Brad Marchand gets his licks in

Gambling isn’t exactly a societal norm in the United States. Unlike the United Kingdom, China, and other countries, it’s only legal in certain places, even when you’re online. That said, gamblers aren’t that different from other people. They fear the same thing: the outlier. Anything that throws a wrench in the works is an unwelcome sight.

The Boston Celtics weren’t too happy to learn that screws in point guard Kyrie Irving’s knee, placed there in 2015 to help a broken patella heal, had caused an infection that would rule him out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs. Gamblers had to revise their betting strategy for Celtic games. Could benchwarmer Terry Rozier step in to do a job? To date, the answer has been yes.

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The Celtics share the TD Garden with the NHL’s Bruins, who have an outlier of a different sort. Brad Marchand is a talented left winger with skills that make him dangerous in front of goal. Despite that skillset, Marchand has cultivated a reputation as an instigator, the player who gets in the face of the opponent’s best players trying to induce them into taking stupid penalties. He is so effective, he has become the second player in league history, after former Flyer, Oiler, and Bruin Ken ‘the Rat’ Linseman to be dubbed “Little Ball of Hate.”

For years, opponents have pressured the league to do something about Marchand’s penchant for ‘low-bridging’. He will bend low as he glides into an opponent, taking their legs out from under, risking serious injury.

The league has suspended him for the practice but hasn’t cured him. On Saturday, he low-bridged Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan. Body checks are legal in hockey but the operative word is body. Targeting the head or legs is outlawed because the only protection against injury is luck.

The hit on Callahan didn’t draw discipline from the league, in part because Marchand has developed a new tactic for antagonizing opponents. He kisses and licks them.

Yes, you read that correctly. The 29-year-old has become the creepy aunt with too much lipstick who terrorized nieces and nephews at holiday dinners. At least his gloves make it impossible to pinch the other guy’s cheeks.

Marchand debuted the practice in the Bruins’ first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. On two different plays in that series, he could be seen nibbling on Leo Komarov’s neck then pecking him on the cheek. The Finn is something of a pest himself and displayed remarkable restraint in ignoring Marchand’s advances.

After the Komarov episode, an inside source leaked to the media that the league had used a third party to communicate to the Bruins its opinion such behaviour was undesirable. The league later denied it had. Marchand was emboldened.

On Saturday, he went full tongue on Callahan’s face. The Lightning veteran had less patience than Komarov but officials intervened before matters could escalate further.

When asked about the second incident afterwards, Marchand claimed it was in response to Callahan’s aggression.

Well, he punched me four times in the face. So, you know, he just kept getting close.

The second episode drew reprehension from all corners. It was called “embarrassing”, “unacceptable”, and “disgusting.” The most echoed opinion came from Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

There’s no place in our game for licking.

Marchand has his good points. Among other causes, he’s been supportive of gender identity and LGBTQ issues. If his latest transgressions were an attempt to subtly expose bias towards both groups, it was effective.

Cooper and others, all men, expressed their discomfort with watching replays of the incidents. The league responded to their anger by speaking directly to the player. With the Bruins subsequently eliminated by the Lightning, he has vowed to rein in his more controversial behaviour. The likely translation is that he will seek new methods to upset opponents.

Meanwhile, for all their outrage, it’s easy to imagine that many among those who railed against the Bruin’s gamesmanship will go home, walk in the front door, and happily allow the dog overjoyed at their arrival to lather their face with affection, not considering for a moment that Fido’s tongue may recently have been in a place Marchand’s never has.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

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