Licking people can be good or bad, depending on the context.
In the context of a lover awakening you in the morning, it can be a terrific way to begin the day; in the context of a stranger on the subway running his tongue over your neck and smelling your hair, you should find a police officer immediately. Brad Marchand, the most-talented rat since Splinter, has become something of a licking pioneer in the 2018 playoffs because he found the coveted Licking Gray Area where you gotta hear both sides on FORCING YOUR TONGUE ONTO PEOPLE.
Marchand in the first round ran his tongue over the cheek of Toronto’s Leo Komarov; in the second round, Marchand found a way to make it more erotic by licking the lip and chin of Ryan Callahan as if the juices of a pear were dripping down his mouth. Neither lick resulted in a penalty but the incidents will be long remembered for creating a centrifuge of hockey stupidity.
I honestly can’t get over how dumb all this is, and I write about the NHL for a living. Some people’s beats are politics, entertainment, war—mine is dumb shit the NHL does. I have such a high tolerance for sports league stupidity that when other sports writers gripe about catch rules or poor refereeing or free agency collusion, I can lean over and say in the most worldly tone possible:
“Oh yeah? Any of your leagues have one of its highest-ranking executives tell a guy voted to the All-Star Game he should withdraw because he’d embarrass his wife and kids and have it go public, only to have that player win All-Star Game MVP? And have the executive somehow gain more responsibility in the years that followed? Yeah, didn’t think so. That’s the NHL.”
Then I’d go back to drinking my bourbon alone as the other sports reporters asked each other in hushed tones how that story could be true since the NHL folded a decade ago.
This Marchand stuff is something else entirely. If this were a horror movie, I’d be the old man that scares the young reporters by exchanging my usual stone-faced cynicism for terrified bewilderment at all the stupidity around this story. It checks all the usual NHL boxes and several new ones. Just thinking about all the stupid involved is overwhelming.
Let’s look at each stupid thing separately. We owe it to ourselves.
Brad Marchand — The epicenter of dumb. You can bet that when he first thought to do this, he could not have been more pleased with himself. You’d have to meet a writer from Family Guy to find a person more self-satisfied by a bad idea.
I get why Marchand does it. He’s in close proximity to someone he does not want to fight, but instead of talking shit or skating away, Marchand’s flight instinct has been replaced by a licking instinct. There’s probably some animal in the wild that uses this technique to fend off larger predators, and Marchand learned about it at 3 AM. on NatGeo and decided to add it to his repertoire of forearms to skulls and low-bridging guys.
All the licking never had its desired effect—drawing the opponent into a retaliation penalty. Hockey players will take their skate off and chase you around if you hit them with a legal check but nobody took the bait on Marchand’s licking, which makes the licking doubly dumb. God, I hate this story.
Boston Bruins — Marchand has been putting his mouth on hockey players for years. It started with teammates and slowly evolved into frenching guys on the other team. Marchand kissed Komarov earlier this season, so when he licked him in the playoffs, people treated it like the next step in a burgeoning relationship instead of something that needed to be immediately curtailed. You’d think either coaches or teammates would pull Marchand aside and tell him to knock it off for the benefit of the team, but no, they did not.
This is like Tom Wilson’s attempted murders only on a smaller, weirder scale; if the Capitals had told Wilson to rein it in, maybe he doesn't get suspended three games in the second round. Nothing happened after the second lick of Callahan so it didn’t really hurt the Bruins, but could you imagine losing a series because your best player was in the penalty box for 17 minutes or suspended a game for LICKING SOMEBODY???
More importantly, if coach Bruce Cassidy told Marchand to cut this out after the Komarov licking, I’m writing about something else entirely right now.
Ryan Callahan — I understand that discussing someone licking you during a fight is virgin territory so you don’t have a go-to response to the question, but positing that a face lick is the same as someone spitting in your face is idiotic. They are at best distant cousins in the world of saliva attacks and there’s no reason for this comparison when you are well within your rights as a human and hockey player to say, “Please stop licking me.”
This is like going to HR because a co-worker stole your lunch but instead of simply discussing the infraction you find yourself saying, “What if he had shit in my lunch, huh? And I ate that shit lunch? That’s the same as stealing it!” No it’s not. Stop it.
The NHL — It’s really weird writing about the stupidity of something NHL-related and the NHL itself is basically an accessory after the fact instead of the perpetrator. It should have done something immediately when Marchand struck in the first round, but this is the league that looks for ways to avoid suspensions for head hits, so it’s not surprising it looked the other way on this and hoped it would go away.
However, this is also the league that saw its best player a few years ago have to miss time with the mumps like some goddamn weary traveler on the Oregon Trail, and yet it saw no problem with the unwanted transfer or saliva from player to player in the playoffs. There was a report that Marchand received a warning from the NHL after the Komarov encounter in the first round, but he denied it. Or maybe he lied about that and actually was warned, ignored the warning, licked away again, and instead of suspending a borderline Hart Trophy candidate for his insubordination, the NHL pretended the first warning never happened so he wouldn’t miss an elimination game Sunday afternoon.
Yep, that’s right: this was the Licking Conspiracy section of this story. I hate this. I am as dumb as anyone involved with this.
Outraged media — Look, you shouldn’t lick people that don’t want to be licked. That’s an unwritten rule in hockey but it’s very much a written rule—a law, even—in regular life. So I’m not unsympathetic to people that have a problem with Marchand licking people. I agree he shouldn’t do it!
But the outrage caused by the licking in comparison to, say, unnecessary hits causing brain damage, made everyone look silly.
“MY HEAVENS! MY STARS! WHERE ARE THE MANNERS ON THIS LOATHSOME BRUTE!?!? WHY WON’T A WHITE KNIGHT RIDE INTO TOWN AND DISPENSE JUSTICE ONTO THIS CRETIN AND HIS WAYWARD TONGUE! WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!! HOW FAR HAS THIS NOBLE AND PURE SPORT FALLEN THAT NO ONE WILL SAVE US FROM THIS INTERLOPER’S PERVERSE SALIVA!!”
"Yeah, but what about the head hits causing concussions and brain damage?"
“Hey, nothing we can do about that. Hockey plays, you know? Sometimes they go wrong.”
"But it seems like you’re more upset with licking than—"
“WHY I DO DECLARE, THE FIEND HAS LICKED ANOTHER! [faints]”
I give up.
Marchand defenders — On the other end of the spectrum are people refusing to acknowledge licking people without consent is bad because it’s not as bad as the aforementioned head hits. A thing can be not as bad as something else and still be bad. I don’t want a slice of pineapple pizza any more than I want someone to hit my knee with a hammer. We shouldn’t have either thing in our lives.
Two other quick ones — No, taking away the instigator penalty would not allow players to police this sort of thing. People act like the NHL was this peaceful world in the 1980s and not a lawless land of perpetual assaults when there was no instigator rule. It would be like using a bazooka to kill a fly and you can’t even guarantee you’d kill the fly.
Also, the NHL’s public relations department and NBC announcers Kenny Albert, Pierre McGuire, and Ed Olczyk seemed to be under orders to not use the phrase “licking” when using or discussing the formal warning. NBC showed extreme close-ups of Marchand’s tongue but nobody said the word “licking.” We all saw it! You can say the word!
At least the Bruins were eliminated and this story is now over.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.