NHL Grab Bag: Milan Lucic Goes Off Script
Welcome to a weekly grab bag of thoughts and observations from the past few days and/or decades of hockey.
This Week’s Three Stars of Comedy
Recognizing the three NHL personalities from around the league who produced the most comedic fodder for fans.
The third star: Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle
He’s the guy next to Mario Lemieux in this clip, taken immediately after the Pens were eliminated in Game 7.
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We’ve all been there, Ron. We’ve all been there.
The second star: Teemu Selanne and John Gibson
Please stop causing problems, Mrs. Gibson.
The first star: P.K. Subban
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I’d have more to say about this, but I’m going to save it for the future debut of the Awesome and/or Horrific Vine Clip of the Week feature, in which I will do a frame-by-frame breakdown of those six seconds that goes on for 40,000 words.
What Is the Hockey World Pretending to Be Outraged About Now?
Nothing makes hockey folks happier than being outraged about something relatively unimportant. We’ll pick one topic fans are complaining about and try to figure out if it’s justified.
The Issue: Milan Lucic threatened Montreal’s Dale Weise and Alex Emelin in the handshake line, apparently saying something along the lines of, “I’m going to [bleeping] kill you next year.”
The Outrage: The handshake line is sacred!
Is It Justified? It’s justified in the sense that Lucic comes across like a serious sore loser in this story. It’s hard to watch the video and not come away thinking, Man, that guy seems like a real jerk.
Now comes word that Lucic is mad at Weise for revealing what he said, in apparent violation of some obscure chapter of the hockey code. But remember, he started a lot of this stuff with his silly flexing routine in Game 5, and when you’re a player with a well-earned reputation for spearing other guys in the groin, you sound kind of silly when you try to stake out the moral high ground.
So, sure, let’s all be mad at Lucic. But at the same time, let’s not get carried away. Remember the “NHL players are all jerks” rule from a few weeks ago? Far worse things than “I’m going to kill you” get said on the ice all the time. I’m sure Lucic has said worse, and I’m sure he’s heard worse. It happens.
This case feels different because it came in the handshake line, which has somehow morphed into some sort of sacred moment of purest sportsmanship. I love the handshake line, and always have. It’s one of the great traditions in pro sports. But it’s not holy ground. Take a bunch of super-competitive guys still coming down off an adrenaline rush and throw them together minutes after half of them have had their hearts broken, and every now and then somebody will step out of line. Sometimes literally.
The Habs and their fans are playing this up because they’re in full “nobody respects us” mode, and that’s fine, too. In hockey, the winners write the narratives. And Lucic gets so much over-the-top hero worship from fanboys in Boston that it’s kind of nice to see the rest of the hockey world take him down a peg.
But let’s not go overboard. This was bad enough to talk about for a day or two, but it should be forgotten by the time the third round starts.
Obscure Former Player of the Week
NHL history is filled with legendary players whose stories are passed down from generation to generation. This is not one of them.
This week’s obscure player is Rick Vaive, who actually wasn’t all that obscure, even if some younger fans may not have heard of him. He was one of the best goal scorers of the early ’80s, posting three straight 50-goal seasons for the Maple Leafs and making several All-Star teams. He also played for the Canucks, Blackhawks, and Sabres, and retired with 441 career goals.
I thought of him this week while everyone in Toronto was forming a blame-circle around Dion Phaneuf, because Vaive spent four seasons as the Leafs captain, and it didn’t end well. In February 1986, Leafs owner Harold Ballard got mad at Vaive and stripped him of the captaincy. I can’t remember what he did wrong, but this was Ballard, so it probably involved helping a stray puppy or smiling at an orphan.
Anyway, I was 10 when this happened, and I heard about it on the radio. The announcer came on and said that there was major breaking news: The Maple Leafs had decided to take away Rick Vaive’s “C.” And I couldn’t figure out why they would do that, because it seemed really odd to me that they were going to force him change his name to “Rik.” I think I spent the better part of a week wondering about that, until my dad explained what was actually going on.
Between this and Builder Lego, it’s possible that I might have been a dumb kid. I think that’s the point of this story.
Trivial NHL-Related Annoyance of the Week
In which I complain about things that probably matter only to me.
Monday night’s Montreal-Boston game ended with some bad blood, including an extended scrum that resulted in several players getting tossed out of the game. There weren’t any fights, but several punches were thrown, most by Bruins players at smirking Canadiens who sure seemed to be egging them on.
That seems like odd behavior — trying to goad somebody into punching you in the face — but it’s really not. The Montreal players were doing a smart thing, one that the NHL incentivizes with a rule that some fans don’t even know about. Specifically, Rule 46.22, which states that any player who gets an instigator penalty in the final five minutes of the game will receive an automatic suspension for the next game. Monday night was Game 6, which means that any Bruins assessed an instigator penalty for a fight in that scrum would have missed Game 7. When you look at it that way, it made perfect sense for Montreal players to try to get a Boston star like Zdeno Chara or Jarome Iginla to lose his cool and drop his gloves. Sure, you’ll probably get pummeled, but that’s worth it to get a guy kicked out of a crucial game.
Or at least, it makes sense in theory. In reality, there’s just about zero chance that a suspension would have actually been handed down. Either the referees would have made sure to avoid the instigator call (probably using the old “give them a roughing minor instead” trick), or the league would have rescinded the suspension, as they have for other star players in the past. Despite being in the rulebook for years now, Rule 46.22 is almost never actually used.
The rule is in place to avoid having guys gooning it up once a game is decided, either to settle scores or to send a message. And that’s fine — the league has a right to discourage that sort of stuff. But there are already rules in place that allow for fines or suspensions in those cases. Letting the league sort it out after the fact on a case-by-case basis doesn’t sound ideal, but it’s better than relying on a zero-tolerance rule that everyone just ends up ignoring.
Having an automatic catch-all in the books that you have no intention of enforcing is just silly. It’s time to get rid of it.
What Has Don Cherry Gone and Done Now?
Whether it’s Coach’s Corner, his regular media appearances, or a Twitter account that’s presumably meant to be performance art, Don Cherry is everywhere. What’s he been up to this week?
You know the drill with Don Cherry’s wardrobe by now. Bright, colorful, often involving flowers, and increasingly likely to make you say, “Hey, I think my grandma had that pattern on her couch.” You may feel like you’ve seen it all. But every now and then, he still comes up with something new.
This week, Don Cherry wore a tie with a picture of Don Cherry on it.
And yes, those are cherries on the suit, and in the tie’s background. I’m not sure what level of Donception this is, but I think I speak for all of us when I say we’d like to see it go even deeper.
The good news is he went back to something much more subtle on Wednesday.
Awesome and/or Horrific Old YouTube Clip of the Week
In addition to being a great source of adorable pets and functionally illiterate commenters, YouTube is a gold mine for old hockey clips. Each week we find one and break it down in way too much detail.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lost a heartbreaking Game 7 to the New York Rangers this week. Basic hockey etiquette says that any long-suffering fan base that goes through a loss like that should be left alone and given some time to heal.
But the Penguins aren’t long-suffering; in the last quarter century they’ve won three Cups and had arguably the three best players of the era, all in their prime. Screw the Penguins. Let’s pile on by going back to another famous Game 7 between the Penguins and a New York team.
• It’s May 14, 1993, and the Penguins are hosting the Islanders in Game 7 of the Patrick Division final. Pittsburgh is going for its third straight Cup, and is an enormous favorite after a 119-point season. But the Islanders are hanging tough, and had actually led this game 3-1 before the Penguins scored twice in the final minutes to force overtime. And that’s where we are as we join our clip.
• We start with a faceoff in the Penguins’ zone, and they send out the line of Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, and Dave Tippett. Not only is that a line full of pretty good players, it includes a current owner, current GM, and current head coach. Just a little bit of brain power out there.
• Francis wins the draw from Ray Ferraro, and Pittsburgh eventually gets set up behind their net. Wait, did the announcer just call Ulf Samuelsson “Ulffy”? I think he did.
• Ulffy executes the Penguins’ patented “pass the puck up to the first Hall of Famer you see” play, and Pittsburgh gets it deep enough to apply a little bit of pressure. But an ill-advised attempt to join the rush by Samuelsson leads to a turnover, and what at first appears to be an Islanders 3-on-1. But don’t worry, because Martin Straka is hustling back hard and looks like he should get there in time to break this up.
• Or maybe not, because Islanders defenseman Vladimir Malakhov blatantly interferes with him. He just casually looks back and decides to drop out of the play and lower his shoulder into Straka instead. It’s not quite Hawerchuk-level interference, but it’s close. And nobody even gets mad, because it’s playoff overtime in the 1990s and the rulebook doesn’t exist. Malakhov could have tackled him and nobody would have cared.
• That turns it into a clean 2-on-1, and Ferraro feeds a nice pass across to David Volek, who decides to step into a full slap shot one-timer like it’s NHL ’94. He blows it by Tom Barrasso, and the Penguins’ dynasty is over.
• I always liked the way the cameraman does the slow zoom into the Penguins net after this goal. It’s almost like he can’t believe what just happened, and has to go in for a closeup to confirm it.
• Fun fact: This is the first time any hockey fan outside of Long Island had ever heard of David Volek.
• The announcer gives us a pretty good rundown of Volek’s unlikely path to this moment, including being a frequent scratch by legendary Islanders coach Al Arbour. It’s interesting stuff, but I’m too traumatized by the sight of Tom Kurvers to enjoy it.
• By the way, Arbour and Penguins coach Scotty Bowman ended up with a combined 2,335 career wins and nine Stanley Cups. That’s kind of a lot.
• The Islanders celebrate and you can hear every yell because the building is dead silent, which is always fun. And the award for Most Obscure Guy in the Pile goes to … well, actually, I think it goes to David Volek.
• No, wait, I take that back, because we get a quick glimpse of no. 17, the wonderfully named Steve Junker. This was his second career NHL game, of what would eventually amount to a career total of eight. He finished with no goals and one assist. I think I might buy a Steve Junker jersey.
• We get a quick shot of Lemieux making a point of going over and shaking Arbour’s hand, which was a nice moment that couldn’t happen today without being ruined by 10,000 people rushing to be the first to tweet about how “classy” it was.
• Hey, if you suffer from vertigo you may want to skip past the overhead camera shot at the 1:40 mark. This was new technology at the time, and no one was really sure how to use it yet. Actually, given how close to the ice this shot is and the way it keeps spinning, it’s possible this might just be a cameraman dangling from the scoreboard by his pant leg.
• Ferraro and Tippett have a long conversation during the handshake line, presumably about mustache grooming. The camera stays on Ferarro, which leads to a great shot where Kjell Samuelsson skates by looking 9 feet tall.
• Lemieux must have hated handshake lines in the early ’90s. I bet it was just a steady wave of defensemen saying some variation of “Hey, sorry about the way I grabbed onto your ankle on opening night and didn’t let go for the entire season.”
• Jaromir Jagr’s mullet looks sad.
• Now we get the traditional replay of the winning team’s bench reacting to the goal. Uh, I know he’s a legend and one of the greatest coaches of all time, but are we sure Arbour realizes the Islanders have scored? He just kind of calmly checks his notes, then suddenly goes for the arm raise. Maybe he was just thrown off by the identical bald guys on either side of him.
• And that pretty much wraps up the clip. We close with an extended shot of the ceiling, possibly as filmed by the cameraman who just fell off the center ice scoreboard.
This was probably a depressing clip for Penguin fans, but look at it this way: In the 20-plus years since, they’ve had several great teams and won another Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, the Islanders haven’t won a playoff series.
So yeah, I think we can all agree that one of these teams needs to fire everyone and give the lineup a massive shakeup, right?