Update: Since the publication of this story, the NHL has issued the Rangers a $250K fine for their statement criticizing George Parros and the league.
The Wednesday evening Capitals-Rangers game started the usual way, with freshly resurfaced ice, warmups, the national anthem, and all of the other pre-game traditions. But when the teams lined up for the opening faceoff, it wasn’t time for hockey to start just yet, because all six forwards on the ice broke off into three separate fights the moment that the puck dropped.
That’s right: the game started with an old-fashioned line brawl.
Line brawl to start tonight's game between the Rangers and Capitals at MSG pic.twitter.com/52pvvVZHwx— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) May 5, 2021
Now, a fight in an NHL game isn’t anything to write home about on its own (although they’re less common than they used to be), but an entire line getting involved is exceedingly rare. Players dropping gloves before anyone has touched the puck is even less common. This is the hockey world’s rough equivalent to witnessing a whale surface while watching the ocean, or seeing two people on the internet agree about something.
So why were these guys more eager to spill some blood than to, you know, actually play some hockey? It all started on Monday, with a Capitals forward named Tom Wilson.
During the first of the teams’ two-game series, Wilson punched Pavel Buchnevich, who was on the ground in a pile-up following a shot on goal. Several Rangers came to Buchnevich’s defense and targeted Wilson in an ensuing brawl. This larger fight ended with Wilson slamming Rangers star player Artemi Panarin to the ground and continuing to punch him after his helmet popped off. If you’d like to watch the incident and understand it in more detail, I recommend Blueshirt Banter’s breakdown of what exactly happened:
Long story short, many hockey fans agree that Wilson Messed Up. If you still don’t understand why, here’s a pro tip that you may find helpful in life: if you are punching someone who cannot see you or do anything to stop you, that’s not a fair fight! In fact, that’s not even a fight, but probably more of an assault.
Granted, this kind of thing isn’t all that uncommon in the league, and it’s not always treated consistently. Hell, Sidney Crosby did something very similar on Tuesday, slamming Travis Konecny facedown on the ice and continuing to punch him from behind. But the difference in how the hockey world reacted to these two incidents has to do with player reputation: Wilson has a long history of both traditional fights and questionable, dangerous decisions on the ice, including a 2018 head hit that earned him a 20-game suspension. Crosby, on the other hand, is Sidney Crosby.
Inconsistencies aside, it’s clear that the Rangers had a good reason to be unhappy with Wilson, especially since their top scorer was affected. The situation got messier when the NHL announced its punishment for the Caps-Rangers incident: Wilson was fined $5,000, but not suspended, despite the fact he ended Panarin’s season. In response, the Rangers released an unusual statement to express their disagreement with the league’s decision and condemn Wilson’s “horrifying act of violence.”
But since this is the NHL we’re talking about, and because the Capitals were set to meet the Rangers again for another game two days later, the conflict didn’t end there.
Fights are a part of hockey because the mainstream culture around the sport legitimizes it by treating it as a necessary response to dirty play. After all, there’s a reason why a team’s toughest player is typically called their enforcer— the common perception is that these fights happen because the players have some sort of standard to uphold, even if nobody can quite agree on what exactly that standard is.
So because the Rangers likely felt that they had to put their money where their mouth was and respond to the Wilson incident, the entire situation became the perfect storm for a massive line brawl as soon as the Wednesday game began. The two teams even made history, since it was the first regular-season game in league history to include six fights in the first five minutes of play. By the time the first period ended, the teams had a combined 100 penalty minutes. The penalty box, unsurprisingly, got a little bit crowded.
The Capitals went on to win 4-2 with the help of a hat trick from T.J. Oshie, who accomplished the feat in his first game back since the death of his father. Wilson himself left the ice during the second period with an unspecified upper-body injury and did not return.
Whether you’re a fan of hockey fights or not, they’re an intriguing insight into the culture of the game, and it’s clear that this incident will go down as one for the NHL history books.