Just before Christmas, a time when the NHL is traditionally going quiet for the holidays, saw what may be a watershed moment for the NHL and the way it acts towards its players. It's often said that revolutions start with the smallest of gestures, and in this case that small gesture could be Steve Downie writing a succession of 140-character grenades which he then lobbed right into the middle of the NHL's complacency bubble. It remains to be seen how far the shockwaves spread.
Downie essentially took on one of the NHL's sacred cows in Don Cherry, arguing that he and people around him are at least partly responsible for some of the most toxic aspects of hockey culture, namely the acts of violence around hitting and elements of the toxic masculinity that emphasises hockey player toughness above all else. After calling out the Arizona organisation for their treatment of concussed players and being responded to with a clip of one of his own, Downie let loose:
That hit is what happens when you watch don cherry rock em sock em videos from age 5 to 18. Nothing good comes from those vids— Steve Downie (@stevedownie23) December 24, 2016
I just did what I had to do to play. I still think about what I did to Dean macomond and what I caused him to go through with his family.— Steve Downie (@stevedownie23) December 24, 2016
But again, I did what don cherry said to do every Saturday night. Just fucking disgusted when I look back. Wish I never played.— Steve Downie (@stevedownie23) December 24, 2016
Downie has since continued to sporadically tweet - most recently last night calling NHL executive Colin Campbell "the biggest piece of **** the NHL has to offer".
Our SBN counterparts at Silver Seven Sens have done an excellent job writing about Downie's attack on Cherry and why it's so unprecedented here - they conclude with the paragraph that leads into this article:
"We’ve never had a serious conversation about the consequences of selling hockey through violence, be it fighting or the type of damaging head-shots Cherry and his ilk have long cheered on. As long as people like Cherry are untouchable, it’s going to be awfully hard to do so."
This, in a nutshell, is why Steve Downie's comments are so important. Two weeks ago we at Chowder argued that hockey culture is killing players. That article argued that a lot of hockey culture was based on players being sold a lie by those around the game. The comments for the article were in the main supportive, but there was a lot that argued that the players are playing of their own free will and "know the risks", so to speak. This is also one of the foundations that the defenders of hockey culture as it is base their argument on...
Downie's comments are huge because they're the first time an "active" NHL player (Downie is currently a free agent, but is still on the open market and, one assumes, ready to take up a contract should the right one be offered) has openly challenged the "untouchables" in the conversation that shapes the game. Don Cherry is a media titan - to many around the hockey world, particularly traditionalists, he's almost a god and his opinion shapes conversations across the hockey world. In the past he's been allowed to get away with seemingly endless questionable comments - notably calling the players involved in the concussion lawsuit "pukes" - in the defence of some idealized traditionalist view of hockey - not least because many within the game either overtly or covertly share them.
It's surprising that the media coverage of Downie's comments has focused mainly on his criticism of the Arizona organisation rather than his condemnation of hockey culture...but it's not surprising at all.
As mentioned by Silver Seven, the position of Cherry in hockey culture makes him almost untouchable for many, and hockey media is a small world. To look too much into the rotten underbelly of the game Cherry espouses would be to question everything that large sections of the hockey media spend their days passing on as gospel. What Steve Downie is saying is courageous for an active player to say, because it challenges one of the major foundations that the NHL is built on, sold on - a fiction that the violence inherent in the game is somehow noble and victimless. With his words Downie has taken a culture that simultaneously mourns the victims it creates and lionises those who continue to espouse it and holds up a mirror to it from the inside. It's one of the "privileged" inner circle who has made it to the top of the game turning around and saying "this is rotten".
Hockey does not, traditionally, take well to being challenged-and Cherry and his ilk have the kind of platform that can be used to drown out and destroy players like Downie - particularly as the player himself has such a chequered history within the game - one that he clearly now regrets. You only have to look at Downie's mentions to see this - in amongst the support are many breaking out the traditional defence of "unmanliness" or parroting the kind of arguments that are fired at those involved in the concussion lawsuits.
Hockey is reacting to Downie criticising the sport that made him the way he is by arguing that "if you're going to take the benefits, you have to take the consequences" and using ad hominem attacks to deflect people asking just why someone who has been given a salary many would dream of and a career aspired to by millions is willing to turn his back on it - the question that should be being asked. Ad hominem attacks that attack his record within the game, and far more pernicious attacks like this one questioning his emotional state and mental health.
@cupofchowdah you're using Steve Downie as your plaintiff - the guy has had emotional issues since he was a small child.— flintabbaty flonatin (@Haggggs) December 26, 2016
This situation comes out at exactly the same time as the news that the NJ Devils wilfully withheld vital medical documents relating to former player Mike Peluso - a story being reported with great dedication and effort by TSN's Rick Westhead. This is huge because it's evidence of open attempts from NHL teams that they knew just what their demands of players were doing to them as far back as the early to mid 90s, and simply ignored the damage it was doing. Couple this with the revelations of NHL emails and the way it treated concussion and we have a major storm building here.
The NHL somehow managed to weather the concussion emails scandal from last year with promises of better concussion protocols, changes in approach, and clever PR. But Steve Downie's Twitter account may be the key to open up the discussion further. More than that, it has to be.
This, along with the Mike Peluso news, needs to be the NHL's "League Of Denial" moment. If hockey media is doing its job properly, Downie's comments can't be ignored or dismissed as the rantings of an angry, bitter ex-player. Maybe they could have been in isolation, but when combined with the stories of players like Stephen Peat and Marc Savard and the tragic deaths of players like Boogaard, Belak, and Rypien, this is the point at which the sacred cows need to be slain.
Ask yourself this - why is a player who has earned millions from the NHL and achieved what is supposed to be the "Canadian Dream" now willing to openly come out and reject it so violently? Why, even knowing that it may be career suicide for him in the closed, clannish world of the top level of pro-hockey, is a player so disillusioned with the game and the culture around it that he's found the courage to attack the seemingly untouchable? And why are those within the NHL establishment still willing to defend a culture and a system that clearly damages young men and emphasizes violence in a way seen in no other sport?
Steve Downie, simply by quick bursts of opinion on social media, has asked the kind of questions that the NHL would rather not answer. He's taken on not just the Arizona Coyotes and Don Cherry, but the very foundation of hockey culture itself. That takes incredible courage.
Now, he needs support. He's taken a battering ram to the gates of hockey culture-but at the moment he's carrying it alone.
It's the media's duty to support him. For the good of the game.