The photo was not pretty.

Swollen face, redness, bruises and stitches all combined to make the young hockey player look disfigured and uncomfortable. Of course, if you had been "fish-hooked" by an opposing player, causing a tear near your mouth that needed six stitches to close, you would be disfigured and uncomfortable, too.

To make matters worse – if possible – this young man is just starting out on a career and presumably had to go to work in that condition, no doubt encountering raised eyebrows from bosses who sarcastically ask, "So you play hockey for fun, you said?"

I saw the photograph Tuesday afternoon, less than two days after an ugly incident in the Avalon East Senior Hockey League game between the Northeast Eagles and St. John’s Caps. At the end of the second period, the story goes, a skirmish occurred and a Caps player – known throughout the league for his belligerence and his team’s top penalty minute earner  – allegedly put his fingers into an Eagles player’s mouth and pulled, tearing the Eagles’ player’s face apart.

Sadly, there is no video evidence from the game, and it may be difficult to get unbiased accounts of the events that transpired. Minor roughing penalties were handed out to both parties, according to the boxscore on the league’s website, with the Caps player receiving a double minor. Getting to the bottom of it – finding the truth of what caused this chain of events – may be a difficult task.

Differing viewpoints

Not surprisingly, views of the incident differ depending on which bench you sit. Caps coach Wally Bray told CBC he heard nothing of the player’s injury; Eagles coach Todd Gillingham called it disgusting, or words to that effect. Perhaps the most disappointing viewpoint comes from Avalon East president Dave Brazil, who said on the St. John’s Morning Show, "It’s unfortunate that it became a public issue."

Yes, that’s the reaction people wanted to hear from the league president! Not that it’s unfortunate, but unfortunate it became public. One thing is certain: Brazil has successfully shifted into the life of a provincial politician. No need to fix things; let’s just bury them before people find out.

The third period in last Sunday’s game saw some retribution, but none compared to what will happen when these guys share the ice next time. At least, from the scuttlebutt I hear around town. The next game between these two clubs will be hot enough to melt the ice. It will no doubt draw more people to the rink too, as blood-thirsty "fans" will want to witness the carnage unfold.

This incident can’t be left on the ice

The on-ice incident was ugly, for sure. The allegations from Gillingham about the Caps making fun of his alcoholism and mental health issues – all made public by Gillingham himself – are very disappointing, if true. Words are always exchanged at ice level during heated contests, and players and coaches often cross the line in mêlées, insulting players’ friends or families. Normally, handshakes afterwards and a leave-it-on-the-ice mentality suffice.

Sadly, handshakes won’t cut it in this instance. The league and Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador need to make sure repulsive acts like the ones last Sunday are removed from the game, with proper punishment meted out.

A season-ending suspension for the offending player would send a strong message that this type of garbage is not welcome in the game. As for the actions and taunts allegedly hurled against Gillingham, a public apology from the people who taunted him would not be out of the question, if the insults alleged are accurate.

It is, after all, still just a game.