Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Why Is It Any Different?

Chalk this one up to "Haven't we heard this one already". Apparently, the Philadelphia Flyers are quite unhappy with the recent play of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, among others, after their recent game, labeling both players as "dirty". A prominent commentator on a major network, Mr. Mike Milbury, went so far as to call Crosby "little goody two shoes" when describing how he would instruct his players to care of the "little punk" if he were still coaching. If the Flyers and Mike Milbury have forgotten, there has always been bad blood between the two Pennsylvania teams, and there will always be bad blood between the two teams. It's not unlike the complaints that the Calgary Flames had when they were facing off against the Gretzky-led Oilers. So I want to set something straight right here: all of the superstars that have played in the NHL have been, at some point, dirty players.

It's not uncommon for the star players to take additional abuse that other players on their teams may not. After all, slowing down a superstar will, most often, prevent him from scoring a dozen points against your team, so the strategy is a commonly-used one. However, the thought that Crosby and Malkin are the "dirtiest" players in the league is most likely due to the spotlight being on them constantly. No one cares what Philly's fourth-liner Jody Shelley does when he's on the ice because no one expects him to dazzle the moment his skates touch the ice. So if Shelley hacks the back of a guy's legs behind the play, no harm-no foul, right?

The problem is that the superstars are human too. They're not really interested in being hooked, held, punched, and speared all game long, so they occasionally take matters into their own hands. Peter Laviolette and Mike Milbury have coached for many years, and I can guarantee that both of them have instructed their players to make the lives of the superstars on opposing teams very difficult. This isn't some trade secret in the industry, so I'm not sure why this is being blown up to this point, especially considering the era of play of which Milbury was a part.

Let's go back in history, though, and take a look at some of the "dirtiest" superstars in the history of the game. It's not like we have to go far to find them, but I want to present a comprehensive list of stars who took matters into their own hands when push came to shove. And if you want to deny that any of these players were dirty, then you have nothing to complain about when looking at the recent play of Crosby and Malkin.
  •  Gordie Howe - anyone who caught a Howe elbow immediately knew who had hit him. Howe played the game with elbows up, and he created a ton of space for himself by doing so. There's a reason why the "Gordie Howe hat trick" was named.
  • Mark Messier - using the same idea that Howe used, a Messier elbow would leave one's bell ringing for days. You simply did not want to anger Messier for the fear that it could be lights out the next time Messier skated by you.
  • Maurice Richard - Richard's temper was legendary, and he used any means necessary to exact revenge. Stick-swinging, fisticuffs, elbows, hits from behind - all legal in the Rocket's book when it came to exacting revenge.
  • Bobby Clarke - Clarke did anything and everything to win, including starting fights and breaking a Russian's ankle with a slash. He was the heart and soul of the Broadstreet Bullies, and the team normally followed his lead when it came to playing outside the lines. What's worse is that someone else usually jumped in to protect Clarke when his tenacity put him in harm's way.
  • Ted Lindsay - whether he used his fists or his stick, "Terrible" Ted didn't care if you were bigger or smaller when it came to handing out punishment. His 2002 PIMs are impressive for a guy who didn't care how he hurt you. Lindsay and Richard would routinely lock horns, and one of them would end up bloodied. And they tangled multiple times per game!
  • Wayne Cashman - the former Bruin was literally the best stick-man in the game. His job was to go into the corners and get the puck out for Esposito and Orr. How he did it was up to him alone, and he routinely used impressive elbows and stickwork to dig the puck out of a pile of bodies. Anything was legal for the Bruins' Cashman, including an incident where he kicked Tiger Williams in the head!
  • Chris Pronger - he's been suspended for elbows to the head and stomping on the legs of players, but everyone calls Pronger the "ultimate captain". There's no denying that Pronger can play the game as he is one of the most dominant defencemen of all-time, but he's got a nasty mean streak as well.
In these instances, I want to point out that Mike Milbury played against Clarke and was a teammate of Cashman's, and Laviolette is the coach of the today's Flyers, Chris Pronger's current team, and has coached against him in the past. It's not like either of these men haven't seen their fair share of dirty play from superstars, so I'm not sure why they are making it out like Crosby and Malkin are doing something that has never been seen before. Let's not forget that the era of the "big, bad Bruins" and the "Broadstreet Bullies" was all about intimidation and bullying. Milbury is from the "big, bad Bruins" era, and Laviolette is associated with a franchise that has always been about intimidation.

Let me be clear: I am not condoning cheap shots or dirty play in any way. What I am saying is that occasionally you have to stand up for yourself and not allow people to push you around. In hockey, though, the retaliation for the bullying is almost always penalized. The referees are competent enough to catch the act of bullying in most cases, but occasionally they will miss the initial act that causes the retaliation. In either case, the recipient of the bullying is almost always penalized for his action. If you're a superstar, you are most certainly needed on the ice rather than sitting in the penalty box, so you can't retaliate if you're being bullied.

What Crosby and Malkin are doing, in this case, is picking their battles. They know how and when to retaliate with a slash here and a check there, and people are seemingly unhappy about them picking their battles. Teams want to intimidate Crosby and Malkin so that it throws them off their games - the same thing that used to happen with the Oilers when Gretzky was there. If Gretzky was being bullied, guys like McSorley and Semenko were there to deal with Gretzky's problem, and Gretzky could go back to terrorizing defencemen and goalies. The difference is that the Penguins don't have a legitimate enforcer to do the bidding for their superstars, although Deryk Engelland and Aaron Asham can step in nicely if need be. And it was needed against the Flyers.

I think Laviolette and Milbury need to remember what era they were a part of before the lockout. Things like this have been happening since the 1940s, and it will continue to happen for decades to come. Could Crosby and Malkin not take cheap shots in the game? Absolutely. But don't expect the intimidation and bullying stop if they begin to play within the rules. So don't expect the superstars for standing up for themselves either when they pick their spots.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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