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Speaking of Steelheads Scraps

Tuesday, May 17th
Speaking of Steelheads Scraps

For several days, sports highlights and debate shows have been enthralled with the on-field fisticuffs between Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers’ Rougned Odor on Sunday afternoon. After a hard slide into second base by Bautista, the Toronto slugger and Rangers’ second baseman squared off in the infield before both benches emptied.

One punch was landed in the altercation, with Odor’s blow to Bautista’s cheek well-circulated on the internet. Conversation quickly turned to retaliation, suspension, and whether such settling of scores had ‘a place in the game’. For some that conversation naturally brought in fighting in hockey, though the baseball brawl would hardly have registered on the Richter scale compared to the tamest of hockey bouts.

It’s impossible to compare the two sports, whether talking about the traditions of the games or the men who play them, but the underlying competitive drive of all athletes does lend to tempers flaring and emotions boiling over. If Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham were the manager of either ball club, he would not have had an issue with either player.

“No I don’t. I think stemming back to the original bat flip, there is a lot of emotion in all professional sports. It was an exciting time and sometimes you do things that people take exception to,” said Graham, referencing the Bautista home run celebration in last year’s playoffs that planted the seeds for the weekend’s festivities.

“Hockey is no different. Things escalate and guys take exception but I have no problem with either side of it. A couple of punches were thrown and one was landed and it’s not the end of the world. Everyone moves on and its part of the intensity we want from our athletes. You don’t want to remove the passion from sports.”

Fighting in hockey has long been accepted, though in recent years it has come under more scrutiny. “Staged fights” between players have decreased dramatically across all levels of professional hockey, but scraps still occur regularly. In most cases they start for reason’s much like they did in Arlington, with players either settling a wrong or standing up for a teammate.

“You need to have an element that allows players to police themselves because it keeps the game played the right way,” said Graham. “You want the game to be physical and hard-hitting, and if there is a cheap shot that isn’t called we know that refs are human too and that they don’t get everything. It allows players to stick up for one another.”

The Steelheads had 29 fighting majors during the regular season, led by Andrew Carroll’s nine, along with three more in the post-season. The Steelheads weren’t a team that fought often, but they were a team to drop the gloves when the time was right. When a player takes it upon himself to answer the bell at the right time and for the right reasons, Graham says it certainly can be a boost for the team.

“To see a teammate willing to fight for his guys and fight for the game is absolutely huge,” said Graham. “Fighting is not an easy job at all. People don’t always realize how difficult it is to actually drop the gloves and go toe-to-toe with another player. To see a guy stick up for you and battle, of course it’s huge. He’s willing to sacrifice his own well-being for a teammate. There’s nothing easy about it and there’s a definite lift when you see a teammate willing to do that.”

Whether or not the Odor-Bautista altercation was appropriate, it did highlight something increasingly clear between the Rangers and Blue Jays over the last seven months- they authentically dislike each other. That mutual dislike appears less common among pro athletes than it used to be, but Graham believes it’s an important mentality for success.

“I don’t believe there’s any other way to play. My players know I don’t like them talking to former teammates or buddies during the morning skate or during a game day. There is no buddy-buddy because that’s our enemy for the night,” said Graham. “And after the weekend is over if they want to grab a bite to eat that’s totally fine, but when it’s game time the focus is the game. We don’t have friends on the other team, and I don’t want that element to leave sports. There has to be an element of hatred and dislike to bring out the best in your competitiveness and athletic ability. Friends are for after a series is over.”

A Blue Jays fan like Graham knows that the debate over dropping the gloves and dropping the baseball glove will die down in a few days, but it did serve as a reminder of what hockey players already know- competitive fire is real and players of all sports know that not all rules of engagement are written in the book.

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