The Blackhawks, Backes, and why on-ice chirping from players is so frequent

Justin Bourne

If you’ve played hockey at any level, you’ve had a hate-on for someone. That stretches from organized hockey to rec hockey to ball hockey and beyond. You may have been in a verbal fight over knee hockey at one point. Hell, I don’t know how crazy you are, maybe it was a physical one.

It’s no secret that being competitive is advantageous in sports, meaning that the guys at the top levels are usually uber-competitive, meaning there’s going to be some eff yous out there on the ice. There just is, and that’s fine.

The problems for those who follow the game comes when someone goes beyond that, as they often do, and a mic picks it up. It’s tough for fans to know what’s normal out there.

The latest outrage comes courtesy a microphone that picked up (what appears to be) Duncan Keith chirping “Wakey wakey, Backes” at the St. Louis Blues’ captain as he was propped up by his trainer after taking one of the most devastating (illegal) hits I’ve seen in years from Brent Seabrook.

Alex Steen was there to rebuke the comments with “Show some f***ing class” (again, appeared to be to Keith) and a “That’s bull***t Johnny,” presumably at Toews who sort of hovered around Backes ala Lebron James over Jason Terry a little over a year ago.

Here it is at the :45 second mark if you haven’t heard it yet:

My experience with on-ice chirps are that they change a great deal as you move up the ranks because you become a lot more accountable for them. The higher up, the less personal with random players, and the more personal with those that are targets. More on the latter part of that farther down.

When you take off the cages and go face-to-face with a guy in a league that barely penalizes fighting (most/all North American pro leagues) it becomes a lot harder to tell a guy he’s soft and that you’d rearrange his face, because he might say “Okay prove it,” and then you have to put your own nose on the line. Also “You’re soft and I’d like to rearrange your face” would qualify as the most PC thing one grown man has ever said to another in the hope of antagonizing him.

Most skill players have to develop a thick skin because they’re often targets. Players make a conscious effort, particularly in playoffs, to get under the skin of those guys (think Brad Marchand on the Sedins from 2011) who know sitting in the box with a lesser player is a bad trade-off. A successful shift for a grinder is getting a skill guy off his game, which is why the practice lives on.

For the most part this widely-accepted practice has allowed players to say damn-near whatever they want to the elite few. And because the super-skill guys at the top level are usually exempt from actually having to fight, and that makes the cycle of verbal jabs even worse. You have some guys with free passes to run their mouths, some trying to antagonize, and suddenly the ice sounds like a Boston bar at closing time.

That high-frequency means it’s all but unenforceable by the league (“Stop being mean to each other, guys”) which puts players in a tough situation when the microphones near the ice pick up something your average fan, devoid of the adrenaline of the game and that feeling of sports hate, finds appalling. You can publicly apologize, or say you can’t remember, or whatever, but I’m skeptical about the sincerity of the back-pedals given where and why they were said in the first place.

In the case of whoever-to-Backes, I don’t think the general public realizes that there still isn’t the same level of concern about concussions from players as there is from the fringes of the sport. Nobody wants to see a guy concussed, but they’ve seen them their whole lives, the large majority of players (appear to) get better, and flooring your opponent in a high contact sport is still seen as something closer to a boxing knockout (Great job!) than it is a car accident (Oh no!). I’m not endorsing that attitude, just sharing it.

None of this is in any way justifies a Chicago Blackhawks player taunting a man unconscious on his feet. It’s pretty pathetic to chirp a guy who can’t stand because of a cheap shot laid by a teammate. I’m just saying I kinda get why it happens, and that the resulting outrage is kind of silly, like one of the two teams in the game, or the 16 in playoffs, or the 30 around the league kept their mouths shut all season and only said polite things to their opponents. It’s out there, and it’s coming from everyone, like it or not.

It’s petty, immature and cruel, but sports are typically those things, and most hockey players, as much as I hate to admit it, aren’t necessarily the high-minded moralistic types. They made the NHL thanks in part to being competitive, and the ice isn’t a place for feelings.

This is a part of current hockey life, and just the latest time we happened to come across it thanks to a randomly placed microphone. I’m not a fan of what was said, but until we decide guys have to be nice to each other, we’re going to keep picking up verbal jabs like this.