Young Steve Downie's Crazy Head

So here's a story that will interest only a handful of hockey geeks out there, but I'm going to talk about it anyway. It's about consummate shit-stirrer Steve Downie.

Downie's hockey career has been littered with on-ice incidents that lead to lengthy suspensions, dating back to this junior hockey league days. Originally drafted by the Flyers in 2005, Downie was shipped off to Tampa last November and has been dicking around in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals for most of the season. He recently made headlines again after he slashed a linesman during a February 28th game. The AHL responded by handing Downie another 20 game suspension.

Last year, while I was at Philadelphia magazine, I worked on a lengthy feature story about Downie, which was never printed because halfway through writing the story, Downie was sent down by the Flyers and left off the playoff roster. Doing a story about a little known hockey player for a magazine that caters to 50-something Main Line mommies was a reach; running one about a little known player that wasn't even on the team anymore was, well, never gonna happen unfortunately. 3,000ish words just went to shit. Hey, it happens. But lucky you! Now that Steve Downie is in the news again, you people get to read the 3/4 of a story that never ran. Indulge me. If anything, republishing some of this story here makes it feel like it wasn't a total waste of time and energy. Hockey geeks: fact-check away, please.

Steve Downie has a booger in his nose. Standing in shower flops and black lycra shorts outside the locker room of the Flyers practice facility in Voorhees, he says he'll only be a few more minutes. It's one of those pool boogers, all white, and it quickly shoots back up his left nostril with a little sniff and a wipe. The rest of the hockey newspaper mob is loafing around with their digital recorders, poking them in the faces of various Flyers as they wait patiently for each player to come out in various states of almost-dressed to jab the recorder in their face and get a meaningless quote about the upcoming Toronto series. There's Daniel Briere, the high-priced center the Flyers nabbed from the Buffalo Sabres this past off-season, part of a multi-million dollar 8-year contract that in the hopes of getting a playmaker, the Flyers made him one of the highest paid players in the league this year. Briere's hair still wet, wire-rimmed glasses on, button-downed shirt tucked in a little too much inside his jeans, answering all the questions with a confident, almost academic cadence. One hockey writer said he found it ironic that the Flyers signed Briere then brought 20 year-old Downie up to the show the same year. "Talk about total opposite players. One's the typical non-Flyers type player and one is the prototypical Flyers player," he said. There's Briere, sleek, polished, big shooter, enormous skill-level, but plays a scorer's finesse game. Then there's Downie: a menace, a pest, a shit-disturber, the type of hockey player that overcompensates for some of his short-comings talent-wise with freewheeling intensity — some would say, too much intensity; the kind of intensity that can sometimes devolve into scary, selfish irresponsibility if it funnels out the wrong tube. Guess who's the prototypical Flyers player?

Downie comes with a bad rep, some say wholly deserved. "He plays with an edge," so many hockey wonks will echo time-and-time again when asked to describe the type of player he is. And this edge is not the characterization we as everyday 9-to-5 human beings equate to those with exotic piercings or an affinity for skydiving. This is a hockey edge, which is somewhat amorphous and undefined; you have it or you don't. Downie's had it since the first time he laced up his skates as a Pee Wee and pushed a chair around on the ice, up in the woodsy enclave of Newmarket, Ontario. It's the edge that gives him the extra one or two feet of room on the ice to whip the puck around, it's what creeps in the back of his opponent's minds when they sense his presence. It's the edge that got him shipped off to the Windsor Spitfires as a chippy 16 year-old prospect. It's that same edge that just 16 months later caused him to go after his teammate, then 16-year-old, highly regarded rookie center Akim Aliu, who ended up with three busted teeth and a flattened ego…and ended up getting Downie suspended and shipped off to Peterborough. It was one of the blackest eyes for Junior Hockey, if only for the fact that the practice was videotaped, and the whole violent, unbridled chuck-and-duck was played and replayed on Canadian television stations across the country with fear-mongering sensationalism: Is this the type of young person we should call a hero and a champion…?. The coach of the team, longtime hockey lineage Moe Mantha, was fined and eventually canned for allegedly encouraging the type of behavior on his team. (The genesis of the fight was reportedly Alliu's refusal to participate in a team hazing ritual which required him to stand in the showers naked.) The video still exists on You Tube for all the world to see over. And over. And over again. In fact, Downie's antics are a huge draw on the web. His unhinged style of over-aggressive play and brawls on the ice make him a superstar in the short-attention, time-wasting world of internet cinema. (Steve Downie Meltdown! Steve Downie cheap shot!) When he was drafted in the first round by the Flyers in 2005, he was a natural hockey talent, but with a storied past. Was his edginess just too much for an NHL desperately trying to curtail some of the violence by handing out lengthy suspensions to anybody who plays the game like young Steve Downie?

On this drizzly overcast afternoon, Steve is quietly annoyed. His head his down, his wool cap is pulled down tight, his brown shoes are scuffing a long, he fidgets with stuff in his sweatshirt pocket as we walk from the parking garage of the Hermitage up to his condo unit, a couple miles from the Flyers' Voorhees practice facility. He walks swiftly, with a purpose, the quicker we get to the stairs, the quicker this is over. Plenty of people who've talked to him – journalists, announcers, colleagues coaches – will tell you this much about Steve Downie: He's not much of a talker. Even Flyers PR man Zack Hill said this after he was pitched the story, recommending that any conversation I had with Downie should be face-to-face and not on the phone. When I finally get that opportunity, there's no indication that Steve Downie's going to disclose too much this time around either. We trudge through the parking lot and there's this awkward silence for a good minute, like we're both on a blind date that's doomed to fail.

"You really hate this shit, don't you?" I finally say, attempting to loosen things up.

"I fucking hate it," he says, the same way a person "fucking hates" dentist appointments, or the DMV. But he's a professional and putting up with incriminating interviews is part of the job. He knows he's a good story. He'll suffer through it. That's part of hockey. You get beat up a little, but you persevere. You're part of a team. This is good for the team. All the black eyes, bruises, and probing questions from outsiders demanding you explain why you are who you are and why you play like you play. We walk through the door of his condo and begin to get this over with as quickly as possible.

Here's why Steve Downie is a good story: young hockey phenom grows up with an older brother, a loving mom, and a dad always willing to take his young boys to hockey practice. Then, on an slippery night in 1996, Downie and his father were in a car wreck. The boy was unscathed; his father died instantly. Like any other family suffering through a tragedy, the Downies persevered, and his mother, Anne, suddenly became a single mother in charge of two boys, one with some legit hockey talent. She shuttled both her boys off to practice, the older one, Greg, a goalie, was a pretty good player himself, but Anne knew that Steve had something special, that he was one of the blessed, from the great white north who had the potential to make his country's frozen past-time a full-time job. He was a passionate kid, and always a fighter ever since the first time junior players were allowed to stop skating around in pretty circles popping goal after goal into the net and actually start whacking people. Steve took to the aggressiveness early, refining his game to become not only a goal scorer, but a pesky tough guy and leader on the ice as well. His quickly became more and more of a big game player and began shining as a teenager for his club team. As a teenager, Downie also lost his hearing in his right ear, due to a rare bone disorder ostosclerosis, which zapped the right ear drum. His mother remembers it being really loud in the house that day and then, all of the sudden, her boy couldn't hear. That's it. Poof. Gone. What about hockey, now? No pressure, get a hearing aid, and move on. There are worse things in life. This, plus the car accident , are the two instances in young Steve Downie's life that many find as easy marks for psychoanalytical building blocks that make-up Steve Downie the hockey player. These are they heavy chips laid on his teenage shoulders, the ones that give him the itchy trigger finger when it comes to finding that turbo-boost button of aggression, to take on guys a full-head taller and more broad-shouldered than his 5'10, 180 frame, to drop the gloves, to slash that stick like a scythe, to pick at players, to finish his checks with barbaric purpose, and keep at it keep at it until there's a victory. He was a captain at Windsor, as an 18-year-old, piloting a veteran club that looked as if it had a good chance to do some noise up north in the tournament. That was before he knocked Alliu's teeth out and the whole mess started and it all came crashing down. He'd already had the over-aggressive rep and now that had reared its head in the worst possible way and backfired on a team, on a city. The questions about Downie's sanity became louder: Was this kid a loose cannon?

He moved from Windsor onto Peterborough, 70 miles the other direction, where he was forced again to lead a team, face adversity, this time under debilitating scrutiny from a league and a hockey nation not 100 percent convinced that this doesn't have some deep-seated issues that make him more of a liability on the ice, a dangerous boy, who lapses into moments of scary rage, who equates competitiveness with a lack of conscience. Downie twice represented Canada at the world junior championship, winning gold medals both times. He was the captain at Peterborough, helping the Petes to a league title, and was the Flyers' first-round (29th overall) draft choice in 2005, a day that Downie became so emotional about, with his family, friends, the memory of his father, that little , troublesome half-deaf kid with the maniac's rep, the dead father and the salty demeanor could barely compose himself. Even his aggression and reputation for being a malcontent couldn't ruin the fact that he's a helluva hockey player. After 2005, things for Steve got better. He became a more complete player, a leader, and when he wanted, that overzealous tenaciousness, that hyper-competitive nature to just win and win convincingly, outshined his demons. At Peterborough, he took his team to a Memorial Cup berth. At the time of the Alliu incident, the Flyers didn't blink at all. They didn't sense trouble or waiver in their support of Steve Downie. General manager Paul Holmgren said both he and Bobby Clarke monitored Downie throughout the whole ordeal and they were never concerned that the kid couldn't play for them.

"It's a lot easier to turn that stuff down, then turn that stuff up. Just sometimes you got to sprinkle a little water on that fire," Holmgren said.

In the beginning of 2007, Downie was trying to make the big club in his first pro season. It didn't take long for Steve Downie's controversial intensity to appear. In fact, it took all of two games. On Sept. 25th, 2007, the Flyers played the Ottawa Senators in a pre-season match-up. Guys like Downie, young, unproven, job-hungry usually took these games more seriously than the established veterans. It's time to leave a mark. 2:39 into the second period, 34 year-old Senators' forward Dean McCammond skated around back of the net after dropping a pass behind him. Downie swooshed around the left side of the ice to cut off Mcammond, to make a play, to leave a mark. Here's where it gets ugly: Downie, overcharged on adrenaline, leaves his feet – a no-no in hockey – and flies through the air at full speed, taking out McAmmond with a big shoulder to the head. The Senators winger ricochets violently off the boards and McAmmond drops, his limbs go dead his head falls to the side, he lay on the ice motionless; it all happened so quickly and violently it appeared as if somebody just unplugged McAmmond. Downie pops up and then is greeted by a swarm of angry Senators, including their chief enforcer the 6'4 Brian McGrattan who attacks Downie and starts wailing on him, uncontrolled, big swings, with intent to completely pulverize Downie, not just for the hit, but for the utter lack of respect. It takes a good two minutes for the refs to pull the Senators off of Downie, as at least three players clawed their way past the refs, the linesman, and the Flyers to try to land a shot. Downie was kicked out of the game, McAmmond left on stretcher and would spend a few days in the hospital with a concussion. Downie apologizes for hurting him, but the NHL's senior vice president, director of hockey personnel, and, for all intents and purposes, "the sheriff" of the NHL Colin Campbell wasn't satisfied with Downie's contrition. (Later, McGrattan called Downie a "dirty player" who would "get what's coming to him" the Downie the next time they shared ice together.) suspended him 20 games, the 5th longest suspension in NHL history. The hit's legality, although scarily violent, is debatable. Some old-timers will tell you its part of the game and Downie's past reputation as violent, dirty player is what caused Campbell to levy that kind of suspension. And because this happened in Ottawa, where hockey is life, taking a run at a player like McAmmond, not known as an overly aggressive guy, will leave Steve Downie a marked man. Again.

A 20 game suspension is a tough way to being a hockey career. As much as he's all gristle and guts, how the Flyers love the energy he brings to the team, there is concern for young Steve Downie's edginess – his seemingly uncontrolled determination to play over that game-imposed edge, at the cost of the team. One person close to the Flyers organization pretty much spelled it out: I just wonder if he can control himself. I just sometimes wonder where he gets all that rage…?

And the Flyers are well aware of the stakes here, but Coach John Stevens, in his second season, fighting for a playoff spot (and possibly his own job security), sees Steve Downie as a player that needs some guidance, some shaping, some refocusing. Stevens has had to rail on Downie a few times this season for some of his decision-making, but he's quick to point out that he hasn't taken a lot of bad penalties for them either. "We've told Steve that what he does on the ice should be in the best interest of the hockey team. So far, he's done that." And so far, when he or Holmgren, or any of the other coaches give him some definitive coach-to-young player dress-downs about stupid plays or losing control of his emotions, Downie's responded positively. "He wants to do well. He respects authority. He's never been the kind of kid that rolls his eyes and he's held himself accountable for things."

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren is also sold on his young player's competitiveness, but he's been more vocal about kicking his ass when it's needed. Holmgren, a hard-nosed winger in his playing days, who's had his face re-arranged a few times (and re-arranged a few of his own) has been given the role of being Steve Downie's re-arranger. In another incident that became national news (okay, Canadian news), just four games into his post-suspension NHL career, Downie crossed over that edge again when he bopped Toronto Maple Leafs winger Jason Blake in the eye in early January while the two were being untangled by referees. At the time, the ref was holding back Blake (not known for being a fighter at any stage in his ten-year NHL career) and Downie, with his left hand free, gave a half-hearted wack to Blake that caught him right in socket. Blake's eye swelled immediately and once again, the NHL was forced to take a look at Downie's actions. No suspension this time around, but more bad press from our neighbor's to the North, a small fine, and an epic re-arranging by Holmgren that became public. After the Blake incident, Holmgren was quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying, "I'm upset. It was Jason Blake. Jason is not a fighter…the fact that Steve put his team down is a different issue. That's a selfish thing. He'll get better."

One member of the Flyers organization did stick up for Steve Downie: Bobby Clarke, who in an interview with the Toronto Sports Network (the Canadian equivalent of ESPN), went on air to defend his boy. "I loved it, " Clarke said and went on to explain how Blake had it coming because he was so outspoken about Downie's hit against McAmmond and said that Downie should be kicked out of the league. "If you're going to say something stupid like that, once you step back on the ice you'd better be ready to suffer the consequences. [Downie] was young player doing what any good hockey player should do –stick up for himself."

******

As we sit at Steve Downie's smallish kitchen table, his mother, Anne looks nervous. Downie's dachshund Rocky is leaping all over him and he's paying more attention to the dog as it yaps in his lap and licks his face. His reddish hair has grown out a bit and wing-out on the sides. He kind of resembles a young, "Little Darlings"-era Matt Dillon and (get this) a young, wild-haired Bobby Clarke. Downie's mother is staring at me, wide-eyed, bracing for questions about her son, sizing me up. She has dyed blonde hair with a few roots poking through, and a youthful, attractive face, but right now the only thing expression that's showing on it is that of a concerned parent. Ann, like her son, seems to have a genuine dislike or distrust of the press. "We've been burned so many times, " she admits. Even though most of the time it's all the same questions. And they aren't easy questions of late, as all the attention paid to her son seems to be negative. They're all about the fights, McCammond, Blake, how he's a dirty player, how reckless he can be. (Where does he get all that rage?) Steve brushes all the negativity off with eye-rolling nonchalance. But, Ann, she reads everything and takes it all personally. "It's hard to read that stuff about your son," she gamely admits Steve's a realist about it: "That's what sells papers." We volley back and forth with questions about his play and Steve becomes preoccupied with the dog, answers the questions with disaffected charm, sometimes not uttering more than a few words to make his points over and over again and it always comes back to the same result: "That's how I play the game." He doesn't want to hurt people, he doesn't want to be a bad guy, he doesn't go out there every night to take put other players in the ER or get himself suspended. And off the ice? He's boringly normal. "I watch TV at night, I relax, I'm a laid back guy. It's not like I'm going around every place and punching people." They're both amused by the notion that because of how he plays, that there's something deranged or dark about him, that the walls in his condo should be riddled with holes caused by fists or there should be dead animal carcasses hanging from the ceiling. I ask Ann about the car accident, the one that killed her husband, and I feel awful for doing it. Not because it's not pertinent, but because it happened more than 10 years ago and yet every time her son does something bad on the ice, or anybody wants to know why her son is such a hockey troublemaker, it comes back to that. Her eyes well up, but she soldiers through the question again, forced to relive the whole thing in her head and dredge up those feelings. "It was hard," she says. "I didn't know how I was going to go on." But she did. Her sons did. They all did. Hockey helped bring a sense of normalcy back into their lives, she says. When both boys were playing rep hockey all over Canada before they were 10, she was probably only home one night per week. They've never blamed the accident for any of Steve's on-ice transgressions and they both are quick to add that there are people who've had it much worse than they did. "These things that happened in our lives did impact them (Greg and Steve) and molded their personalities. But it didn't make them different people. It changed us all, but it didn't make us something that we already weren't. It was a tough couple of years, but, unfortunately life goes on and time heals and everybody that's been through this sort of thing knows that time makes a difference. Steve was always a passionate kid from the get-go." Steve interjects, emotionless, "It's always been about winning. I love to win."

And that's all you'll get out of Steve Downie.

Congratulations to those who made it all the way through. Now, go take a smoke break.