“Thrusting my nose firmly between his teeth, I threw him heavily to the ground on top of me.” – Mark Twain
VANCOUVER – With Mark Twain it was intentional, a writer’s witty way of spinning the story of a scrum to his advantage. With Alex Burrows and the NHL, it was bizarre and backward. At least with both it was entertaining.
Burrows bit Patrice Bergeron(notes) on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. It seemed pretty clear on the replay. There was Burrows, a first-line left winger for the Vancouver Canucks. There was Bergeron, a top two-way centerman for the Boston Bruins. And there was Burrows biting Bergeron’s gloved right index finger during a scrum at the end of the first period.
“He did it,” Bergeron said.
Or was it the other way around?
“He had his fingers in my mouth,” Burrows said, according to the Vancouver Province, “but I don’t think I bit him.”
It gets better.
NHL senior vice-president of hockey operations Mike Murphy(notes) announced Thursday there would be no supplemental discipline, saying in a statement he could find “no conclusive evidence that Alex Burrows intentionally bit the finger of Patrice Bergeron.”
Bergeron wouldn’t bite (sorry) when asked if he thought someone could unintentionally bite someone else. He said he didn’t want to whine about it. But come on.
“I didn’t mean to put my finger in his mouth,” Bergeron said. “Why would I do that?”
What a joke – or jokes. They were too easy: The incident gave the media much to chew on. There was much gnashing of teeth. NHL discipline showed once again that it has no teeth. Its bark is worse than its bite. It was a hockey bite. We could do this all day.
But the shame of it was that it was serious. Not so much the incident itself, even though it could have been enough for a suspension. (It wasn’t a love bite, but it wasn’t exactly Mike Tyson on Evander Holyfield, either.) More because Burrows has largely gotten past this stuff, made himself into a valuable player and become a great story in these playoffs for all the right reasons, and had he been suspended, it could have had an affect on this championship … er, championship series.
Burrows fought tooth and nail to make the NHL. (There I go again.) He played as a 19- and 20-year-old in junior, making him essentially a man among boys when that’s not what you want to be. He began his pro career in the East Coast Hockey League with the Greenville Grrrowl and Baton Rouge Kingfish. Then he bounced between the ECHL’s Columbia Inferno and American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose, then between the Moose and Canucks until, finally, he stuck in the NHL.
“You talk about perseverance, hanging in there, finding a way to get yourself to be a player, you got a great example in Alex Burrows,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who had Burrows in Manitoba as well as Vancouver. “I think he’s done that through hard work. He gets the game. He understands what you need to do out there.”
Burrows started out as an agitator in the NHL, a fourth- or third-line player with what hockey types call – yes – bite. For a long time he and center Ryan Kesler(notes) seemed an inseparable pair as grinding, chirping role players.
“I think even before we started playing with him, we felt like he would be a great fit on our line,” Daniel Sedin said. “Once we got the chance to play with him, right away we felt good. I think he scored the first game, and from then on we’ve been playing together.”
It can’t be easy to find someone to click with the Sedins, identical twins who have been playing together their entire lives. Burrows once said the guys say they “communicate like dolphins.” Henrik led the league in scoring and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player last season; Daniel led the league in scoring and is a Hart finalist this season. They need more than just a third wheel.
But Burrows retrieves the puck well on the forecheck. He throws the puck behind the net, where Henrik Sedin likes it. He lets the Sedins work their magic, knows how to get open so they can find him, and pounces on rebounds.
“He’s a smart player,” Daniel Sedin said. “He doesn’t do anything extremely well, but he does a lot of things good. He’s a lot like us, I think.”
Burrows scored 35 goals in 2009-10, tying the lifetime high he set way back in junior. He dipped to 26 goals this season, but he missed 10 games, and after making a conscious effort to use his head instead of his mouth (more in a chirping than chewing sense), he became a more disciplined player.
Entering the Cup final, he had more goals (seven) than penalty minutes (six) in the playoffs. He scored both goals in the Canucks’ 2-1 overtime victory in Game 7 of their first-round series with the Chicago Blackhawks – and had a baby daughter, Victoria, the next day. He scored in each of the Canucks’ last three games against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final.
Wednesday was indeed an aberration. Burrows took eight minutes in penalties, including a double-minor for roughing after the scrum that included the (OK, alleged) bite. Still, despite all that time in the box, he played 19:53, fourth-most among Vancouver forwards behind the Sedins and Kesler. He's not only on the top line, but also the top penalty-killing unit.
As Daniel Sedin said, he’s too good of a player to get himself into trouble, and that’s the deeper story here. For Boston, it bites that Burrows wasn’t suspended. For the Canucks, had they lost Burrows, it would have been tough to swallow.