In light of the NHL's latest biting incident between the Leafs and the Canadiens, our very own Angry Hockey Nerd takes a look at the recent history of teeth-related violence in professional hockey.
Mike Milbury is most famous for charging into the stands, removing a fan’s shoe, and beating them with it. So, one shouldn’t be gobsmacked to hear that he was wrong about something, or logically inconsistent.
“You can’t bite in this league,” he said back in June of 2011 while advocating a suspension for Canucks forward Alex Burrows after the Canucks winger bit Bruins centreman Patrice Bergeron during game one of the Stanley Cup Final. But on an NBC telecast just this past weekend, while the panel was discussing Maple Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski’s alleged bite on Montreal Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty during Toronto’s six to nothing blowout win on Saturday, Milbury changed his tune. This time around Milbury noted that if someone thrust an appendage into his mouth, he’d need “dental floss” after the incident.
On Monday morning, Mikhail Grabovski had a hearing with the NHL’s Director of Player Safety, Brendan Shanahan. A couple of hours leaked out that Grabovski – an extraordinary two-way player who admittedly has a history of being kind of a lunatic – escaped suspension by the, ahem, skin of his teeth. I find this decision fascinating because it further proves that contrary to Mike Milbury’s assertion that you “can’t” bite in the NHL, you very much can; and at least half of the time you can do so with impunity.
During the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, Alex Burrows wasn’t suspended for his bite on Patrice Bergeron because Senior Vice President of hockey operations Mike Murphy ruled it plausible that the bite was unintentional. Yeah, right. A year earlier Bruins winger Marc Savard was let off scot-free, following an alleged bite of Flyers forward – and the world’s most unappetizing meal - Dan Carcillo. Even though seven years earlier, he’d received a one game suspension for biting Leafs winger Darcy Tucker.
Like Savard in 2010, when Scott Hartnell was accused of biting Kris Letang he dodged the old suspension flowchart due to a lack of evidence. But the lack of evidence angle wasn’t such an easy sell for Jarkko Ruutu who bit enforcer Andrew Peters in 2009. Ruutu’s downfall? When Andrew Peters’ recoiled his hand in pain from the bite, Ruutu’s mouth was still holding Peters’ glove.
As far as I can tell, hockey bites at the NHL level have tended to result in tetanus shots, broken skin, and no serious injuries. Biting incidents seem to happen a couple of times per season, and already this year there was a nibbling accusation hurled at Columbus winger Derek Dorsett who claimed the hockey bite equivalent of “I didn’t inhale.” But while hockey bites occur somewhat frequently, they’re still rare enough that in a league where battering another man’s brain with your fist is both routine and celebrated, it doesn’t seem to pose a comparable level of risk to player health and safety. When it does it occur however, the event sucks up so much oxygen among hockey fans and pundits that it’s like an atom bomb went off in the league.
Maybe it’s because North America’s largest health issue involves stuffing our mouths with crap, and so we associate biting with death. Or perhaps it’s because we’re socialized to shun those who exhibit vestigial animalistic impulses and behaviors. Our culture is so neurotic about the very act of biting that something as shitty as Twilight is a major phenomenon. When a Florida man, tripping balls on bath salts, ate a homeless man’s face under a Miami overpass in 2012, search engines went bonkers with people Googling “zombie apocalypse.” Seems like we, as a group, are pretty fucked up when it comes to dealing with this taboo.
But taboo acts aside; biting in hockey (and elsewhere in life) is usually an act of self-defense. Defenseman Dave Manson, for example, was suspended three games in 1990 for biting then Capitals defenseman Scott Stevens while having his eye gouged. Defending himself post-game, Mason told the Chicago Tribune: “[Stevens] was trying to blind me, and I think you would do the same thing.”
I pretty much would. My thinking on it is that if someone tries to fishhook you or otherwise puts their fingers in your mouth, that’s trespassing. As legendary Browns running back Jim Brown famously told stand up comic Richard Pryor of biting his opponents, “What’s outside the helmet is his, what’s inside the helmet is mine.” If someone stick fingers you in your mouth, you’re justified in using “any means necessary” to expel those digits, consistent with just war theory and condoned by the United Nations as far as I’m concerned.
But that’s not really what happened with Grabovski and Pacioretty. Pacioretty was trying to hold Grabovski back from a fight, and he got his forearm up around Grabovski’s mouth. In the video Grabovski doesn’t seem to try and push Pacioretty away, but rather, regains his balance, clutches Pacioretty and bites hard into him.
At least that’s what it looks like to me, but I’m not a mind reader and wouldn’t ascribe intent. I’d also willingly admit that the video evidence, while overwhelming suggestive in my view, isn’t 100% definitive and it’s tough to know – for example - what sort of pain and even fear of serious injury Grabovski may have felt as Pacioretty pulled his neck back.
But that’s being pretty empathetic, and I certainly wouldn’t have batted an eye lash if the league had decided to set a standard here: that biting, especially biting an area other than an opponent’s hand, is impermissible. Though it’s worth restating that the risk posed by biting is Powder pale when judged against the threat of mental illness, addiction and CTE faced by the NHL’s enforcer class. Maybe those issues would be discussed with the same urgency as biting, if hockey fans and the media weren’t more interested in sparkly teenage vampires.
Follow Thomas on Twitter: @ThomasDrance
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