The strange tale of Steve Downie

match point

Steve Downie is embraced by Canadian fans after scoring the gold-medal-winning goal against Russia.
Steve Downie is embraced by Canadian fans after scoring the gold-medal-winning goal against Russia.
Photo courtesy of Hockey Canada

If Todd Bertuzzi’s dominating physical presence helps guide Canada to a gold medal in Turin next month, how will our nation react to his success? How, hypothetically, will we respond if he fires a game-winning goal past a Russian netminder in the gold-medal game to secure our Olympic bragging rights for the next four years?

What does it take for a villain to become a hero? Perhaps Bertuzzi should have a chat with Steve Downie before packing his bags in February.

The 18-year-old Peterborough Pete became a nationally acclaimed poster boy for Canadian hockey after his impressive performance at the World Junior Championships earlier this month. Columnists across the country raved about Downie’s intense determination, aggressive presence, and ability get under the skin of opponents.

However, it was Downie’s same passionate hot-headedness that, only two months earlier, had thrust him into the national media spotlight as a villainous Windsor Spitfire veteran exchanging punches with rookie Akim Aliu in practice. The altercation was allegedly instigated by the rookie’s refusal to take part in the team’s hazing rituals. Captured by a cameraman, the fight was splashed across television screens nationwide and Downie was labeled as yet another disturbed athlete victimizing young rookies trying to defend their dignity.

No definite link between the hazing ritual on the Spitfires’ bus and the on-ice altercation between Downie and Aliu was ever officially determined. However, in the wake of an ugly hazing scandal at McGill, the Windsor incident drew enough negative media attention to persuade OHL Commissioner David Branch to suspend Spitfire coach Joe Mantha for 40 games as head coach and one year as the team’s general manager. Downie was suspended for five games for fighting with Aliu during practice.

Note that in the meathead culture of junior hockey fighting between teammates during practice is hardly a rare occurrence—-in fact it happens all the time. It’s an intense, physical game: tempers flare, gloves drop, punches are thrown, and by the time you’re sharing a loofah in the shower all is forgiven. Unless of course The Score broadcasts the boxing match every 28 minutes for a week.

In a regular season game an OHL player is given a five-minute major penalty for fighting, but if a fight occurs in a practice between teammates—and is caught on camera—the elder of the two players is given a five-game suspension. Such is the logic of the OHL’s “cover our own ass” image-preserving administration. Such is the influence of the media’s ability to spin minor incidents into full-blown scandals.

The national attention the incident received was so potentially damaging to Downie’s future hockey career that he asked to be traded out of Windsor. He found a new home in Peterbourgh and attempted to put the demons of the Spitfires scandal behind him. That he did.

The Downie we know now is not the Downie we met in October. The gritty forward became an unexpected addition to the Canadian World Junior roster, and immediately the media turned their villain into a hero.

“The face of Canadian hockey tonight wears an angelic, gap-toothed, occasionally maniacal choir-boy grin,” wrote Eric Duhatschek of the Globe and Mail on Jan. 5. “There is a small tuft of beard on the chin and a hearing aid in the right ear of super-pest Steve Downie, a player that is one part Darcy Tucker, one part Theo Fleury, one part Bobby Clarke and 100 per cent pure Canadian hockey player.” During the tournament the media seemed to forget the negative light they had shone on the teenager only weeks earlier. Now Downie wore a maple leaf across his chest. He was a Canadian icon, an example for young hockey players from Labrador to Victoria. On Jan. 5 the Toronto Star made sure to uncover the painful obstacles Downie had faced in his life—obstacles Downie himself rarely discusses. Like the time he watched his father die in a tragic car accident on the way to an early morning hockey practice when he was only eight. Or the potentially career-ending hearing disorder, otosclerosis, which he developed as a teenager. Downie is only able to play the game with a hearing aid in his right ear.

This from the Star’s Ken Campbell, who provides one of the most startlingly clear examples of this John Kerry-like flip-flopping. A month before the Jan. 5 article, entitled “One Very Personal Victory,” Campbell had penned a piece called “Hockey Canada Ignores Scandal”, lamenting that Downie’s probable inclusion on Team Canada showed a lack of concern for what happened.

“When Hockey Canada names its 32-man roster for the final selection camp for the world junior team Monday, it will in all likelihood ostensibly be condoning cross-checking your teammate in the face, then leaving your team and demanding a trade,” Campbell wrote. “Such a checkered recent past [as Downie’s] doesn’t appear to have much of an effect on the people who run the Canadian world junior team ... ”

Or on Ken Campbell, we might add.

The Ottawa Citizen was vehement in its criticism, publishing two articles by Hugh Adami in which Downie was referred to as a “clown,” “zero,” “villain,” “thug,” “rogue,” “baby goon,” and which quotes NHL Central Scouting as calling him “a bit of a rat.” They also published a Nov. 6 article by Pauline Hebert in which she, somewhat prophetically, says that Downie’s hero treatment (in this case by his future NHL team) is disappointing.

“The fact that former Windsor Spitfire player Steve Downie is being welcomed open-armed and treated almost like a celebrity for all to witness on national TV by an NHL team is totally shameful and beyond reproach,” Hebert wrote. “He should be ostracized, not rewarded,” she concluded.

A month and a day later, Mike Davies, also of the Citizen, astutely remarked that “There were critics who questioned Downie’s selection to the team,” but talks only about Downie’s redemption. And on Jan. 2, the Citizen’s Ed Wiles saw nothing wrong with leaving Downie’s troubles quietly behind.

“But before the world junior championship, Downie was notorious around Canada for other reasons,” he wrote. “We have neither the desire nor the space to revisit the infamous hazing story involving the Windsor Spitfires, 16-year-old rookie Akim Aliu and Downie that made headlines in September and branded Downie as a borderline psychotic. Suffice to say Canadian junior team officials investigated the situation and believed it had more to do with the Spitifires’ organization and Aliu than with Downie.”

Downie’s ability to find success through the difficulty of these obstacles is without a doubt remarkable. However, these tragic challenges didn’t seem to matter when Downie was being demonized for the “hazing scandal” in Windsor. Instead the media turned an everyday situation in junior hockey into an issue of national controversy, and Downie was the fallout boy.

How quickly reporters change their tune when they smell a story. After Canada won the gold medal over Russia at the World Junior Hockey Championships, the vindication of Downie was complete.

“Downie was out of hockey for a time in November, before he was traded from the Windsor Spitfires to the Peterborough Petes, and wasn’t sure if he’d be back playing in time to compete in the tournament,” wrote Duhatschek after the gold medal game. No mention of hazing, no mention of a suspension. The once notorious Windsor “scandal” was yesterday’s news—now viewed as more of a ... well, an unfortunate incident, really.

Perhaps Steve Downie shouldn’t have been turned into a villain for fighting with Aliu, and perhaps he shouldn’t have been named one of Canada’s top three players at the World Juniors when there were other phenomenal choices, such the squad’s leading goal scorer Dustin Boyd, or Blake Comeau who led the team in points. But all of this is irrelevant, because in the end the media get to decide who deserves to be demonized and who gets to become a national hero.

So when Bertuzzi represents Canada at Turin, will he be rebuked as a career-ending brute, or will he be celebrated for rising to glory from the ashes of his shame? Will we admire his dominating physical performance on the ice, or forever admonish him for that one terrible mistake he made? Only time—and the media—will tell.

May the fall and rise of Steve Downie never let us forget just how fickle our perceptions can be.

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