Covering the New York Rangers during the 2010-11 season meant covering the best season that Brandon Prust had in the NHL.
The previous season, Prust was the player who had been the extra part in a trade that brought Olli Jokinen to New York while sending Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik to Calgary. After totaling 17 points in 115 games over his first three NHL seasons, Prust broke out with 13 goals and 16 assists in 2010-11, played a career-high 13:49 a game, and finished 17th in the Selke Trophy vote.
During that season, Prust was one of the friendliest players in the locker room, willing to talk in good times and bad, and generally seeming to have a pretty good perspective on the opportunity he was getting and how he was taking advantage of it. It made him a very likable character.
But you don’t truly get to know someone from watching them practice and play hockey every day, then talking to them for a few minutes afterwards. That’s just a small window that opens into one room of a life.
On Tuesday, Prust pulled back a few curtains. He started by sharing a meme that he felt was “pretty racist sayin ‘white people’” as he claimed, “If I made a post like this n said ‘black people’ would u consider it racist? Of course u would. So what’s the difference?”
It was actually a follow-up to the previous night, when Prust tweeted at the original poster of the meme, and Judd Apatow, who had retweeted it, “Are you talking about every white person in the world? Ur pretty fuckin racist. Sometimes u just have to look in the mirror when looking for racism.” That original poster, Kelly Wickham Hurst, later posted that after she’d blocked Prust on Twitter, he found her on Instagram to call her a racist and hypocrite.
Things really got out of hand on Tuesday, when he called Hurst “a racist bitch,” and bristled, to say the least, atmany criticism he got. That included lashing out at Lexi Brown, the wife of J.T. Brown, who is one of the still fewer than 100 black players in NHL history, and It included throwing barbs at Brock McGillis, the first openly gay pro hockey player.
Getting defensive and doubling down are classic responses to getting called out on unacceptable behavior, especially on Twitter, and especially when starting from a position like “not all white people,” the close cousin of the all-too-familiar “not all men.”
What’s different here is that Prust did seem to be receptive when the source’s sociological profile was closer to his own, even replying “thank you” to a tweet that explained, “Cuz us white people have a history using blanket statements about other races. We’ve created this style usage. If you haven’t done these things, then it’s not talking about you. All you’re doing here is saying ‘Not all white people.’ We already know that. It’s not about you.”
It’s not as simple as being able to say that the way to get through to white men is white men. Even here, Apatow is a white man and so is McGillis. But the fact that some people were able to get through to Prust is encouraging, and what makes this incident different from the stylings of Aubrey Huff, or Dustin Penner, or David Carr, is that Prust expressed a desire to understand and maybe even to grow.
That doesn’t excuse Prust’s online behavior any more than him having been a nice guy in a locker room full of white male hockey players and white male hockey writers a decade ago. It does mean that Prust is someone who might still be reached.
Part of what made Prust successful in that season in New York was how hard he worked — and how hard he had to work — to be more than just a fighter, which is what the Rangers thought they were getting when they traded for him, before going out that summer and signing a name-brand enforcer in the late Derek Boogaard. Because of the path he took, it’s not hard to understand why Prust would be able to say, and really feel he was right, that, “I’ve never been accustomed to privilege,” and why he might be particularly harsh toward McGillis.
There’s a toxic notion that hard work alone is enough to accomplish anything, and it’s particularly hard to shake with people like Prust, who did work hard, and who didn’t have all the gifts of some of their peers. Prust is also a guy who saw his marriage end less than a year ago, and feels that his ex-wife “conned” him and hurt him financially. Put that on top of being a few years removed from the end of a career that was both fulfillment of a childhood dream and paid millions of dollars a year, and you can see where someone would experience feelings of anything from vulnerability to outright being under attack.
It doesn’t mean a person has to go down a QAnon rabbit hole like Penner. What’s difficult is responding to someone in Prust’s position in a way that won’t push them into that, because while his online meltdown was as egregious as his hit that broke ex-teammate Derek Stepan’s jaw in the 2014 playoffs, his own experience means he’ll just see it as sticking up for himself, because that’s what he’s always had to do. What you have to hope he realizes is that, as his last tweet on Tuesday to McGillis was encouraging, Prust is willing to put in the same work to make himself a better person as he was to make himself a better hockey player.