Versus and Vanbiesbrouck

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: March 3, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — As the professional sport leagues turn, the only league not posturing before Congress seems to be the National Hockey League.

Unable to post ratings in the United States to match one of the most competitive seasons in recent years, a recent development may mean a game misconduct for one of the league’s carriers.

The Connecticut-based cable network Versus picked up coverage of NHL games after ESPN dropped seasonal coverage a couple of years ago — because of bad ratings. Oh, and that job action (player/management lockout) didn’t help matters any, either.

That the network was hard enough to find on most cable providers made what I found when I found it even harder to fathom.

Listed as one of their on-air analysts is one John Vanbiesbrouck. A former goaltender who played 19 years in the league, Vanbiesbrouck also has the indignity of being the vessel for a venomous spewing of invective in his capacity as coach/general manager of the Sault Ste. Marie (Soo) Greyhounds hockey club in the Ontario Hockey League earlier this decade.

After a defeat from league rival Guelph, Vanbiesbrouck, according to several documented accounts, went to one of his player’s homes to rail about his best player and captain, defenseman Trevor Daley, who he called “nigger” several times before leaving the house.

Vanbiesbrouck, who later apologized for his slip of the tongue, didn’t stop at just one player’s house. Apparently he made it a point to visit two other teammates of Daley’s before his tongue stopped slipping. So a conscious effort to go elsewhere just to call someone “nigger” again rings just a little hollow.

How did Daley find out? His teammates told him. Daley quit immediately, and his agent, former Boston Bruin and Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, screamed on Vanbiesbrouck for his ignorance, saying there was “no place for slurs like that, anywhere.”

Daley would go on to the NHL and become an important part of the Dallas Stars’ rotation on defense. Vanbiesbrouck would resign from the OHL and end up as part of Versus’ broadcast team as an analyst.

So does this mean if the Dallas Stars are playing, and Vanbiesbrouck happens to be working the game, are we gonna hear, “that nigger should have gotten the puck up ice to Modano,” only to have it be called “a slip of the tongue?”

From a societal standpoint, while it is good to acknowledge one’s mistake, is it right to have someone skate on their transgression by rewarding them with work because the perception is that hockey is a “white man’s game?”

Vanbiesbrouck said he “grew up with that” — referring to his casual use of the slur.

And perhaps this is the same kind of “casualness” which hinders careers if a player is Black in the NHL, and every other hockey league.

New Jersey Devils’ goalie Kevin Weekes, not long removed from being a Stanley Cup final goalie while with the Carolina Hurricanes, hinted Vanbiesbrouck may have had similar tongue slips while he was his teammate down in Florida with the Panthers.

Weekes, who was eventually traded to Vancouver, never meshed with the Canucks, whose coach, Marc Crawford, was very critical of the netminders’ play.

Which begs the question — does the NHL wish to openly endorse the mindset of backwater towns who love the sport, yet loathe the fact that someone with skin other than white play it — and play it well?

There is evidence, given the backgrounds of players like Georges Laraque (who was a scorer in the Quebec juniors) and Donald Brashear (whose overall skills and intangibles made him invaluable everywhere he’s been) to indicate they would easily be consistent 20-goal scorers in the league had they not been co-opted into having to work security for resident stars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

But, to put it bluntly, if the Crosbys and Ovechkins and others like Mats Sundin, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Modano, Ryan Smith and the Niedermayer brothers don’t speak up and correct the bullshit, then their silence resounds as an endorsement of the status quo and cheapens a sport that’s begging for new fans.

After spending approximately one month and several calls to Versus to get their reasoning as to why they hired Vanbiesbrouck, I was finally contacted by a Katie Bradshaw, who said she worked for Versus’ public relations.

Ms. Bradshaw would only state the company had no comment at this time.

Well…what time will be the right time? Perhaps the phrase “Black Ice” means something else to the NHL besides dangerous road conditions.