Steve Downie is not a thug

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Steve Downie is not a thug
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In 2011, Mario Lemieux watched his Pittsburgh Penguins become punching bags for the New York Islanders in a game that featured 346 penalty minutes. He then did what he’s always done, which is get overdramatic about the state of the game and start tossing around boulders in his glass house. 

“We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action,” cried the Penguins owner in a statement. “If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it.”

It’s become one of the most misinterpreted declarations in NHL history, an easy layup for pacifists who are looking to crucify the hypocrites.

He wasn’t talking about physical players or fighting in general. Hell, he wasn’t even talking about all cheap-shot artists. He was talking about what he’s always talking about, which is less talented players attempting to take a chunk out of the league’s offensive darlings.

He may be grandiose, but he’s not an idiot. Surely he knew the Penguins led the league in fights, penalty minutes and majors when the Islanders melee went down. And how could he be oblivious to having skated with Ulf Samuelsson and Darius Kasparitus, and having Matt Cooke on his payroll?

The answer is “he wasn’t,” and that’s the part of Lemieux's demonization that always seems to slip by when these comments are regurgitated: The Penguins were a leading catalyst in turning Matt Cooke from a headhunting thug into an actual hockey player again. He practiced what he preached, and told his thug to shape up or ship out. 

Steve Downie has had a similar path back from the abyss. He burst onto the scene in 2007 with a 20-game suspension for attempting to remove Dean MacAmmond’s head from his body. That put him squarely in the “injurious thug” category, something that wasn’t helped by the orange and black jersey on his back.

But then came a career reclamation with the Tampa Bay Lightning, where his points per game shot over 0.50 and remained there until last season. His penalty minutes, meanwhile, began a steady decline:

2010-11: 3.00 PIM per game

2011-12: 1.83 PIM per game

2013-14: 1.71 PIM per game.

(In 2012-13, Downie only played two games)

Suddenly, Downie was in demand. The Lightning used him on offensive lines. The Avalanche did the same. The Flyers reacquired him last season to help create space for their scorers. And now the Penguins have him, reuniting him with former Bolts head coach Rick Tocchet.

And yet much like Cooke after this life and career were reordered, Downie can’t shake the thug label in the eyes of those seeking to weaponize him against Mario’s 3-year-old hypocrisy.

Mark Madden called Downie a “hack,” although a necessary one given the state of the league and the way Sidney Crosby was treated in the postseason.

Both he and Adam Proteau of The Hockey News decided that Downie and Dan Carcillo, an oft-suspended journeyman the Penguins signed on a tryout contract, belong in the same sentence. 

From Proteau:

When you hear Carcillo’s and Downie’s names, the words “integrity of the game” and “safety” do not leap to mind. In fact, they run screaming away from mind. Although Downie has had a few years where he contributed more than just chaos – he posted 22 goals and 46 points for Tampa Bay in 2009-10 – he’s now a virtual mirror image of Carcillo: they’re both small-statured wingers who make more news for being suspended than anything else.

So even though Downie is an offensive contributor and Carcillo hasn’t been over 0.40 points per game since 2008, he and Carcillo are mirror images.

Is this the same mirror Danny DeVito looked at in “Twins”?

Put down the broad brush. Downie’s a better hockey player than Carcillo. He contributes more than Carcillo. He can play on higher lines than Carcillo.

If you’re dipping back to the MacAmmond hit to paint Downie as a thug, which Proteau did, then shouldn’t there be some acknowledgement of his supplemental discipline history since that point?

As in, there’s so little of it?

In March 2010, he was fined $1,000 for attempting to injure Sidney Crosby, which should lead to some fun conversations in training camp this year. He tripped him down to the ice on a dangerous play.

A year later, he was fined $2,500 for leaving the bench to join a fight.

Since then … nada. This despite the mandate from Brendan Shanahan’s player safety team to target players like Downie.

If that’s what makes Downie a thug, what the hell is James Neal by comparison?

Look, it’s not easy defending someone like Downie, who remains a pest and a pugilist and someone that isn't exactly a paragon of virtue. I did the same for Cooke, for a long time; then he goes knee-on-knee with Tyson Barrie, and you’re back at square one. 

The same could happen with Downie, which is different than saying it has happened with Downie recently. So go ahead and demonize Mario for bringing in Carcillo for a look; just don’t confuse the hockey players for the henchmen, and group Downie with his ilk any longer, until he gives us a reason to do so.