We never really know these guys.
Not completely, anyway.
That is the thing we most often do not admit to strangers, those close to us, to ourselves.
We see these guys a lot, almost every day for months and months – but only for a few minutes, and always for a reason.
We ask. They answer. That is the relationship.
It very rarely goes deeper, probably because it should never go much deeper. We think it does with some of them, but we know that is foolish of us to believe.
There is always a distance, a detachment and a division – and the relationship, the ups and downs of it, is built upon that reality.
I am writing Evgeni Malkin’s biography. That process has taken me to his apartment in Moscow and afforded me access to the closest people in his life.
I am lying (justifying/bragging/intimidating… pick, well, anything you want) if I say that I do really know Malkin.
No reporter I know is any different with any professional athlete that he or she covers – because we never really know these guys.
I don’t really know James Neal.
I do know that about 14 months ago, during the NHL lockout, I reached out to him by text message after hearing of his involvement with a charity hockey game to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy. I also know that Neal agreed to speak with me only on the condition that I focus my article on the charity and not his involvement with it.
I don’t really know if that makes Neal a good guy.
I don’t really know if his knee to the head of a fallen Brad Marchand last Saturday night in Boston makes Neal a bad guy.
I don’t know Neal as a guy, just like I don’t any of the players I have covered as guys – not like I know the guys I really know, my friends.
These guys – guys like Malkin or Neal or Dan Bylsma – they are not my friends. They are not my guys.
I do know that Neal is a guy I enjoy talking with inside the Penguins dressing room. I do know that I find some of his qualities that irk colleagues to be challenging to me as a journalist, and thus cultivating a professional relationship with Neal – as I think that I may have – has proven fulfilling on that level.
I do know that at some point our relationship changed for the better after a rocky start, and that was when he told me his opinion of my questions. He did not always understand them. He thought they were crafted to trick him into saying something he should not say.
They were. They are.
I do know that Neal and I had productive conversation about the athlete-reporter dynamic that day, and most days since have proven pretty good to my thinking. The worst have been tolerable.
I don’t really know if that makes Neal a good guy, either.
I do know that I don’t really think he’s a bad guy, but what I think of him isn’t important.
I do know that I really think what he did to Marchand was wrong.
I do know that I really think Neal should have listened to advice and behaved in a contrite manner when addressing that act publicly afterward.
I do know that I really think Neal deserved at least the five-game suspension he was issued by the NHL.
I do know that I really think Neal should soon publicly address everything that has happened over the last couple of days, and when he does he should apologize for kneeing Marchand.
I do know that I really think Neal could not care less for and about my opinion on what he could do.
I do know that I really think Neal is a wonderful hockey player, one whom I enjoy covering and watching – and for that reason I do know that I really think he should find a way to change the part about him that has led to three suspensions in his six NHL seasons.
I also know I have a temper, too – and there are decisions I make all the time that I regret.
I don’t really know Neal.
I don’t really know what he regrets, if anything at all.
I do know that I think he can change, and that I really think he will regret not trying.
Of course, that would imply that I really know Neal – and all I really know is that we never really know these guys.
>> Brendan Shanahan seemed to have a sent a message to Neal on Monday with his ruling: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5221212-74/neal-penguins-shanahan#axzz2mqyqvtku
>> Brooks Orpik cannot remember an awful lot about Saturday night, but being knocked out might not mean his concussion is a worst-case brain injury: http://triblive.com/sports/steelers/5221255-74/orpik-penguins-concussion#axzz2mqyqvtku
>> Oh, by the way… the Penguins, with a new-look defense, went back to their winning ways against Columbus. Josh Yohe’s report: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5221149-74/penguins-blue-despres
>> Goodies in the form of notes, also by Yohe: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5221150-74/dumoulin-penguins-wing
Be EXCELLENT to each other,