"I can't believe I shook this guy's freakin' hand after the game," an infuriated Dino Ciccarelli said from the Pepsi Center locker room after the Detroit Red Wings had been eliminated by the rival Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup playoffs. "That pisses me right off."
While the pure animosity (and stakes) between the two teams meant Ciccarelli could have been referring any number of Colorado players, it was no surprise he was talking about Claude Lemieux.
At that point a 13-year veteran, Lemieux had curated two reputations around the league: one for the ability to transcend his regular season performance at playoff time, another for being a terrible person on the ice. At least, terrible to opponents.
&amp;amp;amp;lt;br /&amp;amp;amp;gt; During that game (which saw Detroit eliminated), Lemieux sent Kris Draper to the hospital after his vicious hit from behind sent the Red Wing center head-first into the top of the boards. The result was broken his jaw, nose, and cheekbone; facial reconstructive surgery; and weeks of a jaw wired shut.
Had Ciccarelli lowered his hand while skating past Lemieux, it would have been a story, though not a huge one. In the shadow of the hit itself and the Avalanche advancing to the Stanley Cup finals, Ciccarelli's disdain for Lemieux would have been painted as rivals being rivals. Still, Ciccarelli shook Lemieux's hand, even if he later admonished himself for doing so.
All of which highlights both the inanity of sports handshakes and the extent to which they can be revered. For people like us, a handshake is nothing more than this odd social convention that was passed down from our predecessors and continues to be adhered to for who knows what reason. In sport, it's a proxy for something leagues take very seriously: Sportsmanship. While I'm only a slightly greater fan of sportsmanship than handshakes, if my bosses told me my job entailed being the most sporting of sports this company has ever seen, I'd know what I was getting into before signing over my predilections.
Of course, like the Ciccarelli-Lemieux instance, there are circumstances that mandate exceptions. When, two years ago, Wayne Bridge lowered his hand rather than engage John Terry prior to Manchester City's match at Stamford Bridge, he was an aggravated party who had yet to come to terms with how he'd been wronged. In addition to the personal trauma Terry had caused, Bridge was seeing an avenue to the World Cup become more compromised than he could muster. In that light, he couldn't shake Terry's hand.
Luis Suarez, in refusing to shake Patrice Evra's hand on Saturday, clearly sees himself as playing Bridge's part, which makes Kenny Dalglish's mid-week comments all the more curious. Liverpool's manager said, "I think [Suarez] has learned something over the time he's been out," from which most of us inferred Suarez had at gotten perspective on his race-based attack on Evra, if not completely come to grips with it.
Instead, Suarez's Saturday actions tell us he learned the wrong lesson. The world is an unfair place, he seems to have discerned. 'Nobody understands me, the league is against me, and Patrice Evra is the man who started this. I just can't shake his hand.' Bizarrely, he is equating Evra's part in his trials to Terry's part in Bridge's. Not sure how anything Evra's done to Suarez comes close to an alleged illicit affair with a child's mother and ruining a potential World Cup experience.
But if you accept that view as valid, you see how Suarez could rationalize Saturday's choice. Accept his premises and you can see from where the decision to reignite this controversy was born. It was born from the indignation of feeling wronged. It was born from the stubbornness of blind belief, even if there's no way a reasonable person can accept that view.
There is, however, a scary scenario that sees Suarez's reactions born from something else, and when you see the ill-advised support Kenny Dalglish and a small (but vocal) portion of Liverpool's fan base has offered Suarez, it's easy to see why Suarez is feeling emboldened, not stubborn. In the run up to and aftermath of the FA's decision to suspend Suarez for eight matches, Dalglish vigorously defended his striker's behavior. The fans mimicked their idol, so is it any wonder Suarez can justify his decision? At least publicly, he's never been admonished for what he did. The key figures around him are reinforcing his behaviors.
Suarez's actions could be a function of youth, a different world view, naivete of England's football culture, or just generally being a bad guy, but each of those blind sports could be mitigated with leadership, something Suarez has been sorely lacking throughout this ordeal. Dalglish, who gets paid to provide leadership, blew up at reporters post-match, dodged questions about the non-shake by claiming he didn't see it, and continued his inexplicable defense of Suarez by saying the media was "bang out of order to blame Luis Suarez for anything that happened." The Liverpool icon has had a number of chances to put this controversy to rest, yet he's continually shown defiance instead of prudence. Steven Gerrard, the team's captain, could have spoken out, as could have John W. Henry or Tom Werner. Jamie Carragher, Pepe Reina, or anybody above Suarez in the Liverpool hierarchy could have provided a voice of reason and, hopefully, helped end this controversy.
Instead, Liverpool FC has continued to feed into victimization complex which, though having surrounded the club for some time, now threatens to completely engulf the team. That the Suarez story has been allowed to carry hints of suspected persecution from the Football Association and Manchester United - hints that Dalglish and the fringe Liverpool supporters have fed into - just shows how paranoid and out of control this mentality has become. Perhaps before the FA report on Suarez's actions was released there could be some doubt, but that the victimhood has persisted after the FA concluded Suarez used "negro" as a pejorative seven times is asinine.
Suarez clearly cannot manage the situation. Dalglish has become as much a villain as the offender himself. It's time for Henry and Werner to decide what kind of club they want to own, as it's no exaggeration to say the worldwide depiction of Liverpool's brand is at stake. While Liverpool's American owners wisely deferred to the club's culture at the outset of their stewardship, now is the chance to insist some values transcend one club's football culture. Henry or Werner need to bring a sane face to this football club.
In the big picture, pre-match handshakes should be irrelevant, their significance left to the blogosphere to debate. In the current world, they're symbols of a league's commitment to sportsmanship, and in that way - as lame as this may be - they're a job requirement. Suarez skirting the responsibility by portraying himself as the aggrieved party needs to be viewed in this light. It shows a complete disregard for the Football Association, as well as an inability to grasp the significance of his punishment.
And as all this goes on, Liverpool finds itself the only member of the "Sky Six" outside the group. A team that was built to finish in the top four is now three points behind Newcastle for sixth. Arsenal, in fourth, is only four points away, but given the struggles at Arsenal and Chelsea (fifth place), Liverpool should be seizing the moment, cementing their hold on fourth place, and forcing the Gunners and Blues to see this as a rebuilding year.
Instead, it's Liverpool that needs to rebuild from its leadership down. The Suarez affair has been an embarrassment for some time, and the only reason cliches like "it can't get any worse" are being withheld is because Suarez and Dalglish keep finding ways to make it worse. And Gerrard isn't saying anything, nor is Henry or Werner.
You can scoff at the idea that a piddling handshake re-ignited the issue, but imagine what we'd be talking about right now had the handshake happened. Instead of talking about the game (or perhaps about what a non-issue the Suarez-Evra conflict was), we're talking about Suarez's feeble play for empty principle, and rightly so. This conversation isn't about a handshake. It's about inept leadership from Liverpool FC - leadership that continues to allow its problem child to define the broader perception of the club.
As the pre-match handshake is but a proxy for the league's nod to sportsmanship, so was Suarez's non-handshake a symbol of Liverpool's broader problems. John W. Henry, please step in already.