Brad Marchand, second-line left winger and first-rate menace, isn’t the first NHLer to be known as the “Little Ball of Hate.’’ Retired forwards Pat Verbeek and Ray Ferraro once carried the identical nickname, and like the belligerent Marchand, both were well-versed in the fine art of agitation.
For all its scrubbed-up, new-age correctness, today’s NHL retains some of its dirty edge from decades past. The Bruins’ 26-year-old Marchand, though hardly the biggest or baddest of the modern-day brutes, has elbowed, face-washed, and trash-talked his way to a prominent place among today’s gallery of rogues.
“It’s not the same as it used to be,’’ lamented Marchand the other day after practice, noting how in the last 2-3 years on-ice officials have kept their eyes peeled for his Puck’s Bad Boy ways. “I used to be able to get away with a lot more. It seems like I am getting called for every little thing right now.
“But, yeah, it was definitely fun while it was going on.’’
In the world according to Brad Marchand, he’s really not so nasty or nefarious, instead just a small guy (a touch under 5 feet 9 inches and around 185 pounds), playing the way he must in a big man’s game to maintain a living that pays him a generous $4.5 million a season.
As a kid growing up in the Canadian Maritimes, he initially didn’t play this way, not until he missed out on a mid-teen growth spurt and had to seek other means to stay in the game. Lacking inches and pounds, he improvised with spit and vinegar, all the while developing a scoring touch that this season has him leading the Bruins in goals (15).
“When I was working my way up through atom, peewee, and bantam, I was as big as everyone else,’’ he recalled. “I played a very physical game, but I still put up a lot of points. I agitated as I got older, when everyone started to get a little bit bigger. I never really lost that.
“To be at the top of your game, I think you have to be emotional. And for me, that’s when I work best — not when I’m mad, but intense.
“You’re physical. You’re on the edge. You’re playing hard and chippy and making plays. That’s when I feel I’m at my best.’’
Marchand recently served the second suspension of his six-year career, the league kicking him to the sidelines for two games for a dangerous takedown of Rangers forward Derick Brassard at the Garden Jan. 15. In rulebook terms, Marchand was guilty of “slew footing,’’ using one’s skate to upend an opponent, particularly taboo because of the injuries it might impose on its unsuspecting, oft-defenseless victim.
It was not a new transgression for Marchand, who was once before fined for the same act and, according to Boston coach Claude Julien, earlier this season warned by the league to knock it off.
“I don’t want to be a crybaby or anything,’’ the 6-1 Brassard noted that night, “but it could have been dangerous.’’
The Bruins have employed a bountiful cast of edgy, scurrilous craftsmen through the decades, but few as offensively gifted as the Li’l Ball o’ Hate. Two with such credentials in recent decades would be Ken Linseman and Terry O’Reilly. Linseman, known as “The Rat’’ for his devious on-ice antics, would be the closer comparison to Marchand.
O’Reilly, a team captain and later coach, was a vital contributor on offense, but he was a feared, ferocious fighter who took on the game’s toughest customers. Antics perpetrated by the likes of Linseman and Marchand would have sent the noble warrior O’Reilly into a fist-throwing rage.
Marchand rarely drops his gloves, his mission not to knock anyone out (save perhaps with an overzealous slew foot), but to knock them off their games, goad them into bad plays and penalties.
“Other teams hate his guts,’’ noted one seasoned NHL scout. “A guy like Steve Downie is feared, but teams know he’ll step up and fight somebody. There’s a level of respect that way.
“The stuff Marshy does, he will just piss you off, piss you off. He’s the kid in the back of the class throwing spitballs and laughing.’’
Downie, a Pittsburgh Penguins forward, is similarly downsized (5-11, 190), yet leads the league in penalty minutes (169) this season. Quick-tempered and ever-eager to fight, he is decidedly less calculating and conniving than Marchand. He also doesn’t have Marchand’s scoring touch.
Therein lies the trick in framing Marchand in the discussion of the game’s most hated and dastardly characters. It’s a varied lot across the NHL’s 30 teams. For all his Li’l Ball o’ Hatedness, which could fit him in a group with the likes of, say, Zac Rinaldo (Flyers), Steve Ott (Blues), Raffi Torres (currently out of work), Matt Cooke (Wild), and Patrick Kaleta (Sabres), Marchand sets himself apart because he is a legitimate top-six forward, far more a thorn in the side than an outright thug. Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher (a feisty 5-9) is perhaps the best pound-for-pound comparison for size, style of game, and overall effectiveness.
“Kind of like Matt Cooke, you’re not going to turn Marchand into Mr. Goody Two Shoes,’’ said former Bruins coach Mike Milbury, now an NBC Sports Network commentator, praising both Marchand’s scoring ability and his smarter, restrained on-ice approach the last few years. “He’ll always have some reversion to his former self with stuff like the slew foot.
“But if he can control it in a fashion that intellectualizes it, to where he thinks, ‘OK, now it’s time for me to do what I do best — be obnoxious!,’ that’s a very valuable commodity. It can be disruptive, annoying to teams that are not disciplined enough to avoid it.’’
It’s the same input Marchand routinely hears from Julien, who first used him as a fourth-liner when Marchand entered the lineup as a rookie in the 2009-10 season. Julien, who with a smile notes that Marchand sometimes even gets under his skin, sometimes has benched him during games because of selfish, undisciplined play.
But overall, Julien wishes more players would display Marchand’s edge and deliver his points. He has told him that, time and again, in one-on-one meetings, at times having to raise his voice to make the point: be aggressive, but be disciplined.
“To be honest, I don’t think it will ever disappear,’’ said Julien. “It’s the element in him. It’s kind of part of his DNA. I’ve learned to deal with it, kind of manage it.’’
One of Marchand’s drawbacks, noted Julien, is a desire “to have the last word,’’ especially in on-ice scrums when pushing or chirping at other players, or lipping off around on-ice officials.
“I’ve often told him, ‘When the referees get in there, and they say it’s enough, you get out of there,’ ” said Julien. “ ‘If you don’t, you’ll get in trouble.’
“He’s done a great job in the past of getting under certain people’s skin, really throws them off their games, and often they are important to the other team. So that part is fine.’’
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said Marchand’s name often comes up in league GM meetings. Fellow GMs, said Chiarelli, make a point of telling him that they don’t like some of his antics, and he in turn sometimes tells them the same thing about their scoundrels.
“Generally speaking, these players who play an agitative style, when they’re on your team, you like them,’’ said Chiarelli. “You see how they could piss off the other team, piss off the other coach, piss off the other manager.
“When you’re in with the GMs, you understand, because you’ve got a guy and this guy’s got a guy. With Marsh, he’s a genuine, good guy, so you feel good about going to bat for him. And you feel good, too, because he’s a valuable member of the team.
“He’s a good player. He’s an undersized player. So he has to play with some chutzpah. And he’s an agitator. So it’s a complete package.’’
Verbeek, the original “Little Ball of Hate,’’ wrapped up his NHL career in 2001-02. Feisty and potent, the onetime Whaler winger was among the game’s most prolific agitators, finishing with a bountiful 1,063 points in 1,424 career games. He not only knocked opponents off their games, he knocked pucks into the net — for a total of 522 goals.
“Heck of a player,’’ said Chiarelli. “Terrific player. If Marsh could have a career like that, I’d take all the other stuff with it.’’
In January 2012, following their Stanley Cup triumph the previous spring (Marchand a vital 19 points in 25 postseason games), the Bruins visited the White House. President Obama, speaking from his podium, broke into a wide smile when noting the Cup contributions of the “Little Ball of Hate’’ as he read from a prepared speech.
“What’s up with that nickname, man?’’ asked the leader of the free world.
Yeah, what about it? A Globe reporter pinned it on Marchand earlier that season, well before the Bruins and Canucks hooked up in their emotional, at times hateful seven-game Cup Final series.
“I hear the nickname all the time,” said the Little Ball of Hate himself. “It’s always the topic of conversation. You know when the president announces something like that on national TV, then it’s going to get some attention.
“To this day, people call me that all the time when I am walking down the street or at the rink. It’s definitely a cool thing that comes with some great memories.’’
Irrepressible, ever-nasty, No. 63 in your Bruins program, Brad Marchand, the Little Ball of Hate.
“Guys punching each other after every whistle,’’ he said, still relishing the 2011 Cup series with Vancouver. “There was some spears, slashes . . . it was getting pretty dirty. But I think that’s what playoff hockey is supposed to be, and when you get to the Cup, it makes it all the more glorious.’’
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.