Thursday, Dec. 9, 2004 | 9:17 a.m.
Billy Tibbetts, the newest and most notorious Las Vegas Wrangler, will be back in uniform Friday night after serving a 10-game suspension, and he'll make his return home Tuesday when the Wranglers play Greenville at the Orleans Arena.
Signed last month, Tibbetts' Wranglers career began and ended -- at least temporarily -- in one game at Bakersfield because of a vicious cross-check he laid on the Condors' Todd Alexander in their game Nov. 18. For that, the ECHL suspended Tibbetts for 10 games.
For his part, Tibbetts claims he was retaliating against Bakersfield's dirty play.
"It happened and I just reacted," Tibbetts said Wednesday in his first meeting with Las Vegas media since his signing. "I didn't snap, I just reacted to the situation. I'm sorry that the kid got hurt. My intention was never to hurt anyone. I'm here to play good hockey."
In an often contentious interview session at the Las Vegas Ice Center, Tibbetts blasted the media for distorting his troubled past and expressed remorse for his conviction on a 1992 rape in Massachusetts that ultimately landed him in jail for violating terms of the probation sentence handed down in 1994.
"I take full responsibility for the part I had to play for my actions," Tibbetts said, "and the part I played in 1992."
As for his hockey career, which will resume this weekend with two games in Boise against the Idaho Steelheads, Tibbetts said he's not trying to make enemies with opposing players or coaches.
Yet he made a few at Bakersfield on Nov. 18. Condors coach Marty Raymond contended that Tibbetts went over the line before that game even started.
"During warmups, he skated over the red line to talk to a few of our guys, to our captain," Raymond said. "I don't know what was said. Some guys can exaggerate. But just right there, he doesn't have to go there. Stay in your zone and nobody will pay attention.
"That started the whole thing."
Tibbetts said he doesn't mind physical play when it's within the rules.
"But when you hit a guy from behind with your stick or your body, there's no place in hockey for that," he said. "You hit a guy who doesn't have the puck, there's no place in hockey for that. They can't stop me without it and the league doesn't protect me."
Wranglers captain Jason McBain, a veteran of 10 professional seasons, said referee Dean Sanborn could have helped prevent the incident.
"A guy like (Tibbetts), he flared up, got upset and took it upon himself to take care of that," McBain said. "The referees need to get control of that game before something like that does happen."
The game at Bakersfield was Tibbetts' first with the Wranglers, less than a week after the San Diego Gulls released him.
Wranglers coach and general manager Glen Gulutzan has tried to take the blame for the incident in Bakersfield, saying Tibbetts was being sent into a hostile environment with a lot of frustration over his release.
"He's a very emotional person. He was very emotional at that game and he was trying to impress," Gulutzan said. "I think he got in a situation where a lot of guys were going after him, there were some catcalls from the stands and he did something stupid."
Raymond, the Bakersfield coach, said the hit on Alexander was just the latest in a string of misconducts that have made Tibbetts well known in professional hockey.
"We all make mistakes and can get hot under the collar, but Billy's had a history of getting hot under the collar," Raymond said. "You have to be able to control your emotions. Obviously, in this instance, he didn't do that.
"Billy's a great hockey player and he shouldn't be at this level. He's a tough guy, but there's absolutely no need to crash someone in the face. That's certainly not the way to get respect."
Tibbetts has been trying to get that respect since his 39-month prison sentence, for shooting a friend with a BB gun, which violated his probation terms. He was paroled by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections on Oct. 29, 1999.
He has had stints in the American Hockey League and NHL, and everywhere questions arise about his past.
In 1994, he pleaded three counts of rape down to one. The charges stemmed from a 1992 party in Scituate, Mass., that involved a 15-year-old girl. Tibbetts was 17, therefore an adult under Massachusetts law.
Tibbetts believes he has been unfairly judged.
"Don't just sit and judge me and think you know me or pretend to know what mistakes I've made," he said. "Or pretend to know me based upon articles by women with agendas that write editorials against sexual predators or deviants -- there's nothing of that in me.
"I'm sick of people writing about what happened to me in 1992 when I was 17 years old. If you're going to write, at least write the truth -- nobody got raped."
Tibbetts said teammates generally have accepted him.
"Most have been excellent 99.9 percent of the time," he said. "They know the real story -- not from me, but from different people."
McBain has talked with Tibbetts about his physical play and what other teams will likely try to throw at him the rest of the season. McBain said he told Tibbetts other Wranglers could deal with foes who provoke Tibbetts.
"When he's playing, he's arguably the best player in the league," McBain said. "Other teams know to try to push his buttons, and other (Wranglers) have to take that upon themselves."
After Tibbetts spent a week with his family in his native Boston for Thanksgiving and another week with his girlfriend in San Diego, he rejoined the Wranglers and Gulutzan believes he will have few distractions the rest of the season. Tibbetts says he understands his situation.
"I just try to stay focused," he said, "and realize I'm far more important to my team than they are to theirs."
Tibbetts said he expects the atmosphere at the Bank of America Centre in Boise this weekend to be different from his Wranglers debut in Bakersfield. The Wranglers return to Bakersfield on Dec. 28.
"The people in Idaho have a lot more class than the people in Bakersfield," he said. "I expect in Idaho it'll be much nicer."