The term “rat” is almost always a pejorative, save if you are a hockey player. People tend to loathe rats, which can be a pity, as rats possess their share of admirable qualities. For instance, a rat can survive being flushed down a toilet, coming out the other end right as rain. A rat can swim a mile at sea. Can you? So: a rat—tough to kill, and something of a heroic pest.
In hockey, when you’re a kid, it’s generally a good thing to be thought of as a rink rat. That means you’re always near the ice, you can’t get enough of it, and your game is probably always growing. But then there are players described as rats, which is somewhat more complex.
The foremost “rat” in today’s NHL is the Boston Bruins’ Brad Marchand, a guy hated across the league, though less so, it seems, than in past years. He jabbers, he’ll stick you, he is a constant irritant. In the past, he was a taker of the stupidest penalties and his antics included, years after the Bruins had actually won the championship there, of taunting fans in Vancouver by hoisting—and shaking—an imaginary Stanley Cup in the air.
Were you on the other team, you’d think “I want to deck that freaking guy” or “what are you, seven?” Maybe you’d take a bad penalty. And that, by and large, was Marchand’s game.
But something happened in 2015-16—and then further developed this season—that’s pretty rare in NHL history: the rat became a star. Former Bruin Ken Linseman—whose very nickname was “the Rat”—was a bit Marchand-like, but he came into the league as something of a vermin-based stud, someone people expected to score. The 860-game NHL veteran who retired in 1992 after stints with the Oilers, Maple Leafs and Flyers scored some, agitated more, became a top face-off guy, and a glue player, never a front line one. Whereas, “Marchy,” as Bostonians know him, is a viable Hart trophy contender for MVP in his seventh season, after being pretty good last year, and nowhere near a star before that.
This is odd. Career trajectories don’t normally go this way. Usually, if you’re not a stud by your third season, you’re not going to be. For a recent brief spell, Marchand was even the league’s leading scorer and point-getter. He’ll almost certainly finish in the top five in each category and could be a Hart finalist, if the Bruins, as is their new tradition, don’t cough up a playoff berth. Meanwhile, his center, Patrice Bergeron, is having a subpar offensive season by his standards, which can’t make point production any easier for a winger of his like Marchand.
And yet, Marchand racks up the goals and assists. Now, let’s be honest: for someone like him to win the MVP, he’d have to get well clear of the pack. There are certain guys that the league wants to give its hardware to. It’s always jonesing to give something to Sidney Crosby, who had no rightly business winning the Conn Smythe last year. And it’d probably like to give “new Crosby”—aka, Connor McDavid—the MVP even more. Start of a new reign of glory! Whereas, the hockey player version of Rattus norvegicus is going to be SOL, and you know what that means.
But how is Marchand doing this? Why is he better than ever as he gets into middle-age portion of his career? Last season looked to be the career year when he potted 37 goals, which seemed shocking. He had 28 in 2011-12, but it’s not like you could expect Marchy to erupt for 40-plus. He’d have to go back down, right? But then there was the World Cup, and playing on a line with Crosby, which seemed to juice Marchand. He was the tourney’s breakout star, really, and the thing about being a breakout star is you can essentially realize, “Hey, I can hang with anyone. Let’s see how far we can take this.”
Marchand is small at 5-foot-9, but he can fly, though his quickness is a better attribute still. People fall in love with speed, but the higher up you go in level, in any sport, the less it means, until you don’t have it.
Everyone is fast. If you’re faster than most, it’s not by much. We’re talking a portion of a stride, usually. What matters more is quickness, which is very different than speed. Quickness is a spurt, a first three strides, a turning of the body and a push forward while someone else is mid-turn. It’s side-to-side movement, which might matter more for a hockey player than straight-ahead movement, because it is side-to-side movement that buys time and space. The greatest hockey players create time and space, and it is from that office, you might say, that they issue forth their best work, as everyone is locked in place outside.
Few skaters have better edge work than Marchand, who recognizes what an advantage it is to move down the ice while never going, exactly, straight. But—and this is cool—while still not losing speed. Teammate and sometimes opposite winger David Pastrnak is having his breakout year with 32 goals, but he’s nowhere near Marchand’s level just yet, partially because he cannot resist his spin-o-ramas, the dipsy-do moves, putting the puck through his skates. As a result, there are lots of nights for Pastrnak where he’s fighting the puck, where the Fancy Dan jukes and stickhandling legerdemain just aren’t clicking.
Marchand is the best one-on-one player in the league right now. He can even go on-on-two with success from time-to-time. But he’s learned to keep his dangles moving forward, in a manner of thinking, using power to go along with his moves, so that the true focus of his attacks is a hardcore push to the net, which just happens to have a moment of stickhandling wizardry.
He’s also become the master of beating a defenseman by letting the puck separate from his possession, but keeping it close enough that, paradoxically, he still retains possession, as if there were an invisible, rat-controlled string keeping the biscuit in close proximity. This is uncanny. You don’t see many players think the game this way, or have the faith to situate the puck three feet to the side as they rub their way past a d-man, emerging beyond said d-man’s hip to collect the treasure and advance on.
Does the Hart await? No, probably not. But a postseason All-Star berth does, which is somewhat reminiscent of a flushed rat making its way through a network of plumbing to do its thing better than ever. And if we’re talking irking your enemies, that is some serious big deal agitating.