It was another weekend of controversy for embattled NHL analyst Mike Milbury, and NWHL Players’ Association head Anya Packer says she’s ready to step in.
The former Bruins bruiser and longtime NBC commentator lambasted Boston goalie Tuukka Rask for opting out of the postseason hours before Game 3 between the Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes. In a short statement, Rask, who’s the father to a newborn and two young girls, said his family is currently more important to him than hockey. The NHL is running two bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, where players are isolated from their families. While the stringent measures are working — the NHL has managed to keep the coronavirus out of its playoff bubbles — it’s understandable if some players are harboring mixed feelings about being separated from their loved ones in the midst of a pandemic.
But to Milbury, Rask’s unexpected departure is inexcusable. Millbury demeaned Rask for his decision, calling him a “nobody.” (It’s worth noting, Rask’s teammates have offered him their unabashed public support.)
“Nobodies simply opted to leave the bubble just because they didn’t want to be here and they needed to be with their family,” Milbury said. “I would’ve not have done it, the rest of the league’s players have not done it.”
Mike Milbury on Tuukka Rask: “Nobodies simply opted to leave the bubble just because they didn’t want to be here and they needed to be with their family. I would’ve not have done it, the rest of the league’s players have not done it.” #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/6Hc2tnuHVk
— NHL Watcher (@NHL_Watcher) August 15, 2020
It was a reductive take from Milbury, who often spews sexist tropes and demeans players for not playing through injuries. Earlier this month, Milbury compared the atmosphere of NHL bubble games without fans to women’s college hockey, insinuating nobody cares about watching women play.
Packer has had enough. On Twitter, the director of the NWHL Players’ Association and former Connecticut Whale offered up her services to NBC Sports, touting her experience as color analyst for the Metropolitan Riveters.
To Outsports, she explained why she thinks Milbury’s commentary is out of step with the current direction of hockey.
“I think everyone has a time when they’re really on top, and that’s great for everybody,” Packer said. “But I think at the ripe old age of almost 70, his takes are slow and he’s just not current and he’s not adapting with the culture that the NHL should be adapting towards. We have to continue to change and provide new analysis that’s not only relevant to the game, but relevant to the world, and I think he’s missing in both areas right now.”
In the midst of a cultural reckoning, the NHL, and the hockey world at large, is grappling with longstanding issues ranging from the sport’s lack of diversity to its homophobic culture. For the first time, five NHL players knelt during the national anthem before their first games in the bubble, including Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, who delivered a stirring pre-game speech denouncing racism.
Out former professional hockey player Brock McGillis has called on the league to prioritize changing player culture, and tweeted Saturday Milbury is indicative of regressive viewpoints that permeate through locker rooms.
“You wonder why hockey players say nothing and all act the same,” he wrote. “Guys like this engrained it into them.”
Earlier this year, polarizing NHL analyst Don Cherry was fired by the Canadian broadcaster Sportsnet for making divisive remarks about immigrants on-air. It was the latest in a long string of controversies for Cherry, who calls people who ride bicycles “pinkos” and frequently disparages European-born players. Though Milbury’s indiscretions haven’t risen to those levels, Packer says his proclivity to spout insults is incongruous to the goal of diversity.
“When you have someone who’s the old-time face of hockey, when hockey changes its face, I think everything needs to change alongside it,” she said.
As a broadcaster herself, Packer knows the job isn’t easy. She spent last season as the full-time color commentator for the Metropolitan Rivers, which was a unique experience. Her wife, Madison Packer, plays on the team. One time, she wished Madison good luck, a definite no-no. (Her exact words were, ‘good luck, babe.’)
Packer also knows how easy it is to slip up. She’s used to referring to blue liners as “defensemen,” regardless of their gender. But on an NWHL broadcast, the term is unacceptable.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap, I didn’t even think about that,’” she said. “I was misidentifying gender roles of the women on the ice, and I’m a woman. I was like, ‘Shit! I’m such a terrible girl!’”
After retiring from the ice, Packer says announcing helps her still feel intimately involved with the sport. Last season, she had the opportunity to call games on Twitch, reaching over 8 million viewers. It gave Packer real experience about speaking to a diverse audience, since not everybody watching the games possessed an intimate knowledge of hockey.
“It was definitely a learning curve to not be clunky and not to be weird, but also provide insight into what’s happening, and analysis for those who don’t already know,” she said. “If you explained icing every time, those who already know would get annoyed and say, ‘stop!’ So a lot of it was learning how to integrate education for the game, as well as analysis into what the players are doing each day.”
With Packer expecting to give birth to the couple’s first child next month, she’s focused on more than her broadcasting dreams right now. But she says she’s ready if the opportunity arises. She lives in Stamford, Conn., where NBC Sports is located.
It would be a short walk to the studio — hypothetically speaking, of course.