by Joe Tasca on 01/13/12 at 09:00 AM ET
There seem to be two general reactions to Brian Burke’s lament last week about the so-called “rats” taking over pro hockey. In one regard, he’s echoing the sentiment of old-time hockey fans who yearn for the days when players regularly policed each other on the ice. Those who disagree argue that Burke’s stuck in the past, unable to come to terms with the lack of tough guys in today’s game.
Regardless of your opinion on Burke’s managerial abilities, it’s hard not to like the man. He’s extremely candid with the media and has always been willing to accept responsibility for his failures. Burke’s passion for the game is palpable, and his tendency to shoot from the hip is a breath of fresh air in a day and age when cookie-cutter responses to tough questions are commonplace in pro sports.
Burke has also had to cope with the terrible loss of his only son, who was tragically killed in a car accident two years ago. It was hard to watch the Irishman stand at a podium a week later and explain to the hockey world what he was going through. Interestingly enough, Burke’s somber tone during that difficult press conference was strikingly similar to the one he displayed recently when he announced the demotion of Colton Orr.
A very emotional man, it’s not surprising Burke was hit so hard by his decision to send Orr to the minors. He deeply cares about his players, and he clearly believes Orr deserves better. Unfortunately, as Burke himself admitted, the game has changed drastically over the past seven years, leaving no place for a one-dimensional tough guy on an NHL roster.
There is, however, plenty of room in the lineup for the players Burke lashed out against, as was exemplified during this past spring’s Stanley Cup final. Now that Sean Avery is toiling in the minors, it’s not unreasonable to say the top three NHL super-pests play on last year’s two most successful teams. Alexandre Burrows, Maxim Lapierre, and Brad Marchand provide a lot of ammo for the rat-haters.
For my money, Marchand heads the list. He’s brash, cocky, and his mouth is constantly running throughout the game. He may not get the same kind of negative press his Canuck counterparts do (that will likely change after the Salo hit), but that has a lot to do with the fact he hasn’t been in the league for very long. But for those of us familiar with Marchand’s career, he’s a no-brainer as the NHL’s top rat.
While playing with the Bruins’ farm team in Providence back in October of 2009, Marchand had a running feud going one night with Portland’s Cody McCormick. Marchand’s lips were in constant motion the entire game, as was his stick. After 50 minutes of play, and with his team on the wrong end of a blowout, McCormick decided he’d had enough. He came off the bench on a line change and made a bee-line for Marchand, igniting a full-scale line brawl.
As the melee ensued, Marchand was escorted away from the fray by a linesman, sporting a smirk, as if McCormick’s attacking him was something of a moral victory. Indeed, his team was given a five-minute power play after the dust settled, so in that sense, the victory was very tangible. But even as a P-Bruins fan, I was disappointed with Marchand’s unwillingness to hold himself accountable for his actions on the ice. It was a nightly occurrence.
Sitting in the stands that evening, I came to the conclusion that Marchand was going to get his lunch fed to him someday. Apparently, Alain Vigneault agrees with me.
The problem with guys like Marchand isn’t that they play on the edge. There’s nothing wrong with dragging the line between fair and chippy play. In fact, the game would be boring without agitators stirring the pot. The problem is such players rarely, if ever, hold themselves accountable by dropping the gloves.
The purpose of fighting in pro hockey is to allow players to honorably settle disputes on the ice. In theory, permitting fisticuffs is supposed to lead to fewer cheap shots and stick work. But if the so-called “rats” cower away from altercations in an effort to draw penalties, then the whole point of fighting is negated.
Even worse, the referees and the league seem to protect the rats. Very often, a player who retaliates against an opponent who’s been allowed to slash and cross-check him mercilessly is the only player penalized, even though his reaction was clearly provoked. Not surprisingly, such provocation is greatly encouraged by coaches, as it generates power plays, while serving the duel purpose of throwing the other team off its game.
For these reasons, most hockey fans would love to have Brad Marchand on their team. For all his offensive prowess, Marchand’s game revolves around psychological warfare. As skilled as he is with the puck, Marchand’s primary assets are his mouth and his stick. Every night, he’s trying to find a way to get his opponents to crack. That, more than anything else, is what sticks in Brian Burke’s craw.
In the end, that type of player always wears out his welcome. Claude Julien’s a no-nonsense type of coach, and despite his hopes of helping Marchand “fine tune” his game, players who have little regard for their opponents usually have less regard for their coaches. Marchand is going to continue to play on the edge because it’s the only way he knows how to play. It’s difficult to take the teeth out of the tiger.
Brian Burke has no problem with Brad Marchand playing his game. His beef is that Marchand isn’t, and the league doesn’t allow him to be, held accountable for his actions on the ice. He believes the threat of retribution would deter the rats from crossing that imaginary line. We’ll never know if he’s right because the league has already begun descending down the slope that will eventually lead to the abolition of fighting.
Hopefully Burke doesn’t have a coronary when that day comes.
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About Tasca's Take
Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.
Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.