This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 29, 2009

Rashomon Hockey

In director Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, the story of a violent crime unfolds in flashback from the perspective of four different characters. A notorious bandit overcomes a husband and wife, killing him and raping her, but at the bandit’s trial, four different versions of the story emerge from four different witnesses — including the dead husband, as conveyed by a psychic.

With the four different versions of events, the audience is left to draw its own conclusions about the crime.

In the aftermath of the hit on Wolverine Steve Kampfer at the end of the MSU-UM game last Saturday night, college hockey fans are left a similar task.

These are the facts of what happened near the one-minute mark in Michigan’s 5-3 win over Michigan State last Saturday night:

• Kampfer skated out of the Wolverine zone to collide with Spartan Corey Tropp at center ice just after Tropp took a pass from Brandon Gentile.
• The hit spun Tropp backwards and completely around, after which he landed chest-down on the ice and lost the puck.
• Spartan Andrew Conboy caught up to Kampfer along the boards in the UM zone and from behind hauled Kampfer down, Conboy’s arm around Kampfer’s neck.
• Tropp skated in and slashed twice in the area of Kampfer’s neck or head when Kampfer was prone on the ice.
• At 19:05, Conboy was assessed a double-minor for roughing.
• At 19:05, Tropp was assessed a five-minute penalty for slashing and two game disqualifications.

It was a moment that ruined the first truly excellent game this season between these two archrivals. In the aftermath of that moment, college hockey fans have spun and re-spun a tale that varies from perspective to perspective. Even writing about that moment makes me a little queasy because I don’t want to add to the already sensationalized coverage the event has received.

There are other facts that color our interpretation of that hit, things that happened both before and after the moment.

There’s the fact that Steve Kampfer was assaulted in mid-November and Wolverine football player Michael Milano has been charged with that assault. In fact, Kampfer testified today in a hearing in Washtenaw County District Court about the matter. As a result of that attack, Kampfer suffered a cracked skull and injured neck and missed the first half of this hockey season.

There’s the fact that Kampfer left Yost Ice Arena for the hospital on a gurney, his neck in a brace, as a precaution.

There’s the fact that Kampfer’s father, Bruce, entered the MSU locker room and physically confronted Tropp after the game. In fact, the Ann Arbor News is reporting today that the University of Michigan has issued the elder Kampfer an official trespass order, barring him from entering any UM buildings except for the University’s hospital “as necessary.”

There’s the fact that Michigan State head coach Rick Comley immediately told Michigan head coach Red Berenson that he would deal with the situation — immediately, as when the two shook hands post-game.

There’s the fact that last Monday MSU suspended both Conboy and Tropp for the remainder of the season, including the playoffs. When the suspension was announced, Comley was clear about where he and MSU hockey stood. “What happened near the end of the game this weekend is not the way in which we want our hockey program represented. We cannot condone their actions.”

There’s the fact that neither Conboy nor Tropp remains on campus at Michigan State. Conboy dropped out of school completely. The freshman from Rosemount, Minn., was a fifth-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2007, and it’s unclear whether he’ll sign or transfer to another school. Tropp (Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.) is biding his time with the Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL), where he played from 2005-07. Comley has said that the Spartans will discuss Tropp’s future with MSU hockey at the end of this season.

There’s the fact that the entire Michigan student section chanted, “F— you, State!” repeatedly after the on-ice incident, loudly enough to be heard quite clearly while televised. There’s also the fact that the University of Michigan has allowed this same student section to end its penalty-box chant with another, equally profane word for at least a couple of seasons, a word that I won’t even attempt to approximate in print.

These are the facts of the incident and its aftermath. Facts. Then there’s the spin.

Not surprisingly, the Ann Arbor News is calling today for a full police investigation of the on-ice incident, insisting that “there’s an additional question of whether any laws have been broken.” This editorial comes as various news outlets have reported today that the Ann Arbor police have decided not to purse any criminal charges against Conboy and Tropp.

That the Ann Arbor News editorial refers to the incident as an “attack” is one thing, but other news outlets have also used the word in reference to the incident. “UM Police Won’t Seek Charges in Hockey Attack” reads the headline from the Associated Press today. “Michigan State Player Leaves School after Attacking Opponent” reads the headline from USA Today today.

While the AP headline at least implies that the incident was on ice, the USA Today headline is pure sensationalism. When the paper first reported a story about the assault on Kampfer last November, the headline read, “Michigan Hockey Player Injured in Off-Ice Incident.”

So, to be clear: What happened Saturday night on the ice — according to those who write headlines for USA Today — was an attack, but what happened when Kampfer was allegedly picked up and body-slammed onto a sidewalk last fall was an “off-ice incident.” Right.

My colleague Neil Koepke — long-time beat writer covering the Spartans for the Lansing State Journal — has written even-handed, balanced stories in Saturday’s aftermath from the MSU perspective, as his audience is pro-Spartan. In his story dated Jan. 27, Koepke quotes Berenson as saying that the incident was “a bad mistake” made by Conboy and Tropp, and in a story dated yesterday, Koepke quotes MSU goaltender and senior captain Jeff Lerg, who was understandably upset that many people have accused Conboy and Tropp of targeting Kampfer.

Not surprisingly, there’s no mention of an attack in any of the State Journal articles.

There are other things that factor into how everyone interprets what happened in Yost Ice Arena last Saturday night.

The Death of Don Sanderson

On Dec. 12, 2008, 21-year-old Don Sanderson had a fight. He died Jan. 2, 2009.

Sanderson, a defenseman for the Whitby Dunlops of the Ontario Hockey Association, was mixing it up with Corey Fulton of the Brantford Blast. He lost his helmet during the fight, his head hit the ice and he fell into a coma.

Yes, it’s tragic. Yes, it reopened the debate about the appropriateness of fighting in hockey.

For most of this season, I have been making light of on-ice fights in this very column, calling for them to be condoned in CCHA action. I was attempting to shine a light on the logic behind instituting the new NHL-style shootouts. Fans like shootouts and will remain to watch them, said many college hockey types in favor of this move. Well, fans like fights and will watch them, too, right?

Earlier this week I was on the air with Dean Mallard and Guy Flaming of “The Pipeline Show” on 1260 “The Team” sports radio in Edmonton, Alb., specifically to talk about the Kampfer incident when one of the hosts asked me whether allowing fighting in college hockey could prevent an incident like this one.

The logic is that if guys are allowed to go more often, they may not blow up completely once in a while.

The kind of scrumming we see in pro hockey is almost always benign — as is the extracurricular activity we see often in college hockey. I think what Mallard and Flaming were getting at is an interesting and totally male perspective, quite literally something I never would have thought about.

At the start of every season, we always hear coaches talk about their players eager to take the ice because they’re eager to hit someone other than their own teammates; in other words, players want to be more aggressive in a sanctioned, controlled environment.

But college hockey is too different from pro hockey to apply the same laws of physics, if you will, that reasonably can be applied to teams that play more games. That’s my key argument against the shootout, that the league simply doesn’t play enough games for the gimmick to be fair. It’s also a good argument against all-out fighting in college hockey; the steam that is supposed to be blown off by such skirmishes (according to the relative logic) will be blown off too infrequently. Allowing all-out fighting at all is an invitation to weekly violence.

And most of us college fans still delude ourselves that collegiate sports are somehow “purer” and more noble than professional sports — especially hockey, which has yet to be tainted wholesale by commercialism in the ways in which both football and basketball have.

The Kampfer Hit on Tropp

After watching the video a few times in the press box post-game, there was speculation that Kampfer kneed Tropp, that the hit wasn’t as “clean” as was first supposed. Tropp himself told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader today that he thought he “got kneed,” and that’s what made him lose his temper.

If you’re a Spartan fan, you probably think that Kampfer deliberately went knee-to-leg to Tropp. If you’re a Wolverine fan, you probably think that Kampfer’s hit was completely clean.

After watching the tape several times now, I can’t determine whether or not Kampfer deliberately lifted his leg to knee Tropp on that hit. When I watched it happen, I thought it was a clean, smart, open-ice hit and a pretty gutsy move by a guy who’d had his skull fractured a couple of months ago.

Perception of Violence on College Campuses

In 1990, the federal government enacted the Clery Act, named after a student who was raped and murdered in her dorm room at Lehigh University. The act requires colleges to report violent crimes on campuses.

Self-reporting is notoriously unreliable, but the passing of the Clery Act itself brought attention to the problem of violence on campus. The immediate response to the self-reporting was awareness about violence against women on college campuses; according to the U.S. Department of Justice, however, male students are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crime on or near college campuses as are female students.

Alcohol often fuels violence on and near college and university campuses — as was allegedly the case in the incident when Kampfer was assaulted in November and when Spartan hockey player A.J. Sturges was assaulted (allegedly by two MSU football players) in October.

Then there is the spate of fatal shootings on college campus in the U.S. during the past two years. Never mind that Arkansas wants to allow students to conceal guns in their cars on college campuses. Thank goodness that today the South Dakota state legislature ruled that colleges should be allowed to restrict students’ access to firearms on campuses. That the measure passed 25-10 is alarming in itself.

When the Virginia Tech tragedy occurred, every teacher I knew took a deep breath and thanked their given deities that it hadn’t happened where they worked — because after Columbine, we all expect it. After the football-on-hockey assaults of last fall, the talk among teachers around campuses here in Michigan was that these incidents weren’t isolated at all, that such things happen all the time and never get widespread reporting either because they happen to students who aren’t athletes or to student-athletes at colleges with lower profiles.

In other words, this violence isn’t new and does reflect the growing trend towards violence in our society. So it’s been on our minds for a little while now, and now — from the perspective of some people, at least — it’s spilling onto the ice.

No Bottom Line

I have received many messages about this incident by email, and I’ve talked to quite a few people around the Mott Community College campus about it. People are divided.

As a city, Flint seems to be split between Spartan and Wolverine fans and the opinions I’ve heard this week fall along party lines, so to speak. After covering college hockey since 1995, I am however still amazed by the people who tell me that Bruce Kampfer was justified in going after Corey Tropp in the MSU locker room, or that Steve Kampfer was “playing” his injury last Saturday night.

As a college teacher, I think I’ve always seen college hockey from a slightly different perspective than most college hockey fans. I’ve never lost sight of the fact that these are very young men and college students, and I’ve always seen their coaches as teachers first, coaches second.

When he suspended Conboy and Tropp, Rick Comley tried to put the incident in perspective. “One thing needs to be clear,” he said. “This was an incident that was an emotional, split-second action, for which these players are being punished. I do not want this to be portrayed that this was anything premeditated, or that any single player was ‘targeted.'”

Comley said that Conboy’s and Tropp’s reaction to Kampfer’s hit was “while inappropriate … a split-second response that I know that they wish they could have back.”

At the risk of being accused of following Comley’s orders, I’ll go on record as saying that I don’t think that Andrew Conboy and Corey Tropp set out at any time during the game other than at that very moment to hit Steve Kampfer.

In other words, having watched the game at Yost Ice Arena, I think that both Conboy and Tropp made very poor decisions following Kampfer’s hit — following being the key word here.

And having seen all five Spartan-Wolverine games this season — four in person — I have never seen a hint of deliberate, premeditated malice directed at one person by players from either team. As tough as this series is every year, as intense as this rivalry is every year and as painfully disappointing as this season has been for the Spartans this season, I never saw anything in MSU’s play since Kampfer’s return that would indicate that Kampfer was going to be singled out by the Spartans because of the injury he sustained earlier in the season.

I can’t bring myself to call what happened last weekend an attack. I’ve seen some pretty vicious hits this year and an increase in the intensity of on-ice fighting in recent years. I’ve been disappointed by some of what I’ve seen not called as well, minor penalties that were assessed for roughing during skirmishes when blows were clearly exchanged. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything as rough as what I saw Saturday, and I’m not immune to emotion when watching hockey.

Like everyone else, my mind jumped to the fact that Kampfer had been assaulted off the ice, and very recently.

And I’m not afraid to say that I won’t miss Andrew Conboy. I wasn’t terribly impressed with his play this season, and he racked up far too many unnecessary penalties in a campaign during which the Spartans could ill afford them. Seemed like a nice kid, and I wish him well.

One night, 10 minutes, many perspectives. An attack? An incident? I’m sure you’ll decide for yourself.

Well, That Was Ugly and Bad …

… but perhaps some good can come out of it.

I’m hoping that the league will review how it assesses penalties following this incident. I do know that the CCHA does an excellent job of reviewing its officiating. I’m biased to be sure, but I do think that the CCHA has the best officiating in college hockey.

But there are two more wrongs that may be righted because of this incident. In a release today, the CCHA announced that the University of Michigan will beef up its security around the visiting team’s locker room in Yost Ice Arena.

To be sure, the atmosphere before in that area was a bit relaxed — but who could have predicted what happened last Saturday? According to the release, there will be increased security at Yost and a better credentialing process near the visiting team’s locker room.

(“Better credentialing” means “any.” It’s been really lax back there, something I didn’t realize until Saturday.)

And in the wake of the embarrassing “F— you, State! ” chant, the league says that UM will do something about the student section.

“The University of Michigan has also taken steps to eliminate the use of profane language and obscene gestures at Yost Ice Arena during hockey games,” said the release.

The release should add the word “finally” to that statement.

According to the league, students received an email regarding that incident that reads, in part, “…we believe the fan conduct last week was not appropriate to Michigan standards and will not be tolerated in the future.”

(But it’s been so appropriate up until last week, right?)

The email students received also says, “The actions on the ice do not excuse what was heard or displayed. Just as it is written on the back of your ticket and read during pre-game announcements, management reserves the right to eject any person whose conduct management deems disorderly, obnoxious or unbecoming.” Emphasis mine.

In other words, the University of Michigan has had in its power all along to prevent what happened in the stands Saturday night but hasn’t. Amazing what a little spotlight can do. And about &#@* time.

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