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Game 32 Afterwords: Jim Montgomery, Rick Bowness, Joe Pavelski, and the Franchise’s Next Horizon

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Never boring, this team

New Jersey Devils v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Looking in the mirror again and again

Wishing the reflection would tell me something

***

If you’ve ever had an ugly breakup in your or your family’s life, you know a bit about what it was like to be involved with the Dallas Stars on Tuesday.

Yesterday’s news was a terrible shock, and you could feel it at the AAC last night. If fans tend to live vicariously through the players, then Tuesday’s news was like coming home from school and having your mom tell you, “Dad left to go stay with his friend for a while.”

If you were at all connected with the Stars yesterday, you probably had a lot of people asking you what was going on, what rumors you heard, what could possibly have been done to cause such a swift dismissal just a couple months into the second year of Jim Montgomery’s fairly successful (albeit turbulent) career with the Stars.

Even sympathy in such times is tainted because you always have the feeling that, as much as your friends at school feel bad that your dad’s not around anymore, they also really, really just want to know what he did so they can whisper it to their friends and share a wide-eyed look of mutual frisson. That’s what gossip is for—it doesn’t sustain, it only thrills. It’s the candy of dialogue, always providing a sensation but never filling you up. The only reason you stop eating it is because the supply runs out, or because you start to feel sick.

Everyone wants to know exactly what happened, of course. You would not believe—actually, no, you probably absolutely believe—how much digging was going on yesterday from local and national writers (and others) who were trying to get onto the trail of what unprofessional conduct took place. To be the first to share that juicy news, well, that’s a thousand-plus retweets just sitting on a tee for you.

The people I talked to yesterday had a broad range of thoughts, guesses, or supposed “scoops” on what happened. It’s weird, actually—just as you saw with a lot of the national writers, there was a sort of general sense that the only thing worse than saying what happened and being wrong was to say that you flat-out didn’t know what happened. That’s the one unforgivable sin for purported “insiders,” is not knowing. But the truth is that if anyone who was allowed to talk about it really knew, then we would all know by now. This stuff travels fast, unless it absolutely cannot go anywhere.

If—and this is purely hypothetical—Jim Montgomery did something inappropriate to someone else, then we should, of course, be focused on caring for the victim, whether by protecting their anonymity or by allying with them in a pursuit of justice. They are the one(s) who matter most in these situations, and perhaps the fact that we don’t know more is the best possible thing for them. Certainly it would make some sense of why things are so buttoned up.

We don’t deal well with unsatisfied curiosity, though. If wonder is the desire to know why a thing is what it is, then curiosity is the desire to take a thing apart to see how it works, even if it breaks in the process. My sister’s dog always destroys its plush toys with squeakers in the middle. It just has to get its teeth around whatever is making that noise and tear into it. Then the squeaking finally stops, and the dog gets bored.

Fans develop strong opinions about coaches. We tend to blame them for not solving (or for causing) the team’s shortcomings, and the prevalent assumption among most who follow a hockey team is that talented teams will usually win if players don’t all get injured at once—so long as coaches don’t get in the way. It’s a thankless job a lot of the time, but that never excuses bad behavior.

The Alexander Radulov situation—hey, remember that?—is a good example. Perhaps Montgomery’s last act to fight the “culture of mediocrity” was holding Radulov accountable for his undisciplined actions on the ice (not just penalties, mind). To many fans, the scratch came a bit out of the blue. After all, Radulov had been performing well enough—second on the team in goals, one of the more consistent forces of energy on the ice, all that sort of thing.

But Radulov had some things in his game and his overall approach that were undermining the team as a whole, and Montgomery felt he had to act. Scratching a star player is a nuclear option, but coaches have to be willing to push the button if nothing else works, or else why do you have the button, you know? Players have to be held accountable, even if they don’t like the standard in place.

Fate is cruel, though. Montgomery ended up going through almost the exact sort of lesson (on a far more serious scale) just days after Radulov’s scratch, but while Radulov’s play was at least somewhat clear in how it was harming the Stars, all we have to go on with Jim Montgomery is “unprofessional conduct.” We don’t know exactly what he did, at least not in a way that makes sense to say with any confidence; we do know that he did enough to force management to act. There’s a pretty small list of the sorts of things that would cause an NHL GM to further shorten his already short shelf life by firing his coach—and it seems like it’s the Western Conference Finals or bust for Nill at this point, eh?—but Nill has always been a big character guy. Perhaps nothing speaks to that as strongly as the silence we’ve been met with so far. Nill wouldn’t keep this quiet without a very good reason, whether or not it’s justified. I believe self-preservation is taking a back seat to a larger imperative here, and that’s all well and good. But the reality is that no matter what the offense was, it’s going to reflect on Nill anyway. Montgomery is, as he emphasized yesterday, his hire. Or he was.

I have a guess at what happened with Montgomery, because everyone has one right now. But it’s no more than that at this point. I’m not going to print it because that would be irresponsible journalism that would hurt my (and the site’s) credibility if it turned out to be false. If the truth can be sourced and the story is a responsible one to print—i.e. it wouldn’t harm innocent people to do so—then yeah, you’ll see it as soon as we get it. That’s the role of the press. But we don’t traffic in gossip (salacious or otherwise) as writers here. With all the great things that go along with the privilege of covering this hockey team, there are some weighty responsibilities, too. Just look at all the fake accounts Tweeting out trades around the deadline every year. We get out of our minds with curiosity when it comes to the team we follow, and sordid supply will always rise to meet demand.

But for now, I have only whispers of secondhand rumors, so we’re going to stick with prudent silence in this medium. I understand how that might be frustrating, but I truly believe it’s the right thing to do, ethically and professionally. Silence will prevail for the moment, as Elliotte Friedman made clear in his 31 Thoughts column today:

The team and league bent over backwards to say that Montgomery’s punishment wasn’t for the racial or physical abuse being targeted for elimination. The word is this is a “personal behaviour issue,” with information being kept tight to protect the person who revealed the impropriety and out of respect to the rest of Montgomery’s family. (I don’t believe last week’s eyebrow-raising Dallas radio interview circulating through social media had anything to do with the decision.)

-Elliotte Friedman, SportsNet

That’s the way the Stars seem to want it, and I think it’ll take at least a week for anything to start trickling out, or maybe many weeks. Who knows? There really isn’t much incentive for anyone to make it public at this point, even though the public thirst was at its zenith after yesterday’s press conference. Fans are ravenous for rumors, desperate for dirt. Montgomery has no incentive to make it public unless he disagrees with the adjudged severity of the offense and wants to restore his reputation in the public eye. The Stars have no incentive to make it public because the only thing that makes a team look worse than firing its coach for unprofessional conduct is having the reputation as a team “who once had that coach who did _______.” This is an entertainment business, and the Stars have no financial interest in coming across as a tawdry enterprise with low employee standards.* They want to be polished, professional, and a model franchise for NHL teams in southern markets (and all markets, if they had their druthers).

*Unless, you know, the top-paid players aren’t scoring; then a lowbrow public tirade that embarrasses the whole organization is fine, so long as it makes you feel better.

While a sports franchise has some ethical obligation to be honest with its fans, this situation is, in my opinion, a bit outside the bounds of what we all have a “right” to know, particularly if it involves a third party who would be better off not being put in the public spotlight. And I guess some measure of small props to the Stars—they didn’t lie or anything, which is always the easier route for teams in situations like this. Jim Nill was very clear that they would not be discussing the details due to the nature of the misconduct and out of respect for everyone involved, but he didn’t put up a veneer and say the decision was made for other reasons. He was, I believe, as honest as he was allowed to be.

What do we have a right to know, really? We don’t know every trade proposal that gets made and turned down, and those sorts of things have a far greater material impact on the product we are purchasing than coaching decisions. We want to know everything, because we are so connected to (and invested in) this team, but it is always in the team’s best interests to play things as close to the vest as possible. Journalists have to tread that murky line in between, setting their own footholds of morality as they make their way towards the truth, trying not to turn into mouthpieces for executives or become tabloid columnists along the way. Ultimately, every fan has a different definition of what she or he has a “right” to know. It’s frustrating when those definitions differ from what we’re given, but far more frustrating would it be, I think, to read coverage of such news in Chicago or Toronto, where nasty rumors were as plentiful as the overrated food. Just ask Joffrey Lupul or Patrick Sharp. Rumor factories always have candy to eat, if you’re hungry enough. Many fans are.

But I’m bordering on a false dichotomy here. It could be possible to get the real story without living in a cesspool of gossip, right? Perhaps, but for the fact that Dallas is situated in a comfortable market where all the angry beat writers who are willing to burn bridges in order to get a sliver of the truth out there tend to care degrees more about a bad kicker being released in favor of a less-bad kicker than literally anything else. What incentive is there for top brass (as they seem the only ones in possession of the facts) to leak the real story about Montgomery to the small contingent of hockey media in the town? Given that it hasn’t happened yet, you already know the answer to that. And the media that do cover the Stars here are too smart to start throwing stuff at the wall just to see what sticks, or even worse, to burn an important source just to be the first to get some of the dirt out there. You might “win” that day on Twitter, but you’re going to hurt your reporting (and your readers’ experience) down the road as a result. As Sean Shapiro said yesterday, good journalism takes time.

Patience is a virtue, but that never made it easy.

***

As for the hockey game, fate charitably bestowed upon the Stars the biggest layup of the season, as the Devils came to town and barely even bother to unpack their luggage for the game. I was at the Ottawa game when Dallas dominated early but barely pulled out a win on the scoreboard, and even that wasn’t quite the utter stomping that this game was, outside of the few chances most every team gets over the course of 60 minutes.

Joe Pavelski was one of the postgame interviewees, and man, does leadership radiate off that guy or what? There was talk earlier in the year that Pavelski would be an important addition to the leadership group, but no one knew just how much the Stars would need a steady hand back then. Pavelski was pumped to score a net-front goal in this one, and you can tell he takes his role on the team extremely seriously.

If the Stars are going to do anything great this season, I think Joe Pavelski will have to be a big part of it. They just don’t have enough margin for error on this roster for him not to be. If that means the tripartite leadership group gets to play a little more metaphorical winger instead of center, maybe that helps everyone to play a little better. Just a thought. Also Pavelski is scoring more goals than anyone in that same leadership group, so that doesn’t hurt, either.

Ben Bishop had a really wonderful blocker save on Kyle Palmieri, and he was otherwise tidy in net (which hasn’t always been the case this year in potential shutouts). He earned the shutout, absolutely. But oh my gravy and biscuits, did New Jersey ever look awful. Whether it was Jason Dickinson stripping Jack Hughes right in front of the net for a chance, or one of half a dozen failed zone exits that turned into scoring chances for Dallas, the Stars looked like they were on the power play for a lot of the game. Unfortunately, the Stars were actually on the power play for a chunk of the game, and the 2-0 score tells you just how well they’ve sorted that out. If the power play isn’t winning you games here and there, it’s going to end up losing them. I guess I’m just saying they should score more goals.

(They should, though.)

Roman Polák also deserves praise for his work to pinch a keep the puck in on the Joe Pavelski goal. I wonder if less active defensemen can sense when a team just doesn’t “have it” on a given night, and they look for those moments to make a rare offensive play. Probably they can sense a lot of things, because they are NHL players, which is to say world-class athletes.

Jamie Benn also satisfied a restless crowd by continuing his 97% lean beef with P.K. Subban. It didn’t end up mattering in any great sense, but I think the fans needed a reason to scream in anger last night, and Benn stoked the fires a bit (as did Subban). Hockey acrimony is fun. Maybe Benn needed to take out some frustration, too. That guy’s been through a lot in his decade with the team.

Radek Faksa now has more goals than Tyler Seguin (and Benn) this year thanks to a quick wraparound on a messy bit of goaltending by Mackenzie Blackwood, who looked a lot like an EA Sports goalie on that play. In some situations, Faksa’s goal total would be a fun note. Hooray for Radek Faksa, having an outstanding year! Except that, uh, that’s not really what’s going on. Rick Bowness could probably go a long way toward establishing himself as a viable NHL coach if he can get Seguin going on the power play again. One would think it’s doable.

Andrew Cogliano also totally deserved a goal on that empty-net penalty by Sami Vatanen, by the way. I wonder if the referee would have actually been more inclined to award a penalty shot with the goaltender in the net, even though the criteria are the same as those for an awarded goal. Just a guess, but I think officials would always prefer not to award goals if they don’t have to. Let the players decide it, yada yada yada. It didn’t end up mattering, except to Cogliano. Thank goodness for that Jamie Oleksiak shot last Saturday.

***

The team will not be the same after this coaching turnover. Any semblance of stability that Montgomery might have been starting to establish took a bit hit with his dismissal, even if the hockey structure might be salvageable to some extent. But this is going to change everything about this team, because that’s what happens when people in critical leadership positions make bad decisions. Everyone determines to never make the same mistake again, and future decisions get heavily impacted by that determination.

Rick Bowness will not coach the team the same way Montgomery did, not exactly. Jim Nill will not hire the next coach in the same way (if he is even allowed to hire one at all). Everything is going to change as a result of this, perhaps not as much as it should. Or perhaps in ways we can’t even imagine. But broken trust always reverberates, and we don’t often get to control the direction it travels. For now, we’re stuck on this new road, hoping it arrives at the same destination the team has been trying to get back to for 20 years. We don’t know whether they will get there, but then we don’t know a whole lot right now. All we can do is hang on and try to enjoy the ride. Or at least make some sense of it.