Free-thinking athletes have been consistently demonized by our sports media culture. Not just for candid thoughts on their sport or for their god-given right to political discourse, but for exerting influence within a team structure to serve their own intentions. This is nothing new: Our fathers' grumblings about "greedy ballplayers" ruining the local team are born of the same logic that produces "animals running the zoo" stories about teams in turmoil.
We're seeing that again with the Tampa Bay Lightning right now, as deposed coach Barry Melrose claims there was a player revolt and Vincent Lecavalier -- that revolution's alleged leader -- is in a constant state of refuting those accusations.
But let's say Vinny actually did ask for the blade to be dropped on Melrose; so what? He's signed to play for the team through 2020. He's the franchise. We're preconditioned to see these millionaires as numbers on a roster, bodies in a uniform, serving at the pleasure of management. In Lecavalier's case, he's earned -- literally and respectfully -- the right to be a partner in this franchise's journey.
When it comes to players exerting influence or making decisions, there are always exceptions. No one batted an eye when Michael Jordan famously reconfigured the Chicago Bulls' roster to suit his needs. And we're sure it went beyond coincidence when Esa Tikkanen, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish and Glenn Anderson were all added to the New York Rangers' roster between the Mark Messier trade and the 1994 Stanley Cup.
Which brings us to the Rangers' current marquee player, goalie Henrik Lundqvist. He had the audacity to remove himself (allegedly -- see the update after the jump) from a 6-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks last night. He's going torched for it. And those critics couldn't be more misguided.
At that point, Lundqvist had had enough immediately skating to the bench pulling himself after allowing five goals on 17 shots. This wasn't the first time either. It happened last season too. I'm all for a goalie feeling like he's not giving the team a spark but shouldn't the coach make the decision? Lundqvist's not Martin Brodeur. He shouldn't be making the call which was disturbing. Though the last goal he gave up was the only one he should've had which might explain the disappointed look on the bench after deciding Stephen Valiquette needed some work.
The venerable James Duthie of TSN agreed, in the Ottawa Citizen:
Henrik Lunqvist pulled himself from the Rangers/Canucks game Wednesday after Vancouver scored it's fifth goal, something he has done before. Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in the NHL, but what does that say to his teammates? "I quit guys, good luck." Let your coach make the call. No game is over these days, even at 5-1. Claude Julien kept Manny Fernandez in after he gave up four first period goals against Buffalo, and the Bruins came back to win 7-4.
First off, Lundqvist is the Rangers right now. He's the center of their defensive system, like Brodeur is with the New Jersey Devils. If he's having an irreversibly awful night, he has every right to make the call and try to keep his team in the game. It's not as if Tom Renney pointed back out to the goal and closed the bench door.
But Lundqvist wasn't having an irreversibly awful night -- his defense was, and that's what makes his decision, at least symbolically, commendable.
It was a message. A strong one that said, "Your lack of effort is unacceptable, and I'm not going to stay in this crease and be embarrassed across from Roberto Luongo any longer." It's as powerful a statement as a goaltender can make publically.
Even Larry Brooks of the NY Post, who would normally slam the actions of a me-first athlete, placed the blame on the skaters:
If the effort itself wasn't bad enough, there was the disgraceful manner in which the team left Henrik Lundqvist to fend for himself until he finally was pulled from the match after surrendering five goals on 16 shots in 25:33 and departed with the Rangers trailing, 5-1.
All the King's horses and all the King's men? Hardly. The Rangers were Humpty Dumptys falling off the wall last night, pretty much all of them, even if they did manage to make it 5-3 in the third before Vancouver sealed it with an empty-net goal.
"Obviously Hank can't stop them all when we leave him out to dry like that, even as great as he is," said Chris Drury, who did not divulge the agenda of the meeting chaired by coach Tom Renney, but did say, "It's not brain surgery [to figure it out]."
This wasn't an adventure in egomania or cowardice. It was an example of leadership. An extreme example, and not one you'd want to see repeated anytime soon. But, for the moment, one hell of an argument for goalies as captains, right Roberto?
UPDATE (10:38 a.m.): This link came rolling in after publication, but both Renney and Henrik claim that the coach pulled the goalie. Whether you buy that or not is up to you. As previously stated, it wouldn't be the first time Lundqvist pulled himself from a game, and the point stands that if he did it was completely valid and valorous.