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Brad Marchand Isn’t Changing

The Bruins star may be getting older, but his chirping, tough playing style and outspokenness are trademarks that will never go away

Adam Villacin

Brad Marchand, maybe more than any other North American professional athlete, likes to talk. Even if he’s on the road, and even if he’s exhausted.

It’s early March, less than a week after his wife gave birth to their third child, and the Bruins left winger is drinking coffee to ward off sleep deprivation. But on the morning we meet in the lobby of the team’s Anaheim hotel, he’s snapping off one-liners like wrist shots.

When reminded that a 2020 National Hockey League Players’ Association poll named him the game’s best and worst trash talker, he smiles. “It’s like Babe Ruth,” he says. “Didn’t he have the most strikeouts and the most home runs?”

When discussing what it’s like being taunted about the size of his often-bloodied nose, he insults some of his opponents’ comedic chops. “I feel like that’s the lamest chirp that anyone could come up with,” he says. “Be better than that.”

And when weighing in on the NHL’s efforts to increase its popularity, he deadpans, “They’re doing whatever they can to improve the numbers and to sell the game. Except for Arizona.” (More on that later.)

Spend time with the soon-to-be 34-year-old and you’ll quickly realize that his shtick is still sharp. “I think I just have an inner confidence about knowing what I stand for, what I care about, and what matters to me,” he says. “There’s things that I’ll speak out on if I care about them. Hockey players are just a little different where they don’t want to catch heat, they don’t want to be controversial.”

To say that Marchand rejects self-imposed blandness undersells his commitment to being a shit stirrer. No one in the NHL, it seems, enjoys riling people up more than Boston’s alternate captain. The 5-foot-9 forward is the league’s preeminent heel. And like all top-tier villains, he backs up his bluster with brilliance. “He’s a superstar,” Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron says. “To have that edge, to be able to get guys off their games, it’s important. It’s important that we don’t lose him, too.”

As he’s evolved from mere pain in the ass to All-Star pest, Marchand hasn’t blunted that edge. Which means that occasionally he interrupts his own highlight reel by doing something that leads to an NHL Department of Player Safety ruling. He’s been suspended twice this season to bump his career total up to eight. In February, the Cam & Strick Podcast crunched the numbers and determined that he’s now racked up the most individual suspensions in league history.

“I do do some childish stuff on the ice and at times it goes away and people say, ‘He’s mature, he’s not doing that stuff anymore,’” says Marchand, who led Boston with 80 points in 70 games during the regular season. “But a lot of it is emotion-based, and it just comes out at times.”

In reality, Marchand’s recklessness and greatness are inextricable. This is who he is. And overall, that’s worked out pretty well for him—and his team. As the wild-card Bruins open their first-round playoff series against the Hurricanes on Monday, Marchand will be a focal point. He wouldn’t want it any other way.

“If he’s not the center of attention,” says his friend and former Bruins linemate Gregory Campbell, “then he’s not being Brad Marchand.”

Buffalo Sabres v Boston Bruins Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

As a general rule, sports media is obsessed with habitual line steppers. Covering them is an endlessly interesting cycle of condemnation and praise. Every new transgression allows us to rehash all of the offender’s past screwups. And every prolonged stretch of good play and/or behavior causes us to claim that said offender is finally maturing.

Marchand has been stuck in this perpetual narrative since his first full NHL season, in 2010–11, when he elbowed Blue Jackets center R.J. Umberger in the head and got suspended for the first time. Consider the reaction to his latest dustup. Late in Boston’s 4-2 loss to the Penguins on February 8, he got angry at an innocuous taunt by Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry and punched him in the face. Then, as a referee tried to restrain him, Marchand jabbed his stick into Jarry’s chin. The meltdown led to the league handing down a six-game ban, the longest of Marchand’s career.

Afterward, he apologized. “I obviously have to be much better at controlling my emotions and not reacting that way,” he said. “Was it stupid? Of course it was stupid. I’m not denying that. I absolutely should not have done it.” And naturally headlines like this one began to appear: “The Bad Brad Marchand resurfaced, so the Good Brad Marchand disappears for six games.”

By now, Marchand is used to this cycle. Though he undoubtedly has grown up over the past decade—these days, for example, he’s no longer being photographed around New England while partying shirtless—the 13-year veteran’s approach hasn’t changed all that much. He knows that his antics will forever piss off opposing fan bases, irritate rivals, and exasperate the league office. To them, he’s still the Rat.

Marchand is self-aware enough to know why he’s on hockey’s proverbial watch list. The NHL has understandably cracked down on the way that he operates, no matter how effective it can be.

“They started suspending guys for a lot less than they had ever done before,” says Marchand, the NHL’s active leader in short-handed goals. “There’s an art and, I guess, a type of player that is now being pushed out, and it’ll continue to happen. You’re going to have teams of four lines of first-line players here at some point, whether it’s five years down the road or 10 years down the road, and fighting’s going to be gone and stuff like that. Eventually it could be hitting’s gone. That’s the way it’s trending.”

Whether or not Marchand’s on-ice way of life is truly in danger is still in question. But he’s uninterested in radically reforming himself. “It is who I am and they’re just trying to change me,” he says. “Ultimately what’s happening is they don’t like some of the stuff I do, the way that I play, and they want it to be gone.”

The modern hockey establishment may not like it, but Marchand’s ethos has long made him impossible to ignore. Campbell could see it when Marchand, a third-round pick in the 2006 draft, was still trying to secure a spot on the Bruins’ roster. “Quite often we’d play keepaway,” Campbell recalls. “I’m not a big guy, but I’m certainly bigger than him, and it was incredible how strong he was on the puck [with] his low center of gravity. And guys like that, they make it easy to play with them, because he has skill, because he is tenacious, because he has this unique drive about him. He just won’t be denied.”

That was apparent in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, when Marchand scored twice in the Bruins’ Game 7 victory over the Canucks. “To be in that situation in Game 7 as a rookie?” Campbell says of the then-23-year-old, who that postseason netted 11 goals. “I think that’s pretty incredible for him to be able to just kind of take the game over and have that ability to not let any sort of anxiety or fears slip in.”

As impressive as he was in Game 7, Marchand’s true signature moment in the series came in Boston’s Game 6 win. First, he whipped in the opening goal. Then he capped the night by throwing half a dozen left jabs into the face of Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin, who didn’t retaliate. When reporters asked why he went after him, Marchand said, “Because I felt like it.”

The evening featured a Brad Marchand hat trick: a spectacular play, an unnecessarily over-the-top provocation, and a killer one-liner.

Boston Bruins v Vancouver Canucks - Game Seven Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Marchand has been good at burrowing under people’s skin since he was a kid. The oldest of four children, he spent his childhood in suburban Halifax, Nova Scotia, trying to gain an edge on his younger brother, Jeff, in everything from floor hockey to video games to Ping-Pong. “My brother and I fought every day,” he says. “We hung out together every day, too.”

Their father, Kevin, a prolific junior hockey scrapper, actually warned his sons against getting into on-ice fights. “He told me a story—and he reiterated this my whole career, and especially once I got into juniors and fighting became a real thing,” Marchand says. “He was a 16-year-old, and then he got into a fight. He was on first line, broke his hand, and then he was out for six weeks and never got back on the top line.”

Marchand’s dad might not have encouraged fighting, but he helped his oldest understand that at his size, he couldn’t afford to be passive. Though deep down, he probably already knew that. “You can’t teach it,” asserts Marchand, who says he inherited his emotion and energy from his mother, Lynn, a teacher. “It’s something inside that you’re comfortable being hard and getting hit and giving hits. It hurts to be aggressive and to be hard. And so it’s in you. That’s the way my dad was. All my friends were like that.”

Growing up, Marchand was a proud big brother. But making it in the NHL required extreme little brother energy; he had to do anything he could to get his coaches’ and teammates’ attention. “That’s all I was told early on: ‘You have to find a way to separate yourself,’” says Marchand, who as a kid idolized 5-foot-8 Hall of Fame winger Martin St. Louis. “And it’s true. When you’re coming up against all these other prospects and there’s first-rounders and second-rounders and I’m a third-rounder? Well, they’re supposed to get a look before me, so how do I make myself stand out above them? I have to find a way—creating energy, drawing penalties until I can move up and establish myself in a different way.”

Early in his career, there were signs that the fourth-liner was far more than just a pest. He scored 21 goals as a rookie. And in between controversies—like when he got suspended for five games in 2012 for delivering a low hit on Vancouver’s Sami Salo that resulted in the Canucks defenseman suffering a concussion—Marchand peppered his first several seasons with almost shockingly skillful plays. Bergeron marvels at the time in 2014 when Marchand evaded five Los Angeles Kings, including goalie Jonathan Quick, to score a short-handed goal.

Yet Marchand still doubted himself. To him, stardom felt farther away than the fourth line. “I’ll give my dad a lot of credit,” he says. “Something that he always said to me is, ‘[You] can be one of the best players in the league.’ I think I got really mad at him one day and I was saying, ‘Dad, look, I’m in the NHL, but I’m not going to be one of the best players in the league. Shut up.’ He’d always compare me to certain players and I’m like, ‘Dad, it’s just not there. I don’t see it.’ And I remember one day, it was after I got suspended, he said, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this stuff. You can be one of the best players in the league, you’ve just got to focus on that.’ And I got really mad.”

Marchand says that he didn’t see it until 2016, when he helped lead Team Canada to victory at the World Cup. Playing on a line with Bergeron and Sidney Crosby, he led the tournament with five goals, including the series-clinching short-handed rocket in the final against Team Europe. That performance, Bergeron says, “gave him wings.”

“Once I played on that team, I realized I can play at this level,” Marchand says. “... I had that belief that I could be one of the top guys. And it’s crazy in this game what confidence can do. You see it from all the top players.”

That fall, Marchand signed an eight-year, $49 million extension with the Bruins. In 2017, he made his first All-Star team. He repeated the feat the next winter and participated in the 2018 midseason festivities in Tampa—despite having just earned a five-game suspension for elbowing New Jersey’s Marcus Johansson in the head. When he was introduced, the Amalie Arena crowd booed him. He responded by smiling, waving, and blowing kisses.

Pittsburgh Penguins Vs Boston Bruins At TD Garden Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Even as Marchand became the player his dad always thought he could be—from 2016 to 2020, he averaged 89.3 points per season—he was still looking for new, creative ways to be a needler. Like in 2018, when he started licking opponents. The bit, his version of a Mortal Kombat II “Friendship,” was so strange that NPR—which will never be confused with The Hockey News—picked up the story. When I asked him about it, Marchand provided a pretty simple explanation:

“One thing that keeps guys on edge is your unpredictability. You just don’t ever know what a guy’s going to do or what he’s going to say or how he’s going to react. There’s all kinds of different ways that you can get under a guy’s skin. It’s just knowing what will make some guys tick. You can see it when it’s happening, and some guys are just really emotional and will snap, and other guys, you can just see, they start coming after you, trying to hit you on the next shift. And as soon as the guy starts doing that, then you know you have them.”

At this point, it’s clear that Marchand is comfortable making other people feel uncomfortable. But despite his snarky on-ice persona, he’s not allergic to sincerity.

In late December, when the NHL and NHLPA announced that they had agreed to pull out of the Winter Olympics due to concerns about COVID-19 further disrupting the season, Marchand spoke out against the move. He just didn’t buy the reasoning for it—the league and the union had just amended the collective bargaining agreement to allow teams to fill pandemic-depleted rosters with replacement players.

“The NHL and NHLPA can change the rules of the CBA to add a taxi squad so that they don’t miss any games and don’t lose any money,” tweeted Marchand, who will be 37 at the time of the next Winter Games. “Yet they can’t do a taxi squad during the Olympics? … Please tell me that’s not bullshit. And for all you who want to pipe back about forfeiting pay while being gone. Yeah, not a problem. Let the players make their choice.”

When we talked, Marchand backed up his assertion that he’ll speak out about things that he cares about. Unprompted, he dove right into the cash-strapped Coyotes’ decision to move their home games from the 17,000-seat Gila River Arena to Arizona State’s rink.

“As soon as the real issues start coming up that guys actually care about and want to discuss, then the NHL wants that to stop,” Marchand says. “A perfect example, if we want to get real about it, is Arizona now being in a 5,000-seat arena. They’re now downgraded to a junior team, essentially. That wouldn’t happen in the NBA or the NFL—guys wouldn’t play there. Guys around the league are really upset about that, including almost everybody on that Arizona team. But nobody’s speaking out against it because hockey players just don’t want to get involved.”

Marchand, who last week against the Panthers broke an 11-game scoreless streak with his 32nd goal of the season, is never afraid of getting involved. If he’s not being vocal, if he’s not in the middle of the action, if he’s not being himself, then the Bruins likely won’t make a deep playoff run this spring.

“I think he’s candid because I think that’s who he is,” Bergeron says. “I think he’s not trying to be someone he’s not. You have to appreciate that, in a way. You can agree or not agree. I think that’s fine. But at the same time, he’s being himself. And you can’t knock him for that.”

As much as he annoys his rivals, they do seem to get him. Last week, the NHLPA released its annual players’ poll, and the answer to the question “Which player do you least enjoy playing against, but would like to have on your team?” was none other than Marchand, who received more than a quarter of the 447 votes—by far the highest total.

“There’s not a teammate of his that I would bet that hasn’t thoroughly enjoyed his time with Marchy,” Campbell says. “I usually don’t speak so highly of Brad to his face, but I do think the world of him.”

Today, with Marchand on the cusp of his mid-30s, two things about him are true: He’s still the NHL’s biggest pain in the ass. And he’s come a long way since the day in June 2011 when he was too drunk to sit for an interview for the Bruins’ Stanley Cup championship DVD. He’s married with three kids. He has a leadership position on the Bruins. Hell, he even has his own breakfast cereal.

“There’s things that I have to worry about now that I never even thought about as a player or as a young guy, and I don’t just mean off the ice, but in the [dressing] room,” Marchand says. “The politics of it all, which you don’t necessarily ever think about coming in the league. And you just want to play the game at 21. You just want to play in the NHL. You just want to play and enjoy yourself, so I try to go back to that because that’s when I felt like I had just no cares in the world.”

Brad Marchand may be old for a pro athlete, but he is still enjoying himself. Luckily for him, there’s no correlation between age and maturity.

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