Daily Debate: Thomas' politics, Ovechkin's suspension

January, 24, 2012
1/24/12
11:51
AM ET
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss Tim Thomas not going to the White House, Alex Ovechkin hitting Zbynek Michalek and the Pacific Division standings.

Burnside: Good morning, my friend. Well, no shortage of things to kick around today as we head into the final games before the All-Star break. First of all, I’m wondering what you, as a Canadian, thought of Tim Thomas not joining the Boston Bruins on their visit to the White House, citing his disapproval with how senior politicians have performed in the United States.

“This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country," Thomas said in a statement released on his Facebook page. "This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.”

Thomas, of course, is a U.S. citizen, one of just two American-born skaters from the team last spring. And the reigning Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winner's absence was keenly felt by his team. I know team officials were disappointed at Thomas’ choice, but if ever there was a moment where free speech should have been respected, it’s as it relates to a visit to the White House. Talk about bringing the constitution to the people. But you know that free speech never plays all that well in pro hockey locker rooms, so my question for you is how you think this will play out. Thomas gets lots of leash because of who he is and how he’s played, but I wonder if this is the kind of thing that suggests Thomas thinks he’s bigger than the team, and for a team whose hopes of a repeat championship rest on the collective as opposed to the individual, Thomas’ split from his team on a very public stage bears watching. Your thoughts?

LeBrun: One of the reasons politics and sport never mesh too well is that fans escape the real world when they passionately enter the sports world. It’s about forgetting your job, the stresses in your life, the money you owe the bank, the violence in your city and, yes, the politics that divide society. Sports fans don’t want to be reminded of real life when they’re zoned in on their sports world.

Monday should have just been about Bruins fans enjoying one final, glorious moment from last spring’s Cup triumph. That Thomas chose to politicize that moment will rub some fans the wrong way. As you mentioned, it disappointed members of the organization and no doubt some teammates. It might have also confused a dressing room consisting of 17 Canadians, a Czech, a Slovak, a Finn and a German. I can’t imagine those dudes are too well-polished on American politics. Joe Corvo and Steven Kampfner are the only other American-born players on the current roster.

Still, I will say this, there are few players in the league I’ve enjoyed writing about over the years more than Thomas. His journey is well-documented. But his honesty has always been unquestionable. You never feel like you’re being fed a line from him. He speaks from the heart. So on this I will at least say, it took stones to stand up for his beliefs when a lot of athletes would not have bothered. I just don’t think, in the end, it was appropriate. Thomas would have still made his point by scrumming after the White House event and delivering his message. People would have respected him for that. But to snub it altogether took away from the team. And the team is what Thomas has always stood for, first and foremost.

Burnside: Chemistry is such a delicate thing, and it would seem improbable that Thomas’ choosing to be a conscientious objector to the team’s White House visit would upset a team that, I think, is even better than the one that won the Cup last spring, but stranger things have happened, no? Still, I’ll be shocked if we see the Bruins veer off course because of this incident.

Speaking of veering (or leaping), Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin will cool his blades for the next three games for leaping into the air and crunching Pittsburgh's Zbynek Michalek against the end boards in Sunday’s shootout loss to the Penguins. (Ovechkin pulled out of the All-Star Game on Tuesday afternoon.) This is the fifth suspension/fine for reckless behavior Ovechkin has incurred in his career or roughly one a year. I didn’t like the hit. As league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan noted in his video explanation (I hope he’s getting paid by the video hit, he’s been so busy), Ovechkin didn’t need to leave his feet to make the play on Michalek, which suggests a guy that still doesn’t get it.

That strikes at the heart of my disappointment at how the league’s supplementary discipline has degenerated into more of the same after such a promising start. You and I spoke to Shanahan in the fall. He insisted that his mandate, reinforced by discussions with GMs and players around the league, was to go after the repeat offenders. Well, hard to imagine that three games is anything more than an extended All-Star break for Ovechkin. This is a guy who saw his teammate Nicklas Backstrom go down, thanks to a dangerous elbow from Rene Bourque a few weeks ago, and Backstrom still hasn’t played. Obviously that had little impact on Ovechkin. You know what might have made an impact? A 10-game stint on the sidelines. Time to start making both teams and players pay for their dangerous work.

LeBrun: Ten games? That is crazy. I actually think that hit didn’t warrant more than one game, but Ovechkin got three because of his two prior suspensions and two prior fines. The test on Shanahan was always going to be how he reacted to a star player in supplemental discipline. I think we can safely agree now that he’s not shy about suspending a star player. Still, I suspect the general issue of supplemental discipline will once again be brought up for discussion at the March GM meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. From talking to GMs, some are pleased, some believe the judgments should be harsher and some want to see more consistency. They handed Shanahan his mandate, so we’ll see what comes out of those meetings.

Burnside: Well, I think you’re dead wrong on the Ovechkin thing, but that’s not the first time I’ve believed that of you. Guy jumps into the air -- that’s an obvious no-no -- and he hits another guy in the head when the puck is long gone -- another no-no -- and he’s a repeat offender. Uhm, five games minimum, but if you want to be a catalyst for change you have to do something other than the status quo, and a three-game knock for the loose-cannon captain of the Caps (a little alliteration for you this morning) isn’t going to change much, sadly.

But before we close, you and I have long been watching to see how the Pacific Division was going to take shape in what has been a curious season for the once hotly contested grouping. The San Jose Sharks are still technically in first place in the Pacific after picking up a point in a shootout loss to Edmonton (huh? Really? Edmonton?), while Los Angeles moved into a tie with the Sharks in points with a big win over Ottawa at home. The Kings have played four more games than the Sharks, but the Sharks have to be worried about Brent Burns after he was involved in a knee-on-knee hit with Ales Hemsky that saw Hemsky ejected and Burns hobbled. A key offseason acquisition, Burns isn’t expected to play in the Sharks’ last contest before the All-Star break Tuesday in Calgary. If he’s lost long term, it will further blunt the team’s ability to either jump up in the Western Conference standings (it is just four points back of Vancouver for the second seed with two games in hand) or, more importantly, hold off the Kings for the division title and home ice in the first round. The Sharks have been wildly unimpressive of late, winning just once in five games, and the loss of Burns would only make a murky situation even more convoluted.

LeBrun: The Sharks can ill-afford to lose Burns long term, no question about it. He’s third on the team in ice time at 22:25 per game and is third in power-play ice time and short-handed ice time. In other words, he’s hardly replaceable. My sources tell me the Sharks were already on the lookout for a forward in trade talks before this injury happened, so you wonder if they add a defenseman to that shopping list if the injury is serious or if they simply increase the workload on a youngster such as Justin Braun.

As for Hemsky, I was told this morning he will avoid any suspension, although he might get fined or at least get a warning from Shanahan.

Until tomorrow, my friend.

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