will not follow those rules.

  32. penguin pete says:

    @sonja: i just meant the pens PP is 0-fer in the playoffs and didn’t go about a real nice way of saying it. i apologize.

  33. martin says:

    Here’s another angle: I’ve a young son who plays hockey and when I watch douchebags like Kunitz and Cooke intentionally aim to hurt (or worse – maim) another player I seriously consider pulling the hockey plug and saving myself 1500/year and not having to worry about pushing him in a wheelchair in the future.

  34. OvieTracker says:

    I give the Penguins huge props for staying competitive and winning consistently after what could have and should have been devastating losses of both Malkin and Crosby. But then my view becomes tainted when I see and read about how some players on their roster like Cooke and Kunitz resort to blatantly dirty tactics. And as much as I admired and respected Mario Lemieux as a player for overcoming health issues to continue playing and then come out of retirement, his approach as owner to overlook the shortcomings of his borderline players makes me question his objectivity.

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