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Athletes are People ALL the Time, not just Sometimes

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

I didn't think that I'd be writing this particular blog when I woke up today, that much is certain. But, life is unpredictable, these days more than ever, so here we are. The Boston Bruins announced shortly after 10am this morning that starting Goaltender Tuukka Rask had opted out of the remainder of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In a statement tweeted out by the team, Rask cited the need to be with his family at this time as his reasoning. While initially taken aback by this news, as Rask is a key member of the team and critical towards its goal of winning a Stanley Cup, my thoughts soon shifted towards the family that he referenced in his statement. Is everything okay at home? I don't have any intimate knowledge of his family's situation, but I do know that Tuukka has a girlfriend and three young children at home, one of them only months old. So, although I knew that this decision to step away from the team and go home would put a real dent in the Bruins' chances of winning it all a couple months from now, I still chose to embrace the bigger picture and wish him and his family the best. As I soon realized in scrolling through my Twitter timeline, however, that viewpoint wasn't unanimous.

Now, for anyone who either isn't a fan of the Bruins or doesn't at least loosely follow them, Tuukka Rask has been a polarizing figure in Boston among fans and media for about a decade now. Despite being one of the very best goaltenders in the NHL during that span, the narrative surrounding Rask has been about his perceived failures in big situations. In the Spring of 2010 with Tuukka in net, the Bruins held a three games to none lead over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, only to lose the next four in a row. Despite a number of factors, including the team's loss of one of its top offensive play makers in David Krejci in Game 3, shortcomings on defense and overall diminished offensive input from the Bruins in Games 5 through 7 (only 4 total goals scored in those three games), Rask quickly became a scapegoat in the eyes of fans and media.

Three years later, in 2013, with the Bruins facing the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the team trailed in the series three games to two but led the game itself by a narrow score of 2-1. With less than two minutes left and the Bruins clinging to their one goal lead, the team failed multiple times to clear the puck from their defensive zone. With 1:16 remaining and the Blackhawks flying around the Bruins' end, Chicago's Bryan Bickell tied the game at two goals apiece. Merely 17 seconds later, Chicago charged right back into the Bruins' end of the ice and, following an initial save from Rask, the Blackhawks' Dave Bolland chipped in the rebound, giving the team a lead that they would not relinquish. Again, despite several failures by the skaters around him, this painful defeat was pinned squarely on the Bruins' net-minder by fans and media alike. More than 7 years later, the phrase "2 goals in 17 seconds" is still used to refer to Rask's perceived shortcomings that night.

We're not done yet -- shortly following this Stanley Cup loss to Chicago, the Bruins went through a bit of a rebuild on the fly. After an excellent 2013-14 regular season that ended in a disappointing second round exit at the hands of the dreaded Montreal Canadiens, the team overhauled a great deal of its roster. The quality of play on the ice suffered as a result each of the next two seasons; still, towards the end of the 2015-16 regular season, Boston had an outside shot at securing one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Going into the final game of the regular season, the Bruins had a trio of scenarios at their disposal:

  • Beat Ottawa and make the Playoffs with a regulation loss by Detroit

  • Beat Ottawa and make the Playoffs with a regulation loss by Philadelphia

  • Lose to Ottawa in OT & make the Playoffs with a regulation loss by Detroit

With these three options all available for the Bruins, their chances of nabbing one of the two available East playoff spots seemed pretty good. After all, Ottawa had already been eliminated from postseason contention and theoretically had nothing to play for. An hour or so before puck drop, however, it was announced that Rask would not suit up for the Bruins that afternoon due to illness. Rask was on the ice with the team for its pregame warm-up, but spent most of it off to the side while backup Jonas Gustavsson took most of the reps. Gustavsson started in Rask's place and the results were...not pretty. After taking an early 1-0 lead in the first period, the Bruins were utterly dominated by the Senators in periods 2 and 3 in their own building, losing by a final score of 6-1 and missing out on the playoffs.

As it turned out, scenario 3 was all that the Bruins needed in order to secure their spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as Detroit fell to the New York Rangers in regulation by a score of 3-2, while the Flyers defeated the Penguins 3-1 (they also beat the Islanders 5-2 the next day in their season finale, but at that point, they were already ahead of both Detroit and Boston). Yet again, Rask drew scrutiny from Bruins fans and media, this time for supposedly shirking his obligation to play in the regular season finale. Some even went as far to say that the moment was too big for him; that's right, folks -- there were some people who felt that a goalie who had played in the Stanley Cup Final and taken part in three extended postseason runs at that point was somehow afraid of playing the 10th place Ottawa Senators in a regular season game. No one accepted that he could have legitimately been too ill to play.

Okay, almost done with the background here. Once again, we'll fast forward three years (weird that we keep going in multiples of three, but I digress) to Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final against St. Louis. The Bruins, six years after their last Cup Final appearance and eight years since their last Championship, had a chance to win the most coveted trophy in all of sports (and on home ice, to boot). Going into this deciding game, Tuukka Rask was a candidate to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, which is awarded to the MVP of the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs, not just the Final itself. During the previous 23 games of the Bruins' postseason run, Rask posted a stellar 1.89 GAA (average amount of goals allowed per game adjusted to account for time on ice) and .938 SV% (number of registered shots on goal that he stopped).

Game 7, however, was a letdown for everyone wearing black and gold. After dominating play early but failing to score, the Bruins made a critical error late in the first period, as Brad Marchand peeled off the ice for a line change with the Blues in possession of the puck in the neutral zone. Taking advantage of the odd man rush, the Blues went up 1-0, seemingly deflating the Bruins. In fact, the Blues scored two goals on their first three shots of the game. Both the Bruins and Rask played subpar in Game 7, as the Blues won by a score of 4-1 to capture a Stanley Cup title in front of a dejected Bruins fan base. Once again, despite everything that Rask had done to help lead his team to that point and any flaws on the part of his teammates, Boston fans and media singled out his performance in the season's final game (16 saves on 20 shots) as the ultimate reason for the team's failure to win it all.

Okay, so there's your backstory -- again, if you're a Bruins fan or have even loosely followed them over the years, you're likely well familiar with it. But I firmly believe that all of this background information is important to cover, as it sets the tone so that we can re-visit the purpose of today's blog. As I mentioned towards the very beginning of this piece, the reaction that I saw on my Twitter feed as the news of Rask's opt out began to spread was mixed at best, as several Bruins fans criticized him for the timing of his decision, the decision itself, or for "once again letting fans down in the playoffs." Now, maybe it was naive of me to expect anything less based on all the factors laid out above, but I thought that, at this point in the global pandemic we're all enduring, we were supporting athletes who choose to opt out of playing their respective sports. Simply put, I thought that we were better than this. Silly me.

By now, we've seen prominent players in the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL choose to err on the side of caution and stay home with their families, therefore better ensuring their collective health and safety. These decisions have been met almost unanimously with support from fans and media (not that athletes should have to use that as a criterion in their decision). However, that same understanding and compassion that I saw directed towards many NFL, MLB and NBA players who chose to do what they felt was in the best interest of their families was mysteriously absent when it came to Tuukka Rask and his decision. Why is that? Is it because the majority of the Bruins fan base has an axe to grind with the man? Because they were just waiting for another reason to pile on him? Sadly, I think this is most likely the case.

At this point, I should tell you in all transparency that, in case you haven't picked up on this already through context clues, I am a staunch Tuukka Rask defender. I have always gone to bat for him in the past and defended his honor in discussions of his on-ice performance with Bruins fans. The thing is, though, this isn't even about Tuukka Rask the athlete...or at least it shouldn't be. However you feel about Rask as a hockey player should be irrelevant to this discussion; this is about Tuukka Rask the person, a spouse and a father of three. What's apparent to me, though, is that people who can normally separate athlete from person are choosing not to do so in this case. In the minds of these fans, choosing to opt out is yet another item on a growing list of offenses they believe Tuukka Rask has committed.

Let's re-visit the most common complaints that I mentioned I saw circulating around Twitter from Bruins fans earlier today and dig into them, shall we?

"The timing of Tuukka's decision was bad, if he wasn't 100% committed, he should have opted out a month ago."

Who in the world are YOU to judge the timing of such a difficult decision? You seem to think that Tuukka Rask just woke up today and was like "Ehh, you know what? I'm done with this whole thing, I'm going home." This decision may have been weighing on him for a while now. Maybe something happened with his spouse, two young children or newborn baby of only 3 or 4 months that required his immediate attention. Maybe they're all fine at the moment but he's still concerned anyway and felt it was best for him to be at home. Perhaps, because he cares so much about his friends and teammates on the Bruins roster that, despite his reservations about leaving his family for months to play in a bubble located in another country, he decided to take part anyway. And if this was indeed the case, maybe after this last month he decided that he just couldn't spend another two this way. Maybe it's something else entirely -- the point is, we have no idea what his motivations were in this case, but given the world we're living in, how dare you criticize the man for not being focused on hockey?

"How could you opt out at all? You let your teammates down, they're focused on winning a Cup. You're just soft!"

Just like you shouldn't assume you know Tuukka's motivations for opting out, you also shouldn't presume to know how his teammates feel about his decision. Maybe they know that this is something he's been wrestling with ever since they arrived in the Toronto bubble. Maybe a number of them feel the same way he does and he's just the first to act on those feelings. Let me ask you this: if this morning's news had been that Patrice Bergeron was opting out of the remainder of the postseason for the same reason, would your reaction have been different? Don't lie, it would've been -- mainly because of the way you feel about each of those men as hockey players. Why do I bring up Patrice Bergeron, you ask? Well, because he said after Saturday's Game 3 that he "doesn't judge anyone that's making that decision," that the team supports Tuukka, they're behind him and they understand that "family comes first." As a leader on this Bruins team for many years now, I'd say that Bergeron's words hold a lot of weight in that locker room. So, again, don't assume you know the full story and CERTAINLY don't rush to judge this man's actions based on how you think his peers might feel.

"How could you let the fans down like this? Typical Tuukka, coming up short once again in the playoffs, like usual."

Let me make myself perfectly clear to anyone who might hold this viewpoint (and they're out there, I'm referencing things that I explicitly saw other human beings post on social media): Tuukka Rask doesn't owe you a damn thing. Not one. Playing hockey is his profession, but it's not his life. His obligation is primarily to his family and secondarily to his employer, not to a bunch of strangers. Don't give me the "well, the fans pay your salary" argument, either, because that's weak sauce. If you work for a company that sells a particular product or products, do you have some sort of moral obligation toward the consumers who purchase said product(s)? No, you certainly don't. Tuukka Rask may be in the sports and entertainment industry, but he's still a human being, not just an instrument of your amusement. To think that this man "owes it" to anyone besides his family and the Boston Bruins to play in a setting that he may deem unsafe or feel uncomfortable with as a whole is completely ludicrous. And moreover, even though this shouldn't be about his on-ice performance, hasn't Tuukka given you more than enough already? Sure, he hasn't lifted the Cup over his head as a starting goaltender yet, but he's helped take you to the Final twice. He's one of the most accomplished goalies in the sport despite not capturing that elusive Cup. Some less spoiled fans would KILL for Cup runs and overall memories like those. Get off your high horses.

I'm sure that there have been other takes circulating, especially in the hours since the news first broke, but those were the three most common ones I saw. I also know that there are some fans and media who have pointed to Tuukka's comments following the Bruins' Game 2 loss to Carolina on Thursday night as justification for their hot takes regarding his sudden departure. Again, I'm going to call BS on that; Tuukka was asked about his thoughts on the incredibly peculiar atmosphere in the Toronto bubble and he gave a very honest answer. For anyone who may not have read or heard those comments, here they are:

"To be honest with you, it doesn't really feel like playoff hockey. There's no fans. It's kind of like you're playing an exhibition game. Obviously, there are some scrums after the whistle. I haven't noticed that they would be targeting me or whatnot. Things happen, people falling on you and whatnot. But it's definitely not a playoff atmosphere."

"You're trying to play as hard as you can. Obviously, you're playing a best-of-seven series so there's going to be some battles going on and whatnot. But when you play at your home rink, you play at an away rink and there are fans cheering for you or against you and that creates another buzz around the series. There's none of that, so it just feels dull at times. There are moments that, Okay, there are little scrums and whatnot. But then there might be five minutes and it's just coast-to-coast hockey and there is no atmosphere. It just feels like an exhibition game."

Now, you can interpret those comments however you'd like -- I personally found his answer to be honest and refreshing. Whether any fan wants to admit it or not, this is a downright weird scenario for athletes to take part in. They were in the midst of their season, went four and a half months without playing games of any sort and are then supposed to re-start their season with games that have huge implications right away? It's not normal and, as much as I love that hockey's back, I've noticed a lack of intensity in a number of these games, not just from the Bruins. It's on a lot of players' minds, Tuukka was just one of the few to vocalize it.

In fairness, Rask also quipped later in that same press conference that he wasn't too concerned about the team's mixed results in bubble play to that point.

"I'm just trying to have fun and play the game. I'm not stressing too much about results and whatnot. It's August and I haven't played hockey in forever. Just go out there and have fun and see what happens."

Again, people can choose to interpret these comments as they see fit. At the time, I dismissed them as the typical blunt, dry responses that Rask offers up when talking to the press. Tuukka's often sarcastic in this fashion; however, given the fact that he opted out of the remainder of postseason play about 36 hours after these comments were made, perhaps there was something to them. Maybe this was yet another completely honest answer and Rask's mind was on other things besides hockey. Maybe he had decided at that point that his biggest priority was returning to his family. No one knows for sure but him, but again, who on Earth are we to judge? Just because Tuukka Rask is an athlete, a public figure, doesn't give anyone the right to judge him for doing what he feels is best for his family. Athletes don't cease to be people just because of what you perceive to be their shortcomings in performance. Athletes are people ALL the time, and should be treated as such.

So, to conclude this lengthy post, I guess I'd say that if you're choosing to criticize Tuukka Rask for the decision he made this morning, it says a ton more about you than it does him. Perhaps we learn more about the circumstances surrounding his choice to opt out over the coming days or weeks, details that make you look incredibly foolish. If that's the case, I hope you expend as much energy in your apologies as you did in your criticisms. Or, maybe the root cause for Tuukka's opt out remains a mystery; quite frankly, I hope it does, because as I've said multiple times already, he's a human being and deserves his privacy during these times. Regardless of what happens from here, though, the damage is already done. A great deal of you chose to rush to judgment over something that was none of your business to begin with. And why? Because you think it hurts your favorite team's chances of winning? Shame on you. I'm about as big of a Bruins fan as you'll ever find, these games raise my blood pressure for God's sake! But some things are bigger than sports. Some of you have clearly forgotten that; the rest of you have chosen to ignore it out of spite. Be better.

- Mark


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