Jim Neveau, Managing Editor
Throughout the history of sports, there has been one mantra that has largely been considered to be indispensable: “suck it up and be a man”. Those types of sayings, as well as demeaning others’ lack of machismo have been trash talk staples for many years, and despite the progress of women into being big-time athletes, the vestiges of these types of insults are still around.
One of the sports where toughness is a key virtue is the sport of hockey. Even though admiring guys for playing despite losing teeth and pints of blood is all well and good, there are plenty of areas that some fans and players venture into that aren’t so good. Players using foul words like “faggot” and other demeaning terms have been met with derision, but despite those responses to their inappropriate language, the issue keeps coming up.
It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever be rid of people calling Henrik and Daniel Sedin the “Sedin Sisters” anytime soon, but the possibility of getting the pundits and athletes in the sport to stop using derogatory terms is a useful goal, and one that several entities are working on. Perhaps one of the biggest proponents of acceptance of others has been the “You Can Play” initiative. Co-founded by Patrick Burke, whose father Brian is the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and whose brother Brendan was an openly gay advocate for equality in the sport before his tragic death, the program has drawn a ton of interest from players in the league, and a great series of ads has been cut pushing the program’s message of acceptance.
Despite these types of positive steps forward, there are still steps back that have been taken. Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, scarcely a week after having a banana thrown at him in a racially charged incident in London, Ontario, was accused of calling Sean Avery a homophobic slur earlier this year. He wasn’t suspended or fined for the incident, but it once again opened up the debate as to how far the league should go in order to control the lengths to which players will trash-talk one another.
Another low came in the form of a statement made by NBC’s Mike Milbury on Monday morning. He was calling into a radio station in Philly to discuss the brawl between the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon, which saw coaches Peter LaViolette and Tony Granato standing on the half-boards and screaming at each other while commentator Pierre McGuire stood helplessly between them. The league ended up fining both coaches for the incident (which LaViolette was also ejected from the game for), but Milbury didn’t focus on that particular element of the story when he was being interviewed.
During one exchange, Milbury called Sidney Crosby “a little punk” and added that “he said after he came back from his ,ya-know, 35th concussion, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to get into these scrums, I’m going to stay away from that stuff. I’d say screw him, hit him whenever you get the opportunity.”
While calling for players to deliberately go after someone with a history of head injuries isn’t exactly the classiest way to conduct yourself, it doesn’t rise to the level of necessitating a redress of grievances. It’s simply going along with the toughness doctrine that guys like Milbury espouse. Where he truly went over the line in making his point was when he lobbed a couple of grenades at Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma:
“I can remember being on a such a perch, or at least trying to climb over the boards to get at somebody to make a point. And I thought Dan Bylsma should have took off his skirt and gone over there. I thought it was pathetic.”
The highlighted section of Milbury’s rant is exactly what is wrong with hockey and the other professional sports. Any time a guy needs to make a point that someone took a coward’s way out or didn’t stand up to fight, or does anything regarded as “unmanly”, it’s instantly met with derision and comparisons of those individuals to girls. Statements like this and others like when Dave Bolland called the Sedin twins “sisters” are still more commonplace than they should be, and it’s a damn shame that for the most part these incidents of questioning the manhood of others don’t get the negative coverage that they should.
Milbury is constantly at the center of various controversies, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he stepped in it once again in this circumstance. He tends to run his mouth faster than his mind can process the wisdom of his words, and while commentators like Johnny Miller in golf or Charles Barkley in basketball largely stay away from trouble by doing that, Milbury just can’t seem to figure out the difference between compelling television and looking like a complete buffoon and chauvinist.
Calling out someone’s manhood by resorting to gender-based attacks may be good fodder for the frat boy set and meathead fans, but it has no place coming out of the mouth of someone who is supposed to be covering the game of hockey for a living. Milbury is paid to be controversial, but there is a fine line that he has repeatedly crossed, and it’s about time that his bosses at his various network gigs called him out on it.
Simply put, the multiple networks that employ him need to take a stand and reiterate their commitment to making sure that hockey is as accepting a sport as possible, and to distance themselves from Milbury’s comments. His rant provided some good ratings for that radio station and definitely were in the spirit of what has become one of the league’s most heated rivalries, but they still were beyond what is acceptable in today’s society, and Milbury should be called to the carpet for it.
It is the hope of many, including the You Can Play group and other initiatives like Hockey Against Hate, that hockey will be a more accepting game. Milbury would be well-served to follow their example and to tone down his chauvinism and degrading attitude the next time he decides to stir the pot.
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.