Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sutton's Hit

In my last post, I wrote about how Andy Sutton ruined my Thanksgiving in 2006. On Tuesday, the New York Islander did far worse to Pittsburgh Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis, with whom he played in both Minnesota and Atlanta.

I don't mean to make light of the situation. For those who haven't seen the grisly video, it's available on YouTube. Let's hope that Dupuis comes out of this without any ill effects.

I've seen at least one story written by someone whom I respect who attests to Sutton's character, saying that that likely will be taken into consideration in assessing any additional discipline than the game misconduct he received on Tuesday.

Sutton certainly is no Todd Bertuzzi, but he does have his own history. I covered Sutton for years in Atlanta and got to know him pretty well. Let's say his personality is fairly complex. In terms of book smarts, he's probably one of the more intelligent players in the NHL. He once told me that he was an environmental engineering major in college at Michigan Tech -- how many pro hockey players can say that? -- and that the possibility of playing hockey professionally did not seem to be a serious option for him until he reached his junior season, so, until then, he had focused mainly on his education. Also, he is a fairly sensitive when it comes to criticism, a reputation he earned in Atlanta from both coaches and media alike.

Amid all this, he can be guilty of some of the worst mental lapses on the ice -- the kind that would infuriate coaches and teammates. I'll note a few, including some that include questionable hits.

The first that comes to mind was not a hit but still ranks among the dumbest things I've ever seen a hockey player do on the ice. The Thrashers had won three out of four following a six-game losing streak. They were finishing up a seven-game road trip in Philadelphia on Feb. 21, 2004, and had fought hard to rally from a 3-0 deficit to play to a 4-4 tie with 61 seconds left in regulation. On a relatively harmless 2-on-2, Sutton was playing left defense. John LeClair had broken his stick in the Thrashers' zone and it lay there for several minutes, not having been removed from the ice. Sutton used his stick to flip the broken one at the puck carrier, Simon Gagne, to dislodge the puck. The officials immediately awarded Gagne a penalty shot and he scored for a 5-4 victory. Ilya Kovalchuk received a gross misconduct penalty at 20:00 of the third period. Marc Savard smashed his stick at the boards.

Here's what Sutton said after the game: "We looked at the tape, and it was the right call. I was mostly upset because the stick sat there for so long. Usually those guys pick the stick up. I think both the referee and the linesman -- although I think they made the right call -- I think they both skated by the stick a couple of times. I was just mad because it sat there and I could have tripped over it just as easily and he could have come in and scored that way. "They made the right call. It was unfortunate it came in a tie game with a minute left."

The tone sounds somewhat similar to what a repentant Sutton told reporters after Tuesday's game: "Just playing my usual game, trying to play hard, finish checks. I feel awful. I've played with Pascal. I've known him a long time. I obviously never intended for that happen."

The next incident that comes to mind will figure most prominently in what NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell chooses to do in whether to hand Sutton a suspension. I was not present that night (I was attending a friend's wedding) but the Thrashers lost to Toronto 9-1 in October 2005. Sutton's hit on Darcy Tucker that night was remarkably similar to the one he delivered on Dupuis on Tuesday, except that Tucker had the good fortune not to hit his head on the dasher. Nonetheless, Tucker required 20 stitches and Sutton was suspended for four games.

I remember the explanation I was given at the time was that when the 6-foot-6 Sutton went to deliver the blow with his arms they were at the same level as the head of the 5-foot-10 Tucker. (Here's the video.) I guess Campbell did not believe that one. Because the opponent was Toronto, which receives the most media coverage in the NHL, and Leafs coach Pat Quinn loudly complained afterward, the Thrashers started to receive a reputation for playing like goons. Here's what Sutton said about that perception: "I think it's totally inaccurate. When I was playing against Toronto, in no shape or way was I trying to hurt anyone. I play hard."

It's understandable -- though not acceptable -- when players get frustrated in a big loss and make some errors in discipline. What's harder to understand is when they do it in a game that they're winning. That is what eventually touched off the 2006 Thanksgiving Eve brawl with Washington -- Sutton's head-hunting of Mike Green in a game the Thrashers were in command of and ended with 176 penalty minutes. Sutton received a double-minor for roughing and high-sticking at 18:38 of the third period with the Thrashers up 4-2.

And that game had something of a precedent. The previous season in a game against Washington in which the Thrashers were less than a minute away from victory, Sutton delivered a thunderous check along the boards to Washington defenseman Ivan Majesky, Sutton's teammate in Atlanta in 2003-04. The hit was legal, but completely unnecessary -- the kind that serves only to infuriate opponents and display questionable judgment.

The point is that this list of incidents is not akin to anything done by Donald Brashear, who has a long history of suspensions. It is not to equate Sutton to the likes of Brashear -- to the contrary, Sutton has proven himself as a fairly productive top four defenseman on his last two teams and he is an important piece on a surprising Islanders team that is in the Eastern Conference's playoff race.

But it does show that Sutton has something of a history as a result of lapses of judgment more than malice. With hits to the head becoming a bigger issue for the NHL, this is exactly the type of incident on which Campbell could take a stand. How much of a stand is up to him and what he makes of Sutton's history.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. You know, there's a reason some of us Thrashers fans called Sutton the "Big Dumb Rock."