On Biting, Diving and Rooting for the “Bad-Guy”

Om Nom Nom
(Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

From the stellar ratings, to the nicknacks in Harper’s office – Canada clearly cares about the Canucks. Whether you’re rooting for the Canucks, or obsessing over your hatred for their greasy, diving ways – you’re watching the games, and you have an opinion. So they don’t “represent you” – of course they don’t – unless you were born in Vancouver, moved there, or developed an affection for the team through the osmosis of knowing, dating, or working with a huge fan. Obviously, the only team that represents Canada is the national team. Either way, Canada cares what happens to this team, and lots of neutral fans are rooting for them – that’s just fact.

What I’m sick of hearing about, is the complaints that the Canucks play “the wrong way.” The wrong way is to be eliminated in April. Other than the nearly epic hiccup against Chicago, the Canucks are steam-rolling through the playoffs, and for the most part they’re doing it by playing a skillful, entertaining brand of hockey. Sure they dive, but why wouldn’t they? They have the leagues best power-play, and the rules permit, nay encourage, selling calls. You want to prioritize honour on your hockey team? Enjoy drafting in the top-10.

Here’s a list of teams that play hockey in a way that frequently annoys, or disgusts me: Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Vancouver. What do these teams have in common?

I remember watching the world-cup final last summer, and Spain bothered me to no end. They dove, they suffocated opponents with quality defence and controlled the pace of the game with safe possession tactics. I was rooting for the Dutch and was blind to the quality of game Spain was playing – I found their tactics morally repugnant and sputtered in anger at the way they won. My Dad started mocking me, “you’re missing the forest for the trees,” he told me, “this side is the best-coached and most skilled. They’re making damn sure they win by playing up every possible advantage they have, and they’re playing gorgeous football. You want to get mad about a dive here and there, or do you want to enjoy their mastery of the sport?”

He was right. You can moralize about the Canucks, you can claim that you’d rather cheer for a team that “wins the right way” (whatever that means) or you can enjoy the tremendous quality of hockey that this Canucks team is bringing to the rink game in and game out. Frankly, I don’t care which option you choose.

I’ve rooted for “lovable loser” Canucks teams (most of the time), as well as “under-achieving overpaid slug” Canucks team (the Messier era) for my entire life. After the Bertuzzi punch, I suppose, the Canucks stopped being “lovable losers” for a season and a half, and turned into “loathsome chokers.” But once the shadow of Bertuzzi was gone, the team was a hard-working, over-achieving, under-matched group, destined to lose in the second round in perpetuity. Frankly – I was sick of it.

Enter this years team, a well-oiled, cynical, machine of vets with one single-minded goal: the pursuit of a Stanley Cup. If the odd “sell-job” would help win games, they were prepared to do it. If they had an agitating winger who occasionally crossed the line in order to get another team off their game – so be it. You want fidelity – marry a swan. You want to watch “honour in action” – watch a Disney movie. If Attila the Hun skated with the Sedins and scored clutch goals, I’d root for him too.

Which, brings us to Alex Burrows, and his WWE villain turn over the last few days. Let’s get this out there first of all: biting another grown man is a really weird thing to do, and Burrows obviously deserved to be suspended. But he wasn’t, and it’s not worth getting sanctimonious over. Burrows does some really dumb stuff on occasion, and the two incidents that stand out as basically indefensible to me (from this season) were the crotch-shot he gave Marc Staal, and the Bergeron bite. There’s no place for either in hockey, and I’d love to see Burrows stop it with those sorts of antics.

That being said, we’re talking about a guy who was the 10th leading scorer for a team called the Grrrowl (was unable to confirm whether or not they were owned by Avril Lavigne) in the ECHL, a guy who had to scratch and claw his way into the league. And he didn’t just make it into the league as a checker, he’s a consistent 50 point scorer and a difference maker come playoff time. Alex Burrows is used to doing whatever he has to do, and his willingness to go where others won’t in terms of agitating opponents is what has given him the chance to have the sort of game he had last night.

Now let’s not miss the forest for the trees – Burrows is a peach off the ice, and on the ice – though he can often be a total jerk and embellisher – hes’ not the sort of cheap-shot artist who intentionally tries to injure other players (cough, Matt Cooke, cough, Zdeno Chara). He’s as aware a player as there is in the NHL (look no further than his OT winner for proof of that), and though reasonable people can disagree, I don’t think he was trying to hurt Bergeron by biting him, he was trying to piss Bergeron and the Bruins off. It worked.

In the future, I’d hope that Brendan Shanahan will have the stones to suspend Burrows for that sort of action, and I also hope he’ll have the stones to suspend Horton for his antics in game 6 against Tampa. In fact, I can mention 10+ incidents this season, and four or so this playoffs, where I wish the NHLs supplementary discipline office wasn’t totally spineless, but there you have it. This is the game we choose to care about, and you can’t honestly say you were surprised by the NHLs decision not to suspend Burrows.

Boston fans who are whining about this – and there are a lot of them – get especially riled up when you bring up Nathan Horton’s incident with the fan in game 6 of the Tampa Bay series. They’ll point out, quite rightly, that there is no equivalence between squirting a water bottle at a fan and biting an opposing player. But both actions cross the line of acceptable player behaviour, have no place in the game, and have previously been considered offences grave enough to warrant suspension. I won’t even bring up the biting accusation levied at a now injured member of the Bruins – who I really hope is able to live a normal life in the future – just last playoffs. History doesn’t get suspended – you can just see the NHL commercial being produced about it at this very moment.

Simply put the Bruins don’t own the moral high-ground here, any more than the other 28 teams do. Look at the shot Tim Thomas gave Mason Raymond at the end of the third, or the two-handed slash Peverly delivered to the back of Bieksa’s knee in the 2nd period. Don’t tell me you’re rooting for the Bruins, because, unlike the Canucks they want to “win the right way.”

You have two options over the remaining games of this Stanley Cup Finals – you can erect an imago of the “fair playing hockey team” and find the Canucks lacking in comparison. Or you can enjoy the crisp passing, the intelligent finishing, the stellar team defence, the clinical goaltending of Roberto Luongo and stop deluding yourself.

  • As a canucks hater, I can’t say I disagree with anything. In fact, I loved the bow and arrow to his buddy because after all, its just a game and him giving a shout out to his boy was a pretty special moment.

    As far as diving, I get the purpose but this is why I don’t respect the game of soccer. As the rules stand, it promotes it so as I player, why not BUT the NHL needs to get strict on this. Enough of the call a dive but also call the guy it happened to for some phantom call.

    In saying that though, I will continue to will the Bruins to a victory not because I just truly HATE the Canucks but because I LOVE the Oilers and as a dedicated fam I just don’t want rivals to win.

  • hello? Is there anyone out there who reads your blog? The “Nuck fans” need to step thier game up. Under the heading of pitiful. Not only do we hate your team. See Ryan Whitney comments. We hate you for being the fairweather fans we know you to be. You’ll be like Calgary. Crowing about your one and only Stanley Cup.I am going to puke if I hear once more how great the Sedins are, or Kesler and Burrows. Go sit on your decks and sip your Pina Cloada’s and enjoy this next week. It will be the last one you have fo rthe next 40 years. You’ll be like the Leaf Fans in a few years.Pathetic and tired.

  • It’s a little bit scattershot. Directed mostly at Oilers fans, Bruins fans and Leafs fans. If it had been aimed at Leafs nation specifically the line would’ve read “want to prioritize honour on your hockey team? Then enjoy giving away your top 10 pick to a team that doesn’t.”

  • That wasn’t really my point. The NHL needs to change the rules to discourage it, and I’d support that. With the rules as they are, the Canucks are smart to play as they’ve been playing, and should continue to do so until the rules are altered.

    • Zed

      I wouldn’t describe the fellas in that youtube clip as smart.

      A better description would be Jacka$$.

      Notice that capital “J” in there?

      Lets just agree that if the NHL starts going in this direction the fans are in a lot of trouble.


  • Really good stuff Thom. I’ll admit I personally don’t find this iteration of the Canucks nearly as detestable as the Cooke/Ruutu/Jovo/Bertuzzi club. Partly because the Flames/Canucks rivalry was bigger then, but mostly because all of those dudes are scumbags.

  • Kent, when I look back at it, Cooke/Ruutu/Bertuzzi is an impressive array of irredeemable jerks to have on one team. I object to defining “Jovo” as a scum-bag, but only because he was a wonderful fellow personally when I met him.

  • OilFan

    Good Article; If a guy put his finger in my mouth at that time I would bite it. I would feel like an Idiot when I watched the jumbotron but I would bite it. Its the Stanley cup and the player will do what it takes to win. If the league wants to stop some actions of players then they need to get a spine. Frankly I am more frustrated by the league than the Canucks as much as I hate them. The on Ice officiating has been very inconsistent all post season. It is the major factor here. Need I elaborate with examples I don’t think so it has been so easy to see.

  • OilFan

    Great article, with the qualification in your answer to Zed. However, I don’t think the league will be able to properly enforce anti-diving at game pace though, given the officials are barely able to keep up with infractions. I also don’t think it’s because the officials are morons, but because the game moves too quick. Maybe what they can do is what Ron Maclean did to Burrows last year (albeit privately). Send a player clips where they are diving, and give them a warning and then tell them they are on a watch list. Maybe they do that already? Dustin Brown would be at the top of the list, I would guess.

    On Burrows: no fans of opposing teams seems to notice, but he has really cleaned up his act since the Auger incident. Here and there the infantile Burrows comes out, but on the whole, he’s clearly trying to shut up and play whistle to whistle. The bite was all the more disappointing for that reason.

  • Mantastic

    If you mean to suggest that your father, and hence yourself, believe that to attempt to win by playing up every possible advantage, even to forfeit your morality for the sake of it, could be good for the game? I believe you are mistaken.
    But I do think you just miraculously uncovered the reason soccer has not taken hold in America.
    I would love the Canucks to play like men and not the West Coast version of the Montreal Canadiens.
    The Canucks are good enough to win the series without resorting to these tactics, but they encouraged and warranted retaliation. It is a shame that hockey viewers were subjected to this much-maligned “Euro” style of play employed by the Canucks that has apparently taken a stronghold in Canada and is considered practically unwatchable here in the States.
    I suppose it was just our great misfortune that it was a Canadian team we pulled out of the hat to match up with in the Finals. Go B’s.

  • Mantastic

    The lack of diving in hockey is what separates it from soccer, field hockey, and every other sport that should be played in a skirt. Burrows has been a good player between whistles, but the diving, biting, and antics are disgusting. It infuriates me to watch our country’s national sport being disgraced by such a little weasel. There was a time that players followed a code, and that code says that you don’t bite another man and you don’t flop around the ice like a soccer player. This isn’t a wrestling match between two 4 year olds, it’s professional hockey. As far as the diving goes… if you want to sit there and defend your precious canucks because they’re doing “whatever they have to do”, then go ahead, but everyone knows that vancouver fans will be the first ones to bitch and moan when a call goes against them when an opponent sells a call. I’m obviously not a vancouver fan, and never will be, but I am a hockey fan, and the diving that’s been exhibited by burrows, kesler, lapierre, and the sedins, makes me feel sick to watch. You can say what you want about boston being dirty, but they’re playing hockey… slashing and punching included. That’s a part of the game, and it always has been. Diving and biting, however, never have been a part of our game and i hope they have a short stay.

    Go get ’em Bruins. I hope you do whatever you have to do to keep those little sissies’ hands off of Stanley.

  • Mantastic

    And Thomas, if you’re so impressed by the spanish soccer team’s antics, I suggest you tune into the women’s world cup instead of the stanley cup playoffs. I’m sure diving, biting, hair-pulling and pillow fights will be the norm. That’s probably more your speed.

  • Mantastic

    I dont like biting and diving it is ruining the game.
    I also beleive that fighting will happen and that the league should get rid of the instigator rule. fights will happen but players should be penalized for it. cheap shots and embellishment will also happen due to the nature of the game, they should also be penalized.
    the problem I have with the diving and biting is this If you stick your finger in someones mouth – expect to get bit. Yes there is embellishment and burrows and sedins are famous for it. But the problem is that all the incidents for biting or diving are coming after the whistle and are initiated by BOSTON this is not hockey. I think the refs should call a penalty on the first contact in every after the whistle scrum and end this crap. then there will be no diving or biting Just hockey.