The Problem with Tradition™

DISCLAIMER: I wrote this post over the course of three days. It ended up being a lot longer than I had originally anticipated, and I went off the rails in spots. It could probably have used an editor that wasn’t, well, me.  Just an FYI. 

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Driving to work today, I was listening to the radio when an unprecedented event happened (“unprecedented” in the 10 months I’ve lived here, in any case. Sidenote: Jesus Christ, have I really been living in Southern California that long?): The morning talk radio hosts from the L.A.-based station to which I was listening were talking about SoCal sports, and in particular, they were discussing…hockey. No, that wasn’t a typo. They were talking about hockey. Not the Lakers, nor the Dodgers, nor the woes of Anaheim’s sports teams, but hockey. Specifically, the Kings and the playoffs.

At first, I got excited. Listening to hockey talk on my way to work and discussing how awesome the playoffs have been? Hell yes, don’t mind if I do! But then the inevitable happened, as it always does when non-hockey fans try to discuss hockey. See, the problem was that they had a comedian on who was talking sports with them. I know that the job of most comedians these days, and morning talk show hosts in general, is to be an abrasive dick, and that’s fine. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was the comedian wasn’t a hockey fan at all. One of the morning hosts is a legit hockey fan and has rallied ’round the cause of the Kings a few times, and as I listened, he tried to convince the comedian of the legitimacy of hockey, that it had a large number of followers in Southern California, and that there is no sport like it on earth.

But, as it so often regrettably happens when a hockey fan is trying to convert an outsider, he sounded like a desperate campaigner trying to convince the majority of voters that, no, but for real, you guys, Ron Paul really IS legit and more people should be paying attention to him! He actually gave it a solid go for a while, and then the comedian said something that made me cringe, because I couldn’t refute it: “Yeah, but I mean, come ON, you guys had Anze Kopitar on last week and he just sounded…sedated. Same thing with Mike Richards. I mean, it sucks, because these guys are all really good guys, all good Canadian boys ripped from their mothers’ wombs at, like, age 14 and sent to live with some hockey family in the wilds of Canada, and man, they work their TAILS off, but, I mean…in interviews…” Here, he groaned audibly, “Oh, GOD, ugh, in interviews, they just sound so…SEDATED. Just so BORING.”

And there it was. I made a face that was equal parts resignation and “Well, when you’re right, you’re right”. And the morning host simply finished with a lame, “Well…yeah…”

Sedated.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I have my Masters degree in English with a minor background in psych, and marketing is the field that pays my bills. None of this is to impress you (because, really, obscene amounts of student debt, not so impressive), but to put my thoughts in context. The use of words and, in particular, the symbiotic effect words have on human nature and actions are things that I’m paid to spend a lot of time thinking about. Even so, I spend a lot of time thinking about it even when I’m not getting paid for it. It just interests me.

So that was why I found myself, after the comedian’s dagger-true assessment of hockey players in the media, pondering just why it is that the men who play the sport with such passion and anger and joy and artistry and instinct and energy and verve come across as sounding like such automatons in interviews. So many players, I hate to say, are just dead fish in front of a microphone and camera (The only exception being documentary-style media like HBO’s incredible “24/7″ series or “NHL 36″ , but I’ll get to that in a moment). Somewhere, between the ice and the mic, there is a breakdown. The passion just doesn’t translate. If you were to ever invent and then partake in a hockey interview drinking game,  God help you if you chose to drink every time a player used the phrases “We just have to get to our game”, “We just have to play a full 60 minutes”, “We just need to get more shots off and put more traffic in front of the net”, and, the most overused hockey cliché of them all, “We just found a way to win”. Congratulations, you’d be getting charcoal pumped into your stomach by 17:38 of the second period.

So, where does this breakdown stem from?

Unfortunately, from the same place that plays such a large part of what makes hockey so great: Tradition.

Despite being the fastest sport on earth (Close your mouths, Nascar fans – I said “sport”, not “hillbilly go-kart”), hockey is by far the slowest to adapt and make changes borne of necessity. The great “Tradition” of hockey (the way that certain old-school hockey guys speak of it, you can just hear the capitalization in their voices) is what sets it apart from other sports, what gives it legitimacy, honor, history…and also what strangles it. You know what else has great, iron-clad tradition that must never be broken? The British Royalty, which has ceased to have an actual useful role in British politics for decades, and has instead become the figurehead of a dying social ideal that couldn’t figure out how to integrate itself into or function in a modern society. Take notes, NHL, coaches, players, media. Simply put, hockey’s biggest problem is that it can’t get out of its own way.

Hockey has always been a self-policing sport, and, for the most part, it works well. It holds the players accountable to one another, keeps the occasional idiot player in line, and maintains a level of decency and humility among hockey players that the other major sports would be hard-pressed to match, let alone encourage. Despite the controversy over headshots and dangerous hits over the past two seasons, hockey players are by and large a fraternity, and players will respect one another simply because they are a part of that same fraternity. Moreso than in any other sport, hockey embraces the idea that it’s all about the team, not the individual. That it’s about the crest on the front of the sweater, not the name on the back. The on-ice product is a tapestry woven with threads of individual talents and improvisation, held together with an underweave of unspoken rules and implicit understanding.

The problem is that this idea is so pervasive that it influences every aspect of the sport, both on the ice and off. It ceases to be tradition and becomes Tradition™. The nails that stick up have always gotten hammered back down in hockey. Usually, that’s a good thing (See: Veteran players teaching PK Subban a little thing about humility, Sean Avery getting phased out of the league, Matt Cooke getting yoked with a 14-game suspension that subsequently turned his career around), and it does keep the few assholes of the league in check. It’s very much a good thing – when it happens on the ice.

Unfortunately, when this rigid adherence to Tradition™ carries over into on-ice interviews, it ceases to be a force for good, and, instead, gives the NHL diminishing returns. God forbid a player ever candidly speak his mind or say anything critical or controversial. It’s just not done in hockey. Just as players will get smacked down on the ice if they showboat a little too hard, chirp at opposing players a little too long, or otherwise act selfishly and forget it’s not about them but the team, the same dynamic is at work when a player goes off-script in an interview. Inevitably, he gets blasted in the media, usually by the “old school” hockey guys whose greatest fear is forward progress in the game. (I once heard if you look into a darkened mirror and say Mike Milbury’s name three times, he’ll show up in your bathroom to punch you and call you a punkass little whiner, but I digress…)

And it’s a goddamn shame that so many of these dinosaurs still exist in the hockey media, and it’s a shame that the NHL and hockey broadcasting networks are so slow to weed them out, because they no longer speak to the largest demographic of hockey fans. More importantly, the younger followers that comprise the largest demographic of new hockey converts absolutely can not relate to them. You know what our entertainment-driven society CAN relate to? Character. And along with that, characterS. With an “s”.

Which is why I absolutely love John Tortorella. As much as I hate it when he ref-baits, he works the media better than almost anyone else in the sport. He gets people talking and was easily one of the most entertaining people to watch in this season’s “HBO 24/7″ series (Of course, we all know Ilya Bryzgalov’s special brand of frenetic lunacy will never be matched). Sure, some of what comes out of Torts’ mouth has a high probability of being pure, unadulterated bull, but still, damned if you won’t listen to every word because there’s always the chance that he might finally take a journalist’s mic and shove it all the way up into that journalist’s rectum. He doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind, and will just as happily tell the media to go f— itself as he’ll offer praise for one of his players. Rightly or wrongly, he’ll call out everyone, his team, your team, your mom’s team. Torty Badger don’t care, he’ll put you all on blast.

And you know what? I LOVE IT. I love everything about it. Even when Tortorella has said something so infuriatingly hypocritical, I love it, because I’m talking about it. And so are other hockey fans, and the media, and non hockey fans, etc. Even when you’re sitting there going, “What is he even SAYING? What an idiot!” you still watch. And you Facebook about it, and write angry comments in hockey blogs, and watch your Twitter feed blow up. I love it, and so do you, and so does the media.

So why are the actual players held to a different standard? They’re the ones selling the sport; it’s not the coaches doing it. The few players who have stuck out as individuals have largely been labeled as troublemakers, arrogant, combative. It’s rare that a hockey player can speak his mind and not get a ridiculous amount of flak. Look at how much criticism the ever-flamboyant Alex Ovechkin drew with his “hot stick” goal celebration a few years ago, or the rookie Linus Omark’s spin-o-rama shootout move – a thing of beauty! – being criticized by the press.  And you better believe the NHL was quick to slap any outspoken coaches with fines in the games leading up to and during the playoffs. They smacked that imaginary insurgency down HARD. Because, as with all things individual and controversial in hockey, it’s just not done. It’s just not Tradition™. The old school media – and the NHL executives in general – fear individuality in hockey, because they all too quickly equate it with change.

And oh, LAWDY, did they ever put Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s poster child, on blast during his first round playoff series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers. Why? Because he dropped the neutrality and actually spoke his mind, and – perish the thought! – what came out wasn’t perfectly glowing and polished and positive. The normally docile, perfectly polite Crosby slipped his leash for just a few minutes, but it was enough to draw fire from every angle, all because he is the face of hockey and the face of hockey DOES NOT GO OFF-SCRIPT.

As a Penguins fan, I fully agree that Crosby is a boring interview. He absolutely is. He wouldn’t say something exciting unless he tripped and fell ass-backward into it. Throughout the years of his career, with more cameras on him than any other player in the sport, Crosby has never been dynamic in interviews. But that’s not really his fault. He’s been bred from age 15 to be the next great one, the sport’s ambassador, and he started learning the neutral politics of dealing with the hockey media at an age before he even knew how to drive: Don’t say anything that will lose you sponsors. Don’t say anything that will piss people off. Don’t say anything that might cause you to lose viewership. Don’t say anything that could be twisted by the media. Don’t say anything that could be misconstrued by other players or the fans. In other words, Sidney, you are going to be the face of the sport from now on, so it’s better to never say anything interesting at all than to say something offensive and lose viewers and ratings. It’s been beaten into him from an early age, and the personality beaten out. And that’s a shame. It really is. Because on the rare occasions Sidney Crosby, the person, has surfaced and momentarily hijacked the mouth the mouth of Sidney Crosby, the face of hockey, he’s been much more interesting than in the other thousands of bland, cookie cutter interviews he’s given.

Make no mistake, Crosby is the face of the league because that’s what they’ve made him, that’s what he has to be, not necessarily because it’s what he wants. He wants to play hockey and be the best in the world, period. He doesn’t want to be the best interviewee. He is media-friendly and always a perfectly safe interview because he understands his role, he understands that he has to play the game. So he does it. He plays his part and plays it well, but if you think for a second he wouldn’t drop all of that in a heartbeat if he could just focus on the game itself and not the media circus, you’re mad. Love him or hate him, this is a kid who has sacrificed his life for the sport he loves, who has given everything of himself to the NHL. So it’s telling that after the nightmarish year and a half he endured, away from the game, hounded by the media, as sick as fans were of the hype surrounding his concussion, his recovery, his return, a different Sidney Crosby emerged. One that’s a little chippier, a little less careful of his words, a little more don’t-give-a-fuck.

Personally, I am fully enjoying this newer, sassier version of Sidney Crosby.  I love that he seems to be saying more and more to the media and his handlers, “You know what? I just went through the most hellish year and a half of my LIFE, and, frankly, I am all out of patience for this circus. I am done playing the game. I just want to play MY game.”

This isn’t to say he’s suddenly turned into a quote machine (You’ll have to go to Paul Bissonnette’s Twitter feed for that), but he’s definitely not as careful with his words now. So when he got into a scrum during their Game 3 loss to the Flyers, when he knocked Jakub Voracek’s glove away, and when he and Claude Giroux dropped the gloves and went at it as a result, he was, understandably, a little testy after the game, and he uncharacteristically didn’t try to hide it. And why should he have? His team just lost a critical playoff game in embarrassing fashion to their most bitterly hated rivals and he was understandably fuming. His main priority wasn’t playing make-nice with the media crush that surrounded his stall after the game. He was pissed-off. He was tired. He was snarky. He was, in other words…human. And I loved every bit of it. I loved that, for once, his passion and intensity on the ice boiled over into his interactions with the media off the ice.

But the media wasn’t ready for it, and, oh my, was he ever punished for getting lippy with them, for daring to speak his mind. Did they ever spend the next few days criticizing him, questioning his leadership, his abilities to stay level-headed.

What follows is the transcript of the part of the postgame interview that got the media boiling (Credit goes to Puck Daddy for the text):

Q: When you knocked Voracek’s glove on the ice and hit it away was that just out of frustration?

“I don’t like any guy on their team there. It was near me and he went to pick it up and I pushed it.”

Q: Why don’t you like them?

“I don’t like them, because I don’t like any guy on their team so.”

Q: The fighting and such was that you trying to spark their team a little bit?

“Yea, guys are emotional and there is a lot of stuff going on out there. There is no reason to explain. I don’t have to sit here and explain why I pushed a glove away – they are doing a lot of things out there too. You know what, we don’t like each other. Was I going to sit there and pick up his glove? What was I supposed to do?”

Q: You could skate away.

“Skate away? Oh well I didn’t that time.”

That’s it. That’s the outspoken, “controversial” interview that had the media fuming and criticizing his leadership for days afterward. Except it wasn’t all that controversial. He said nothing in that interview that any hockey fan didn’t already know: The Penguins and the Flyers DON’T like each other. They hate each other at best during the regular season, and it deepens to a hatred of a feverish intensity during the playoffs. No, what the media hated was that Crosby had suddenly let his emotions out, and they weren’t pretty. They weren’t easily packaged in a bland soundbite to go down easy for an NHL promo clip.

I will clarify right now, and probably should have done it earlier in this piece, that when I say “the media”, I’m generally speaking of the talking heads of the national media, particularly broadcast TV networks and sports websites. Most local sportswriters tend to take these things in stride – seeing and interacting with the players every day reminds them the players are also human, that they have personalities and humor and fire. It’s generally the national broadcasting teams and sportswriters, so removed from the immediacy of daily contact, that manufacture the unreasonable outrage when these situations arise.

I’d also point out that some people might be reading this as a pointed attack on how the NHL markets itself and handles its business, but it’s not. I believe the NHL and the much-maligned Commissioner, Gary Bettman, have done a fantastic job of marketing the sport and delivering a fantastic on-ice product since the lockout. The NHL is more pervasive on all forms of media than ever before, the HBO series “24/7″ has been an amazing piece of documentary work the past two seasons, the Winter Classic continues to be a huge draw, the NHL  hit a homerun out of the ballpark with the partnership contract they inked with NBC Universal prior to the season, and viewership for the playoffs is up by over 30%, even with all games being televised nationally for the first time in hockey’s history. Even if ESPN isn’t getting it, the rest of North America is – hockey’s hot. It’s a sexy sport, growing in popularity, and more and more people are becoming fans.

It is because of this growing popularity of hockey that the fanatic adherence to Tradition™ will start to become a problem. The times, they are a-changin’, and hockey must change with it or risk killing the momentum it has going for it. The wild success in recent seasons with progressive, alternative forms of media should tell the NHL as much. Hockey players are tailor-made for the unfiltered, documentary-style camera work of “24/7″ or “NHL 36″. When hockey players don’t have to worry about what they say (well…much) or do, they are wonderful in front of a camera. Funny, charismatic, goofy, witty, and completely watchable. Their personalities are allowed to shine, and that’s what makes people tune in to each episode – even non-hockey fans. In turn, they grow interested in the sport, start watching the games, and boom! – the NHL has itself a brand-new hockey fan.

The same goes for social media. There is almost no better Twitter account out there than Paul Bissonnette’s (@BizNasty2point0), and that’s not just among hockey players or athletes in general, but as a whole. Gabriel Landeskog (@GabeLandeskog92) is another great example of a constantly entertaining Twitter feed, and I freely admit that while Henrik Lundqvist (@HLundqvist30) is upbeat and funny, I would follow him even if he were almost catatonic solely on the chance he might post a picture of himself (No shame. Ladies, you feel me on this one). The hockey players I follow in general (Haaaaaay boys, haaaaaay *wink* Call me maybe.) provide the most witty quips on my Twitter feed. And, yes, we’ve seen what happens when an athlete or celebrity forgets that Twitter is a worldwide public forum and inserts his or her foot in their mouth, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Maybe I’m just a Twitter and Facebook junkie, but I find it a shame that more hockey players aren’t Tweeting (Twittering?) on a regular basis.

I feel that hockey has found itself at the point of an identity crisis this season. Simply put, how does hockey define itself? Or more accurately, how will hockey redefine itself?  The NHL wants to be progressive, and most of its players are. Just take the WONDERFUL You Can Play Project (@YouCanPlayTeam) spearheaded by the energetic Patrick Burke (@BurkieYCP) as an example. This project deserves its own post and I’ll be providing one later, but it’s incredible to see NHL players rallying around this initiative to foster acceptance of gay players in sports – and they’re using social media to spread the word. But hockey is also partly held back by its blind devotion to Tradition™ and the hockey dinosaurs that still lurk around the sport and influence the way we perceive it.

The NHL will eventually find a balance, as all things do. But it needs to let its players be human in interviews, on the ice, in traditional forms of media. If the NHL is serious about challenging the other 3 major North American sports for a piece of the ratings pie, it has to take its lead from them, as well. What the other three sports (Particularly the NFL and NBA) do better than hockey is they know how to market their marquee players. They know how to shine their spotlight on the personalities of their sports, because they understand that fans – a demographic that is growing younger and younger each year – want to see that. They want to see the people behind the uniform, the personalities on the bench. The NHL needs to take notes, lots of ‘em, then follow suit. Before the NHL can place itself on the same level pedestal as the other major sports, it needs to embrace a more progressive way of portraying its players. Yoking its best and brightest, slapping muzzles on them and not allowing them to shine is something that needs to change, lest hockey leave itself behind.

Comments

  1. jimidragon says:

    While hockey is a great sport and has a wide and diversified fanbase, it does not have the public hype that football or basketball have, and perhaps only the top-scorers and the coach get face-time on television. I can imagine that getting said players on the radio without any real scripting or the heat of the moment from a game to react, and they are not going to be as charasmatic as players from other sports.

    You explained what causes this is Tradition, so I can only hope that enough players get on social media outlets, post their joys, concerns, praise, and venom. While they may get called out on it by the Tradition-based media and the players get some smackdown, they should realize that the fans are eating it up, as you do, and support them for their humanity and personal character revealed by 140 tweeted characters.

    I am not yet a hockey fan, because in general I just do not watch television, but if I am out and about and a game is on, it will catch my eye. However, I do see the difference between hockey and the other sports, and I support your wishes to see progression in the sport.

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