Thu Apr 28 01:30pm EDT
He makes $10 million, he's a Vezina Trophy nominee, and he has the weight of a city resting on his shoulders like so much slicked-back greasy hair.
But many of us have similarly been on the wrong end of a coach's decision — or in Alain Vigneault's case in Game 6, a "Decision"' with a capital "D" — then thrust back into action, and mentally, it takes a little extra work for a player. Sometimes not open-hand slapping your coach takes some serious restraint.
In Vancouver, Vigneault gambled with his starter and, on the face of things, appears to have won — Luongo bounced back and gave a stellar performance in Game 7, and the Vancouver Canucks are on to the conference semis.
The problem is, you never know how this stuff plays out over time. The weight of each game is only getting heavier for the Nucks, and the reassuring "when things really matter, don't worry — coach has no faith in you" seed has already been planted in Vancouver's crease.
All I know is, I would've been pissed.
Coaches are never quite certain how different players will react to being told they're not needed for a game — it takes some time to determine who needs the kid gloves and who needs the tough love. Maybe Alain Vigneault knows his goaltender well enough that he was sure the guy could take the one-game sit-down and move on like a pro.
From what I've seen, very few players (that aren't regularly scratched) are capable of that.
I found that getting healthy scratched from any game did more than piss me off for a single night, and I was never gut-punched quite as publicly as what we just saw at the United Center.
For most players on an average healthy scratch day, the sequence of events is supposed to be black and white: You're told you're not in (and usually why, something along the lines of "you're sloppy in the D-zone lately"), you mentally fix the problem, and you move on.
But that resentment towards the coach doesn't vanish the second you're back on the ice — players are proud and rarely feel like the nuclear option was necessary. This means you wind up telling yourself "eff him, I'm playing for myself and my teammates." That doesn't mean you're not going to return and play well, it's that the next time he needs your trust, he's not guaranteed to have the same amount he did before.
I gotta believe Bobby Lu, in the privacy of his lair or wherever it is dudes like him live, is not saying, "It's fine that he started Corey in that game, we're a team."
And that's not a good thing coming from a team's leader.
For fringe players, a scratch is disappointing. For regulars, it's fury-inducing. If I've damaged property over it, I doubt Lu went home anything better than bitter after hearing the news. If he's not still sore about it, I'd be genuinely surprised.
In most situations, when you're chucked back into the action, you face an annoying reality: You either play well and provide your coach with positive reinforcement that yes, sitting you improves your play; or you play poorly and crash through the thin ice you were skating on and end up in the doghouse-shaped press box (or on the end of the bench) once more.
Since the dog-house isn't all that awesome, you tighten up in the D-zone (or whatever the fix is, which may be stopping the puck for some) and everyone from the outside thinks coach did a great job fixing the problem.
Only now, the player is pissed at the man in charge and the season ain't over yet.
We never really know how these decisions affect a team in the long-term. They can change relationships and attitudes permanently, in some cases.
Hopefully in Vancouver, as the Canucks prepare to host Game 1 against the Nashville Predators, Luongo isn't as petty and spiteful as I am. But that was a pretty big public blow he took, and I've heard players in far-less serious scratch situations say some mighty harsh things about the guy who made the decision. Luongo came out and said the right things and played well in Game 7, but that that stuff weighs on a guy.
It's hard enough for your Average Andy to tidy up the clutter inside his head and play simple hockey after your ego gets blindsided, let alone for a guy under a spotlight so bright he's like an ant under a magnifying glass.
Doubt, resentment, and a whole lot of frustration — the mental side of hockey is hard enough when the battles come solely from your opponents. Once those battles are being waged in your own dressing room, you have to be a pretty mentally sharp guy to be able bring your "A" game to the table.