Bieksa, Embellishing, and “The Canadian Way”

This article originally appeared on AllPuck.com.

Kevin BieksaOff the cuff.

Brash.

Covertly racist.

That’s a reach … or is it?

Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of Vancouver Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa’s comments criticizing San Jose Sharks forwards Joe Thornton and Logan Couture of “embellishing” contact in order to draw penalties in Game 3 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series. Here’s exactly what he told the media after the Canucks lost the game 5-2:

“Those are two Canadian guys (Couture and Thornton) who are supposed to be playing the game with integrity. Maybe our team has to do more of that. Maybe we have to try and sell calls.

“Thornton … he gets slashed, he takes his glove off and shakes his hand. The ref takes a couple of seconds to look at that and makes a call. That’s a critical time in the game when we go down two men.

“Couture has been snapping his head back. This isn’t my opinion. The evidence is in the video. Hank [Henrik Sedin] touches him off the faceoff, he does a full back arch and his glove goes flying off in the corner from getting this.”

“This,” he said, poking himself under the chin with his stick, “doesn’t make your glove come off – or arch your back.”

“Whether or not you think we’re embellishers or not doesn’t take away the fact those two guys are doing it as well. So, forget about the past. Look at this series. I don’t feel like we’ve embellished calls, and we feel like it’s going the other way.

The Globe and Mail went on to note that “it is unclear what Bieksa hoped to accomplish with his tirade – which, by the way, he ran past a small group of reporters and then repeated for the television viewing audience a few minutes later once the cameras wrapped it up over at the Kesler scrum. There was nothing spontaneous about it, in other words. He was delivering a message and repeated the key words ‘integrity’ and ‘Canadians’ enough times just to make sure that every dimwit in the audience was writing this down.”

Ah, shock value.

Here’s the thing: What shocks one audience might bore another, intrigue another, offend another. And when you’re talking to the cameras, you’re not just talking to Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. You’re talking to a global audience, literally.

Bieksa’s comments might have been tailored for “every dimwit” in the press corps that night in San Jose, but at least one knucklehead in the opposing clubhouse was able to grasp the implication of what he said. Thornton and Couture didn’t publicly respond to Bieksa’s comments the next day, given the opportunity. San Jose Sharks forward Adam Burish, a Wisconsinite, did.

“Game 1 we were cheating on faceoffs, now Game 3 we’re divers,” Burish said. “But just our Canadian guys. Our American guys, we’ve got integrity.”

Being serious for a minute, what is this? A double-standard for toughness between Canadians and non-Canadians? Is it OK for Henrik and Daniel Sedin to flop, embellish, or leave a check unfinished, not just because they’re considered smooth-skating finesse players but because they’re Swedish? What about the Finns, the Slovaks, the Swiss, the Americans – flop away, boys?

More importantly, I wondered, why was Adam Burish the only one who pointed out that Bieksa was wielding a double-edged sword? Certainly he and I were not the only ones to realize the implications of Bieksa’s xenophobic blast. Was it simply not a big deal?

I put this question to a media friend, a Canadian: Somewhere in the realm of integrity and toughness, is there an accepted double-standard for Canadians and non-Canadians?

In a word, yes.

“Not diving and playing through injuries is the expectation,” he wrote me in one of the longest direct-message conversations in the brief history of Twitter.

“It’s commonly acknowledged that that’s ‘the Canadian way.’ … In international junior play the coaches ALWAYS say they’re going to play ‘Canadian-style hockey’ … Which is code for ‘hit anything that moves.'”

It’s not limited to hockey, either, my pal pointed out.

When Canada and Mexico exchanged punches in a brawl at the World Baseball Classic in March, the double-standard for toughness poked its head above the surface. That game fell on a Saturday night. Don Cherry, availing himself to the Hockey Night in Canada audience, took notice and promptly proclaimed, “Way to go, good Canadian boys.”

That’s a crude sentiment, not the first from Cherry and certainly not the last. I don’t mean to pick on Cherry or Bieksa, but rather to point out how rare this has become in North American professional sports. Our sports culture is not rooted in centuries-old national rivalries, like Europe’s, where xenophobia seems to be privately accepted if not publicly tolerated. At the highest levels (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, etc.) it’s rooted in large amounts of money, corporate partnerships and a love of the game, in some order. The pursuit of these ideals usually allow our athletes to set aside their differences of race, ethnicity and religion – again, publicly.

Do Dominican baseball players ever chide or applaud each other for adhering to certain character traits? European basketball players?

If so, I missed it.

Meanwhile, the most famous Canadian basketball player of them all, Steve Nash, gained even more respect from his homeland when he fought back after being hip checked by Robert Horry in the 2007 playoffs.

Captain Picard had a healthy amount of respect for the Klingon honor code; I suppose there’s an opportunity for life to imitate art here. But I still don’t know how I feel about Bieksa’s comment. Apparently even Canadians are split on this.

“It’s a little iffy to call them out so publicly,” my friend wrote. “I think most would’ve preferred it if he said it to them directly.”

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