Brad Marchand pulls back the curtain on how NHL players view ‘playoff hockey’

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BOSTON — It wasn’t that Brad Marchand was merely being conciliatory Thursday morning when the Boston Bruins captain told reporters that the sucker punch he received from the Florida Panthers’ Sam Bennett is “part of the game and definitely part of playoff hockey.”

Nor was Marchand, with his observation that Bennett “got away with one,” limiting his comments to expressing solidarity with outraged Bruins fans.

But intentionally or not, he was also pulling away the curtain a little to reveal what it’s like inside the world of professional athletes.

Now make no mistake: There’s some bad blood between the Bruins and Panthers, and some of that bad blood bubbled to the surface as a result of the hit Bennett put on Marchand in the first period of Game 3 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Bennett was not punished for the punch as the NHL Department of Player Safety kicked the case over to the NHL Department of Looking the Other Way. Marchand, meanwhile, was said to have suffered an “upper-body injury” and was kept out by the Bruins for the third period of Game 3 and all of Games 4 and 5.

The Bruins, trailing 3-2 in the series, hope to have Marchand back on the ice for Game 6 Friday night at TD Garden. If so, any occasion in which he and Bennett are within 30 feet of each other will have the Garden masses roaring with anticipation. Perhaps the two men will settle their affairs. Maybe it’ll happen in a Sunday Game 7. Or next season.

Or never. While fans — and sometimes the media — look at opposing players as, well, enemies, that’s not always the case. In many ways, they have more in common with each other than they do the fans who root for them. They’re professional hockey players, and that sets them apart from everyone else.

This isn’t to say hockey players don’t hold grudges and settle scores. Of course they do.

Consider the Dec. 7, 2013 game between the Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins in which Boston enforcer Shawn Thornton reached into a scrum and sucker punched Brooks Orpik in retaliation for Orpik’s hit on Loui Eriksson earlier in the game. Orpik wound up at Massachusetts General Hospital; Thornton wound up with a suspension.

That I mention it here isn’t simply an exercise in pointing out that nastiness happens in hockey but to note that Thornton and Orpik were familiar with each. I remember reading Thornton’s words: “I feel awful,” he said, according to then-Boston Globe beat writer Fluto Shinzawa. “It wasn’t my intention for that outcome. I know Brooksie … I skate with him in the summer and through the lockout. I’ve texted him a couple of times.”

When Marchand was speaking with reporters Thursday morning, there was some matter-of-factness to his words: “(Bennett) plays hard,” he said. “He’s an extremely physical player, great player for the group. I think he got away with a shot. But I’m not going to complain. S— happens. That’s part of especially playoff hockey. I’ve been on the other side of a lot of plays. I think he got away with one. But that’s part of the game and definitely part of playoff hockey.”

Marchand acknowledged that “It sucks to be on the other side of it. But that stuff happens. So I’m not going to sit here and complain about it. That’s part of the game. Yeah, I think he got away with one. But it is what it is.”

Marchand, 36, has been a Bruin since he made his NHL debut on Oct. 28, 2009, picking up an assist on a Michael Ryder goal in a 3-2 victory over the Nashville Predators at the Garden. Bennett, 27, broke in with the Calgary Flames in 2015 and has been with the Panthers since being acquired on April 12, 2021. They’re both veteran players, and they’ve both been cited before for dirty tricks.

Marchand did say on three occasions Thursday that Bennett “got away with it.”

And, well, Bennett did get away with it. But it took a while for all camera angles to be presented as evidence, and too late for them to be of any use in an NHL courtroom.

Either way, Marchand’s description of what happened suggested that this was all strictly business. A cynic could argue that Marchand had no choice to go the it-is-what-it-is route lest he be dismissed as a hypocrite, but that strikes me as simplistic. Marchand was simply laying out facts and doing so in such a way that he practically came across as a neutral observer.

A long time ago, when I was covering minor-league hockey, there was a game in which two players were going at it in front of one team’s bench. It so happened they were battling right in front of the opposing goaltender, who took it upon himself to pull down the opposing player’s sweater, making it easier for his teammate to get in a few punches. But the opposing starting goaltender saw this happen from his crease and skated to the rescue, thereby causing a bench-clearing brawl.

I mention this as a set-up to what I saw happen after the game, out by the busses. The two goaltenders saw each other, whereupon the starting goaltender yelled out to the sweater-grabbing backup goaltender, “Man, what were you doing?” They proceeded to stand there for five or so minutes, talking and laughing. It was what it was.

Sometimes it’s dirty. Sometimes it’s strictly business. Sometimes, I guess, it’s both.

(Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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