In Feb. 2012, Milan Lucic’s NHLPA peers named him the toughest player in the League, edging Boston Bruins teammates Zdeno Chara and Shawn Thornton. Which is to say he was the biggest bad ass on the most bad-ass team in the League at that moment.
Remember where Lucic was at that point in his career? Three months removed from steamrolling Ryan Miller. Eight months removed from being a blunt weapon of destruction against the Vancouver Canucks, from pummeling opponents to sticking his fingers in Alex Burrows’ face, daring him to take a chomp.
Like the rest of the Bruins, Lucic was an anti-hero. His fist kept people honest. He played with a respectable edge, while also producing at an exceptional level. He became what only the most unique combinations of skill and intangibles can become: a prototype. Unless you think the Canucks traded for Zach Kassian for his levity.
This doesn’t mean he was well-liked, because plenty of opposing fans and players had some level of beef with him. But there was nothing that materially undermined that toughness, which mirrored the rigid single-minded blue-collar aesthetic of his team. The Bruins meant business, and Lucic was a love-him-or-hate-him force of nature at their core.
So where did he lose his way? Where did he go from puncher to punch line?
In Nov. 2014, Lucic is seen as a whiner. A complainer. A cheap-shot artist. A guy who can’t beat you so he threatens to murder you, and then follows through with his vengeance at the most inopportune and detrimental time. And, perhaps most frustratingly for Bruins fans, a guy on pace for about 11 goals this season.
The latest example was the Dalton Prout affair from Friday, in which the Columbus Blue Jackets rookie one-punched the Bruins tough guy at the end of overtime:
Prout slashed away Lucic’s stick, Lucic gave him a shot to the back of the head, they shoved, Prout dropped the mitts and Lucic didn’t want to go. So Prout broke the Code, and punched him in the face.
This did not sit well with Milan.
“I didn’t like it,” Lucic said, via WEEI.
"The good thing is we get to play them two more times. … It’s the end of the game. I let him know I wasn’t going to fight him, so I wasn’t prepared and let my guard down. That’s what happens sometimes when you let your guard down. I’ve been in over 100 fights and I never took a shot like that. Like I said, we get two more opportunities to play the Blue Jackets, and I’ll be ready.
“There’s many times that I could’ve done the exact same thing and I held off because a guy’s refusing to drop his gloves. I find it to be gutless. That’s my thoughts on it.”
I don’t know … if this happened to Lucic in 2011, I feel like public sentiment would have been focused on how Lucic was going to read last rites on Prout the next time they played each other, and how that would be justified because Prout gave him a cheap shot.
Instead, this was met with massive groans and shouts of “irony.” Along with heavy citation of this incident:
Because taking a punch while the guy is facing you is “gutless”," but…
So after putting tape to taint on Danny DeKeyser, Lucic’s indignation is treated like a joke. After his petulant “I’m going to murder you!” handshake line greeting with the Montreal Canadiens, his threats are a joke.
After watching him take a run at Alexei Emelin, whom he threatened on that handshake line, with 1:20 left in the game down by a goal in Montreal, he’s treated like a joke.
After watching him do the “Cup raise” to MONTREAL FANS after that hit (and pantomiming self-gratification), he’s treated like a joke. And might possible have a neck condition that prevented him from seeing all of those banners.
There are two types of villain archetypes. There are the “monster heels” who offer a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the heroes. Then there are the “cowardly heels” who are more adept at winning at all costs, i.e. using underhanded tactics to succeed because of their inherent position as a underdog. To put it in wrestling terms, Brock Lesnar is a monster heel, while Roddy Piper was a cowardly heel.
The irony of course is that the latter type is far more charismatic than the former, which is why we find ourselves writing more about Lucic in his divisive part of his career than when he was the big-shouldered prototype.
But there's a respect gap. It's widening for Lucic.