By Ryan Dixon in Boston
By Ryan Dixon in Boston
Brad Marchand has gone from good to great, but will he ever eliminate the pest from his game? And maybe more importantly, does he want to?

In the minds of Canadian hockey fans, the name Brad Marchand is never going to be affixed to a number in the fashion of Crosby 2010, Lemieux ’87 or Henderson ’72. The 2016 World Cup, entertaining as it was, just didn’t carry the same gravitas of past international gatherings. Still, a last-minute, short-handed snipe to win a best-on-best tournament is enough to ensure you’ll never again have to pay for a drink from St. John’s to Vancouver.

The moment, of course, was defined by frenzied jubilation. Revisit it with a clear head now, though, and it’s also fairly instructive. The shot Marchand kissed off the post and past Team Europe goalie Jaroslav Halak was the equivalent of a pitch that combines speed and location in a fashion that the befuddled batter—with no hope of actually swinging—leans slightly toward the plate, almost as if to get a closer look at perfection.

“That was a bullet,” says Marchand’s former major junior coach, Ted Nolan. “You could compare that shot against Ovechkin.”

There’s also something to be gleaned from Marchand’s reaction, a literal jump for joy that took both feet a significant distance off the ground. Anyone would have been over the Moon to score that goal, but Marchand’s actions had all the markings of the last kid picked for the team suddenly playing the role of saviour.

Not so long ago, the notion of mentioning Marchand in the same breath as Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux or Alex Ovechkin was tantamount to sliding a cheeseburger into a debate about the world’s greatest steak. But in the past 18 months, few players in the NHL have scored with the frequency of the Boston Bruins left winger, who netted a career-high 37 goals last year, sits fourth in NHL scoring this season despite playing for a club that’s in the bottom third of the league offensively and suddenly finds himself included on Canada’s top squads and getting invited to all-star games.

Marchand himself still seems slightly taken aback by that idea and it’s definitely hard to square for people who first came to know him in a much different context. While many these days may toast his national-team accomplishments, those same voices will deride him as a pest and a cheap-shot artist when club loyalties come into play. And, to be sure, his more boneheaded acts have definitely drawn bi-partisan ire. Increasingly, though, any conversation about the always-buzzing Bruin requires its share of superlatives to describe just how good a player Marchand has turned himself into.

Deke and destroy
Marchand has been on a tear this season, scoring 55 points through his first 55 games

Having served as the St. Louis Blues’ captain for many years, first-year Bruin David Backes knows when it’s OK to crack wise. Boston endured a harrowing three-day stretch just before the all-star break, a Tuesday-to-Thursday run that saw the B’s post a couple of critical come-from-behind victories. Marchand was a monumental figure in both games, first notching a pair of goals versus the Detroit Red Wings, then two more against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

His status for the Penguins tilt, however, was up in the air until about six hours before puck drop thanks to a slew foot he’d put on Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall that drew no call in the moment. To the surprise of most, Marchand’s actions were not deemed suspension-worthy by the league, which instead told him to reach into his pockets and pull out $10,000.

After the win over the Penguins, Marchand was doing what he could to put the incident behind him. But Backes wasn’t going to miss an open net once reporters set him up by asking if his teammate was playing like a man trying to atone for his sins.

“He skated like he was $10,000 lighter,” Backes said with a smile.

Getting a handle on where, exactly, Marchand is at on his journey as a player is no less difficult than trying to contain his pin-balling ways on the ice. One minute, it seems like he’s mastered walking the line. The next, he’s sent GIF makers scrambling to re-ignite internet fires with his latest transgression. Claude Julien went through four suspensions with Marchand (to go along with three fines) and someone with a sense of humour might, as a parting gift for the former Bruins coach, commission a Faces of Julien pop art painting that captures the spectrum of feelings—delight, incredulity, exasperation—he experienced while trying to get the best from Marchand.

“I think he needed to respond that way,” said Julien of Marchand’s performance against Pittsburgh.

“The Bruins dealt with a lot of stuff that maybe they didn’t want to and I think it’s starting to pay off.”

After practice on the Wednesday sandwiched between the Wings and Pens games—and only a few hours before the department of player safety told him there’d be a hearing stemming from his trip on Kronwall—Marchand was wearing a black leather jacket to go with jeans of the same shade as he leaned against a wall outside the Bruins dressing room. There was no black hat to cover his slicked-back dark hair, but even if there was, there’s an authenticity and self-awareness to the 28-year-old that makes casting him as a cartoon-like villain impossible.

“It’s been a work in progress and you have to give them credit for sticking with me—a lot of guys would have just written me off,” he says of Bruins coaches and managers, both past and present. “They dealt with a lot of stuff that maybe they didn’t want to and I think it’s starting to pay off. I’m getting away from it more and realizing it’s just time to play.

“It’s been something we’ve been chipping away at and it’s been progressively getting better.”

Whether his latest lapse helps a transformative light shine in or merely offers more evidence that he’s simply incapable of staying on the straight and narrow remains to be seen. What’s not up for debate, though, is the fact Marchand has become one of the most dangerous snipers in hockey. Since the start of the 2015–16 campaign, only Ovechkin, Crosby, Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko have exceeded the 60 goals put up by the Halifax native. His success has come alongside centres Patrice Bergeron—his longtime Bruins linemate—and, at the World Cup, the undisputed king of the sport, Crosby. While some might be tempted to suggest he’s benefiting from a favourable shotgun situation, former Bruin Chris Kelly interprets things another way.

“Not [just] anyone can play with [superstars like Crosby and Bergeron],” says the Ottawa Senators centre. “They think at such a high level and make plays at such a quick pace that you need to be an elite player to play with them. It just shows [that] Brad is.”

He was certainly all-world against Detroit and Pittsburgh. Marchand knotted the Wings game in the third period by being his relentless self, circling behind the net to find a loose puck and batting it home. After scoring, Marchand glided through the slot, flexed his arms and howled, igniting a TD Garden crowd that is only too happy to have a trouble-maker at the top of its lineup. Facing Pittsburgh, Marchand started the Bruins out of a 2-0 hole with a short-handed breakaway goal that saw him snap the puck just under the left pad of Matt Murray. Marchand’s good-to-great transition has mostly been about a confluence of things—growing confidence that dovetails with enhanced opportunities—but if there’s any one factor that’s moved things along it’s the extra squeeze of mustard added to that shot Nolan raved about and we’ve seen beat Murray, Halak and a whole slew of other stoppers.

“You kind of cheer for a person like that when you see him get the success he’s had because he has put the work in,” says Kelly, who stood up as a groomsman at Marchand’s wedding.

Nolan continues to pull for Marchand, too. A decade ago, when both were members of the Moncton Wildcats organization, the coach was forced into some tough conversations with the teenaged player, usually about why the latter was benched or even scratched completely after letting his emotions get the better of him.

“He never lipped back or showed disrespect,” Nolan says.

What he did do was play with man-of-the-cloth devotion and a complete disregard for any personal limitations. That’s how, as a five-foot-nine third-round pick in 2007, he closed the gap on the first-rounders, established himself as a dependable 25-goal man, then blew to another level entirely and landed an eight-year contract worth $49 million that kicks in next fall.

“He was very, very competitive,” says Nolan, adding Marchand is one of the favourite players he’s ever coached. “That stuff, unfortunately, you can’t train people to do. They just have a natural instinct.

“Obviously, Brad had some natural ability, but his No. 1 attribute was his competitive spirit and his desire to get better and better.”

“You wake up one year and you’re an old guy. It’s not a bad spot to be in.”

To say nothing of his swagger. Marchand’s NHL debut came in the form of a 20-game stint in 2009–10 that saw him register exactly one point as an overmatched 21-year-old. Still, before the next season, officially his rookie campaign, Marchand—who has always set high goals with the intention of achieving them—was happy to make his personal projections a matter of semi-public record.

“He said he was going to score 20 goals, and I think management and coaches didn’t even know if he was going to play on the team,” Kelly says. “Sure enough, he started on the fourth line, worked his way up [and] scored 20 goals.”

In that regard, he’s yet to stop growing. The last hurdle is learning to keep his bat-out-of-hell approach while quieting his shoulder-dwelling devil, whose nefarious whispers can still be too influential. Physical edge must and will always be part of Marchand’s game, but he has to find the breaks before it veers into foolishness.

“I’ve told him before,” says Backes, a former foe, “if I’m playing against him, I want him jabbing and poking me and thinking about how he’s going to get me back rather than how he’s going to put the puck in the net.”

Marchand’s own evolution may still have ups and downs, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a leader on the Bruins. As a now-almost-30-year-old guy, Marchand is happy to counsel younger players and maybe play the senior role in the daily relationship he used to have with the 36-year-old Kelly, his former coffee and driving buddy.

“You wake up one year and you’re an old guy,” says Marchand. “It’s not a bad spot to be in.”

For what it’s worth, the NHL veteran is capable of extreme discipline, but it’s often on display in the middle of the woods or in an open field far away from the public eye. In the spring and summer, Marchand likes to hunt moose, elk or bear—whatever is in season—with his family back in Nova Scotia. During the season, he gets out of the city whenever he can to hunt turkeys, rabbits and a particularly tough animal to track, deer.

“It’s just such a challenge,” says Marchand. “They’re very smart animals.”

Keeping in check
Marchand is currently averaging just 0.84 PIM per game, his lowest total since 2013–14

Should Marchand ever eliminate the shenanigans in his game, it will leave more stage for the other components of his character to shine. Not long ago, he spoke out to make sure the world knows his team and every other one in the league is more than ready to accept an openly gay teammate.

“I think people may get the wrong perception of hockey players and the things [we] believe in,” he says. “We’re such a close-knit group and family in the room that it doesn’t matter what you believe in off the ice or who you are as a person.”

Anyone in his circle will tell you self-assuredness is a hallmark of Marchand’s personality. When Kelly relived the tale of his old teammate promising 20 goals as a freshman, it came with a head shake and a smile that seemed to add, “That’s Brad.” Still, Marchand sounds not just happy, but sincerely touched that he was named to the Atlantic Division all-star squad this season for the first time in his career.

“I never thought that I’d have the opportunity to do that,” he says.

The chance to do even more awaits.

Photo Credits

AP Photo/Winslow Townson
AP Photo/Molly Riley
CP Photo/Andrew Vaughan