The Problem With Mike Milbury

Today, CBC hockey analyst Mike Milbury was charged with assault in relation to an incident that occurred with an opposing player as he helped coach his son’s pee wee hockey team.

How serious the incident was is not entirely clear; but from the reports today it sounds like it’s fairly unexceptional hockey parent behaviour. That may change depending on what exactly Milbury said – the reports also indicate he was charged with uttering threats, after all – but everyone who has spent any amount of time around the game has seen, heard or at the very least read about the line-crossing actions of hyper-competitive hockey moms and dads.

The actions alone weren’t the reason the internet quickly filled with Mike Milbury jokes this morning.

The problem with Mike Milbury is that his entire public life – from his playing career to his managing career to his broadcasting career – has been filled with unpleasantness. So when something like this happens, people spread the word quickly, not just because something like this happening to a high-profile hockey man is newsworthy (which it is) but because Milbury simply isn’t very well-liked.

Some of it stems from the things he did before he entered broadcasting. Milbury was a hard-nosed defenseman for a rough-and-tumble Boston team, but that’s not what he’s remembered for. He’s generally remembered most for his role in this incident:

Milbury is number 26 in the video above, seen hitting a guy with a shoe.

Then, of course, there’s Milbury’s record as the general manager of the New York Islanders. A decade at the helm of any franchise that managed to win just five playoff games over that span would be a black mark on any reputation, but it’s not just what Milbury did, it’s how he did it.

Aside from his gruff personality – the internet is full of quotes from his time at the helm in Long Island, though my favourite was when he said that player agent Paul Kraus was “depriving some village of a pretty good idiot” – it was the sheer magnitude with which some of his trades failed. He traded Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe and the pick that turned into Jarkko Ruutu to Vancouver for an aging Trevor Linden.

He dealt Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen to Florida for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish. He drafted Rick DiPietro first overall, rather than taking Dany Heatley or Marian Gaborik. He sent Jason Spezza, Zdeno Chara and Bill Muckalt to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin. He ruined a franchise in search of immediate dividends, and still has the hatred of Islanders fans today.

If anything, though, Milbury has worked hard at becoming more disliked by more people since moving into broadcasting. Whether he’s referring to the Russian national team has playing a “Eurotrash game,” talking about the “pansification” of hockey, referring to the Sedin twins as “Thelma and Louise,” analyzing about the Washington “Crapitals,” ridiculing Alex Semin as “a lazy, overpaid talent not worth the time,” threatening to send hockey players to beat up “meathead” Tiger “Wuss” Woods, talking about the German national team “getting peed on” by the Canadian squad or just defending his lackluster record as Islanders manager, he’s been nothing if not polarizing.

Even when Milbury isn’t grabbing attention with hyperbolic commentary, he can be difficult. During a recent Hockey Night in Canada segment on re-aligning the NHL, Milbury was bored – “wake me up when it’s over” he said. He’s frequently spoken out against suspensions, often arguing loudly with his co-hosts on the subject. He’s dismissive of obvious things, like the impact of keeping a junior-aged hockey player up for more than a nine-game audition.

That’s not to say Milbury isn’t occasionally on point. He fearlessly defends angles that aren’t politically correct, voicing the thoughts of many – and when he doesn’t venture into bigotry or xenophobia, that can be valuable. He can add insightful analysis; as a life-long hockey man, he has useful things to say. Unfortunately, what value he does bring is typically overshadowed by his trademark arrogance and compulsive need to belittle players, teams and even co-hosts.

Mike Milbury is, in the end, thoroughly unlikeable. It’s what separates him from someone like Don Cherry, who often advances similar points – Cherry’s not only capable of recognizing his imperfections, but he comes across as the kind of guy it would be fun to share a beer with. It’s impossible to read either of his two latest books without just enjoying the personality behind the narrative. Milbury’s successfully grabbed the worst parts of Cherry’s old-school mentality, but he’s missed the thing that’s really made Cherry successful on Hockey Night in Canada – his personality.

Today’s story may or may not turn out to be more than a relatively minor incident of poor behaviour; we won’t know until more details emerge. Milbury has denied the allegations in a statement released by his lawyer. But the reaction to the incident, which has been overwhelmingly hostile to Milbury, has less to do with what Milbury did at his son’s hockey game than it does with what he’s done with his time in the public eye.

  • Late to the party and haven’t read the thread, but excellent writeup JW. I particularly like your style for this article, since you don’t go all “Milbury” and blast the guy and call him names and whatever, but simply state the facts of things he’s done and peoples’ reactions to them.

    I knew he traded Luongo but had no idea about his other awful awful moves. Were these moves blasted at the time or is this a hindsight is 20/20 thing? Oiler fans get mad at Lowe and Tambellini, but WOW…Milbury really takes the cake for poor GMing.

    And I couldn’t even watch some of those clips all the way through. Painful and awkward…

  • justDOit

    Didn’t MM also give Yashin a ridiculous contract as well? Like $11M per for umpteen years?

    In spite of all that, there’s something about Milbury’s honesty as a hockey analyst that I like. He’s not afraid to call a pointy shovel a pointy shovel, shall we say.

    Imagine how it would feel to have every mistake that you’ve ever made in life, held over your head for eternity. That would be my version of H-E-doublehockeysticks. And for us to ‘assume’ that Mike hasn’t learned from his mess-ups is very narrow minded.

    So he shoved a kid who was yapping at his son. While that isn’t a smart move at all, it’s also light-years from being a shocking revelation. Penn State this ISN’T!

    If I had to make a snap decision on this, and give my judgment based on nothing but headlines and hearsay, I would venture that the kid got what was coming to him. I’m sure Milbury’s son is a target on the ice, and gets more than his fair share of verbal and physical abuse. Milbury would see all of this and know that his son is unfairly treated because of Mike’s status as a former player/coach/GM.

    • ubermiguel

      Good link. Milbury’s forthrightness makes me believe him and I might have done the same thing. Still, Willis’ point stands: the guy’s not well liked and no-one’s lining up to defend his character.

  • You can see somebody with Milbury’s characteristics coming from a mile away. What you see is what you get — he’s opinionated, bombastic, loutish and too often over-the-top. He doesn’t try to fool anybody into thinking he’s anything else.

    I prefer knowing what I’m dealing with up front with somebody like Mike than the devious types who drape many of the same traits Mike has in a smile and have mastered playing the Nice Guy game because it helps them get along — no opportunistic shots taken at them on Twitter or around the water cooler.

    These same nice guys are quick to stick a verbal shank in somebody’s ribs the second they leave the room or they lay in the weeds waiting until the time is right to have their say. They don’t show their cards very often and they do what they do without ever looking anybody in the eye. What follows is, “Oh, I can’t believe he’d do that, he’s such a nice guy . . .”