There’s a lot of emotion in the Vancouver Canucks fanbase right now, and it’s no mystery as to why. Rookie superstar Elias Pettersson—the saviour of the franchise—was injured last night after receiving a stiff check and a veritable bodyslam from Michael Matheson of the Florida Panthers—and nothing happened in response to it.
While Canuck fans are now talking about the viability of retaliation, I’m here to argue that retaliation has already occurred: Matheson’s actions were retaliatory in nature, and a clear reaction to Pettersson dominating Matheson throughout the game. In other words, Pettersson got hurt by an inferior player because he was way better at hockey than them, and that should absolutely set Canuck fans’ blood to boil.
Elias Pettersson Embarrassed Michael Matheson All Night Long—And Matheson Retaliated With A Cheapshot
Early on in the game, Pettersson’s check-avoiding wizardry was on full display, and Matheson was the unfortunate victim:
At this point, one has to presume that Matheson’s coach told him he’d be matching up with the Pettersson line all game, and Matheson presumably let out a heavy sigh and prepared for more shifts like this:
It wasn’t just Elias himself frustrating Matheson, either, as evidenced by his tripping penalty against Nikolay Goldobin in the second period after getting overwhelmed yet again:
Who was on the ice as Pettersson sniped his fifth goal of the year? Why, none other than Michael Matheson—crouching idly by as Petey blew one right past him:
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 14, 2018
Of course, just moments before the incident, Pettersson broke Matheson’s ankles with a spin move at the half-wall, and that seemed to be the last straw for Matheson, who retaliated a moment later:
— Sporting News Canada (@sportingnewsca) October 14, 2018
Again, the initial hit on Pettersson, though it was clearly retaliatory, was justifiable—even if it contained a bit of a “can-opener.” The hurling of Pettersson to the ice by way of his face, long after the puck had departed the area, was less so, and far from a typical hockey play. It was a cheapshot—and one with a clear retaliatory narrative at that:
Here is a slow motion of the Matheson/Pettersson hit as it will be the most talked about clip of the game. pic.twitter.com/5HTGEVVpED
— Wyatt Arndt (@TheStanchion) October 14, 2018
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out why this narrative is so frustrating for Canuck fans. Elias Pettersson started the season by absolutely dominating opponents with his superior skill-level, and that led directly to a retaliatory cheap shot that resulted in a head injury. In other words, Pettersson was punished for being better at hockey than Michael Matheson, and that’s infuriating for a franchise that doesn’t have all that much “superior skill” to get excited about.
To make matters worse, one of the referees was a few feet away from the incident when it occurred—and did nothing. The Canucks weren’t even lucky enough to receive a powerplay opportunity to seal the win, and the fanbase is already preparing for a typically underwhelming response from the Department of Player Safety after a scheduled phone hearing. The Panthers will likely be without Matheson for a game or two at the most, whereas Vancouver could be missing Pettersson for weeks. This hardly feels like justice.
Pettersson seemed destined to be one of the few bright spots in the 2018/19 season, and he probably still will be, but for now, his story has turned into a negative one—yet another incident to throw on the contentious pile of history between the Vancouver Canucks and the National Hockey League. This fanbase has suffered indignities at the behest of the league before, but this one hurts even more than usual.
Is Retaliation The Answer?
I believe it was Mohandas Gandhi who famously noted that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” but one can only assume that—if the Mahatma himself were in attendance at last night’s game in Sunrise, Florida—he’d be hopping up and down with the rest of us shouting for “someone to rip that Matheson guy’s eyes right out of his goddamn head!”
Unfortunately, Canuck fans have some additional wisdom to consider when thinking about the pros and cons of retaliatory violence. Retaliation is an undeniable aspect of hockey culture, but it’s also the line of thought that brought us incidents like Todd Bertuzzi on Steve Moore, Marty McSorley on Donald Brashear, and Jesse Boulerice on Ryan Kesler. As a franchise that has been on both sides of the vengeance-seeking routine, Vancouverites know that such vindictive endeavours rarely work out in the favour of anyone involved—just ask Travis Hamonic’s face—and more often than not lead to nothing more than a black eye on the sport of hockey.
In fact, Antoine Roussel’s specific words about waiting for the rematch at Rogers Arena to exact revenge on Matheson should send a shiver down the spine of any Canuck supporter, as that’s the exact reasoning that was used by the team before Bertuzzi broke Moore’s neck. Even if nobody is planning to put Matheson in traction, it’s still a line of thinking that doesn’t really work. The teams don’t play again until January, which means the dark cloud of the Matheson cheapshot will hang over the team for at least that long. The emotions will fester, and the possibility for excessive violence will increase—especially if Vancouver struggles in the superstar rookie’s absence. In the meantime, Pettersson will presumably return to action, and opponents will yet to have seen any real reason why they can’t throw him around in a similar fashion.
One can certainly understand where coach Travis Green as coming from when he instructed his players to go for the win rather than revenge, but most in the fanbase would agree that protecting Pettersson is indefinitely more important than earning any number of points in the 2018/19 season. Obviously, an NHL head coach probably can’t get away with publicly saying such a thing, but that doesn’t mean he made the right call, either.
No one should be advocating for a retaliatory cheapshot or any other attempt to injure Matheson for his actions against Pettersson. But one has to imagine that the Canucks would have been willing and motivated to kill a two-minute instigator penalty to Roussel for forcing Matheson into a fight—and then Matheson would have a slightly sorer face and the entire incident would be over and done with. It’s easy to agree with Green’s comment that his players shouldn’t be “running around” in a 3-2 hockey game, but they also should have been going over and above to finish their checks on each of the notable Panthers, like Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck.
In short, the Canucks can’t afford to not send a message that an opposing team can get away with injuring their young stars on purpose. If the refs are going to let Matheson get off scot-free—despite standing a couple of feet away while he bodyslammed Pettersson—then the onus falls to the Canucks themselves to send that message. Again, this isn’t meant to advocate for some sort of retaliatory cheap shot. Instead, Matheson should have a black eye today and Barkov should be hurting from a few extra bone-rattling checks. If that had happened, Vancouver would still be without Pettersson—but at least we wouldn’t be spending all this time fretting about the team culture, or lack thereof.