It couldn’t hurt to start with some empathy

If we’ve learned anything during this pandemic, I would hope it would be this: Everyone is fighting a battle. Some are more obvious and visible. Others are bubbling well below the surface, hidden behind a brave face and stiff upper lip.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/08/2021 (402 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If we’ve learned anything during this pandemic, I would hope it would be this: Everyone is fighting a battle. Some are more obvious and visible. Others are bubbling well below the surface, hidden behind a brave face and stiff upper lip.

This applies across the board, regardless of your profession, the size of your paycheque or the number of social media friends and followers you may have. As the late, great Robin Williams once said, expanding on the original wise words first credited to Plato: “Be kind. Always.“

A lovely sentiment, for sure. Unfortunately, it’s one that far too often gets tossed aside in favour of snap judgment, ridicule, scorn and cruelty.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Defenceman Josh Morrissey is entering his fifth season with the Jets.

Which brings me to my point today. Imagine, for a moment, believing Winnipeg Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey is “terrible.” That he is “garbage.” That he’s “phoning it in after the big contract.” That’s just a small sampling of the scorching hot takes I’ve seen in my Twitter feed over the last few months.

They couldn’t be more wrong. And I hope those folks are feasting on a huge helping of humble pie these days after learning about the hell Morrissey and his family were quietly going through last season.

Morrissey's biggest battle

SUPPLIED Winnipeg Jets - Josh Morrissey with dad Tom - summer 2019 - for Mike McIntyre feature / Winnipeg Free Press

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They were opponents he got very familiar with last season, from Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews to Elias Pettersson and those pesky Tkachuk brothers. And a steady diet of Canadian hockey superstars certainly took a toll.

For Josh Morrissey, however, his biggest battle wasn’t happening in the defensive zone, in Connor Hellebuyck’s crease, or while quarterbacking the Winnipeg Jets power play. It was far away from the rink, back home in Calgary, and there was absolutely nothing he could do to stop the inevitable.

His father was dying.

“There’s no doubt it was a challenge. I’m not going to lie,” an emotional Morrissey told the Free Press this week of playing this past season, knowing time with his biggest fan was fleeting and a global pandemic combined with the strict rules governing his profession meant they had to largely stay apart.

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In case you missed my piece in this space last Saturday, Tom Morrissey lost his fight with brain cancer on Aug. 8, just one day shy of his 70th birthday. His death came 11 months after the shocking diagnosis. In our wide-ranging chat, Morrissey didn’t use the private turmoil as an excuse for what he admits was inconsistent and, at times, poor play last year. I’ll do it for him: How could it NOT have impacted his on-ice performance?

This is a player who was literally working out in a barn prior to the start of the campaign, skating alone on a tiny strip of ice rather than his usual group of other Alberta-area players so he wouldn’t risk bringing COVID-19 to his immunocompromised father while he began chemotherapy and radiation. Who played 56 regular-season games, including several in his hometown of Calgary, without his biggest fan in attendance the way he normally would have been. Who could only speak with him on the phone after games, rather than face-to-face, as the terrible disease began to take its toll.

I don’t care what you do for a living — teacher, plumber, letter carrier, stay-at-home parent, accountant or professional hockey player — there’s no easy way, no quick fix, for playing with a heart that is breaking in real time.

It’s one thing to be critical of what you’re seeing on the ice, and I have no issue with those who were debating whether the Jets should have considered leaving Morrissey exposed to the Seattle Kraken this summer, or even explored a potential trade. I don’t agree one bit with those viewpoints, and I expect we’re going to see a highly motivated Morrissey return to form this coming season, especially with some blue-line additions which should give him a more polished partner. However, I respect the right of anyone to have them.

What I have zero tolerance for is when they cross into personal attacks, such as the handful I cited above. Sadly, this follows a familiar script around these parts.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / FREE PRESS FILES Blake Wheeler made numerous public statements including an emotional, 45-minute unscripted conference call with media, in which he admitted to his own privilege and called for change.

There was plenty of ugly vitriol being directed towards Jets captain Blake Wheeler earlier this year, when he didn’t exactly come storming out of the gate to start the 2021 season. Turns out, the veteran was playing with cracked ribs, which would be about as pleasant as getting a tooth pulled without anesthesia. Once it started to heal, Wheeler began to look a lot more like the player we expected to see. And yet I suspect his harshest critics never thought twice about walking back their ugly words.

Same goes for Jets depth defenceman Nathan Beaulieu in the 2019-20 campaign, when he was struggling to deal with the stunning hit-and-run death of his dog just days before it began. His beloved four-legged friend literally died in his arms, a revelation he only made public in a story I penned once the year was over. A year, I should note, which included suffering three different bone breaks of his own. I could point you to plenty of pointed attacks against Beaulieu which make the ones against Morrissey seem gentle.

To be clear, this isn’t just a Winnipeg issue. Case in point, the hate that came Mark Scheifele’s way — and specifically his family’s way — after his ill-advised decision to blow up Montreal’s Jake Evans with a hit in the final minute of their second-round playoff opener earlier this year.

To be clear, this isn’t just a Winnipeg issue.

There’s nothing wrong with being critical of the move. I certainly was, writing that it was a terrible decision that cost his team dearly, but it crosses a line when it becomes character assassination, expanding to extended family members who were getting profanity-filled, threatening messages sent their way, presumably by Canadiens supporters.

This isn’t just a sports issue, either. The Morrissey situation is just a high-profile example of something that happens routinely in life. All too often, we’re ready and eager to write off a fellow human without even knowing the full story of what is happening. The clerk at the grocery store. The server at the restaurant. The motorist in front of you. The co-worker or family member who just doesn’t seem themselves.

Let this serve as a cautionary tale and important reminder of how everyone truly is fighting a battle, especially these days, and why a little kindness, understanding and empathy can go a long way.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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