Nolan Baumgartner was preparing for his 17th season of professional hockey when the Canucks approached him with a better idea: retire, they said, and we’ll help you transition into coaching.
“I wasn’t gonna retire at all,” Baumgartner told us back in October. “I was gonna play a a few more years.”
Instead, Baumgartner seized the opportunity, which would allow him to get in his first reps as a coach in a great situation, as part of an organization he respected and under a coach he admired in Scott Arniel. Sure, he might have been able to play a little longer, but if coaching was in his future, this was a head start he couldn’t pass up. So Baumgartner retired, shifting from the Chicago Wolves’ blueline corps to their coaching corps.
I suspect the Vancouver Canucks are hoping the Manny Malhotra situation will have the same happy ending. Here’s a guy that has already shown the leadership, intelligence, and skill necessary to move behind the bench. He’s run drills for the team before. He’s mentored and instructed prospects on defensive positioning, posture and faceoffs. The organizations believes Malhotra’s got all the necessary tools to coach, and, since they also believe he no longer has the necessary tools to play the game safely, it would appear they believe now is the time to make that transition.
But Malhotra doesn’t appear to feel the same way.
On Thursday, the Canucks announced that they were shutting Malhotra down for the season, citing concerns over his vision stemming from a facial injury he suffered in March of 2011, when a puck deflected off of Jannik Hansen’s stick and into his left eye.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve done in this job,” Gillis told the media. “It was a situation that changed Manny’s life in half a second on an innocent play. Watching what he did to try and recover from that, it was a difficult decision for me to make. It was one that has been thought about for a long time. We came to the conclusion that for his long-term health it was the best thing we could do.”
It’s not hard to see what the Canucks are talking about when it comes to Malhotra’s health. While the defensive centre’s not exactly Turanga Leela out there, he was the first to admit, upon his return in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, that he’ll never again have 20-20 vision in that eye. He countered by explaining that he never had it to begin with, and that the slight downgrade in his ability to scan the periphery wouldn’t affect his play. From Jim Jamieson at The Province:
“Not [a problem] at all,” said Malhotra. “I can see the entire spectrum of what I need to see. That’s all that matters.”
Malhotra said the eye injury won’t force him to alter his game.
“I think that’s a thing going forward,” he said. “It’s either I can play or I can’t. It’s not to say I can play and play a different game. If I can play it’s to do the things I could do prior to March 16. If I can’t do those things, then I’m not going to be in the lineup.
One of those things was protect against serious injury, and Malhotra was mindful of the adjustments he’d have to make in this regard. “It’s just a matter of conditioning,” Malhotra told Eric Duhatschek of The Globe & Mail, “to see how I feel, the pace of play, and to make sure I’m comfortable enough and confident enough to make sure I’m protecting myself and being safe out there.”
The threat to safety is a big one. A deficient eye is hardly something to shrug off in a speedy game like hockey, where a blind-side hit to the head can not only end a career, but have severe, lasting repercussions long after its over. And if Malhotra’s left blind-side was larger than most hockey players due to diminished sight, it may have only been a matter of time.
The Canucks felt the hit was coming, and they took to the video room to prove it to Malhotra. From Dan Murphy of Sportsnet:
I know the Canucks showed Malhotra video footage from last season and this season of situations where they thought he was at risk on the ice. I heard there was a play from the game in Minnesota this season where if Dany Heatley was Cal Clutterbuck, Malhotra could have been in trouble.
The issue I’m seeing here is that, while the Canucks are convinced of Malhotra’s risk, it doesn’t seem, to me, that they’ve yet to fully convince Malhotra. It’s telling that Malhotra has not spoken since the announcement was made, and chose not to answer any questions when he skated with the team at Sunday’s practice. No doubt the organization would have preferred an endorsement of their decision by now.
But Malhotra may not endorse it. According to Murphy, “Malhotra would have considered carrying on this season with another team but the Canucks were having none of that.”
In other words, this wasn’t entirely a collaborative decision. Gillis made an executive decision.
“There are times when hockey is a secondary idea behind long-term health,” Gillis said. “These are really difficult decisions for all of us. It’s going to be difficult for Manny … but I took it out of his hands — and I wasn’t going to move forward the way it was going.”
That sounds very noble, but while it remains to be seen (ugh) as to whether or not what they’re doing is the right thing for him, I don’t think what they’re doing is right.
As quoted above, Malhotra said himself that he didn’t expect to play if he couldn’t do the things he could do prior to March 16. It’s clear the Canucks don’t feel he can, at least in terms of protecting himself — and frankly, I’d say his ability to carry the puck through the neutral zone has fallen off as well — so it’s not unreasonable for him to be plucked from the lineup. But the Canucks aren’t just taking him out of the lineup. They’re taking him out of hockey.
Murphy agrees with the decision:
That’s the right call. Waiving him or seeing if someone else was interested in his services would have been like washing their hands of the situation. The Canucks are placing Malhotra’s safety above all else and I believe the way they’ve handled this proves that.
I’m not so sure.
I don’t know enough about Malhotra’s condition to have an opinion on whether or not shutting him down is the right call for him. But I have an opinion on to whom that call belongs. It’s Malhotra’s. If the Canucks aren’t comfortable playing him, they have every right not to play him. Sometimes guys just want to play, even when it’s clear they shouldn’t. RGIII’s playoff injury comes to mind. But the team decides who goes into the game and comes out. That’s fine.
The Canucks have every right to try to convince Malhotra he’s in danger too, whether it’s through video footage or just a heart-to-heart conversation. If their concern is genuine enough to go this route, and not the most despicable cap manoeuvring in hockey’s history, that’s fantastic.
But Malhotra has every right to say thanks, but I disagree, and if you’re not comfortable playing me, trade me. It’s not washing their hands of the situation to move him. It’s allowing a player to make up his own mind about whether to end his playing career.
Maybe he hasn’t asked. Maybe he reluctantly agrees with Gillis’s executive decision and he’s too upset to say so right now. There’s still a lot we don’t know about this situation and I sincerely hope additional information will change the way it appears to me. But if Malhotra wants to play and the Canucks can find someone that wants to play him, they owe it to him to do that.
Not everyone is going to react like Nolan Baumgartner, quietly extinguishing the fire and moving onto the next thing because it’s a good and right situation. But even if that’s what would be best for Malhotra, it’s nobody’s call to make but his.Tags: Manny Malhotra