On paper, the New York Night are in decent shape at the season’s halfway point. They have one of the most powerful offenses in the league, particularly their high-scoring top line. They’ve combined that potent attack with just enough defense and goaltending to be competitive in most games. They remain within striking distance in the struggling East.
But games aren’t played on paper, and at ice level, things aren’t looking good for the Night. The team has gone into a skid over the last couple weeks, dropping their last seven in a row. Not only that, but there’s friction in the locker room as well, as one of the team’s stars publicly attacked the coach this week.
The comments were made by D Tuomas Nurmi, arguably New York’s top defenseman. He is strong offensively (being in the Top 5 in the SHL in assists) and, unlike many Night players, is also solid in his own end. Nurmi’s excellent play this year has been key to the Night’s relative success early in the season.
However, observers have noticed a curious trend in recent weeks: Nurmi has gotten into a lot of fights lately. In the last 11 games, the defenseman has racked up six fighting majors, including three this week alone. League observers found this odd, as Nurmi doesn’t have a reputation as an enforcer and almost never starts fights. After Friday’s 4-3 loss to Dakota, in which Nurmi got into yet another tussle, a reporter asked him about it. Nurmi’s response was an indictment of coach Preston Rivers as well as his teammates.
“I don’t like fighting,” said Nurmi, “but I will do it when I must.” He then explained that other teams frequently harassed the Night, and implied that Rivers’ regular boasting and taunting was to blame. “We have a coach who acts like a bully,” said Nurmi. “He is always shouting about how great he is and how bad the other teams are, and it paints a target on our backs. Some teams are good enough to get away with this boasting, but we are not.”
Nurmi added that he found himself in so many fights because his teammates refused to do it. “Other teams push us around and wait for a response,” said Nurmi. “Everyone looks down and runs away, so they keep doing it. I must fight back, because someone must stand up.”
Nurmi said that as long as Rivers is coach, “we will be targeted. And as long as no one else will stand up, I will continue to fight. I am taking the punches that other teams want to throw at our coach.”
Predictably, Rivers expressed no remorse and showed no signs of backing down when told of Nurmi’s comments. “Everybody wants to take a shot at the king,” said Rivers. “When you play in a market like New York, it comes with the territory. Being a New Yorker means being willing to scrap. Tuomas gets that, and more power to him. I wish more of our guys did.”
The coach’s bravado notwithstanding, Nurmi’s comments are the latest sign that Rivers’ act is starting to wear thin in the Night locker room. LW Chase Winchester implicitly agreed with Nurmi, saying, “There’s no doubt that we take a lot of garbage from other teams, and I know the things Coach Rivers says are a part of that. We know that it’s sort of a heel act to some degree, to get us fired up, but other teams don’t see it like that.” When asked if life would be easier for the Night if Rivers toned down his public comment, Winchester chuckled and said, “Gee, ya think? He won’t. He is who he is.”
Night GM Royce McCormick stood behind Rivers in a statement, saying, “We’re confident that we have a championship organization, and that Preston Rivers is the man to run it. The organization remains confident in him and the success yet to come.”
But if the Night stumble to a mediocre finish and Rivers’ mouth continues to cause problems for the players, will that change? According to an anonymous player, the coach may already have lost the team. “We all know that he’s a carnival barker,” said the player. “He’s always running his mouth and getting his name in the paper. We’ve learned to tune it out, but Tuomas is right: we wind up paying for what he says.”
In the meantime, will any of Nurmi’s teammates stand up and fight with him? “I hope so,” said the defenseman. “My hands are becoming too sore.”