Thursday, October 8, 2015

Captaining is Hard

The great Irish rugby captain Brian O'Driscoll once said "When you are captain, you are never speaking for yourself." That voice of experience is speaking directly to the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty this week.

Pacioretty got a sense of what it really means to be the captain of the Canadiens last year, when the team lost the immortal Jean Beliveau. The outpouring of love for the Beliveau family and the thousands who made time to pay their last respects seemed to resonate with the young American. He talked about understanding better what it means to be a role model in Montreal and trying to live up to the legacy of the men like Beliveau who wore the sweater before him.

Of course, lots of players say they get it, but in Pacioretty's case, it really seemed to be true. He walked a little taller, spoke a little more thoughtfully and made sure he was a bit more sharply dressed. In emulating Beliveau, he appeared to take on a bit of the dignity and graciousness with which the great captain carried himself. That's why it was really not much of a surprise when his teammates decided Pacioretty is the man they want to lead them in the room and on the ice.

Now the joy of putting on the "C" for the first time...which he said he couldn't look at too much for fear of becoming too evaporating and the real work of being the captain begins. In Montreal, driven by a natural love of their team which is pumped up like a wrestler on steroids by the Habs' own marketing machine, fans want a piece of the Canadiens. And, often, as is the case this week, when that piece is a pound of flesh, they want to hear from the captain.

When newly-acquired Zach Kassian was involved in an early-morning truck crash that broke his foot and nose, and was then sent to Stage Two of the NHL's substance abuse program, every microphone in town hovered next to Pacioretty's locker, waiting to see how the new captain would handle his first Habs controversy. Reporters tried to bait him by referring to GM Marc Bergevin's comments about Kassian's lack of judgement. Pacioretty didn't shrink from it, or let Kassian off the hook. He shouldered his role as leader and said the team is glad the man isn't too badly hurt, and his fellow players are there for him. He also said Kassian made a big mistake and is extremely lucky. When asked whether the episode could be a cautionary tale for young players, Pacioretty (ironically, with Kassian's name plate visible on the next locker) said flatly, "No. There is nothing positive in this. We're all blessed to be here in the NHL, and there's nothing positive about this." He then shut the door on that line of questioning and turned the conversation to the upcoming season opener, explaining that was the team's most urgent priority.

That sounds an awfully lot like a captain to me. A buddy of mine says the most important quality a captain can have, aside from basic skill and experience, is the ability to give "The Look." That's how he describes the kind of fierce gravity the best players can summon when calling out an errant or underperforming teammate. The trick is, you not only have to have the ability to give it, you have to know when to do it as well. On Monday morning, in the midst of all those reporters, Pacioretty had "The Look."

When you think about five years ago, when the questions Pacioretty was answering were all about whether he could cut it in the NHL at all, it's testament to the work and determination he's put into developing into the person and player he is now. It hasn't been easy. From those early doubts about whether he could ever be a big-league scorer, to the series of unfortunate and bizarre injuries that have happened to him, he's had to overcome a lot in his young career.

Those trials have shaped him into the guy who not only gives honest commentary on the unfortunate case of Kassian, but also on his own performance and that of his team as a whole. They've also made him the type of man who stepped on the ice against the leafs and scored the two goals his team needed to secure victory. Not even Beliveau did that in his first game as captain.

There was a lot of talk about which of the several possible Canadiens candidates should wear the "C" this summer. Bergevin did the right thing by leaving it up to the players themselves to decide. So far, it looks like they made the right decision. Pacioretty is ready for the job, even when it means, as O'Driscoll said, he's never speaking for himself. He's speaking for the Montreal Canadiens, and the hockey world is listening.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Disposable Heroes

There's angst in Habsville today because general manager Marc Bergevin isn't happy with the behaviour of Zach Kassian. Kassian was in a truck wreck with two young women at six thirty in the morning, and the optics of the situation are bad. Bad enough to make Bergevin question Kassian's character; the most vital of Canadiens characteristics under the current management. Kassian is now in Stage Two of the NHL's substance abuse program. Guys who fail Stage One go to Stage Two, and the guys who've failed Stage One in the past have done things like drive drunk and abuse cocaine while receiving treatment without strictures.

The thing is, the NHL is, in its rather reluctant way, looking after Kassian and trying to push him into a treatment program that will enable him to continue his career. The program isn't perfect, but at least it's a defined series of consequences for specific behaviour. That's not the case with every crime, or investigation into a potential crime.

Patrick Kane and the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks have had quite an offseason. On June 15, the 'Hawks closed out their third successful playoff run in the last six years. A day later, the president of the United States was tweeting them with congratulations and an invitation to visit the White House. The rest of the summer passed in a pleasant haze of celebration for the Blackhawks, who are now assured of their legacy as a modern-day dynasty. At least, it was pleasant until August 6, when an unnamed young woman filed a complaint of sexual assault against star forward Patrick Kane.

Journalists who reported on the case were, understandably, understated in their analysis. Kane is a mega-star, the kind who makes ten million bucks a year and probably has a key to the city of Chicago kicking around in his sock drawer. Nobody wanted to make a misstep and imply the incident could have negative consequences for Kane's career. And rightly so, as far as unbiased reporting goes. That principal, of course, didn't stop Kane's fans from accusing the woman of lying and gold-digging.

Now, with bizarre tales of evidence tampering and a hoax perpetrated by the complainant's mother, the case is even more strange. However, while journalists (if not fans) are walking a very careful line in their coverage, the Blackhawks themselves decided not to follow suit. They instead invited Kane to training camp and stood behind him, even though there's still no legal resolution in his favour. They went so far as to trot Kane out for a press conference at which he answered no questions and merely apologized for the "distraction" he caused his teammates.

The cynics among us will say the 'Hawks are being so solicitous of Kane's comfort because of who he is. If he was, say, carrying a pesky contract pressuring their cap, yet no longer putting up the numbers he used to, one might wonder whether the team's goodwill would have been so expansive. The previous year's Cup-winning LA Kings' sure wasn't.

Full disclosure? I don't like Mike Richards. I didn't like him with the Flyers, I didn't like him with the Kings and I really didn't like him when he...whom I always considered a bit of a hotheaded mouthpiece...suggested P.K.Subban needed to show more respect to established veterans, presumably Richards himself, or suffer the consequences. However, as much as I dislike Richards, I dislike equally what's happening to him.

By now we all know the "substance" the RCMP has charged Richards with possessing when stopped at the border back in June was oxycontin. That's all we know. We don't know if Richards has a long-term addiction stemming from his well-documented partying days or if he, like so many other NHL players before him, took the painkiller to deal with an injury and got hooked. We don't even know he was taking the pills at all, as the charge is merely for possessing them. Perhaps the Kings executives who decided to terminate his contract know the full story. Either way, the optics of the whole situation cast a hard-hearted, mercenary shadow over the Kings organization.

The team had already waived and demoted Richards, once a highly-coveted piece of two Cup-winners, after it ran into a cap crunch and Richards was no longer pulling his weight on the ice. Unfortunately for the Kings, the latest CBA doesn't allow for cap relief  when burying contracts in the minors like teams could do back in the good old days of covering up GM mistakes. So, when Richards got caught at the border, it gave the Kings an out. They terminated the remaining four years of his contract, worth $22-million, on the grounds of conduct unbecoming an NHL player. Boom. With the stroke of a pen, Dean Lombardi saved himself more than four million bucks a year against the cap and got rid of an underperforming player who would have been a real problem to trade.

Of course, the NHL players association has a problem with this, claiming the Kings are unfairly ending Richards' employment, and has filed a grievance to that effect. It's likely the association will win, too, because the NHL's drug policy calls for rehab, not firing. And, the whole situation has opened up a gaping window into the callousness that is pro hockey. In a league that sells itself with romantic "It's the Cup" commercials and lauds the "heart-and-soul" value of guys who are willing to put their physical and mental health at risk to make rich owners richer, the "it's a business" underbelly of it all is enough to make anyone cynical.

The differences between Kane and Richards right now are that one of them has been charged with a crime while the other is under investigation, and that one of them is still useful while the other is considered past it. However, the biggest difference between them and the way in which they've been treated by their respective teams is perhaps in the nature of the allegations or charges involved.

Richards fell afoul of the NHL drug policy, which landed him within a specific set of parameters for assessment, addictions treatment and punishment. That's where Zach Kassian is right now. Unfortunate, but manageable. The accusation against Kane opens the door to a murky world of inattention, neglect and nonchalance when it comes to pro sport and violence against women. There's nothing in NHL policy that says when a player faces a serious accusation, he should be away from the team with pay until he's vindicated or charged. There's no consistency from team to team, and there's no league-mandated standard for what happens in such cases.

Teams say they do offer seminars on the topic and instruct on proper behaviour in rookie and training camps. Unfortunately, by that time players have often been exposed to the rape and violence culture prevalent in junior hockey. Laura Robinson, in her book, Crossing the Line, does an excellent job of delving into the seriousness of the problem and the common approach of blaming the woman or girl instead of addressing the root causes of the violence in sexual relationships within hockey culture.

The NHL has a long way to go in addressing the way its men treat women, and how it, as a league, regulates and responds to assaults and accusations of assault. Perhaps if it were more progressive in its approach, it wouldn't matter if a player facing allegations of that nature was a superstar or a plugger. And maybe a guy caught with some illegal pills wouldn't be facing the possible loss of his career and millions of dollars, while a guy accused of rape gets to suit up at training camp and carry on with his life.

Zach Kassian is fortunate his problems, whatever they may be, can be addressed within a prescribed program administered by the league. He's lucky he still has some potential use to an NHL team, or he could be suffering Richards' fate right now.

Patrick Kane very well could be cleared of the accusations he faces. Or he might be charged. Either way, one would think the team would go to bat for him in a way the Kings didn't for Richards, or the Habs for Kassian. Whatever happens, the NHL needs to make sure when player abuses a woman...even has the accusation of abusing a woman...there's a set of consequences clearly defined, just the same as there is when there's a drug or alcohol violation. occurs.

There needs to be a policy of respect for the complainant and the understanding that all hockey players, no matter their status, will be treated the same way. That applies to drug and alcohol abuse, and, just as importantly, abuse of a woman.