Time For This ‘Tradition’ To End

The ridiculous tradition of throwing predefined objects onto the ice at symbolic moments of a college hockey game finally had a major impact in a key playoff contest last weekend. It is time to end this absurdity once and for all.

During the second game of the SUNYAC semifinals pitting archrivals Plattsburgh and Oswego, an errant bagel in the third period resulted in a bench minor for delay of game to the home team. During the ensuing power play, Plattsburgh scored to take a 4-2 lead, effectively killing any momentum Oswego had, and ultimately preventing the Lakers from trying to salvage their season.

Whenever these two teams get together, the home fans throw objects onto the ice when their team scores the first goal. In Plattsburgh, it’s tennis balls, because the color represents the color of the road uniforms Oswego wore one year. When the Cardinals travel to Oswego, Lakers fans reciprocate by throwing bagels on the ice, in a symbolic gesture of feeding the birds.

Each time, a long delay is created as the debris is cleaned up. Each time, the home team loses a lot, if not all, of the momentum it gained by scoring the goal. Each time, an announcement is made that if any more debris is thrown onto the ice, then a delay of game penalty will be assessed to the home team.

In this particular game, Oswego scored the first goal in the opening period. Bagels went flying. A long delay followed. An announcement was made.

Plattsburgh scored the next three goals to take a 3-1 lead. At the 8:38 mark of the final period, Oswego scored to cut it to one. A lone bagel was thrown onto the ice. An Oswego player quickly scooped it up in hopes the officials didn’t see it, and threw it back into the crowd.

Plattsburgh complained to the referees, and after some discussion, they called a penalty.

Oswego, having lost the night before, needed to win this game to force a deciding mini-game. The penalty and the subsequent goal, helped erase all hope.

Needless to say, the decision to call the penalty created quite a controversy.

“I hated it since it started,” Oswego coach Ed Gosek said. “Let that fan come tell the board and guys that it was important to throw the bagel on the ice. Let him tell them how to end their career here on another power-play goal.”

I picture the scene from Mystery, Alaska where a player had to face the music from his teammates for breaking the sanctity of the locker room by repeating what was said to his girlfriend. He was forced to slide bare-bottomed across the ice.

“You at least get it within one and you get things going,” an emotional Gosek said. “I’m disappointed in our fans for throwing stuff, but at the same time it’s one bagel. It doesn’t delay the game. It doesn’t affect what’s going on. But then Andy Petrus decides he’s got to make an issue of it.

“Let him go tell our seniors why he called a penalty to put us down a man. Let him explain it. If there’s 100 bagels that’s one thing. But when it’s one it doesn’t affect anything. Our player picked it up and came to the bench with it, but he feels a need to make an issue out of it. I’m very disappointed in his judgment on it.”

It is impossible to argue with the way Gosek felt, or even debate his logic. However, the announcement was clear. It said, any debris. There was no “m” in front of “any.”

I’m reminded of the time when we were all children — and this is an apt metaphor since it was such a childish act that caused all this — and our parents want to get us to do something. They’ll yell at you, “Go put that toy away before I count to three!”

Then, they say, “One!” And you sit there. “Two!” No movement. “Two and a half!” Still motionless. “Two and three quarters!” You jump up and put the toy away because it is at that point you know that the infamous “three” is coming next, and you will face a spanking. If your parents were the sort who went as far as 2 7/8, then you waited till that point.

The referee counted to three, without stopping at 2 1/2 and 2 3/4. When the bagels were first released, that was one. Many people didn’t notice, but at the end of the first period, a bagel was thrown onto the ice. Oswego quickly picked it up, but there is no doubt the ref saw it. Plattsburgh players talked to the officials, but they chose to ignore it. That was two. The bagel in the third period was three.

I agree with Gosek. One bagel doesn’t delay the game. But that is not the point. Where do you draw the line? Gosek said 100 bagels is bad. True. What about 50? 10? Five? Do you allow as many bagels as there are Oswego players on the ice because they can each grab one and not waste time? So, that would be six. But, if they are shorthanded, then it can only be five. If someone is injured, then you better make it four.

The line was drawn. And that line was one. It was made abundantly clear.

After the game, someone was telling me that the ref should not have allowed the game to be decided like this. He should have allowed the players to decide the game on the ice.

This is hard to disagree with, also. It is not like a close call on the ice that can be debated either way. It was clearly a case of whether to to allow an outside influence to affect the game. Last year, the same thing happened, but the ref chose to ignore the bagel and did not call a penalty.

College is where you learn many of life’s lessons. And the lessons that are the most effective are the most painful ones. You are free to act in any manner you wish, but you are not free from the consequences of those actions.

The ref could have ignored it. He also could have called it. This time, he decided to teach one of those painful lessons. This time, he counted to three.

“We have the same problem with our fans, too,” Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery said. “They’re not too bright sometimes. It’s usually not your loyal fans. It’s those fans that just come up for that one game. That’s too bad. But we’ve got the same problem, and it happened to us, but it happened in a less severe game.”

Again, I can’t disagree with Emery. However, I believe he misses a key point. It is not the one fan who doesn’t understand the proper etiquette. It is all the fans who originally throw debris because by doing so, they set the mentality in place that it is okay to throw stuff on the ice. The die is cast.

It’s like pulling the pin on a hand grenade, and then hoping you can hold the handle. Eventually, your hand gets tired, and it slips. The explosion was not the result of a tired hand — it was caused by originally pulling the pin. The key is to never allow the pin to be pulled.

“Coach Eddie Gosek and I sat down at our SUNYAC meeting and asked the other SUNYAC coaches what can we do to stop the bagels and tennis balls,” Emery said. “We don’t want them. We don’t want them.”

There is a way to stop this once and for all — use extreme measures. There was once a tradition in college basketball many years ago. The home fans would hold up newspapers when the visitors were announced, as if to ignore the other team. Afterwards, the fans would tear up the newspapers, and when the home team scored their first basket, a shower of confetti would rain down on the court. Sometimes streamers and rolls of toilet paper were thrown in for good measure. Admittedly, it was quite a sight.

However, it caused long delays in cleanup and of course an announcement was made that if it happened again, the home team would be assessed a technical foul. Eventually, the NCAA got tired of it, and set into motion rules to stop it once and for all. Any debris, including the first time, thrown onto the court resulted in an automatic technical foul. Fans caught throwing the debris were ejected from the arena.

Needless to say, that tradition ended as quickly as it started.

This is what the SUNYAC needs to do: swift and stern punishment. The first time something is thrown on the ice, assess a minor. Heck, go even further and think outside the box. If the cleanup takes less than two minutes, it’s a minor. If the cleanup takes more than two minutes, it’s a double minor. The next time it happens, make it a major penalty. Throw out anyone who throws objects, and if it is a student, suspend them from the college.

Cruel and unusual punishment? Absolutely. But trust me, it will be effective.

If that still doesn’t stop it, then do what they did once in the famed Bowdoin-Colby rivalry when fan behavior got out of hand — ban the fans from the game.

All the excuses and reasons and traditions cited for why it is okay in certain times to throw stuff on the ice don’t hold water. Fans are supposed to cheer, yell, and scream in support of their team, not become actively involved in the outcome. No other sport allows for this sort of behavior, so why should hockey? This behavior has to stop, here and now.

So pervasive is the acceptance of this tradition that shirts proclaiming “Bagel Night ’06” were available for sale.

Well, I have to congratulate those Oswego fans. They had the foresight to create a keepsake that will forever enable them to remember the time they helped their team lose the last game ever in the Romney Field House.