As teachers would drone on about math or history or something utterly irrelevant to his future NHL career, the boy would take out his loose-leaf binder and practice his autograph. Bold. Distinctive. Legible. Not only would the world know his name, it would be able to read it. Skating, shooting, stickhandling, checking, signing ... even at 11 he wanted to be the whole package.
Move ahead a dozen years.
On a misting Monday in January the Bruins assemble at the White House, in the East Room, with its gold brocade and imposing chandeliers. The boy with the practiced penmanship is positioned at the end of the first row, where the 5'9" guys stand, and the President of the United States is saying, ...
"Brad Marchand went into the season playing on the fourth line, but the Little Ball of Hate shrugged off the rookie jitters and—" Barack Obama wheels to locate him, "What's up with that nickname, man?—scored five goals in the last five games of the final series ... to lead the Bruins to the championships."
Even before Obama appropriated a label most memorably bestowed on 522-goal scorer Pat Verbeek, Marchand had a surfeit of nicknames. He has been called Squirrel (a fan yelled it during the national anthem when Marchand was in the minors), Weapon of Mass Distraction (by a Philadelphia announcer), Tomahawk (in youth hockey he whirled and two-handed a kid over the head with such force that Marchand cracked his full-face shield), Rat (by practically everyone), Pigeon (a rat with wings), Brat (by Bruins coach Claude Julien), Nose Face Killah (a Boston website, playing off rapper Ghostface Killah and saluting Marchand's prominent nose) and other names the President would not utter within earshot of Sasha and Malia.
Chippy and lippy, Marchand gives as good as he gets. After he earned a five-game suspension last month for a clip on Sami Salo that left the Canucks' defenseman concussed, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said, "Someday he's going to get it. Somebody's going to say, Enough is enough, and they're going to hurt the kid because he plays to hurt players." Marchand says now, "If Vancouver kept their mouth shut, which they rarely do, I don't think there would have been as much publicity about the hit and don't think there would have been as long a suspension."
You can return fire around the rink, but there is no riposte when the Chirper in Chief is giving you the business. Sweat beaded on Marchand's forehead when Obama mentioned his name. He blushed conspicuously.
"It really caught me off guard," he says later in the White House's Diplomatic Reception Room. "I almost blacked out there [but] it was all in good fun."
The Stanley Cup champions' traditional visit with the president roiled America because Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, declined to join his teammates at the White House. But the most astonishing news of the visit might have been that Marchand did not start a pillow fight in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Boundaries shift. Limits are negotiable. Ethics are situational. The gamut of acceptable behavior in the NHL is so elastic that there are times when a 214-page rule book seems more like a compilation of helpful suggestions. Marchand operates in that ambiguous, lightly regulated postwhistle universe outside the normal time-space continuum of an NHL game. He agitates. He provokes. He drags his fingernails on the blackboard. After a whistle, Marchand figures he has 10 seconds. Maybe 15. This is when "a dirty little bastard," in the words of one prominent and admiring Eastern Conference forward, colors outside the lines.