Big players, big bans - but where do we go from here?

Matt Nickerson and Chris Frank tussle on the ice in the incident that led to the Fife defeceman's 12-game ban
Matt Nickerson and Chris Frank tussle on the ice in the incident that led to the Fife defeceman's 12-game ban
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With Matt Nickerson, what you see is what you get.

You want to fight, he’ll fight. You target his team-mates with a cheap shot or late hit and he will step in more swiftly than a police car coming across a nightclub disturbance. You drill the goalie and he will make his presence felt instantly, even if he is sitting on the bench.

That’s his job. He is here to enforce and protect.

True, he won’t be doing any of that until early January as he begins a 12-game suspension following his fight with/attack on (you choose the description) his nemesis, Chris Frank of Braehead Clan.

It isn’t the first long ban of his career and it almost certainly won’t be his last - so I guess this is probably not the time to pen an article in defence of the big man.

But that’s exactly what I am going to do. Feel free to set your Twitter account to ‘‘maximum outrage’’ status.

In defending the big man, but not his actions, I’ll state up front I wasn’t there on Saturday, and haven’t seen any footage of the incident - no surprise it hasn’t surfaced online officially, perhaps less so unofficially given everyone has a smart phone trained on the ice pad these days - but I have spoken to a number of folk who were.

The general response can be summed up thus: Chris Frank was out of order having a pop at the netminder but let’s be honest he knew what he was doing, but so too was Nickerson who hauled him to the ice. That he was going to be suspended was not an issue. In short, he went too far. A line was crossed. Again.

My head of sport saw it as on par with, but not significantly worse than, the opening night when Nickerson battered a Cardiff Devils’ player after a similar dig at the netminder. That warranted a four-game ban.

Now that tariff has increased three-fold because - to quote Moray Hanson, head of discipline - he is a ‘‘multiple repeat offender.’’

True he has taken a couple of match penalties so the tariff had to be raised ... but straight from four to 12 games?

That’s a massive hike, and one that raises many more questions than answers. Justin DaCosta’s tweet ‘‘12 games?! He must be really hurt’’ probably said more in seven concise words than all the keyboard commentators managed in the entire week.

That’s why Fife Flyers were wrong not to challenge the suspension. They should have appealed it and stated their case well away from the emotive outrage that polluted the rink and spilled across social media last weekend.

Hanson’s forensic approach laid out the evidence of what he did and, more importantly, what he did after being told to stop by the officials. That’s the ‘red mist’ territory where Nickerson is out on a limb.

The case for the prosecution was delivered. There ought to have been a defence - one that absolutely and unequivocally acknowledged where Nickerson went over the score, but which also rebutted the trash talk and responded to the claims of gouging and choking which left Frank ‘‘in clear distress’’ to quote the official’s findings.

To Clan fans, Nickerson is the bogey man, the bearded monster who ought to be thrown out of hockey. Fife fans have the same enthusiasm for Frank, a player well versed in the dark arts of enforcing. So far this season they’ve chirped, snarled and wound each other up, fought and seen one headbutt thrown. I’m guessing Christmas cards won’t be exchanged...

But here’s the rub.

Nickerson is big, tough and got a mean streak I wouldn’t like to test, but from what I have seen he doesn’t go round the pad cheap-shotting, throwing elbows, checking to the head, or using the butt end in the most sly ways that some players have done this season.

Just a thought - and one I throw into the equation - has he injured anyone? Has he put anyone out of a game with a reckless, dangerous, cyncically late challenge? Surely that should be ‘‘12-game ban’’ territory? The ‘‘distressed’’ Frank may well have tweeted a picture of his facial cuts but he wasn’t put out of the game. Again, not justifying, just saying ...

Mull that one over as you recall the six week absence Justin DaCosta endured when he was slid unnecessarily into the boards for a dislocated shoulder, or the same time Jamie Wilson spent worryingly concussed on the sidelines after an appalling check down in Coventry. Just two examples - I’m sure you can think of more.

Does that make what Nickerson did right?

Nope, but it’s one of hockey’s ironies - and inconsistencies - that a guy who will certainly hurt you in a fight if you are daft enough to ask him to dance is sitting in the stands while the players responsible for the above examples, and much worse, served shorter or no suspensions. I shudder to think how many games Mike Rowe and Chris Kelland would have served had their brutal brawl been staged in 2013 rather than the late 1980s.

So is his rep working against him? Is his sheer size and demeanour somehow having an impact on the final decision? Simply questions and observations, but ones Flyers perhaps should have explored fully rather than issuing a rather daft statement about the ‘‘chicken scratches’’ sustained by Chris Frank - a phrase that just pandered to the keyboard cowboys and more excitable loons in the stands.

Oh, and zero out of ten for Clan using phrases such as ‘‘retribution’’ and ‘‘revenge’’ in a PR about match sponsorship. This has been a truly pitiful week for those who wrote and uploaded this nonsense for the clubs.

There’s a horrible grimness surrounding the Flyers-Clan games this season. Games have been littered with cheap shots, chirping, late hits, grudges, niggles and the sight of players being mortally wounded only to leap back refreshed after the next line change - this fixture didn’t need anything to fuel the fire.

I have absolutely no problem with the head of discipline sending Nickerson a clear message - and a second one at that, but I do question the trebling of the tariff from four to 12. There ought to have been an interim stage.

In doing so, he has effectively painted a ‘‘three strikes and you’re out’’ scenario for all players.

Transgress once and you are looking at three to four games, do it again and it may be anything from 8 to ten to 12, depending on the stripey’s report.

Cross the line a third time ... well you might as well get the first flight home cause your ban is going to be so long you’ll be sidelined until pre-season training starts in August.

Frank has already sat for five for his nasty wee headbutt on - oh, guess who - so his next one (and surely it will come given his style of play) has to be edging double digits.

Ultimate responsibility, of course, rests with the players and the coaches to make sure these outrages are contained and managed, but in a league which has an abrasive edge, which is played harder and faster than before, where the checks have more impact than ever, there are going to be major flashpoints, and in setting the tariff so high, I just wonder if the disciplinary chief has embarked down a road which leaves him very little room to move should a truly appalling, unsavoury, serious injury impacting moment occur.

One last observation: In April, Liverpool star Louis Suarez bit an opponent and sparked a nationwide media storm. He got a ten-game ban.

In ice hockey, too many players have sat for five, six games or more and we are now barrelling into double figures without batting an eyelid.

And it’s not even January ...

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