Tuesday’s contest between the Hershey Bliss and the Saskatchewan Shockers was expected to be a fairly humdrum affair between two sub-.500 teams in opposite divisions with no real rivalry with each other. What unfolded instead was a surprisingly physical contest that left both teams furious and calling for suspensions.
“Well, that escalated quickly,” said Shockers LW Troy Chamberlain. “We’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned hate going now.”
The controversy centered primarily on the actions of Saskatchewan’s Mark Clark, a fairly obscure third-line winger. Clark has a reputation as a scrappy player despite his diminutive size. Hoping to neutralize Hershey’s high-scoring “Love Line,” Shockers coach Myron Beasley sent Clark’s third line out to match up against them.
Twice in the first two periods, Clark was whistled for high-sticking against Love Line members. In the first period, Clark went up for a high puck and caught Bliss LW Lance Sweet in the nose. Late in the second, Clark nailed Hershey C Justin Valentine above his left eyebrow. In neither case did Clark draw blood, head referee Scott Jackson assessed Clark a single minor for each offense. The Bliss argued that he should have at least received an additional minor, if not a major, for what they felt were deliberate attempts to injure.
“If it happens once, okay, maybe that’s an accident,” said Bliss coach “Chocolate Chip” Barber. “But twice? And both against our top guys? That’s targeting, and that’s dirty.”
Early in the third period, Sweet got his revenge on Clark, tripping him in front of the Saskatchewan bench. But Clark fell awkwardly against the board and wound up injuring his leg. He didn’t return to the game and is expected to miss at least two weeks.
This time, it was the Shockers who were agitating for a major call, or even an ejection. But again, Jackson only called a tripping minor on Sweet. The crowd at Potash Arena booed lustily as Clark was helped from the ice, and some even tossed beer cups and hot dog wrappers on the ice.
“That was outrageous, the lack of a real call there,” said Beasley. “Our guys hits your guy up high a couple times, doesn’t even draw blood, and so you slew-foot him and put him out for weeks? And all we get is a lousy minor? That’s garbage.”
The crowd was mollified somewhat after Saskatchewan rallied to win the game. But as soon as the final horn sounded, both teams engaged in a shoving match as they skated off the ice.
After the game, both Clark and Sweet defended their actions.
“I play hard, but I play clean,” said Clark. “Sometimes in a game, your stick slips and you hit a guy on accident; that’s hockey. But I’ve never gone out there intending to hurt somebody. But I guess Sweet over there wants to be judge, jury, and executioner.”
“That’s exactly the kind of crap we’re trying to get out of the game,” said Sweet of Clark’s actions. “Send a low-skill thug out there to try to hit the other team’s stars. Yeah, I wanted to send a message, let him know we were onto him and we didn’t appreciate it. He took a bad tumble and wound up hurt. I feel bad about that. But I can’t say I feel that bad. Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
After reviewing tapes of the incident, the league declined to issue suspensions, but did fine both Clark and Sweet $500. “We didn’t see any evidence of reckless play or deliberate attempts to injure,” said SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell. “But both Clark and Sweet engaged in needlessly provocative actions that increased the likelihood of a major incident or serious injury occurring. We’ve warned both teams not to try to resume hostilities the next time they play, and we’ll be talking to all our officials about strategies for de-escalating in situations like that.”
Both teams proclaimed themselves dissatisfied with the league’s decision. It remains to be seen whether tempers will cool off before the teams meet again in two weeks in Hershey.