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Lots of hockey. Lots of golf. Other sports too. 

On Habs-Bruins, Milan Lucic, and Bully Culture

Minivan Dad

May 14, 2014

We start with the simple facts, as Boring Sean Monahan might put it on Twitter (if you like hockey and Twitter, you'll get this, otherwise I apologize!): The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of their NHL Stanley Cup playoff series last night. The Bruins were the best team in the NHL for the regular season, but most experts thought it would be a hard-fought series and that the Canadiens, of all the teams in the Eastern Conference, had the best chance of knocking out the Bruins. 

Now some background for the casual hockey fan: This is an old, old rivalry. A fiercely proud, provincial French Canadian city against a fiercely proud, provincial New England city. Each fan base (and team members, for that matter) thinks the other's team cheats, whines, and dives and that the referees favor their opponent. Shockingly (not), fans of every other team in the NHL think that about both of these teams.  The Bruins are gritty, big and bad, clad in black. The Canadiens, of the bleu, blanc, et rougeare the New York Yankees of hockey, though I have to say that their mystique has become a little more romantic over the years, while the Yankees have become unbearably corporate.

The Canadiens have their share of tough guys, like all hockey teams, but their success is based on speed, execution, and the creativity of their best player, P.K. Subban. Not to mention their goalie Carey Price, who has come to embody a nearly perfect combination of technical proficiency and athletic instinct. Subban is a lightning rod of a player, explosive and energetic. He is also extremely well-spoken, well-versed in Les Canadiens and NHL history, and funny. He has matured, from an arrogant kid who lost his temper when provoked, to an engaging leader and a brilliant hockey player. He used to be the "player you love to hate," but he's becoming the opposite - that player you hate to admit you love.

Anyway. The Bruins play with a high skill level but also challenge other teams to match their physical intensity. They are bigger and meaner than other teams, and also really good at hockey, so they mostly win. The baddest man in the NHL, all 6'9" of defenseman Zdeno Chara, enforces their will. He is King Kong in the background. Their smaller, sneakier players, like Brad Marchand, instigate with abandon, trying to draw penalties, knowing that Chara, 4th line enforcer Shawn Thornton, and first line bruiser Milan Lucic (foreshadowing music here) are there to protect them from any retaliation. 

In the end, Price, Subban, and the rest of Les Habs outskated and outskilled the Bruins, who tried their hardest to physically dominate their smaller opponents. The Canadiens kept their focus, controlled the tempo of play and were in the lead for the majority of the time, even though the games were evenly won and lost. The Bruins had short spurts of total dominance, but in the end it wasn't enough. The Canadiens won game 6 in Montreal, and then went to Boston and defeated the Bruins on home ice. But... the fun wasn't quite over yet. 

(Yes, now the point:)

My point is really about bullying.

Enter Milan Lucic. 

I've always thought of Lucic as a skilled thug who occasionally went over the edge, but not anymore. This season, he was involved in two cowardly and unmanly groin-spearing incidents. Two. One time, and you might be able to convince me that a guy just lost his mind. Twice, though, and it's a deliberate pattern. It's a choice. When a player who is essentially unbreakable chooses to rake another man's genitals from behind with a stick, then there is no more benefit of the doubt. And after Wednesday night, it is perfectly clear. Never mind that Milan Lucic is a professional hockey player. He has crossed the line from a simple sports villain to an example of what we are trying to eliminate from our society, and specifically from our schools. Milan Lucic is just a bully. 

A bully intimidates both physically and mentally. Lucic's stickwork this season is his new message to opponents. Not only will he knock you into next week if he gets a chance, or beat you to a pulp if you challenge him, but he can and will do anything to you, and you might not even see him coming. A bully can seduce too, and act as a protector to those he or she chooses. I have seen him interviewed and he can come across as charming and intelligent. Most guys in the NHL past and current will tell you that they would skate with a guy like Lucic anyday, anytime, rather than call him out for his recent actions.

But he deserves to be called out. By his teammates, by his peers, by fans, and by the media. He needs to be held accountable as the unacceptable bully that he seems so proud to be. 

A bully will show his worst and truest colors after being challenged and defeated. Just in case there is any doubt, that's exactly what happened in the handshake line after game 7 on Wednesday night. 

To be clear, the post-series handshake in the NHL playoffs is one of, if not the best, symbolic traditions in sports, superficial as it may seem. After beating each other up for a best-of-seven series, with eyes on a life-affirming prize, the players line up at center ice and shake hands. They have been doing this since they learned to play as children. Usually "good game" or "good luck" is exchanged, or a brief pat on the chest for players who know each other well or have played together before. Occasionally something more

Wednesday night, in full view of television cameras, Lucic chose a different approach. His handshakes were violent and overexaggerated. He aggressively engaged the Canadiens, with whom he had exchanged some back and forth gamesmanship during the series. These were not playful "Dude, I'm gonna get you next season for this LOL!" conversations. His menace is clear from the broadcasts. There is no doubt of his intent.

One of the Canadiens he specifically singled out, Dale Weise, confirmed to a reporter that Lucic had threatened him in the handshake line, along with defenseman Alexei Emelin, who was this season's first victim of Lucic's scrotum-hunting tactics. 

Predictably, Lucic responded by calling Weise a "baby." As if his schoolyard target went and told a teacher on him. And for the cherry on top, he threw in the equivalent of "what about what they did/you don't see me complaining" in his post-game interviews. The "he-started-it-I-didn't-do-anything-but-I-could-have-done-much-worse-if-I-wanted-to" defense, right out of the 6th grade bully playbook. I can almost hear his parents calling Commissioner Bettman to defend their misunderstood son.

He also criticized Weise by adding that what was said should have stayed "on the ice." Never mind that it was said in full view of every hockey-covering media outlet in North America and on live television in the US and Canada. Anyone who watches hockey acknowledges that bad stuff happens on the ice during games, and horrible things are said, and plenty of threats are made. However, "on the ice" is not to be taken literally. The whole point of the handshake line is that all of that crap is supposed to end when you meet at center ice at the end of the series.

Responses have, not surpisingly given the culture of the NHL and professional sports in general, been divided. Lucic has been sharply criticized, but a large contingent of current and former NHL players, writers and broadcasters, thought that Lucic's actions weren't such a big deal and that Weise should have kept it to himself. Here's a good summary.

This mixed response is just an epic, epic fail. 

Forget the sanctimony about Lucic needing to be a role model to young hockey players. No one left on earth should be naive enough to expect this anymore. And please don't throw the "Hockey is an emotional game and he was upset right after losing, how would you like cameras on you all the time?" narrative at me. It's ridiculous. He should know by now that there are cameras everywhere, and he's a grown man who is paid a lot of money to play hockey professionally. He's been doing this handshake routine since he learned to skate. He knows better. 8-year old boys know better. 

Questioning Weise's motivation is all part of Lucic's manipulative defense, and it's too bad that so many fell into the trap. Montreal seemed to focus on "disrespect" as a rallying point through this series. By going public, Weise might simply have been trying to provide more motivational fodder for his team. It's certainly not, like some would suggest, because Dale Weise is afraid of Milan Lucic. He isn't. Weise had a brilliant series, is a tough guy himself, and clearly could have given a rat's behind that Lucic was acting like an idiot. The point is, Weise is not the guy who threatened anyone in a handshake line. 

What is lost in this epic fail mixed response to Milan Lucic is the chance to teach a public lesson about bullying. He is a professional athlete trying to perpetuate, and hide behind, an archaic and dangerous bully culture. Just because Milan Lucic is enough of a narcissist to perceive weakness in two professional hockey players rather than some weakling kid (and to be clear, I am sure that he is active in team community projects and responds to adoring children without threatening to beat them up) doesn't mean that this isn't the precise behavior arc that we are dedicating public and private resources to try to eradicate from our schools.

The point is, this discussion shouldn't about the value or confidentiality of some traditional handshake line. It should be about bullying. We have embraced the idea that bullying in our schools, and in our society, is unacceptable and dangerous. Milan Lucic exposed himself to to us as a school bully, nothing more, and he does not deserve to be defended by anyone.