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Spector drops the "Rat" label on Alex Burrows

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The argument in Mark Spector's "NHL's Toughest Customer" goes something like this.

"..a true disturber like Vancouver's Alex Burrows. It is the existence of these players — moreover, their proliferation — that has men like Burke pining for the abolishment of the instigator rule. Long gone is the ability for a heavyweight to grab that player and beat him senseless."

You have to hand it to Spector; he doesn't just simplistically reduce the blame to the instigator penalty - he also attributes some to the revolutionary management decisions of the Detroit Red Wings. He could go even a step further, but I'll get to that later. Spector started out with a softer targetting of the Wings and Mike Babcock, but makes a fade move in the end to try to suggest that Babcock's approach has lead to even more unfortunate consequences - forgive me for paraphrasing here, but basically, in a nutshell - the Vancouver Canucks and Burrows.

"That the visitor can’t ice a heavyweight at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit is old news. With the last change and no heavy in his bench, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has done as much damage to the heavyweight role as any rule change, simply by sending quicker, skilled players over the boards and letting the puck drop. But since the retirement of Kirk Maltby, Babcock does not employ a true disturber like Vancouver’s Alex Burrows."

That Spector publishes ineffectual pieces of bitter hockey journalism, and has a penchant for directing that bitterness at the Vancouver Canucks is also old news. Spector evidently doesn't like Burrows, the Vancouver Canucks, nor the team they are modeled after, but again, I'll get back to the irony of that later, and leave the weak equation of Maltby to Burrows aside as well. Beyond the obvious axe Spector has to grind, there is the question of 'policing' in the NHL, which was handled with the common nostalgia and lack of rigour.

The 'argument' runs along these lines...

"The cost of safety, many believe, is injury. As Burke so famously said on Jan. 5, it is now the rats who are taking over the game.“That’s the irony of it, right?” began Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi. “That guy who Burkie calls ‘The Rat,’ we end up protecting him, because he doesn’t have to answer for anything."

Is it really that simple? If Shanahan calls, I'll bet the "rats" will have to answer the phone.

Regardless of the role of enforcers however, the NHL itself needs to get tougher and take care of it's share of the policing.

Burke expressed his "fear that if we don't have guys looking after each other that the rats will take this game over." Burke did not say that "it is now the rats who are taking over" or have taken over, but instead is giving a caution that they will - if guys don't look after each other. This in my mind is what separates Burrows from the guys Burke would seem to be talking about. What Burke is saying seems like fairly sound team-player thinking, but what all this means remains without a context and is still relatively abstract. Did Burke clarify who the guy he calls "The Rat" is as Dean Lombardi and Spector suggest? I believe he was referring to "rats" - plural - I have yet to find a reference where Burke identifies a "Rat" [let alone names Alex Burrows]. But that doesn't stop Spector from turning this whole issue into an opportunity to "Rat" on Alex Burrows. Is there anyone in the NHL who needs to be looked after for fear that Alex Burrows is going to hurt them? I don't think so.

I'd be interested to hear what else Bryan Burke would have to say about all this, but until then, I find Spector's attempt to fill in the rest on his behalf to be pretty weak.

Another famour Burke had something to say about rodents as well - "By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation." Edmund Burke

Spector seems intent to keep gnawing away at Canucks but really, it is in vain.

A few of Burrows finest qualities are his persistance and perseverance, but he is far too busy being productive, scoring goals, killing penalties, and adding up his pluses to waste his time gnawing at dikes. But this question of guys looking after each other... who might Burke be talking about?

I am not going to speak for Brian Burke as Spector has virtually taken the liberty of doing - I think that is disrespectful and should be left to Brian Burke. Lets look at some of the context that we can consider. Burke drafted a couple of kids named the Sedins, who don't have an enforcer standing behind them. It is just as easy or perhaps easier to imagine that Burke was talking about punching a particular Sedin in the face, repeatedly, and referring to the fact that no one 'grabbed that player and beat him senseless' - as it is to assume he was referring to a player like Burrows. Burrows doesn't low bridge or head hunt the Sidney Crosbys of the NHL. He doesn't run marquis goaltenders, and he does not have an enforcer to hide behind. The Sedins, their linemate and generally the team as a whole leave 'policing' and applying the rules/laws of the NHL to the officials - if that does not happen, true, the Canucks don't have an enforcer to resort to. I don't think that is a management decision that can be considered responsible for players disrespecting opponents. To try to blame Red Wings hockey or the Canucks for the proliferation of cheap shots in the NHL is ridiculous.

To apply the term "rat" to the Sedins' line-mate is to turn the issue into something Burke himself did not express. Who knows - Burke may still have a significant amount of admiration and respect for the Sedins - perhaps he was fuming as much as the rest of us, watching them get disrespected the way they do. After all, he was talking about "guys looking after each other." It sounds like the contexts he is referring to are ones where players like the Sedins are targetted, or Ryan Miller - ones that were not responded to in kind. We would have to get more feedback from Burke before we go naming people on his behalf. Are the "rats" the guys running around free to injure opponents with cheap shots, or are they anybody whose personality Spector despises? Burrows might not be the most beloved players outside Vancouver, but regardless, he is one of the best, most underpaid, versatile, hardworking players in the NHL and it would be a far stretch (actually it is ridiculous) to suggest that he plays the game with the intent to injure his opponents. Ron MacLean may dislike Burrows - Burrows may have a reputation as someone who talks back, but running around injuring people is not Burrows' m.o - not even remotely so.

Based upon Burke's actual words, I would have to think that Spector suggesting that Burrows is "the Rat" is a case of revising reality to suit his particular hate for Burrows and the Canucks. It is hockey opinion/commentary reduced to trolling, and he is trying to use Burke's words to inflate his inflammatory conjecture.

There is also a rather odd political bent to this policing debate and Spector's article. “Basically, the state has taken over (policing of the game). Kind of like socialism.” We don't necessarily need to get into debates about what socialism is, but generally I believe it is actually associated with the state taking control of the economy (and the means of production). You might argue that the NHL is already flirting with that, or is a 'mixed economy', and that it did so for the good of the league, for competitive parity, and the stability of their small market franchises, but debating the salary cap and the rest of NHLonomics is not the point here. I'm at a loss to think of a country, democratic, socialist, or whatever, where the state isn't responsible for policing.

"In hockey’s socialism everyone is exposed to injury on an equal basis, on irresponsible acts carried out by players like Raffi Torres and Daniel Carcillo. Rather than the injury being reserved for the (expendable) heavyweight or the (deserving) protagonist."

First of all - the idea that the enforcer is "expendable" should really be subject to some rethinking. Second, the protagonist is identified by the fact he has already injured another player - by definition, the injury cannot be reserved to them. The idea that it is 'socialism' that is replacing the enforcer is overtly ideological, and an attempt to dismiss a reasonable concept - that law enforcement be executed by actual police (ie officials and Shanahan) - by attaching an 'evil' or unsavoury label to to it. In the context of escalated incidents of intent to injure, overStated comments equating NHL discipline with 'socialism' could certainly seem motivated to soften that discipline by putting a 'Big Brother' label on it.

If hockey is indeed Canada's game, let's look at this a different way. Canada is a constituitional democracy where the state is also responsible for policing. What would the enforcer model look like if applied to Canada? In Canada, we consider ourselves a rule of law society. We have a constitution, criminal code, etc. We have police officers that enforce the law - they are part of the state - the part called the executive. We have a judiciary as well - the concept being an independent third party that is responsible for adjudicating disputes. What we don't generally encourage is DIY justice or taking policing into your own hands. This can just as easily be called conservatism as it can socialism. If we took the Constitutional Republic of the USA, or Parliamentary Democracy in Sweden, etc the same relative structures apply. Apparently the structure that Canada is built upon is not good enough for those people in the NHL who advocate an enforcer model, which can just as easily be compared to lamenting the days of lawlessness and the wild west as it can the reinstatement of enforcement or policing. Oh that's right - the NHL is lawless now, because the enforcer is disappearing. The problem with that concept is that the enforcer is a player, not a police officer. It sounds plenty virile and honorable, referring to good old enforcer times, but few of us are satsified with that solution beyond the nostalgia and the initial sentimentality.

Instead of the rule of law, Spector would seem to be lamenting the days of having someone "to grab that player [burrows] and beat him senseless". But the player he is talking about is not one of the ones known "to carry out irresponsible acts" which injure opposing players "like Raffi Torres and Daniel Carcillo." He is adding Alex Burrows into that mix and it definitely has a tasteless quality to it.

"Rats" getting mere suspensions may not be good enough for some people - but the alternative is generally quite problematic, ineffective, and leads to a logic of retribution. A suspension may not satisfy our blood lust when our favorite player lies on the ice with a concussion following a dirty low bridge - but can justice and deterence really be provided by one of the interested parties? Or is it the responsibility of the third parties that we have entrusted to make certain acts such as low bridging stand out as unacceptable? This problem facing the NHL and the power struggle that is developing clearly has different implications for different teams. Obviously, the tough and risk taking Boston Bruins favour less NHL policing and more on-ice policing. Similarly, the Los Angeles Kings seem to be expressing that they are leaning in that direction as well, and Spector is happy to oblige them. The Detroit/Vancouver style hockey no doubt has a greater interest in suspensions being more significant, so that acting like a "rat" in the actual sense of intending to injure, is punished to an extent greater than the cost to the player suffering the injury and the team sustaining their loss, and that an enforcer is not required to mete out unsatisfactory 'justice' in the absence of actual third party policing. .

As the debate runs currently, people like Spector, overstating his complaints about penalties and suspensions, and harkening back to the good old days, can easily be seen to be enabling "rats" every bit as much as the instigator penalty or the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks.

Moreover, hating or disliking a player for whatever subjective reasons you come up with does not substantiate your teams' right to "grab that player and beat him senseless." Spector can go ahead and hate Burrows - people in Vancouver don't care - the love for him in Vancouver will always balance any hating out, and will never turn the clock back and take away his Game 7 overtime "dragon slayer".

As a Canucks fan named "dupers" put it in his or her comment - "Why would you say burrows is employed as an agitator, have you seen what he does for the canucks or have you never watched even one of their games, he plays on the top line, the pp and the pk .I think what you are calling agitating is beating the other player to the puck regularly, i suppose that might be agitating to the opposition."

The problem for people who play the instigator penalty card, is that there have always been players who resort at times to intending to injure an opponent. In the old instigator-penalty free NHL, the injury still couldn't be reserved for the heavyweight or protagonist. Marchand's low bridge on Sami Salo would not have been prevented by an enforcer. It might have been answered by an enforcer getting in Marchand's face, and in turn a Bruin such as Thornton or Chara stepping in to protect Marchand, a heavyweight bout results... and then justice was served? Sorry, but after the dust settles, the protagonist has not been deterred, and people still want suspensions for cheap shots - that still seems like the best way to create some actual deterrence.

"When the moment arises that some old fashioned policing is required — as it did one night in Buffalo earlier this season — there is no one player on the ice whose job it is to take Milan Lucic to task for running Ryan Miller." Even if a team like Buffalo has an enforcer in the lineup, at 3 to 5 minutes a game, the likelihood of the enforcer being on the ice at that moment is somewhere between 1 in 12 or 1 in 20, and if Lucic can handle himself, or is not intimidated by an enforcer, then the implication is that he is essentially free to run MIller.

There is however someone to take Lucic to task - it is sort of a relatively new concept, but his nickname is the Sheriff, and he has been given the authority to dispense justice of another form. "Rat" behaviour becomes seen as brat behaviour, and given an appropriately long "time out" - and Shanahan takes the time to explain exactly why. If we want to find the source of the escalated disrespect, perhaps we don't have to look much further than the hyping and hating, combined with the let-er-go mentality that complains about officials imposing order in the game - letting-er-go is allowing games to degenerate into gong-shows.

Call it "socialism" if you want to use ideological terms, but complaining about suspensions is every bit as implicated in protecting the "rats" in the NHL, if not more. Shanahan has the power to actually deter "rat" behaviour far more than any enforcer ever did - he has the power to prevent many of the liberties that are currently being taken due to the vacuum of actual justice in NHL hockey (and perhaps the vacuum of respect is part of the result). Call the changes in the NHL 'socialism' if you want, but the analogy is weak and it is over-Stating a Big Brother kind of thing that does not even remotely represent what Shanahan is doing.

I was under the impression that the current structure of the NHL is not "socialist", but if people are concerned about Big Brother, perhaps they should propose a solution - one might be to poll all the stakeholders in the NHL - the results could be binding, to ensure democracy - to see if the current system is a repressive one, where policing should be taken out of the hands of the Sheriff and officials and left to the biggest player on the ice. Call that 'freedom' if you will.

"Rule changes remove policing from the game, and inevitably, the policemen themselves". Spector's argument is just plain nonsense - it is based on the idea that policing can be done by players - or can only be done by players. It is perplexed thinking. What other league requires enforcers in order to have law and order? What other sport even allows that kind of thing? The enforcers may be thinning out - the policemen (officials and Dept of Player Safety) are still there - but the loudest mouths in the media want them restrained. Certain people keep complaining about the officials doing their job - doing things like calling penalties, taking too much control of the extra-curricular liberties and intent to injure that the "rats" are taking advantage of. They complain about law-abiding Sedins scoring too frequently on the powerplay, and hence 'ruining' the game. It's like arguing for affirmative action for cheap shot artists, or they won't be able to compete.

Spector has written an article about policing and "rats" and has noticeably managed to drop a number of names, including Burrows, who has never been suspended, but interestingly, none of the names Spector drops happen to be Brad Marchand. Instead of applying the term "rat" to a player who is probably the most obvious candidate at the moment, who punches a Hart winner, in the face six times after the whistle, going unpenalized - who, emboldened by the lawlessness, also resorted to a low bridge against a similar clean, class-act law-abiding player named Sami Salo... it is quite interesting that Spector chose to leave that absence in his "rat" discussion. Instead, Spector strikes up a concord with Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, and LA Gm Dean Lombardi, and sings the praises of the tough guys on the Bruins who ironically, in the end, also wind up enabling "rat" behaviour. The complaints about discipline, penalties and 'socialism' keep coming, despite the fact that Marchand expressed that he didn't expect to be suspended, at least not for five games, for his low bridge. It would seem that the exact opposite of Big Brother is the case - Marchand felt free to engage in cheaps shots. Now he is back in Boston's lineup while Sami Salo remains out with a concussion - no enforcer could change those facts - and Big Brother is hardly repressing him/preventing him from 'protecting' himself. The "Ironing" here - the Doublespeak is not coming from the State.

Spector's interest in naming Burrows, on the other hand, is quite curious. People trying to focus the hating on particular guys are obscuring the importance of a fair and objective disciplinary process - it is reduced to a process of naming the target of the hate, the guy we would like to see "beaten senseless." The problem with the NHL is not Alex Burrows however - and conversely, it is also not simply Brad Marchand, or any other individual - it is far more general than a handful of "rats" - the disrespect in the game might be nearing a crisis for the NHL. The solution is certainly getting highly contested. It is interesting to note the interests of those coming out against the NHL disciplinary process, but difficult to consider it well thought out - Spector can posture from the high ground of imaginary days of old all that he wants - from here it just looks like he is rhyming in on the Doublespeak chorus.

Most of us can appreciate and respect the tough aspects of the way the Boston Bruins play - not many teams wouldn't want Chara in their lineup. I will never quite understand what the Ottawa Senators were thinking, but nevertheless the guy Spector touts as the toughest guy in hockey doesn't have all that much to do with his article. Toughness is fine - it is the frequent line crossing into intent to injure in the NHL that everyone is taking issue with. Lobbying the hockey world to prevent "socialism" and to keep suspensions and penalties from changing the game is a bunch of gobbledygoon.

I have come to expect no less from the Spector, who has clearly been embittered by the years of suffering from hazy nostalgia, lowered expectations, and envy, ever since the centre of the hockey universe moved out of Edmonton ages ago. Given the fading away of the wild west, the idea of applying the rules may even be revolutionary. If there is no longer DIY just-us, and actually a rulebook in place, it might be time to let the officials and the Sheriff, in fact expect and empower them, to do their jobs. You never know; the result as we like to call it in Canada, might just be a little more law and order. It would appear that other non-socialist leagues and countries have resorted to this model as well, with greater success than the enforcer model.

As Tanti put it in their response to Spector : "What the league needs to do is actually have consistent and fair rules and enforce them the same way at all times. Then, there will be neither rats, nor enforcers, just hockey. If you wish to call that socialist, I suggest you review your grade 10 Socials Studies and learn a little about governments."

When you break it down, the contradictions coming from the enforcer just-us advocates might be this simple - one minute the point is made that penalties and suspensions are not capable and not a desirable way of stopping the "Rats" - the next minute a mere two minute instigator penalty has been held responsible for causing the virtual extinction of enforcers.

"[Grabbing the "Rat" and beating him senseless] doesn’t happen. And when it does, the penalties and suspensions are so costly, it surely won’t happen again the next time." Again, Spector is really stretching/overstating to try to make a point - that penalties are too heavy handed. But stiff penalties and suspensions for fighting? Have I been missing something? This simply does not occur in the NHL. "Fight all you want, they say, but we’ve got a penalty and/or suspension to fit almost every bout." he argues. Spector's point practically reaches pure nostalgia, abandoning reality entirely. A penalty and/or a suspension for every bout? Yes, every fight results in a five minute penalty, but can anyone remember the last incident of a player receiving a suspension for fighting? For the most part they are back on the ice five minutes later. Spector is bordering on unsportsmanlike conduct with this stuff - he is clearly embellishing. There is also some shotty logic here, mixing up cheap shots and fighting. The theme of not letting reality get in the way of his perception seems to run throughout. The issue does not come down to a debate about fighting - the issue - "Rat" behaviour, is not really caused by, solved by, nor enabled by fighting. Fighting is geneally two guys consenting to "go". Cheap shots are something else entirely and the presence of fighting has never stopped them. The "stiff" suspensions have been for head hunting and low-bridging, and how "stiff " those suspensions are is a contested issue. They could arguably get a lot stiffer. Suspensions pending the return of the injured player would certainly make guys think twice before taking liberties. Personally I do not find it justice when the protagonist's suspension is shorter than the period the injured player misses, and Marchand returns to the Bruins lineup while Salo continues to suffer from a concussion.

How about some good old Canadian style law and order - I mean, how about the new, revolutionary idea of official law and order in the NHL - a penalty for punching people in the face after the whistle, and a suspension for cheap shots risking or intending injury? That might ruin the game though. Marquis players being injured doesn't hurt the game - protecting them with rules and enforcing them apparently ruins the game - too much policing from Big Brother.

In the end, it is almost sad to hear all this stuff coming from Spector, a dyed-in-the-wool Oilers fan. Forget the Canucks or the Detroit Red Wings. Is there a team that has done more to cause this shift towards "sending quicker, skilled players over the boards and letting the puck drop" than the Edmonton Oilers? The Oilers are the originals where this is concerned - they were a team that had a single enforcer in their lineup, in an era where their closest rivals could practically fill out every position on the ice with enforcers. Am I exaggerating? Maybe a little, but not really. Just to be clear - the 1985 Calgary Flames had 8 players with more penalty minutes than either Shawn Thornton or Chara had last season. The Oilers generally had a single enforcer - for one reason - to protect Wayne Gretzky (Kurri, etc). If they could have managed without Semenko (or after him, McSorley) they almost certainly would have, but it was after all, still the 1980s. The Oilers were hated for playing a style of hockey that you might even call a kind of precursor to the Red Wings or the Sedins' wizardry of today. The Gretzky, Kurri, Coffee, Messier, etc Oilers were playing a skill and speed game. Were Gretzky and Co. not the guys who made 4 on 4 hockey a contested issue in the NHL, as 4 on 4 play was alleged to give the Oilers an unfair advantage? They were pretty much the Detroit Red Wings/Vancouver Canucks of the 1980's. They had a little toughness, but they certainly didn't win with toughness - they played keepaway - and outside of Edmonton, they were generally hated for it. To hear Spector lobbying the way he is out of Edmonton has an air of sheer hypocrisy to it.

But that was then, and this is now, and Spector, stuck in the age of the struggling Oilers, conveniently forgets their fine history, and spends his present projecting his envy and frustration at Vancouver instead. I remember those Oiler teams of his glory days - they had a player named Ken Linseman - with a nickname that has been thrown around a lot lately. He was a two-time Oiler who won a Stanley Cup there. No enforcer ever grabbed Linseman and beat him senseless. That stuff never happened - there was no golden age of enforcers randomly beating on players - enforcers fight enforcers or guys who feel like stepping up. Spector's fantasy about the day when someone would have grabbed Burrows and beat him senseless is nothing but yellow journalism (with black trim) - infected by the trend of hating in the current NHL.

Who Spector thinks the "NHL's toughest customer" is, or sharing that he has a hockey crush on Zdeno Chara (or that he asked for a Bruins #33 jersey for Christmas for that matter) - is really not interesting. Who really cares who Spector fancies? What is important is who the NHL's toughest customer should be. The answer to that, in my opinion, is a Sheriff with a reality-based concept of justice - an independent third party with a strong sense of fairness, and the will to enforce that a little more respect be shown on the ice. Shanahan might be that man. "The cost of safety is injury" argument is convoluted reasoning, and along the same logic lines as war is peace, or lawlessness is justice. One thing seems clear - the players policing themselves model has not been working so well. If the NHL can get around to letting the Sheriff and the police/officials to do the policing, they might actually be able to define that the law is respect, and that they are responsible for, and serious about enforcing it.

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When was the last time Burrows was suspended for anything. I honestly can't remember a time where Burrows was in danger of injuring someone, certainly not from an intentional act. Yeah he can be a jackass with his lip, but he's not in the category of guys like Marchand, Lucic, or Ovechkin who intentionally try to injure other players. I'm pretty sure Burke was referring to dangerous players not mouthy guys that stir the pot. But then again spector doesn't really know anything about hockey anyway.

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One definitely has to wonder if players policing themselves worked so well in the past then why did Mike Bossy and Bobby Orr have to end their careers so early?

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