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NBA Season Review: 20 Questions, Part 1

The Tim Thomas White House Mess

And the rest of the week in the NHL

Soooo … where were YOU when you learned that Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas is the kind of guy who writes Randomly Capitalized e-mails about the Constitution and his INDIVIDUAL rights as a Free Citizen?

On Monday, the Boston Bruins popped by the White House for a customary meet-and-greet with the president, the kind of photo op that is orchestrated for most championship-winning teams on the collegiate and professional level and has spanned numerous administrations. As the 2011 Stanley Cup squad stood on the risers behind Obama while he cracked low-grade jokes written for him by someone else,1 it didn’t take long for reporters to notice that Tim Thomas was nowhere to be seen. When team officials, asked about his absence, replied that they were aware of it and that their Conn Smythe-winning goalie would be explaining his absence “on his Facebook page” later that day, you knew there was no way any of this could end well. And it didn’t.

Here’s what Thomas wrote:

I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.

This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.

Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.

This is the only public statement I will be making on this topic. TT

Regardless of whether you believe Thomas that his acts weren’t “about politics,” whatever that means, the public’s response to them instantaneously took on every hallmark of political discourse: loud, impassioned, accusatory, personally wounded, and outraged. As happens in about 95 percent of the world’s debates, the phrases “First Amendment rights” and “contractual obligations” butted heads. The equal-and-opposite scenarios — “Did you care when Theo Epstein snubbed George W. Bush?” — were dragged out. The examinations into past hypocrisies commenced. (Thomas played for Team USA in the Olympics and attended a publicly funded university.) The governor weighed in. Small nuggets of previously unremarkable information were furiously panned through: His goalie helmet says, in Gadsden flag style, Don’t Tread on Me! He once said if he could have dinner with anyone, it would be Glenn Beck!

That last one I actually remember hearing at the time; to be honest, I assumed it was a joke. (Well, either that or some sort of genuine “I’d like to sit down with the man to see if he’s just misunderstood” kind of charity.) That’s because I’d absorbed the usual descriptions of Thomas as “so cerebral” and “such a thinker” and “a University of Vermont grad” and, supplemented by the times I’d seen him speak live, erroneously and snobbishly assumed that those things translated to “hippie liberal free spirit.” I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

But nope, the guy who plays that role on the Bruins is apparently Andrew Ference, according to CSNNE’s Joe Haggerty, who wrote that his employers had been working on a segment about Ference’s efforts to get the team to recycle and “live environmentally-conscious lifestyles in their day-to-day existences as hockey players.”2 Haggerty wrote that Thomas declined at the time to give his opinions on Ference’s endeavors: “We’ve got pretty opposite viewpoints on that kind of stuff.”

There’s no disputing the argument that Thomas’ decision has been a distraction to the team. How could it not be, with the entirety of the media, from hockey beat writers to Reason.com sports dislikers, weighing in? (Almost immediately, cryptic and critical reports from vague “team sources” suggested that Thomas was destroying the locker room; when he didn’t play the next night, people murmured that he might be on his way out.)

But it was Thomas’ political Bizarro, Andrew Ference, who made the best point: This wasn’t some shell-shocking revelation to anyone on the team. “We’ve had the same group of guys around here for how many years now?” he said. “We’re all practically married to each other. It’s not like there are any secrets about viewpoints or personalities. Maybe it’s interesting for everybody else to read on the outside, but for us it’s another day. It’s the same family we’ve had for the last few years. It hasn’t changed the dynamics for us.”

Once I read that quote, I basically stopped reading anything else. True, this Thomas thing has been a distraction — a distraction from matters of much greater sociopolitical import. Such as: How funny was it that not only was Tomas Kaberle at the White House with a team he did next to nothing for, he was completely front and center in every shot??? Also, OMG THIS PHOTO. I’d like to see what Reason.com has to say about THAT.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

Another week, another great goal from the league’s slipperiest sonofabitch, Pavel Datsyuk. Sure, he totally loses Alex Pietrangelo on this play, but even if he hadn’t I’m not so certain the St. Louis defenseman could have really defended a backhand this sneaky-good. I’m contemplating launching a stand-alone section of this column called “DAY-UM, DATSYUK” just to house this guy’s inevitable weekly clips.

And because I love backhands (and particularly backhands that the NHL online video crew categorize as “filthy”), here’s another one that satisfies both requirements. Here, Tyler Seguin steals the puck in the Boston zone and puts it AHHHH TOP CHEDDAR WHERE MAMA KEEPS THE PEANUT BEAUTY! Sorry about the outburst, but this goal just really inspires me to mix my hockey metaphors.

In other sweet plays this past week from the convex side of the stick, the Florida Panthers’ Tomas Fleischmann spins around to his backhand to take advantage of a wide-open net; the Sharks’ Logan Couture buries one past Roberto Luongo shorthanded, and Toronto’s Tyler Bozak lofts a backhand saucer to Matthew Lombardi that looks more like a passing play you’d see on a football Sunday.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

The St. Louis Blues’ Andy McDonald made it into a lone NHL All-Star Game in 2007, as a replacement to Henrik Zetterberg, and the then-Anaheim Duck validated his last-minute presence by winning the fastest skater skills competition. For a player like McDonald, getting selected for the game was and remains an honor, a potentially once-in-a-career type event.

For Alex Ovechkin, though, the opposite may be true. Not only has Ovi already been to all four All-Star Games held during his first six years in the league, he was placed into this one based neither on fan votes nor on any particularly outstanding play thus far this season. Instead, he was essentially selected on the merits of his lifetime achievement,3 even though it began to seem clear that he had no real desire to go.4

Which might be why McDonald bristled on Wednesday morning when it was announced that Ovechkin, who was suspended for three games by the league on Monday for a charge on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek, would be withdrawing from the showcase event in Ottawa this weekend. (“My heart is not there,” Ovechkin explained. “I [got] suspended so why I have to go there? I love the game; it’s great event. I’d love to be there, but I’m suspended.”)

“[C]lassless move by @ovi8 ‘opting’ out of NHL Allstar Game,” McDonald tweeted.5 Later, he put up a link to a similarly critical blog post by Jeremy Roenick, who wrote that Ovechkin’s decision was “a cop-out” and “not the proper way to deal with it.” The Canadian Press’ Chris Johnston noted that “Andy’s not the only player who feels this way.”

This was a lose-lose situation for Ovechkin, though. Had he gone, there would have most certainly been widespread howling about how a suspended player shouldn’t be allowed to participate, about how he never deserved the spot anyway, about how the league only cares about its pet players/the Eastern Conference/the bottom line. Instead, we got the other side of the coin: Ovi is being selfish, he’s slapping the league that has made him hundreds of millions of dollars in the face. (Never mind that he’s generated the NHL a substantial amount in return.) All of these statements are a little bit true, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not getting blown out of proportion. Everyone makes fun of All-Star Weekend until someone decides not to appear in it, and then all of a sudden the game turns into the most cherished event of a lifetime.

I acknowledge and agree with the importance of a player of Ovechkin’s caliber and popularity stepping up to appear in an NHL-wide event such as this, and I understand McDonald’s annoyance that Ovechkin seemed to be operating under his own set of rules. But as Nick Kypreos pointed out, “the truth is the league gave Ovechkin the wiggle room to take a pass.” If it were that important to the NHL that he play in the All-Star Game, the NHL probably could have ensured that he did — or at least doled out some sort of punishment otherwise. (In 2009, Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom were each assessed one-game suspensions for withdrawing from the All-Star Game with injuries that had not caused them to miss any regular-season play, while an injured Sidney Crosby avoided such punishment by flying to Montreal to participate in off-ice activities.)

Instead, the league backed off, maybe because they knew things wouldn’t be ideal either way, that everyone would come out with shaving cream in their eyes. Perhaps the NHL knew any attempt to strong-arm Ovechkin might seem a little bit inconsistent in light of the fact that a couple of other players were essentially given free passes.6 You can certainly blame Ovechkin for acting as if he makes his own rules, but I don’t think you can do it without wondering why the NHL decided not to enforce theirs.

Taking It Coast to Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • Tonight is the moment you’ve all been waiting for, for lo these many months: the NHL All-Star Game Fantasy Draft! (For those unfamiliar with the nuances of the ever-changing rules and regulations, first of all: Shame on you! But second of all, the only thing you need to know is that Zdeno Chara and Joffrey Lupul are captains of one team, Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Lundqvist are leading another, and the whole thing goes down exactly like gym class.) With several marquee players sitting out of the All-Star Game with injuries and their replacements arriving in Ottawa today,7 the big question becomes: WHO WILL BE THIS YEAR’S PHIL KESSEL? Sean McIndoe runs through the most likely suspects. (I say it’ll be Eberle.)
  • Interesting note about the Philadelphia Flyers: They don’t prepare for shootouts during practice. On Tuesday morning, the Philadelphia Daily News’ Frank Seravalli wrote that “If you want a simple explanation as to why the Flyers have the NHL’s worst record (19-37) in the shootout since it was instituted in 2005, you don’t have to look far: they do not practice breakaways.” Later that night, against the Florida Panthers, the Flyers finally won their first shootout of the season (they’ve lost three), which led to this fun little victory jig by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
  • In the final game on Wednesday night before the league broke until Tuesday for All-Star Weekend in Ottawa, the Montreal Canadiens put a 7-2 spanking on the Detroit Red Wings, and no you didn’t read that incorrectly. But absent from the game’s entire second period was 22-year-old defenseman P.K. Subban, who was benched after taking an irresponsible first-period elbowing penalty. (This followed several days in which Subban, who has been leading Montreal in ice time in his second season, had a series of run-ins with assistant coach Randy ?Ladouceur? over his performance and focus.) It remains to be seen whether Subban will “learn” from having sat in the doghouse. But his benching did have one unintended positive side effect: a rare postgame player interview, with Montreal’s Erik Cole, that was genuine, stern, candid, and warm all at once. Check out the 1:30 mark to see Cole (who had a goal and two assists in the win) discuss Subban’s situation and just TRY not to want him to shower you with tough love.8
  • Breaking sports news video. MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL highlights and more.

  • When the NHL and the Players Association begin the arduous (and contentious, I fear) process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement this spring, one of the issues on the table, in addition to things like realignment and revenue sharing, will be whether NHL players are allowed to participate in the 2014 Olympics. Following the Vancouver games in 2010, which had incredible ratings and, for the host country, a picture-perfect result, commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear that he wasn’t in favor of going to Sochi (Russia) in 2014. “It costs us money, it disrupts our season,” he said, sounding a bit like a no-fun dad ixnaying his children’s ebullient requests to pull over at a roadside attraction. On Wednesday, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin brought the issue into the spotlight, saying, “we need to make sure that our players who play in the NHL can come to the 2014 Olympic Games and so that the NHL calendar is adjusted accordingly.” That’s some stone-cold (war) diplomacy right there! Now, I realize it’s a tall order for the NHL to close up shop for two weeks smack dab in the middle of the season so a small percentage of its players can travel halfway across the world to risk injury and fatigue, I really do. But I can’t possibly see how the NHL says no to Sochi when so many of its best players — Datsyuk, Ovechkin,9 Geno Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, the future of Nail Yakupov, the spectre of Alex Semin — hail from the Motherland. (Not to mention all the proud Canadians, Finns, Americans, Swedes, Czechs, and Slovaks, just to name a few, who populate the league.) The time zone differences won’t be favorable for North Americans, sure, but just this fall the league was crowing about its new broadcast arrangements throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. “Hockey is a global sport,” said NHL COO John Collins in November. “We are making it easier for our passionate international fan base to follow their favorite teams and players.” We’ll see if they actually mean it.
  • Here’s a sentence that ought to serve as a pretty good gauge for whether you actually want to follow the link buried within: “So, who ya got: Matt Hendricks’ severed ear or Darryl Boyce’s ripped up nostril?”
  • On a more serious note: Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa may not be a popular player among his many opponents, but even his most heated rivals ought to be giving him a sincere stick tap this week. Bieksa has been heavily involved in the promotion of Mindcheck.ca, an online resource recently launched by the Canucks for Kids Fund that seeks to help people learn to identify and seek help for the signs of drug abuse, anxiety, or depression. Bieksa was inspired to lend his voice to the effort to honor one of his best friends and former Vancouver teammate, Rick Rypien, who battled clinical depression throughout his life and ultimately committed suicide this summer at age 27. “I am the friend of somebody who experienced depression,” Bieksa says in one heartbreaking PSA. “I know it isn’t a choice. It’s not a weakness, self-inflicted, or a result of not trying.” The effort to remove the stigma and silence that shroud mental illness is made even stronger through the advocacy of someone like him, and I hope the vital initiative can help not only those suffering, but the people who love them as well.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

  • This whole column has essentially been one big chirp, so how about we calm everything down? Here’s a beauty of a Great Moments in Chirping compilation, put together by Backhand Shelf’s Rob Pizzo.10 (Warning, make sure you read his warning about the Kevin Stevens/Bryan Trottier clip before broadcasting it to your office or children, or really, anyone in earshot. Let’s just say it is magnificent in both its relentlessness and its offensiveness.) The Marty Biron video in particular kills me, because can you imagine a backup goalie sporting a bad boy-band chin strap like that hassling you?

Hockey Haiku

It looked like perhaps
John Kerry spoke out of turn
But nope! Just hockey.

Filed Under: Art, Celebrities, General topics, Movies, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Obama, Sports, Ted

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes

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