On any given night, the NHL Player Safety cops could form a special task force to probe the felonies of Brad Marchand.
Somebody would borrow a pushcart from building maintenance to carry in all the bankers boxes containing Marchand’s files out of storage. They could all stand around going over his previous convictions; stick a few victim headshots up on the board.
The NHL has many perps, but Marchand is its most successful career criminal. He doesn’t always get away with it, but so often slips the arm of the law that he has become a frontier hero. He’s like Billy the Kid, but with a bigger body count.
Marchand had a quiet evening on Monday – a sprawling judo move on the Leafs’ Andreas Johnsson that left the Swede crawling back to the bench; butt-ending Frederik Andersen in the head after pretending to be pushed into the goal; cracking his stick across the knees of anyone who came near him, like a junkyard dog on too long a leash.
Once the Boston loss was certain, Marchand decided to do his postgame calisthenics on the ice using Leafs players as Bosu balls.
He caber-tossed Mitch Marner before a faceoff and took a woodsman’s swing at Morgan Rielly. Somehow, Marchand was not involved in the angry player-only meeting that followed. It was David Backes – 6-foot-3 to Marchand’s 5-foot-9 – who handled the handshakes (mostly hand to face).
I guess the going wisdom here is that Marchand was “sending a message,” but since he does this sort of stuff so compulsively, a message to whom exactly?
I imagine Marchand’s the sort of person who announces himself at the doctor’s office by flipping over the receptionist’s desk. The only message he ever sends: “I exist and I hate you.”
With just about any other hockey player, all the next morning’s talk would be about this Marchand problem. What do you do with a wild animal like this?
But since it’s Marchand and since he didn’t actually kill anyone, no one bothers any more.
A great deal has been written and broadcast about why Marchand is like this. When he chooses to be, he is a gifted player. He could make a good living by doing stick work rather than his side hustle in people carving.
A lot of people have asked him about it and got unsatisfactory answers – he’s always been this way or he’s excitabl, or he has little-man syndrome. Like the Irish, Marchand is apparently impervious to psychoanalysis.
Part of his malign brilliance is that he enjoys engaging the idea that there is something, well, wrong with him. After he was suspended five games earlier this year for using his elbow to turn Marcus Johansson’s head into a backrest, Marchand was contrite.
He apologized to Johansson in a seemingly sincere way.
“I have to be better, there’s no question,” Marchand said.
By “better,” he meant “pretty much the same.”
Out in public, Marchand will not play to either stereotype we have for the role of Rat: insufferable whiner or frothing maniac. In person, he comes off as fun in a dim way, the sort of friend all your other friends would say things such as, “You remember that time when Brad did [insert stupid thing]” about.
What cannot be said out loud any more in the newly safety-conscious, lawsuit-averse NHL is that there will always be a place for a player like Marchand in the league – one who plays as if he has a loose bolt rattling around up there, but does not act that way in civilian clothes.
As long as he cleaves to the off-ice behavioural norms of hockey – doesn’t poor mouth his teammates, show up his bosses or find himself in a police lineup – he will be more than tolerated. Among a certain segment of fandom, he will be celebrated. And that segment will always be far larger than anyone acknowledges.
All Marchand has to do is maintain a little wiggle in his game – score the odd goal, do charitable good works, be part of a winner – and people will find a way to praise him in the highest terms that exist for a spiteful non-superstar – “Don’t like that guy, but love to have him on my team.”
After licking Leo Komarov’s neck during a clinch in game one of this series, Marchand so unsettled the Leafs that they couldn’t figure out how to explain it.
“I don’t know if [Komarov] has a thing for me or what,” Marchand said. “He’s cute.”
“It was kind of weird,” the Leafs own ice pest, Nazem Kadri, said. “I know it was uncomfortable to watch.”
Which was rather the point.
Though a long way from the most skilled player in this series, Marchand is the one who draws the eye: prowling around in his hunched, simian skating posture, heat-seeking for targets.
You can see opponents twisting this way and that, trying to figure out where he is at all times. He changes the game without doing anything.
Like the best sort of salesman, Marchand has identified a commodity that hockey needs, but will not admit wanting. His uncontrollable id is the product.
Hockey needs objects of hate, as long as they are more ruthlessly charismatic than genuinely frightening. Most of the time, Marchand’s routine is more comic than grotesque.
It needs people who flout the rules. Otherwise, how would anyone in the game navigate the wide, grey swath between what is penalizable and what is forbidden? Marchand occasionally crosses the invisible line, and then pulls himself (and everyone else) back over it.
Mostly, hockey needs personalities. They are thin on the ground these days. The uniform blankness of the league’s youngest stars suggests they will get thinner in years to come.
Marchand instinctively understands his role in all of this. It isn’t to hurt people (though he does that). It’s that there is a rule about breaking the rules.
In his way, Marchand is proof that the old NHL is dead. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t be so interesting.