Leading up to Monday’s exhibition game against the Kontinental Hockey League's SKA St. Petersburg, the Carolina Hurricanes seemed more concerned with preparing for their two-game, season-opening series in Finland against the Minnesota Wild than helping the NHL reinforce its superiority over the kind-of-rival KHL.
By the time the game was over, the Canes couldn't have cared less about the 5-3 loss. The team was just happy to leave Russia without any serious injuries.
When the final buzzer went off, the partisan crowd roared its approval at SKA's victory. The loser? It wasn't the Hurricanes, who became so concerned with the dirty tactics employed by its opponents that coach Paul Maurice removed Cam Ward less than halfway through the second period, followed by Eric Staal's departure prior to the third. No, the loser was the KHL.
SKA, who were prone to errant and ill-advised defensive- and neutral-zone passes throughout the early parts of the game, seemed overmatched by Carolina's speed and systems despite holding the advantage of playing on the larger ice surface unfamiliar to most of the Hurricanes. So SKA slowed the Hurricanes the only way they knew how: dirty play, mostly directed at Carolina captain Eric Staal.
"It seemed like they were getting closer and closer to [slashing] his knees and there wasn't a big concern on the ice about it," coach Paul Maurice said. "He's a National Hockey League star player and he should be playing in the National Hockey League."
Hurricanes defenseman and newly named alternate captain Tim Gleason surely didn't stand for it, pummeling SKA's Alexei Petrov — who tried to fight back but was throwing punches with his stick in hand — for transgressions against Staal in the second period. Both players were ejected, but Gleason walked to the locker room with words of encouragement from his teammates, while Petrov sported a welt-laden face and a fat lip.
That's when Maurice removed Ward in favor of backup Justin Peters. Staal would last only the rest of the period, sitting out the third due to concerns over SKA's stick work. The Hurricanes had the look of the team ready to pack up and leave, disgusted by how the game had evolved into a Cold War-era grudge match.
SKA went on to score twice in third, breaking a 3-3 tie and eventually winning 5-3. But like most exhibitions, the result seemed hollow. But not because of the unimportance of the game, but rather the way SKA handled themselves in what was essentially a "friendly."
Remember when Thunderlips (played by Hulk Hogan) went too far in his charity fight with the title character in Rocky III? Gleason, like Rocky, seemed more than willing to throw down/"cut off" his gloves once he saw things were going in an unnecessary direction.
After their battle, Rocky said, "Hey, Why'd you get so crazy out there?" Thunderlips responded "That's the name of the game," before graciously posing with Balboa's family for a photo. The Carolina and SKA players ended their exhibition with a hand shake line, but you have to wonder how many pleasantries were exchanged.
On a night when hockey fans in Russia — and watching online — should have had the chance to see a world-class talent like Staal show off his skills and see how the KHL matched up to the NHL, the fans were instead cheated due to the antics of the hometown team. The Hurricanes left with a loss — Rocky and Thunderlips battled to a draw — but at least kept the NHL's dignity.
As for SKA and the KHL: That's not the name of the game.