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Mike Milbury, Kelly Hrudey and Scott Oake take direction from a producer during a 2010 broadcast of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail/Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)
Mike Milbury, Kelly Hrudey and Scott Oake take direction from a producer during a 2010 broadcast of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail/Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)

Usual suspects

Mad Mike repents, but stay tuned for his next outburst Add to ...

In wrestling they’re called heels. Bad guys with a foreign object in the trunks, a sneer on their lips and nothing good to say about anyone. Their treachery makes the news cycle go round.

In hockey they’re called Mike Milbury. The former player and GM now operates as a heel in the hockey media. Maybe he doesn’t wear spandex tights or carry a bullhorn, but Milbury gleefully operates on the margins of civility, insulting the sacred cows of the sport. Like the snarling Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men, Milbury tells the faint-hearted fans and media they can’t take the truth about their sport.

Then, when boos cascade from the stands, a repentant Milbury begs forgiveness (“I realize what I said was inappropriate and wrong, and I want to apologize to the Penguins organization and their fans”). Only to revert to type for the next big promotion.

Hence this week’s episode of Breaking Bad. In a Monday interview on Philadelphia’s 94WIP, Milbury called out Sidney Crosby, labelling the Penguins’ captain a “punk” and “little goody two shoes.”

“He’s not the sweet kid you see in interviews with his hat pulled down over his eyes,” Milbury said. “I’d say screw him, hit him.” He derided Crosby for his “35th concussion.”

He then told Crosby’s coach, Dan Bylsma, to remove his skirt and stand up to fight Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette.

This has Milbury trending on Twitter (#TurnOffHisMikeMilbury) and furiously racking up page hits on websites everywhere. “@mpukalo I so wish I could punch Mike Milbury through the TV screen. … Hey Mike, good job trading Zdeno Chara. What a GM you were.”

Milbury was a dumpster fire as a general manager on Long Island, trading Chara, Roberto Luongo, Todd Bertuzzi and many others for a bag of clams. Which only enhances his heel status. “He dishes it out because he stunk as a GM.”

Like any good heel, he’s flirted with becoming a “face” (wrestling for nice guy) at times this season, admitting the dangers of his sport on the human brain. (He also appears to be a bigger heel in the United States than he is on Hockey Night in Canada, where he’s appeared almost rational this season.)

But this week he’s back in villain mode, inspiring calls for his firing. But who would you rather have to get you through the televised 82-game grind? Milbury snapping your synapses or Cassie Campbell politely breaking down game tape? This is TV, entertainment, diversion. Just ask Justin Trudeau, who went from quasi-separatist flibbertigibbet to serious Liberal Party figure by giving a Conservative senator a bloody nose.

“I just wish he’d done that with me on the panel,” HNIC analyst Glenn Healy said when asked about Milbury. “But that’s Mike. I guess I shouldn’t remind him that I have four kilts after his crack to Bylsma.”

Brought To Heel

Apology aside, Milbury’s act works because hockey remains an honour society, a 19th-century construct held together by vendettas, duels, long-winded patriotic orations and a code of conduct determining what violence is appropriate and when it can be exacted. In a rational society of laws, cartoon figures talking about “stepping up” and “losing the skirt” would be laughed off the air.

But hockey famously governs itself through a system in which real justice is in the hands of enforcers, not police (who rationalize it with “let the players decide”). Retribution is seen as the noblest duty to which a player can aspire. Respect is greater than 30 goals in a season. Pontificating about the above is seen as an admirable calling. Hence Milbury stirring the pot. Heel is as heel does.

Never The Twain Shall Meet

What’s interesting in the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia dust-up that started Milbury’s harangue is how the two conference solitudes work in the NHL. The vendettas, the line brawls, the coaches starting three goons – almost all of this happened exclusively in the Eastern Conference this season. It’s hard to recall many such incidents between Western rivals this season, outside of a little harmless Chicago/Vancouver chirping.

Why? “The Eastern guys are still busy lining up their tank warfare,” Healy says. “The Western guys have decided it’s better to attack using F16s. You can get better results bombing guys from above than on the ground.

“You stack your team depending on who it is you have to beat,” Healy adds. “In the East that is Boston with [Milan]Lucic, [Brad]Marchand and [Scott]Thornton. You have to meet fire with fire to get through the playoffs. That involves a lot of battles in the trenches. In the West, who are the best teams? Vancouver and Detroit. How do they win? Not through intimidation. Not with the Sedins. So teams out West stock up more on the skill guys they need to beat the Canucks and Red Wings.”

Mind The Platform

Coverage of The Masters begins Thursday, and so does the Toronto Blue Jays’ season. The point of intersection is in how many fans will avail themselves of new media to watch both. Considering how stingy the folks at Augusta are about conventional broadcast coverage (three hours Thursday and Friday), Usual Suspects has downloaded the TSN Masters App the past two years to catch Amen Corner or a featured group on our iPhone.

The proliferation of iPhone and iPad is sure to make the numbers soar for this weekend’s coverage of Tiger Woods’s possible return to the winner’s seat at Augusta National. For more conventional types, TSN will have radio coverage across its network. Global takes over the TV portion of the tournament Saturday and Sunday.

Meanwhile, the 162-game march for the Blue Jays begins with Rogers offering streaming of games to its cable and wireless customers via RogersAnyplaceTV.com and Rogers Live Mobile app. If you live in one of the areas of the country not served by Rogers Cable or are not a Rogers Wireless customer, you’ll have to limit your watching to one of the Sportsnet TV channels.

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