SO AS it turned out, the Sabres did what they had to do Wednesday night. Even the most ardent pacifist would have to concede that the time had come for them to make a statement, and to make a stand.
They had to send a message, not only to the goons and gumbies from Quebec, but to the rest of the NHL. You can't run around injuring their skill players -- as the Nordiques did to Rick Vaive and Dave Andreychuck Tuesday night -- without being held accountable for it.
In retrospect, it's a wonder the Sabres didn't show up in the Quebec locker room before the game and start punching people during the national news.
Mike Hartman took all of eight seconds to begin his bout with Greg Smyth. A full 24 seconds then elapsed without further violence. Then Jeff Parker, his nose bloodied by a high stick, was on top of Darin Kimble, no doubt reprimanding him for sucker punching Rick Vaive the night before.
The sellout Aud crowd, some of them no doubt primed for an evening of violence, roared their approval. And it was hard to blame them. They knew the Sabres were acting out of necessity and retribution.
But that doesn't mean it was nice to watch. This was not, to be sure, a very proud night for professional hockey. For two periods, the sport threw up on itself. It was an advertisement for what is wrong with the game, a reminder that the league must crack down hard on the sort of nonsense that occurred in Quebec City two nights ago.
It certainly wasn't hockey, not for two periods anyway. If the All-Star Game was hockey in elegant profile, this was the sport with its teeth out and blood streaming out of its nose.
The Sabres know that as well as anyone. They played ugly for two periods. It must have been a great satisfaction for them to throw off the gruesome mask, revert to good, clean hockey, and blow out the Nordiques in the third period of their 6-3 triumph.
"We responded to what was a challenge, and we responded well," said Sabres coach Rick Dudley.
"Sometimes these kinds of games happen in the 80-game schedule," said Christian Ruuttu, whose skills seemed particularly unsuitable for such an affair. "I'd rather play clean hockey, but if you have to play that way, we'll play that way. We just came out strong and wanted to show we won't be pushed around."
They can only hope the message got through to that little martinet, Michel Bergeron. It was Bergeron who had sent his goons out en masse at the end of Tuesday's game, and it's too bad the Sabres couldn't have run him into the boards a time or two for good measure.
Bergeron, once regarded as a top coach and supreme motivator, has deteriorated into hockey's sad, pathetic sideshow. Having failed in New York, he was welcomed back to his beloved Quebec, and even there his act must be growing tired and old.
"He's coached like this every year he's been in the league," said Buffalo's Scott Arniel, "and you're not going to change the way he does things. There's not much you can do with a coach."
Bergeron, puffing distractedly on a cigarette, emerged from the coach's room shortly after his team's loss and, for a few moments at least, tried to pretend it had been just another day at the office.
"I love these kind of games," Bergeron said. "It's great for hockey. It's great for the fans. The fans were wild tonight. They were in the game. That's good for hockey."
Come again, Michel? Twenty penalties are good for hockey? Games that drag on for close to three hours are good for the game?
"I don't make the rules," he snapped. "I just follow the rules."
He's right. There is no rule that says you can't send three aspiring Gerry Cooneys onto the ice together, as Bergeron did Tuesday after Buffalo's Dean Kennedy injured Guy Lafleur with a clean but late hit.
"What Kennedy did to Lafleur, is that good for hockey?" Bergeron asked. "You should see the tape. "
Someone told Bergeron he had seen the tape, and that Kennedy's hit was not a malicious one. "You're wrong," Bergeron said. "You've got the wrong tape. . . . Let's make an exchange tomorrow. You give me your tape, I'll give you mine.
"We just answer back," he said. "We just answer back."
And Wednesday night, the Sabres got in the final word.