For years, the NHL has tried to erase the basis for that tired joke, "I went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out." It seemed to be making some progress, too, aided by the brilliance of Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky, a gentleman blessed with marvelous talent.
Hockey's questionable public image will be back at square one, however, by the time most of the newspapers in North America have published that classic photograph of Gretzky and New York Islander goalie Billy Smith, sticks en garde and jaws agape.
That encounter was the most memorable moment of Thursday's 6-3 victory by the Islanders, which gave them a virtually insurmountable 2-0 lead in their bid for a fourth straight Stanley Cup.
The teams flew to New York--the Islanders immediately following Thursday's contest and the Oilers after canceling a scheduled practice here this morning--where Game 3 in the best-of-seven series will be played at Nassau Coliseum Saturday night.
The only questions that seemingly need to be resolved are whether the Oilers can stave off elimination beyond the minimum four games, whether the NHL will do anything to stop the stickwork on the ice, and whether someone will be seriously hurt by the foul play.
It is obvious from the comments of the individuals involved that only divine guidance is likely to introduce a common-sense ceasefire into what has become more vendetta than sport.
Smith often has been involved in stick-swinging incidents. The most recent occurred Tuesday, when he whacked Edmonton's Glenn Anderson in the left knee.
"I don't feel in either case that there was a deliberate intent to injure," Brian O'Neill, executive vice president of the NHL who attended the game, told the New York Times. "The league will not investigate further."
Still, the resulting furor, with one newspaper labeling Smith Public Enemy No. 1 on the front page, would have prompted just about anyone to exercise a little self control. Not Smith, despite verbal abuse he took on Thursday when he tried to go for a walk.
"I couldn't even leave my hotel room," Smith said. "I had to stay in my room because of the insults I get on the street. It's terrible to walk down the street and have some guy in a three-piece suit call you a pig."
So, as his way of getting in everyone's good graces, with the game out of Edmonton's reach and only two minutes remaining, Smith swung his stick at Gretzky and struck him in the leg.
Gretzky fell, then rose and, as play continued toward the other end, skated up to Smith. They stood there, sticks at the ready and exchanging words, until linesman Swede Knox stepped between.
"I didn't think Gretzky would start anything," Smith said. "I'm 200 pounds and he's only 165."
Smith also is heavily armored, which puts those who would tangle with a goaltender at an extreme disadvantage.
Dave Lumley took up the challenge, however. With less than a minute to go, he speared Smith in the throat and the goalie, his glove and stick all flew in different directions.
Smith received a major penalty for his slash on Gretzky, but only after Gretzky had complained so bitterly that referee Wally Harris decided to talk to his linesmen. Lumley also was given a major for his assault on Smith. The penalties, of course, were meaningless; they often are in these situations, with the result assured before the ugliness occurs. That in itself is a pretty good clue to the innocence of those involved.
Afterward, however, everyone tried to downplay his role, with emphasis on tongues in cheek and bare-faced lies.
"I tried to hit his (Gretzky's) stick and I hit him in the pants," Smith said after the game. "I told him if his pants were so thin, I'd buy him a new pair."
This afternoon in New York, Smith said, "What did you want me to do, pick him up an give him a kiss? He asked me if it was intentional and I said no."
"That's a normal play for a goaltender and it was only a mild tap that hit him in the pants," said Islanders Coach Al Arbour. "If any other goaltender did that, nothing would be said."
"I never even touched him (Smith)," Lumley said. "Hey, we're all being honest here. I hardly even touched him. I mean, he barely hit Glenn Anderson on the arm the other night."
"I don't condone what Dave Lumley did," said Edmonton Coach Glen Sather. "We had a chance to get back in the hockey game and that penalty was very costly."
"Sather is trying to stir something up," Smith said today. "Okay, I deserved penalties both times (for Anderson and Gretzky), but if anything had been intentional, they wouldn't be left standing."
Three goals down with 36 seconds remaining, the Oilers obviously were concentrating on tying the score--but not the one on the scoreboard.
Gretzky, his normal good sense returned, put the foolishness in proper perspective afterward.
"We've tried for years to cut this out, and obviously it doesn't work," Gretzky said. "Why fight it? It's not going to help anybody, and it won't do the league any good, so what can you do? Billy accidentally slashed me in the leg. Let it go at that."