Rick Rypien Goes Wild in Minnesota: What’s the Right Punishment?

There are a slew of unwritten rules that govern the action in various sports. Whether it’s not touching the Stanley Cup unless you have won it in hockey, or not talking to a pitcher who is in the process of pitching a perfect game in baseball, there are certain codes of conduct that guys adhere to when they are in the arena of competition.

One rule that is common for all sports is that players do not lash out at fans. Scores of athletes over the years have felt the stinging rebuke from fans and officials alike after they criticize, spit at, or even physically confront hecklers and various other doofuses that populate arenas and stadiums.

Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien joined that special group on Tuesday night, when he went after a fan after being assessed a 10 minute major penalty in a game against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Video evidence clearly shows that Rypien was being heckled by a fan, who was mock applauding him as he walked toward the dressing room, and he lunged into the stands and started pulling the fan down towards him. The altercation ended quickly, however, as the fan was pulled back into the stands and Rypien was escorted down the tunnel.

Speaking after the game, Manny Malhotra had to this to say about the skirmish:

“There’s boundaries that should never be crossed. We’re in our area of work,” he said. “We’re all for the hooting and hollering and supporting your team and saying whatever is tasteful. But as soon as you cross that line and want to become physical with a player then we have to make sure we take care of ourselves.”

Thankfully the fan was not injured in the assault (and that’s exactly what this was), and Rypien is going to be hearing from Colin Campbell really soon, considering that the Canucks are taking the ice again tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center.

Before we get to the punishment portion of the program, there are a few factors that need to be taken into account.

Rick Rypien (Wikimedia Commons)

Factor #1: The Fan Involved Did Not Go After Rypien in Any Physical Fashion

The fan involved was mock applauding Rypien, and while he may have said something off-color, he did not physically go after Rypien like Malhotra seems to be insinuating. Multiple reports have surfaced that the fan was removed from the section near the Canucks’ bench, but was not removed from the building itself, leading the observer to believe that security officials did not hold the fan involved responsible in the incident.

Factor #2: The Fan Involved Was Egging on a Player Who Had Just Been in a Heated Situation on the Ice

Rypien was clearly not in his right mind when he was headed off the ice, and a fan mocking him in a disrespectful way could certainly have set him off. We’ve all had moments in life where we are mad at something else, and a trigger happens that sets us off on a third party. This doesn’t justify his actions by any stretch, but it is something to consider.

Factor #3: No Matter the Circumstances, Leagues Are Not Tolerant of Fan-Player Altercations

Back in the 1970’s, a full scale brawl erupted at Madison Square Garden when a Bruins player was struck with a rolled up program, and another player had a stick stolen. In the ensuing fracas, several Bruins players went into the stands and fought with fans, and three of the players involved were suspended, but none for more than eight games.

In 2005, Ron Artest went into the stands at The Palace at Auburn Hills after a fan hit him with a cup of beer as he lay on top of the scorer’s table. The full scale brawl that ensued resulted in Artest being suspended for the remainder of the season and several other players receiving lengthy suspensions as well.

These two examples show where the various sports leagues stand on altercations nowadays. In an era where nearly every game is televised, and an economic climate that is causing fans to be increasingly tight with their wallets and teams to be uber-cautious about alienating them, leagues are not going to tolerate any player that hurts their image, and athlete-on-fan violence, regardless of cause, will be looked at with intense scrutiny.

With those three factors in mind, Rypien should receive a suspension of no less than 10 games for his conduct. It doesn’t matter what the fan said to Rick; he was completely wrong to have lunged after the guy. It was an attack that was fueled by residual rage from an on-ice incident, but that is no excuse to physically go after someone.

It may seem hackneyed to say, but if Joe Schmo on the street went after someone in a physical manner for something that was said, no matter how vile, the attacker would be charged with assault and battery.

While Malhotra’s defense of Rypien was likely just an example of teammates looking out for each other, he was dead wrong in insinuating in any way that Rick was at all justified in what he did. His actions were completely out of line, and the league needs to punish him severely for his horrific lack of judgment and common sense.

Any suspension that is not in the double digits in terms of games banned would be way too lenient in this situation. The league needs to send forth a clear message to both players and fans alike that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.

Knowing the league and the “Wheel of Justice”, however, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rypien walk away with a significantly lower suspension than the one advocated here. If the league is serious about changing its image and making sports fans take the NHL seriously, then Rypien needs to have the book thrown at him. If Nick Boynton and James Wisniewski can be suspended for gestures, then attacking a fan certainly warrants a way more serious punishment.

In an era where every suspension is debated ad nauseum, this incident is a rare one where most of the hockey world can agree. Let’s hope that Colin Campbell’s Wheel of Justice lands on the right space.