The Stupidest Bit of Conventional Wisdom Still in Hockey

Jonathan Willis
May 07 2012 09:34AM

Despite the fact that we’re no longer living in the 1950’s, there are still commentators out there devoted to certain maxims of that bygone area. It leads to stupidity in the various mediums where hockey is covered.

Naturally, I’m referring to the outdated notion that nationality has some relationship to character or ability. It doesn’t.

Don Cherry’s the easy target here, but he’s also the wrong target. Despite his impressive pulpit, Cherry’s days of being a major influencer of opinion are all but numbered; he’s a dinosaur, with his coherence fading and his take on the game grounded at least three decades in the past. He’s simply not a credible analyst when compared to the various recently-fired coaches and ex-players that provide expertise at TSN and CBC and Sportsnet.

The real problem are the hockey commentators that are less obviously relics of a bygone era.

Who are they? They’re the commentators that can be heard muttering about Swedes and Danes after a Canucks playoff loss. They’re the people looking at the Radulov/Kostitsyn incident and wondering aloud if the Oilers really want to take a Russian with that first overall pick. They’re the ones who pointedly noted Milan Lucic’s birthplace last year but failed to make mention of it after a goalless first round this year. They’re the ones who talk about “good” Russians and “bad” Russians, but have no similar comments for Canadians.

Because make no mistake – when it comes to lazy, underperforming, underwhelming, or just plain odious hockey players, Canada has contributed its share. Sean Avery, the poster-boy for locker-room disruption in the modern NHL, is a proud native of North York, Ontario. Dany Heatley, the two-time 100-point scorer who barely cracked 50 this year, is a good Western Canadian boy. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, routinely vilified after every Sharks’ playoff exit, represent Ontario and Saskatchewan, respectively. Imagine if Richards and Carter were Mikhail and Ivan rather than Mike and Jeff during the whole ‘dry island’ furor – what sort of commentary would we have heard on Russian players? What sort did we hear on those crazy, partying, Canadians?

Few things beyond the puck and the ice are really black and white in hockey. Reasonable people can disagree on a multitude of points. This, however, is one of those areas where there is a clear, black-and-white answer.

We can note the different job market for young European players, who as a rule are far more willing to accept jobs in Europe than North Americans. It’s a fair point. Of course, when a player comes to North America prior to being drafted and makes it clear in every interview that his only goal is the NHL, it’s less of a fair point, but I digress.

The bottom line is this: the world’s best hockey players have celebrity, fantastic sums of money, and a schedule that includes lots of time in lively cities far from home thrust upon them at a young age. Many, understandably, choose to indulge in the vices afforded by such a life. Some, equally understandably, miss practice or stay out too late or refuse to accept certain restrictions that come with being a real professional.

Canadian, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, American, whatever. Every hockey player-producing nation also produces hockey players that live it up a bit too much, don’t try hard enough, or have other failings.

With Canadian players, it isn’t taken as a commentary on our society as a whole. The actions of Sean Avery don’t reflect negatively on Ryan Smyth. Jeff Carter’s miserable year in Columbus doesn’t make teams think twice about drafting Ryan Murray.

Normally I wouldn't retake this same ground less than two months after making similar points.  But the general tone of playoff coverage has sent me back here, because the same sort of asinine comments keep getting made.

When a commentator takes some misstep by a Russian player and uses it to make a larger point about Russians in general, or keys in on a Swede and comments darkly that he just made an un-Canadian play he’s not telling us anything about Russians or Swedes or even hockey.

The only thing he’s making clear is that he’s willing to make idiotic generalizations.

74b7cedc5d8bfbe88cf071309e98d2c3
Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#51 Oiler Al
May 07 2012, 02:04PM
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Don Cherry, has been irrelivant for many many years now. The only thing current with the guy is the curtain material he calls jackets and ties. Coaches corner is not entertaining nor informative in my opinion.You have one guy babbling and the other nodding his head like bubble head. I think hockey entertainment comes from the ice and information and points of interest come from commentators , panel shows etc.THE WORST WORST PANEL IS J P STOCK , WITH KELLY HURDY ALONG WITH MCLEAN... STOCK IS A BIGGER JOKE THAN CHERRY.

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#52 Fresh Mess
May 07 2012, 02:17PM
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@#40 Reg Dunlop says, "Watch LA's Brown backcheck and compare to Ovechkin.."

You got it baby. Shop local indeed.

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#53 Giant Squid Overlord
May 07 2012, 02:27PM
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BRAVO Willis! Excellent article.

Sometimes NHL commentators and fans make me ashamed by their displays of ignorance and stereotyping. It was refreshing to read this after all the commentary throughout the media and the comments on this site.

Wise words that need to be said and repeated regularly. Thank-you.

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#54 gcw_rocks
May 07 2012, 02:32PM
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Great article! The only thing we should be talking about with Russians in general is the KHL risk (just like risk around players staying in Sweden has come up from time to time around the SEL). The KHL pays well enough to be a material risk to teams drafting russians. I mean, if you could make the same money or more working in your home country speaking your own language, or in Columbus Ohio, which would you pick?

Anything about them being 'soft" or "not committed" or any of that other broad brush crap is a waste of time.

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#55 Rob
May 07 2012, 02:39PM
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What do they say about people who live in glass houses? What a smug self-righteoous article. I've heard lots of references about nationality here and elsewhere as people grasp for something to talk about on these forums. The simple fact is numerous Russian players have failed to honor contracts, been poor teammates and underperformed. Stauffer has repeatedly talked about American collegiate players and their 'soft' play.

You won't have to look far for people with stupid comments to make about nationality!!

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#56 CaptainLander
May 07 2012, 02:44PM
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Well said, well said. All forms of stereotyping need to be removed in all forms of society. What better place to start then something like professional sport that has a wide audience.

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#57 Reg Dunlop
May 07 2012, 03:20PM
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@ Cap'n Lander

Lets start removing stereotyping in the insurance industry. Its not fair that I pay $6,000 a year just because my driving history includes alcohol related indiscretions of Tim Horton proportions. Actually, it is probably based on stats and probability. Just like it is more probable that Yakupov will be a bigger headache than he is worth.

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#58 Reg Dunlop
May 07 2012, 03:29PM
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See what I did there? Young Russians with lots of cash are no more likely to party than American or Canadians. The stereotype of a Russian hockey player boozing more than a Canadian is doubtless false. I know that if instant social media had been available in the '80s we would have seen some atrocities committed by Mess and Andy. Young men will be young men. The difference is the level of commitment to winning. On average, my gut tells me that Canadians have a higher NHL level. Some may argue that Russians have a higher Olympic or WHC level.

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#59 Wäx Män Riley
May 07 2012, 03:46PM
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Fresh Mess wrote:

@#40 Reg Dunlop says, "Watch LA's Brown backcheck and compare to Ovechkin.."

You got it baby. Shop local indeed.

What about Dustin Penner's backcheck?

Didn't he just get blasted in the media last year?

What about Jason Arnott just not being into it?

What about Avery?

Heatly?

Thornton and Marleau?

Lacavalier worrying more about his spring wardrobe than who is winning in the playoffs?

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#60 Reg Dunlop
May 07 2012, 03:59PM
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What about Radulov's backcheck?

There are countless examples of good and bad on every team. On average I prefer Canadian players, as do NHL executives whose opinions count more than yours or mine.

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#61 Oilcan
May 07 2012, 05:11PM
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Reg Dunlop wrote:

What about Radulov's backcheck?

There are countless examples of good and bad on every team. On average I prefer Canadian players, as do NHL executives whose opinions count more than yours or mine.

That's because there is more of them. I don't think its a fair argument. The Russians that are your average 3rd or 4th liners usually stay in Russia its the players with the high end skill that come over and therefore are in the media spotlight.

I would take a Datsyuk on my team anyday. And I am sure if a GM's had a fantasy draft for a one year shot at the cup Datsyuk would be one of the first to go.

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#62 RexLibris
May 07 2012, 05:12PM
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We need to remember that we are discussing the merits and demerits based on cultural bias and nationality. Not race. Race is a social construct and if we are talking about tangible quantifiable aspects of a player, race is a non-starter.

Taking a player's cultural background into account isn't entirely void of merit, but to discount a player based solely on that aspect alone is ridiculous.

What I took away from Willis' article (I don't want to put words in his mouth as to what his intent was in writing it) was that nationality, as a factor in the debate over drafting Yakupov, should be minimalised and other factors need to dominate the conversation.

If the Oilers were to allow themselves to be consumed by the player's nationality then they would be missing the prime task of scouting a player, which is to say observing, calculating and dissecting his strenghts, weaknesses, positional play, intelligence for the game, competitive drive, and so on.

Yakupov is also a Tatar Russian who comes from a predominantly Muslim population. I have no information on his personal religious affiliation but should this have any impact on whether the Oilers draft him? I sincerely hope not.

Why don't we instead turn the conversation back to where it is most fruitful: the relative merits of the Oilers having a third consecutive 1st overall pick and the luxury of not having to necessarily add a franchise talent to the roster.

Playing to win it all at once (in this case drafting the best player available and ignoring the best fit player for a young squad like the Oilers have) isn't always the best solution. Sometimes it results in failure due to overextending in other areas in an effort to compensate. I guess I'm trying to say that the Nash equilibria may enter the discussion as the Oilers no longer have to consider absolute improvement (a unilateral strategy) but can instead consider overall improvement of their larger group.

I think Jonathan Willis might be perfectly qualified to write on this subject: ought the Oilers leave some money on the proverbial table and draft the best player for their team in the next five years rather than simply taking the best player regardless of position?

Put another way, if the Oilers were offered Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, or a young Scott Niedermeyer today, free of charge, who would be the best option? These three are perhaps good comparisons for Yakupov, Galchenyuk and Murray.

My vote is for Galchenyuk as I believe that a 2nd line center is the key missing piece of this puzzle. Defence can be bought, goaltending is mysterious and can come from unexpected sources (see Smith, Mike), wingers we have aplenty.

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#63 BlacqueJacque
May 07 2012, 08:55PM
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The ultimate response to "Russians are soft": Vladimir Konstantinov. The Soviet Scott Stevens.

The penultimate response? Anson Carter.

The only reason there's a "Russian factor" at the draft is because of the KHL and possibility that Russians may choose to play in their home country for big money rather than entry-level contracts. That's it.

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#64 Clyde Frog
May 07 2012, 10:23PM
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Which every kid in the draft has a chance to do regardless of the passport they have.

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#65 Reg Dunlop
May 07 2012, 11:46PM
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@ Clyde Frog

Many great non-Canadian players have passed through the NHL. Salming, a warrior. Larionov, pure class. Fetisov, a monster. Lidstrom, top 5 all time. Many others, too many to count. But, 46 Conn Smythe winners, 43 Canadian, 2 Swedes and 1 Russian. I guess that shows that those voting on the playoff MVP are biased.

I forgot Leetch, one for the US Oh for crying out loud I forgot Thomas, 2 for US and 42 for Canada but you get the idea.

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#66 Reg Dunlop
May 08 2012, 12:01AM
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Oh, also, I don't disagree with the idea of drafting Galchenyuk. We need a big centre and he is American born and trained prior to joining Sarnia. He also chose to play for USA in the Ivan Hlinka tourney, so he should be classed as a North American player. In the intrest of team chemistry going forward, avoid Yak. Just my opinion and I am done beating this dead horse. Good night oil fans.

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#67 Wäx Män Riley
May 08 2012, 12:15AM
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Reg Dunlop wrote:

Oh, also, I don't disagree with the idea of drafting Galchenyuk. We need a big centre and he is American born and trained prior to joining Sarnia. He also chose to play for USA in the Ivan Hlinka tourney, so he should be classed as a North American player. In the intrest of team chemistry going forward, avoid Yak. Just my opinion and I am done beating this dead horse. Good night oil fans.

and

My belief is that Stanley's mug is a dream of every Canadian trained hockey player. It is not the dream of every Euro-trained player. With the end of communism and the increased media exposure of NHL hockey world wide this likely is changing but still I think many Euro players would rather bring Olympic gold home.

and

Canada and the US each have about 500,000 minor hockey players registered. US has 10 times the population. Russia has about 40,000 registered minor hockey players(many more play rec hockey for non-club teams) and 5 times Canada's population.In the last 20 years, 2461 Canucks have been drafted, 1071 Americans,471 Russians, and about 1200 Euros have been selected. Why have scouts chosen Canadians half the time? If Russians are identified as elite potential early and given access to the best resources shouldn't they make up a larger segment of NHL elite if they are equal to Canadian players in terms of skill, desire, character and other unmeasurable intangibles? Is the NHL practicing favoritism based on nationality or does Canada still just produce the best talent combined with those intangibles like commitment to win Stanley (as opposed to winning Olympic or WHC gold)? Watch LA's Brown backcheck and compare to Ovechkin. Thats why in a nutshell the oil have preferred Canadian players in recent drafts and why they,and other NHL squads, will continue to do so. Da da Canada, nyet nyet Soviet.

So you're cool with drafting Galchenyuk?

~Ohhh great, an AMERICAN-born RUSSIAN. I'm sure there is no way that could could be a problem.~

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#68 knobby
May 08 2012, 05:51AM
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If you want to get really anal about political correctness then stop using a player/person's country of origin as an adjective.

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#69 oilersplumber
May 08 2012, 11:22AM
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"stupid conventional wisdow"..........is that not a tad oxymoronic ?

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#70 nathan
May 08 2012, 01:55PM
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If we want to talk about rational behavior diversity is an advantage that increases your ability to evaluate players better than others. For a few teams that could mean scouting Russian players with the same level of focus the Oilers scout the Dub or sometimes scout Finland.

If a team shies away from a player because they worry about retaining him that's another team's chance to acquire him more easily. If American teams prefer US first rounders for ticket sales that means other players are undervalued.

First round you better get to know every individual in depth. Get to know a kid and the people around him and both sides start to see if the narratives about the KHL or about Northern small market teams are dead wrong.

But you can't cover every league to the same level of detail. Once you decide where to look the hardest, more looks leads to can't believe our guy was there in round N picks. And those picks drive the narratives. Narratives don't predict. They just describe past trajectories.

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