On Sunday, the NHL memorialized its ultimate highlight. It’s been a half century since Bobby Orr’s Swan Lake routine after the overtime goal that won the 1970 Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins.
Despite his age, Orr remains a cornerstone of the modern NHL.
He reminds us of a time when hockey players were working-class gentlemen, rough-and-tumble types as courtly off the ice as they were vicious on it. Think Gordie Howe or Jean Béliveau. Orr is one of the last living links to the type. He’s also starting to seem a little like real estate – God isn’t making any more of him.
Over the past week, we got a look at how some of Orr’s heirs comport themselves. Let’s just say the species of Hominid Hockeyithicus isn’t evolving all that well. A few of them are back down on all fours.
The NHL’s bad week started with Brendan Leipsic, a fringe contributor on the Washington Capitals.
Midweek, a running private group chat that Leipsic had on social media with hockey pals was leaked online.
I suppose that if any one of us tried to recall our 20-something selves, mixed in a bunch of fame and easy money and set that imaginary person loose into the world, the resulting behaviour might not always fill our mothers with pride.
But the level of discussion here – all of it base and much of it preposterously cruel, especially as it applied to women – was hard to wrap your head around.
Do people – even young, rich, dull-witted people – actually talk to each other like this? Because that is not in my experience, and I was once as young and dull-witted as the best of them.
Ten years ago, the NHL would’ve given itself a week to gauge the PR winds before getting involved. Three years ago, it would have waited at least a couple of days.
But the league’s wholesome image, built over decades by Saskatchewan farm boys and East Coast strivers, is coming apart. The ‘some bad apples’ defence has stopped working. So the response time has dropped under 24 hours.
The NHL jumped on Leipsic with both feet in a statement, describing his behaviour as “reprehensible,” “misogynistic” and “inexcusable.” The next time this happens, maybe the league can release of a video of commissioner Gary Bettman going to the offending player’s house and smashing all the windows of his car with a tire iron.
Leipsic released an apology couched in the gauzy terminology of the modern therapy cult (“I am committed to learning from this and becoming a better person by taking time to determine how to move forward in an accountable, meaningful way”).
The Capitals decided the most meaningful way Leipsic could move forward was into involuntary retirement. The team waived him a day later.
Western society has accustomed itself to the idea that many young, rich people are self-involved dolts. Most reality TV uses this proposition as a leaping-off point for entertainment.
But the NHL is different. Its foundation is built on the opposite idea. That uniquely among pro athletes, hockey players are a class of knights-errant. Good guys with their own moral code who fight fair and do right.
That’s the NHL’s public voice, its outside voice. Leipsic and others like him who’ve gotten caught up in these sort of grubby scandals are its inside voice. You’re starting to get the impression that the inside voice is hockey’s real voice.
That’s not helped when someone of Brett Hull’s stature wanders into the media thicket and begins trashing about.
Hull did a radio hit on Friday. During it, he was tossed a softball about whether he thinks the game is still “fun.” Hull used the Leipsic incident to focus on his answer.
“We did the same things. We said the same things. But there was no way to get caught,” Hull said, while the hosts presumably sat frozen in horror. “That’s why there’s no fun any more.”
Hull is a legacy product who grew up in the game, a hall-of-fame player and a current vice-president of the St. Louis Blues. It’s difficult to conjure someone who speaks with more authority on behalf of the league.
So this is him telling you that Leipsic is not an outlier. He’s not even wrong. He may, in fact, be right. He’s just the dummy who got caught.
Now we have two versions of the NHL’s take on this episode – the one written by a committee of New York-based marketing hacks; and the one provided by a 55-year-old who has spent his entire life enmeshed in the game’s codes and rituals. Which sounds more true to you?
The NHL may think the core of its brand is the sport itself. That people are intrinsically drawn to a pastime that involves moving quickly on frozen surfaces. If that were true, your average fan would watch more Metallurg Magnitogorsk games.
The NHL has meaning and a following because people think it represents an ideal. That ideal is rural and northern. It’s small town versus big city. It’s community versus the individual. It is – and this part is crucial – about a rough-hewn decency that hockey fans, even those who aren’t from here, associate with a particular aspect of Canadianness.
People don’t still love Bobby Orr because he was good at hockey. Most of them never saw him play. They still love Bobby Orr because he seems like the sort of person you’d like to have as your neighbour.
The NHL spends a lot of time worrying about the future of the game, how to keep it growing in an increasingly global marketplace. If you aren’t expanding, you’re contracting. Everyone knows that.
What it doesn’t seem to see is that its worst-case scenarios and existential threats aren’t external. The call is coming from inside the house.