In a feature running in the Jan. 25 edition of The Hockey News on Bob Hartley, the Calgary Flames coach tells writer Louis Jean, “I would kill to win.”
We understand that it’s an exaggerative figure of speech, but it underscores the already obvious: sports professionals at the highest level are hard-wired to achieve, unconditionally.
So it didn’t come as a particular surprise when Patrick O’Sullivan revealed recently that Alex Burrows had taunted him several years ago, a couple times in fact, about the child abuse he endured at the hands of his father.
The knee-jerk reaction is to furrow the brow and wag a finger at Burrows, decrying the despicable nature of his comments. That he has a reputation for existing on the edge – earlier this season he was accused, but not found “guilty” of uttering insensitive remarks about Jordin Tootoo’s family – doesn’t aid Burrows’ cause. There is no excuse for the gross insensitivity. And Burrows did apologize after being publicly called out.
But it’s understandable to a degree, at least, how it degenerates to this shameful level. The moving target that is hockey’s unwritten code is rife with contradiction and double messaging. Coupled with societal attitudinal shifts around what's tolerable and what isn't, players who exist within the code are bound to get confused on occasion. This is something Burrows admits to.
When it comes to trash talk, we’ve heard over the years from players that virtually anything goes. Until recently. The line is slowly blurring.
Race/xenophobia is off the table, unless you’re from Newfoundland or Siberia. Homophobic slurs? Depends on which words you’re using. Extramarital affairs can be used as zingers. Male pattern baldness and premature greying are fair game, too, as are halitosis, excessive nose hair and hemorrhoids. We’re not sure about STDs, or whatever they’re calling them nowadays.
Kidding aside, there remains a wide array of nastiness that athletes can and do hurl at one another. They’re still big boys, and they should still be able to take it. Right? Getting under the skin of an opponent is still an art form that can help secure wins. Slinging abuse? Check. Sometimes.
What about selling a call? Nope. That embarrasses the officials and mars the integrity of the game. It might earn your team a power play, maybe even lead to a decisive goal, but at what cost? That’s taking things too far. Where is the honor?
Oh, that’s right. It was left at the blueline, when your team’s No. 5 defenseman lowered his shoulder, but got his elbow slightly raised on follow through, hitting the heads-down opponent on the upper shoulder. Or was it the neck? What was the principal point of contact? Should the defender have held back? How do you decide to do that in mere seconds when you’ve been trained all your life to take the body or risk being nailed to the bench?
Don’t even get me started on goalies. Sure they have all the pressure in the world to succeed, and their margin of error is razor thin, but look at all the bulking up they’ve done over the years. Their gear is crazy big, and some are in violation of regulations. Yes, we want them to stop every puck, but not at the expense of larger pads. That crosses a line.
The point is, as my colleague Ryan Kennedy is wont to say, we get the game that we deserve. If we lust for blood and ultimate achievement, we need to expect to be cut at times by the blade of that double-edged sword. Put another way, we can’t put an egg in a shark’s jaws and expect the shell to remain intact.
We want wins, we want championships and, for the most part, we don’t particularly care how it’s achieved. That hockey’s boundaries are fuzzier at times than Sidney Crosby’s beard, doesn’t help. So be appalled at what Burrows said to Patrick O’Sullivan, but don’t be shocked. It’s a predictable by-product.