It's not so much who ends up on the ice in an NHL game, but what they do when they get there.
And what they do once they get on the ice is ultimately the responsibility of the teams' coaches and management. Or it should be.
John Tortorella knows this after he blew his stack on Saturday night at the lineup iced by Calgary Flames counterpart Bob Hartley. The Flames' lineup, in Tortorella's eyes, forced the Vancouver coach to ice a similar lineup of tough guys, all of which resulted in a line brawl seconds into the game.
Had Tortorella been able to keep his powder dry and simply wait until after the game to voice his displeasure, it would have been ugly enough. But Tortorella attempted an unscheduled visit to the Flames' locker room after the first period, which threw this into a whole other world of wackiness -- or as the league saw it, embarrassment.
The good thing for the NHL is that over-the-top incidents like this happen infrequently.
The problem is that each of these incidents carries a common DNA that involves large men not known for their hockey skills, which suggests there might be a more uniform manner to deal with these things to prevent even these rare unscheduled coaching visits.
As everyone with an Internet connection now knows, Calgary coach Hartley, a man who is proud as punch of his blue-collar, skinned-knuckles upbringing, started a line that included heavyweights Brian McGrattan, Blair Jones and Kevin Westgarth. Tortorella countered with Kellan Lain (playing in his first NHL game), Dale Weise and Tom Sestito. When non-center Westgarth readied to take the opening draw, veteran defenseman Kevin Bieksa replaced Lain at center ice and the gloves dropped all over the ice.
It was great theater and a definite Internet video hit, but a black eye for the league, which promptly summoned Tortorella to New York for an in-person hearing with top executive Colin Campbell on Monday, leading to his 15-day (six-game) suspension which prevents him from having any contact with his team "prior to, during or after games," according to the league release that came out Monday evening.
It's a big blow for a team that is not playing well and struggling to stay in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference.
Still, the Tortorella discipline was the easiest bit of all this.
The historically combustible Tortorella had been a model citizen since taking over the Canucks at the start of the season. But his extracurricular activities have been well documented. (See his suspension for squirting a fan with water and then firing a water bottle into the crowd during the 2009 playoffs. And more recently his angry exchange with New Jersey head coach Peter DeBoer over a similar confrontation between brutish lineups.) Tortorella clearly has a personal "go nitro" button that was once again pushed Saturday.
Quite simply, he has no business engaging the Flames in their space and he knows that, or should have. Now he's paying the price -- as is his team.
"Mr. Tortorella's actions in attempting to enter the Calgary Flames' locker room after the first period were both dangerous and an embarrassment to the league," NHL senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell said in announcing the decision Monday evening.
"Coaches in the NHL bear the responsibility of providing leadership, even when emotions run high, and Mr. Tortorella failed in his responsibility to the game."
But the complicated part for the league is that Tortorella was backed into a corner by Hartley no matter how innocent Hartley came off in postgame interviews: "Who? Those guys? Fight? I'm as shocked as anyone."
At least Hartley had the good graces to stop before suggesting that Westgarth, et al, were helping little old ladies across the street before the game.
Um. Not buying that pile of lard. And neither did the league.
In large part, Hartley was lucky to get off with the $25,000 fine, because there isn't a coach in the NHL who wouldn't have done the same thing as Tortorella if faced with Hartley's lineup decision.
"We are holding Mr. Hartley responsible for the actions of Flames' right wing Kevin Westgarth, who took the game's opening faceoff and attempted to instigate a premeditated fight with an unwilling opponent -- the Canucks' Kevin Bieksa," Campbell was quoted in a separate release issued by the league.
Tortorella was damned either way.
If he responds in kind, as he did with his lineup, he is guilty of dropping a match on the puddle of gasoline.
In September, the league whacked former Buffalo Sabres head coach Ron Rolston with a fine after he started John Scott at the beginning of a period in a preseason game. Scott went after Toronto sniper Phil Kessel, who tried to defend himself by going Paul Bunyan on Scott's legs.
The league was not amused and essentially fined Rolston for putting a thug on the ice, who then acted exactly how everyone who has ever watched John Scott play would expect him to act.
The same dilemma presented itself Saturday.
When you employ thugs, you can't pretend to be surprised when they act like thugs, although Hartley should be remembered for his performance with an Emmy next year.
But doesn't it seem a little counterintuitive for the league to hand out punishment for what it called in the Buffalo incident "player selection"? Isn't that what coaches are paid to do, select the players who will give them the best chance of winning?
Of course, you assume it's the game they are trying to win. But what if it's something else, such as setting a tone or sending a message or just scaring the bejeebers out of an opponent?
That's a little more difficult to sift through.
The answer, at least for us, is really pretty simple: Take the ambiguity out of everyone's hands and draw up rules that govern these kinds of incidents.
If three guys (or four or five guys) fight three (or four or five) opposing opponents in anything approaching a staged event, throw the book at them.
All of them.
Everyone who fights gets ejected from the game.
The coaches get tossed from the game and receive an automatic five-game suspension (or three, or two). And each team gets a $500,000 fine (or $300,000 or $250,000). Name your poison. If a team gets involved in a similar incident in the same calendar year or same season, then double it up on the fines and suspensions. Simple.
Write it down so everyone knows what will happen when this junk takes place.
There was a similar discussion earlier this season when Philadelphia netminder Ray Emery skated the length of the ice and embarrassingly pummeled Washington netminder Braden Holtby. Similar suggestions arose at the time: If a goalie crosses the center red line (or his own blue line, if you like) to engage another player, it's a five-game suspension and add on a $100,000 fine for the team.
Tortorella ended up paying a steep price for not maintaining control over himself. But it's time the responsibilities for these rare moments of lunkheadedness reach up and down the NHL food chain and everyone pays the piper.