It was haphazardly presented on live television as a humorous anecdote about a personal experience with a former player, but almost immediately after Kevin Sawyer shared his tale, some were painting it as a grotesque abuse of power.
"Favourite story of Jared Spurgeon," Sawyer began on the Jan. 4 TSN broadcast, when the Winnipeg Jets were playing a matinee against Spurgeon's Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
"He was a 15-year-old. Two months into the season we Saran-Wrapped him to a pillar in the arena, about six feet up in the air. He was tiny. He looked like he was 12."
Spurgeon was a rookie defenceman at the time with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League back in 2005. Sawyer, then 31 and a couple of years removed from his NHL career ending, was an assistant coach with the club. And given the current climate in the hockey world, the optics of what Sawyer shared with his audience were not good.
It certainly sounded like a hazing, especially when applied with a modern filter, not to mention the latest example of hockey's toxic culture rearing its ugly head.
But here's the things, folks: it wasn't. In speaking with people connected to the incident over the last couple of weeks, I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty this whole episode was much different — and much more innocent — than the way Sawyer told it.
“He was a 15-year-old. Two months into the season we Saran-Wrapped him to a pillar in the arena, about six feet up in the air. He was tiny. He looked like he was 12.” — Kevin Sawyer during Jan. 4 TSN broadcast
That may not fit the narrative, or even the agenda, that some clearly have in this case, but it's the truth.
It was Spurgeon's 16th birthday. It was his teenage peers on the team, and not any adults, who hoisted him up and suspended him, fully clothed, in the foyer before practice. Everyone gathered around to sing Happy Birthday, including Sawyer and other team staff. And that was it. Many laughs were had. Spurgeon, who was the most popular kid on the team, was a willing participant and it's something he still chuckles about to this day.
Would such an incident be acceptable here in 2020? That's debatable, as times have certainly changed, and for the better. But in 2005, when this occurred, it wouldn't have caused even the smallest ripple.
Spurgeon, for the record, has declined a request made through the Wild to speak about the matter, but multiple sources have been clear in saying this was not a hazing, but rather a fun-filled celebration.
Of course, that's not exactly how Sawyer portrayed it as he spoke that day with play-by-play man Dennis Beyak, which is where all the trouble began. But rather than immediately fix the verbal faux pas and set the record straight, the issue has been allowed to fester, now going on two full weeks.
Sawyer, his employer and even the Jets themselves have stayed quiet, even as this blew up on social media, and that's created the impression there's something to hide, something nefarious going on behind the scenes.
Public relations 101 would tell you this is the absolute wrong way to handle such a situation, but here we are.
Naturally, I sought out Sawyer for comment, tracking him down this week at his home in Vancouver.
"They're going to let me address this on the air Tuesday," he said. That would be next Tuesday, when Sawyer returns to the airwaves as part of the broadcast of the Jets game in Carolina.
Sawyer has been off the air this past week as the Jets played three straight games at Bell MTS Place. Some have taken that as a sign he's been suspended or even fired. In fact, this was a regularly scheduled week off, with Ray Ferraro working all three Jets games on TSN3, as he does when his busy schedule allows. Sunday's game in Chicago is a Sportsnet telecast.
Sawyer didn't want to get into the details of what he's planning to say on the broadcast.
"I want this story to come out of my mouth first. That's really, really important to me," he said.
Fair enough, but I'd argue the delay means plenty of damage has already been done, even if the only thing Sawyer appears guilty of here is butchering the way he told a story and causing a massive misunderstanding that has been allowed to rage out of control.
"I want this story to come out of my mouth first. That's really, really important to me." — Kevin Sawyer
I'm told by several sources that Sawyer hoped to address the issue earlier, but was advised to hold off. That's wrong, as it's his reputation that has been taking a hit in the process. And, for the record, his employer is Bell Media, not True North. Although he does travel on the team charter, along with the other broadcasters, he's not paid by the team.
By declining to say anything, TSN has hung Sawyer out to dry in this case. They should have to answer for that, especially since they would be the first to jump all over someone else's wrongdoing. A touch hypocritical, wouldn't you say?
The Jets organization isn't without blame, either. They know the true story and should have come to Sawyer's defence, especially since they were, by extension, being vilified in all this. A quick, clarifying statement would have put it all to bed, but, like is always the case with this organization, they opted to say nothing. That's only made the situation worse.
Any thought this might quickly blow over has quickly been proven wrong. Former NHLer Daniel Carcillo, who has helped lead the charge for improved mental-health care for players, tweeted about it to his nearly 100,000 followers. Akim Aliu, who was the victim of a racist tirade from ex-coach Bill Peters, condemned Sawyer.
And the firestorm kicked into even higher gear given that Peters was the head coach of that Spokane club. Where there's smoke, there must be fire, some people concluded.
Only, one thing has nothing to do with the other, here.
Folks have a right to their opinion, of course, but in this case, there are many misinformed opinions. Although there's been some great work done in advancing important causes and creating an environment where players are comfortable sharing their past experiences, it's important not to get into a mob-mentality, rush-to-judgment mindset without knowing all the facts.
Of course, that hasn't exactly been helped here by the cone of silence over all of this. There is plenty of blame to go around, not to mention important lessons to be learned, on how a molehill quickly turned into a mountain.
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.
Updated on Friday, January 17, 2020 at 7:06 PM CST: Final version
9:49 PM: Adds pullquote