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The game

What happened should come as no surprise

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

As you sow, so shall you reap.

For his entire hockey life, Steve Downie has been praised and rewarded and moved up through the hockey system, one of those kids who early on had the look of a future pro.

Eventually, he hooked up with a powerful agency bearing the name of one of the sport's greatest icons, Bobby Orr. Downie played for Canada at the world juniors, won a couple of gold medals and, along with his teammates, was hailed as a national hero. He was drafted 29th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers. Not hard to imagine that Bob Clarke, who was still in charge of the show then, saw in the teenager a little bit of his old scrappy self.

In camp with the Flyers this fall, Downie is life and death to make the team. The hockey skills that were enough to make him a scorer in junior hockey probably wouldn't carry over to the NHL. To stick at that level, he'd have to show them something else.

Sure, Downie is a bit of a hothead. Sure he has a temper. Sure he tends to cross boundaries — bullying a teammate and fighting with him in practice while a member of the Windsor Spitfires; losing it on the ice several times; and being suspended. There were mitigating, human-interest circumstances, the fact that he persevered despite a hearing impairment, and especially the trauma of his childhood, when he saw his father die in a car accident.

But watching Downie play, watching him occasionally snap, you couldn't help but wonder what was going on in his head.

The uncomfortable truth, though, is that what might make you troubled in other circumstances and what might make you dangerous on the street or in a barroom, can make you all the more valuable in sports.

It's not only hockey — though because hockey continues to allow players to enforce their own extra-legal "code," because it tolerates fighting and intimidation tactics and because it doesn't explicitly prohibit shots to the head, it has a particular need for those willing to do what would get you arrested in any other forum. But the extreme violence of football makes good use of them as well (one big difference: the penalty for "losing it" during a football game, the way it hurts a team's chances, tends to keep all of that aggression within an approved framework).

And though the guys who actually fight for a living, boxers and martial artists, can be cool and rational inside the ring and out, they still need to be willing to cross a line that most of us won't. In the extreme, there are plenty of examples of the exploitation of extremely damaged, socially maladjusted young men — as in the Mike Tyson story.

The point is, what happened on Tuesday — Downie absorbed a hit along the boards during an exhibition game against the Ottawa Senators, immediately lost his cool, went looking for someone to punish, and wound up leaving his feet and levelling Dean McAmmond with a shot to the head that left him unconscious on the ice, concussed for the second time in a few months, his career perhaps in jeopardy — came as a surprise to absolutely no one who has followed Downie's hockey life.

That's what he does. Or, as he explained afterward: "I was finishing my check. That's my game."

And though most people in Ottawa and elsewhere were appalled by the hit, you won't have to look far to find someone who will argue that it's just part of the game, that one of his skates was still touching the ice and that McAmmond ought to have kept his head up as he skated behind the net.

Because that kind of thinking is still out there — maybe not quite as dominant as it once was, but certainly not fading away, either — there will be plenty of other angry, insecure kids, working their way through the system, who will be encouraged by coaches and scouts and agents to follow Downie's road to fame and glory. They'll also hear what Brian McGrattan said after the game, that he'll be waiting for Downie the next time the teams play, and understand that path to the NHL is open as well.

Hard to be shocked when, every once in a while, the chickens come home to roost.

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