Maybe it's YouTube, maybe it's robust dental plans in recent CBAs, or maybe it's that being a pest is safer and more lucrative than being a fighter these days. But biting in the NHL has become a thing.
The details of the latest incident are to be hashed out at a league disciplinary hearing, but Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski is accused of biting the forearm of Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty in a scrum when their teams met Saturday night. [Update on this: After his hearing, the NHL announced Grabovsky will not be disciplined.]
Whether biting is ever cool is a matter of situational opinion, and probably depends on your sympathy for Grabovski as Pacioretty appeared to try to dislodge Grabovski's head from his No. 84 Maple Leafs jersey, attached torso be damned. It's a good bet that the proper answer is "Never, ever bite," but if there's a situation where it's at least understandable, it's when an opponent has all but given you the opening by stuffing your face with his hand.
Which brings us to the history of biting incidents in the NHL.
With the rise of "pests" or "agitators" and the threat of an instigator penalty for fighting, certain players have made a small side business out of extending post-whistle scrums by administering face washes and other seedy methods of physically harassing an opponent while seeking the safe harbor of linesmen.
The agitator ethos reasons something like this: If it takes two willing combatants to start a fight without an instigator penalty, and if referees will allow facewashing and such, then why not do it? You don't have to fight, and you might earn a powerplay if the other guy snaps.
Is that how biting comes about? Maybe.
Biting in the NHL: A Brief History
1984-85: There aren't a lot of documented 20th century biting incidents in the NHL. A notable one came between two former teammates in October 1984: Boston Bruins agitator -- he was known as "The Rat" -- Ken Linseman was fined for biting Edmonton Oilers defenseman Lee Fogolin, after the two had won a Stanley Cup together the previous spring.
1989-90: Dave Manson and Scott Stevens were embroiled in an ugly encounter in 1990 that saw both get three-game suspensions: Manson for biting, Stevens for eye gouging. Both claimed self-defense. (This wasn't the first time biting was claimed as self-defense for biting. Chris Chelios admitted to biting Tomas Sandstrom 15 years after the fact, claiming Sandstrom gouged his eyes first.)
2003-04: While playing with the Atlanta Thrashers, Marc Savard -- a skilled player many nonetheless did not like -- is suspended one game for biting Darcy Tucker, an agitator almost no one liked, but one who would drop the gloves periodically. In this incident, Tucker's hands were in Savard's face -- Savard claimed Tucker jabbed his finger in a "mouth hold" -- for quite a while during a scrum before Savard's jaw could take no more.
After the 2005 lockout wiped an entire season from the books, the NHL entered what the CBC called the "golden era of NHL biting." The CBC cites no fewer than six alleged incidents, with the accused including Scott Hartnell, Derian Hatcher, Brooks Laich, Shaone Morrisonn, Jordin Tootoo, and one more that rhymes with "Tootoo."
2008-09: The NHL went several seasons and a whole lockout before its next biting incident, but it also involved a much-hated pest. This time the pest was also the biter, as Ottawa Senators forward Jarkko Ruutu was accused of biting Buffalo Sabres enforcer Andrew Peters, ripping his glove off and piercing the skin of Peters' thumb.
In this case, Peters was the one doing the facewashing, probably knowing full well Ruutu would not drop his gloves. Ruutu denied the bite but received a two-game suspension.
2009-10: Oh no, is this becoming more common? During the 2010 playoffs, Savard was involved in an alleged biting incident again. This time his accuser was Philadelphia Flyers pest Daniel Carcillo, who got a lot of media out of what he claims was a bite, saying "men don't bit men." Investigation was inconclusive, and Savard received no disciplinary action.
But Carcillo certainly placed his hand and fingers in the danger zone, the mouth where Tucker's finger once tread. Carcillo, like Tucker before him, was an agitator who would also fight but was unlikely to lure Savard into one involving fists.
2010-11: Ye gods, biting has even invaded the Stanley Cup Finals. In 2011, Vancouver Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows was accused -- and pretty clearly guilty -- of biting the finger of Patrice Bergeron. The NHL, however, did not find the evidence conclusive and did not discipline Burrows.
Now Grabovski has chomped out his own biting legacy, though it's clear in his case, as with most of these incidents, it starts with an opponent putting his hand in the alleged biter's face. Particularly among the fight-averse agitators, it may be too much to ask these players to fight out their differences the old school way by dropping their gloves.
But if they shove their hands in each other's face while seeking fight-free shelter from the linesmen, those gloves obviously don't offer full protection.