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If tonight is truly to be the launching of Operation Get Cooke at TD Garden, there were no warning signs to be found anywhere in the city on the eve of the predicted battle.

Instead of people wearing Bruins jerseys while they paraded a burning effigy of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke - he of the instantly legendary blindside attack on Boston's Marc Savard - people wore funny green hats and marched in honour of St. Patrick's Day.

The only violence on the ice was what a piercing sun was doing to the little Frog Pond skating rink on Boston Common.

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Did someone forget to circle the calendar? Tonight, after all, will mark the first meeting between the Bruins and Penguins since Cooke's shoulder sent Savard to a very dark and very quiet room for, it appears, a very long time.

In light of a Grade 2 concussion for which no penalty wascalled and, subsequently, led to no suspension by the league - a move that has outraged a hockey world that ranges all the way from Don Cherry's Coach's Corner to the editorial board of The Globe and Mail - the NHL had become so concerned that tonight's game would resemble 1775's Battle of Bunker Hill that it dispatched senior vice-president Colin Campbell to Boston on a cease-and-desist mission.

It has been some time since the NHL saw a singular regular-season match that had reporters from around North America flooding in as though hockey were an afterthought and this would be the NHL's equal of an Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The most famous date, of course, was 55 years ago on St. Pat's Day in Montreal.

That was when the Richard Riots followed the suspension of the Rocket for the rest of the 1954-55 season and the playoffs for striking an official.

That riot was because of a suspension; the simmering anger in the streets these days is all because of no suspension to Cooke, who is sort of a serial blindsider in the game.

Other famous circled dates would include Dec. 2, 1992, when New York Rangers tough guy Tie Domi vowed to get even with Detroit's Bob Probert, leading to Domi's two-game suspension for "promoting" the brawl.

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And then there is March 8, 2004, when the Vancouver Canucks vowed revenge on a hit to their captain by Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore, which led to Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi leaving Moore with a broken neck and a lost career.!

It is the Bertuzzi attack, ironically, that the NHL hopes will defuse tonight's meeting between Savard's teammates and Cooke.

The Bertuzzi aftermath - season-long suspension, criminal charges, multimillion-dollar lawsuits - rings with particular alarm in Boston, as it was a Boston district attorney that brought former NHL Players' Association head Alan Eagleson to justice when Canadian law showed no interest in pursuing charges of fraud.

Whether Campbell's presence and league warnings are enough to keep this game from descending into the reverse of the old Rodney Dangerfield joke - "I went to the fights last night and a hockey game broke out" - the most damaging assault has already been on the game itself.

Hockey came out of the Vancouver Winter Games with a golden glow - not just in the medals won by the Canadian men and women, but in the surprising show by the Americans (silver in men's and women's hockey) and the astonishing skill level showed by all players in a tournament in which there had not been a single fight.

That glow lasted about as long as a firefly's thanks to Cooke's vicious hit on an unsuspecting Savard and the now-familiar image of a stretcher being pulled out onto the ice through the Zamboni doors.

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Respected veteran players, including Bill Guerin - Cooke's teammate - called for action, but none was forthcoming.

Should the Bruins now slip out of the playoff picture without the team's top playmaker while Cooke's Penguins continue on into the postseason, this issue will ring well past the raising of the Stanley Cup.

Had the NHL acted swiftly and promptly, the league might even have turned near tragedy into a new beginning, but bizarre rationalization - a similar hit last fall by Philadelphia's Mike Richards on Florida's David Booth had gone unpunished - and a contention that neither Richards nor Cooke had broken a rule only made matters worse.

In the first rationalization, the no suspension of Richards, two wrongs do not a right make. In the second, the NHL ignored its own rule 21.1 regarding "attempts to injure." The league now says it is moving as swiftly as possible to institute a new rule that would focus precisely on blind headshots, and while that is welcome it is, in the opinion of many, too little and far too late.

Tonight they can drop the puck. But they have already dropped the ball.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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