By Stu Hackel
At some point, Mike Milbury is going to have to come to terms with the 21st Century. His future employment as a hockey opinionist on television may depend on it, but the contemporary world is obviously not one in which he is comfortable or happy.
For a few years, since he left the employ of Charles Wang and the Islanders — we won’t bother rehashing his many questionable moves as Isles GM other than to say they were how he picked up, and even embraced, his nickname “Mad Mike” — Milbury has done triple duty as a studio voice on Hockey Night in Canada, NESN and NBC/Versus/NBC Sports Network. It’s a passionate voice, that’s for sure, and hockey is a passionate game. On the surface, it seems like a good match.
Milbury’s problem is that his passions too often go unchecked. He clearly has trouble controlling himself when the camera is on and the mic is live, and he says things that reveal thoughts that really don’t do his image much good. He may not care about that, but he’s also a spokesman for the networks who employ him and the sport he’s worked in for pretty much his entire career. In those capacities, he is not exactly a shining representative.
It isn’t so much that his opinions on things like fighting, over-the-top play and headshots have been ever-changing, elusive and sometimes backward. He’s clearly struggled with the new reality of what we know about brain trauma and has had trouble reconciling the hockey he likes — and lots of fans like as well — with what science is teaching us about concussions. But he’s not alone there. Many people in and around the game are still having trouble coming to grips with it. Hockey frequently changes at a snail’s pace (unless there are lawsuits involved or someone with power has an agenda to pursue) and Milbury’s vacillating views on these matters reflect the shifting currents that confront the NHL.
The problem arises when Milbury decides that something he sees isn’t to his liking, or someone does something that violates his own old school/old world view of how hockey should be played. That’s when Mad Mike emerges, he goes off the rails and — despite his intentions — does himself, his bosses and the game no good.
Take his most recent rant, on Philadelphia’s WIP Radio. The background for this, as you probably know, was the Flyers-Penguins game on Sunday afternoon in which the third period lurched somewhat out of control (video). It got Flyers coach Peter Laviolette and Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato (who was shielding his head coach, Dan Bylsma) fined for their behavior and now has both sides verbally jousting and raising the temperature for their season finale on Saturday and their likely playoff matchup next week. It also had Bob McKenzie laughing on Monday over Montreal’s TSN 990 Morning Show (audio), “After a game like that, especially the fans of both teams, they spend a lot of time blaming the other team for what went wrong or got askew in the game, and it’s always hard to know where Ground Zero for stupidity starts.”
McKenzie is certainly right about that.
Later that evening on NBC Sports Network and again the next day on WIP Radio in Philadelphia, Milbury castigated Bylsma for allowing Granato to get in Laviolette’s face rather than standing on top of the boards and doing it himself, suggesting that Bylsma should have “taken off his skirt and gone over there.” On NBC Sports Net (video), Milbury chortled that he was hoping Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube, who restrained Laviolette, would not have acted as a peacemaker but started throwing punches instead, something Berube was quite good at when he played.
Over WIP, Milbury also went on about Sidney Crosby, saying, among other things, “So you know, Crosby gets cross-checked, big whoop. He said after he came back from his 35th concussion, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to get into this scrums, I’m going to stay away from that stuff.’ He couldn’t help himself because there’s a little punk in Crosby.”
That not only misrepresented Crosby, who never said he was going to become a gentleman on the ice, it also mocked his serious problem with concussions.
Milbury’s words were discordant enough and angered the Penguins enough that their executives protested to the league and NBC, and the network got Milbury to issue this apology on Tuesday: “I reached out to [Penguins CEO and President] David Morehouse and the Penguins about the comments I made yesterday on Philadelphia radio. In hindsight, I realize what I said was inappropriate and wrong, and I want to apologize to the Penguins organization and their fans.”
Of course, there is a segment of fans and some in the media who are applauding Milbury’s slam of Crosby, a player Mike seems not to like. Crosby is not universally beloved (outside of maybe Teemu Selanne, is any NHL player universally beloved?) and Milbury is glad to stoke those embers. But this isn’t the first time he’s voiced some impatience with regard to Crosby’s difficulty with brain trauma and, regardless of what anyone thinks of the Penguins’ star, Milbury’s ridiculing of his multiple concussion setbacks exhibits absolutely no feeling for the most difficult problem facing the sport, never mind an insensitivity to one young man’s difficulties. Like Don Cherry’s opening weekend Hockey Night in Canada tirade, Milbury is way out of step with where this game has to go. As someone who is given lots of media exposure, he’s again showing a lack of discretion about how he uses it.
For some, that’s OK. I remember hearing the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman make self-deprecating remarks when defending Milbury in a radio interview, saying TV needs to have colorful characters; the alternative would be having airtime filled with “boring people like me.” Greg Wyshynski on Yahoo’s Puck Daddy similarly writes, “I think his role works as a Bostonian bloviater who brings a calculated cantankerous take to otherwise vanilla proceedings on NBC.”
But that doesn’t mean Milbury, or anyone, should have carte blanche when they try to be caustic or even funny. One thing Milbury continues to have great difficulty with is attaching gender and sexual identity to his insults. This time, it was Dan Bylsma’s skirt. In the past, it was calling the Sedin Twins “Thelma and Louise.” He called his colleague Pierre McGuire, who disagreed with him on dangerous play in the NHL, a “soccer mom.” Who knows how many times he’s suggested players hit someone with their purses? Then there was the whole “pansification” of the game, which gay rights groups attacked as homophobic (here and here for example). Sure, NHL hockey’s a man’s game, and that means it’s not a sport for those who aren’t tough. But equating those who are not tough with women or homosexuals is just mean-spirited and it’s meant to be offensive. That’s what Milbury’s words are. They play to the lowest stereotypes in our culture. How is that good for hockey or the networks Milbury represents?
This is certainly fertile territory for armchair psychiatrists, who would theorize about how comfortable he is with his own manhood. But it’s really not hard to understand where Milbury comes from: He grew up in an era when that sort of snickering was socially acceptable — and it still is in dressing rooms and other closed male bastions. To the extent that they still exist, that’s where they should remain. There’s no place for them on the public airways. The larger world has changed since he was young and even though Mike doesn’t handle change well, he certainly should understand how much it has changed better than most because there are a lot of women hockey fans as he’s certainly seen first-hand in arenas. There certainly are a good amount of gay hockey fans as well. These people’s gender and sexual preference haven’t stopped them from appreciating this game’s essential ruggedness.
Plus, Mike has had some personal experience with some pretty tough women, none of whom can be happy with the way he portrays their gender on TV. When he was coach of the Bruins, the team’s media relations were handled by Heidi Holland. She was part of a wave of women who handled that job for NHL clubs, something for which the league should be proud because women in those positions were not common in male-dominated pro sports. Trust me on this: Media relations is a hard job and it takes a tough person to do it, man or woman. Among the other women in the field at that time were Susie Mathieu with the Blues (who pioneered for all the women to follow), Michelle Lapointe with the Canadiens, and Cindy Himes with the Penguins. A few years later, when Milbury came to the Islanders, a woman was in charge of public relations there, too: Ginger Killian.
Today, Ginger Killian is Mrs. Mike Milbury and you wonder if Mike hasn’t learned a lesson right in his own house.
This is a league that likes to say “Hockey is for everybody.” In Mike Milbury’s mind, however, it’s not. With his insults, he continues to reinforce barriers of exclusion that extend beyond hockey to society at large. That’s someplace he should leave, a door he should walk through and close behind him.
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