Mike Milbury, NBC and NHL protests (Puck Daddy Countdown)

NHL

(In which Ryan Lambert takes a look at some of the biggest issues and stories in the NHL, and counts them down.)

7 – Replacing Edzo

If you thought you heard a big groan at around 4 p.m. Eastern time yesterday, your ears did not deceive you: NBC announced yesterday that it will replace Eddie Olczyk (who’s battling cancer) in the NBC Sports booth with

…………

………… Mike Milbury.

Look, this wasn’t my decision but I feel like I have to apologize for it anyway: I’m sorry I had to give you this news.

We talk a lot about how the NHL is tone deaf and NBC Sports’ presentation is openly antagonistic to the people who watch this sport at least once or twice a week, but this is a bridge too far even for them. I can’t believe this dumb decision was made, except to say that it’s the NHL and NBC, so of course it was. Truly amazing and regrettable.

If you have some extra cash lying around, you might want to invest in mute button futures.

6 – We’re still talking about it

Ah, well, now’s the time for every rich white guy in the NHL, which of course leans super-conservative, to give their takes on the Trump thing so they can, a) miss the point of the kneeling protests in the first place, and b) be extremely rich white guys about it.

That’s all to be expected. I honestly don’t know what other answers anyone might have expected from the NHL rank and file on this, especially given that a lot of these guys barely have high school educations and lots of them have suffered traumatic brain injuries. Seeking nuanced opinions on even an uncomplicated political topic like, “Is state violence against racial minorities worth discussing?” is really asking for the moon.

And I get that Gary Bettman quote from last spring about, “We don’t want the NHL involved in politics,” which is awful funny coming from the league that really embraced You Can Play, as though gay rights are somehow not an inherently political issue even in 2017.

Here’s what I think people miss in all this: Sports isn’t and can’t be divorced from politics, because nothing is divorced from politics. Every aspect of life is touched by politics in some way. If people want to pretend otherwise, I get it. Politics is an exhausting thing to think about 24/7, but every veteran who gets a standing ovation at a game, every national anthem, every TV ad for the armed forces, and even the goddamn Winnipeg Jets logo is in some way a political issue. We are sold nationalism on just about every front in this sport, and have been forever. The Miracle on Ice wasn’t a big deal only because a scrappy team beat a juggernaut, but it was U.S.A. over USSR, capitalism over communism, and a real-life manifestation of the festering Cold War resentments that, hell, we’re still dealing with.

The vast majority of hockey players are from well-to-do white families because it’s one of the most expensive sports to play and the barrier to entry for lower-income families (which hey, what a coincidence, also happen to be disproportionately made up of people of color), and a majority of them aren’t even American. That’s not to say there aren’t racial issues in Canada, Sweden, Russia, etc. to address, but they’re far less overt there than they are here, and Justin Trudeau hasn’t called Wayne Simmonds a son of a bitch on national TV. But to expect these guys to understand where Josh Ho-Sang — who had a great quote about the issue yesterday — is coming from? That’s silly.

They should, however, make the effort. Which is what the kneeling protest is all about.

And as for the whole “Penguins in the White House” thing, yeah, it’s stupid. Whether they support him or not — and they almost certainly do — they’ll be used as props for a doddering Fox News grampa to say, “Aren’t they amazing folks? And they respect me, so much. Great team. Unbelievable.” That would have been the case regardless of what the Warriors chose to do.

But now, it’s even more of a hot-button issue, and for all the stuff you can say about Trump, you gotta acknowledge his media savvy. It’s not like Crosby’s gonna put on a MAGA hat and go on a rant about how Mexicans are all criminals-in-waiting, but he’s gonna be there yukkin’ it up with the guy who did. “Ha ha ha,” Sid Crosby will say after Trump tries to impress him with a story about a Playboy bunny he annoyed in 1992. “That’s funny, Mr. President.”

Crosby et al have the benefit of keeping politics divorced from their lives. It’s this Tina Fey crap all over again: “Why can’t we all eat cake? Why can’t we all just not talk about the issue and respect the office?” Because some people have more pressing material threats to their lives than this, and the Trump administration is all those threats made manifest.

Now, people have brought up the Tim Thomas thing a lot. He didn’t go to the White House to protest Obama’s policy of, I don’t know, not abolishing the Federal Reserve or something. Here’s why this is different: Obama didn’t call him a son of a bitch on national TV. That’s it. That’s the only reason. If guys want to stay home for any reason they choose, that’s fine. And if you want to talk about it in the media, that’s fine too. Thomas made himself the subject of mockery for a lot of people, myself included, because he did not articulate what his problem with Obama was. He just said he didn’t like Obama. If he had actually said, “Here’s X, Y, and Z of why I’m not going,” we probably would have still disagreed — libertarians are kooks, to a man — but you’d have to give him the courage of his convictions. On some level, it’s laudatory that he stood up for what he believed in, even if what he believed in was probably dumb.

Meanwhile, unlike Tim Thomas, Colin Kaepernick and many of those players who started kneeling very clearly articulated why they started doing it. The NFL has since transformed the issue, co-opting it from what it was originally meant to be about. In a league with many black athletes, the issue is clear to them. In a league with a lot of white ones, you get dumbasses like David Backes thinking it’s about The Flag or The Troops or The Anthem because they’ve never had to worry about a friend getting shot by a cop during a routine traffic stop.

Whether you respect Trump or think he’s racist, if you don’t see what the real issue with buddying up to him is, you’re trying really hard to avoid doing so. And while you’d expect that level of effort from rich white guys anyway — how many now play-act being appalled when Trump does something gross and bad for the 14th time in a week? — it’s nonetheless a thumb in the eye to every other athlete who actually has the courage of their convictions and doesn’t just go with the flow because it’s the easy thing to do.

For a sport in which everyone from top to bottom tries so hard to be uncontroversial at all times, you’d think these dumbasses would get why even associating with Trump at a time like this is insanely controversial. Nothing is normal anymore, though, and hockey’s willingness to associate with anyone who has Trump’s track record (that is, to openly court controversy) nicely highlights that issue.

5 – Not being on TV

LOVE the idea that NBC won’t show the NHL on any of its properties during the Olympics is some kind of F-U to Gary Bettman and the league. Makes a lot of sense. For sure.

Any Olympic event, like two-man blindfolded curling, is going to pull a better audience share than a Sabres/Wild game on Rivalry Night. That seems to be the bigger issue, to me.

4 – Blackouts

Speaking of not being on TV, one of the weirdest sagas of the NHL preseason is the fact that the NHL has repeatedly blacked out Vegas Golden Knights games…. in Las Vegas.

Again, we’re dealing with some real brain geniuses but this seems like something where you’d say, “Uhh, actually, don’t?” and someone would go, “Hmm, yes, that makes sense.”

3 – The Top 50

I feel so bad for Taylor Hall at this point. Did he run over a Norse god’s dog or something?

2 – Unsigned RFAs

Aaron Portzline at the Athletic says the Columbus Blue Jackets are only about $150,000 apart on a three-year deal for Josh Anderson, and that Anderson wants a $2 million AAV. And the team won’t budge.

And wouldn’t you know it, the Red Wings are still doing the same thing with Andreas Athanasiou. He’s sitting on a one-year KHL offer at $2.5 million or so, and the Wings came in at half that for one year or $1.9 million for two. No word, really, on what Athanasiou himself is seeking from the Wings, but that $2.5 million AAV sounds about right.

These are the last two RFAs that still don’t have contracts and we’re two weeks into training camps. At least with the Wings it’s something of a cap issue, but for Columbus, it’s not. That’s a club with almost $8 million in cap space. It’s nickel-and-dime BS.

I’ve said it before, but you can’t give some of the guys on those two roster the contracts they’ve gotten, then cry poor. Anderson is a promising 23-year-old who had 17 even-strength goals in a limited role last year. Athanasiou, as I’ve discussed at length, seems like he has some runway to improve as well. But these teams would rather jerk around two future “core” guys, such as they are, over less than a million dollars, combined.

Fun league.

1 – Sean Avery

It really takes some doing for me to kind of roll my eyes at any story that paints John Tortorella as a clown and a bad guy, but give it up to Sean Avery for achieving that goal.

This is a lot like the Dril tweet about taking off a Guy Fawkes mask and having the Joker makeup on under it. All set with this dude.

(Not ranked this week: Not signing Jagr.

Guaranteed he’s going to the KHL at least through the Olympics, if not for the whole season. What a waste.)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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