The Stupidest Bit of Conventional Wisdom Still in Hockey

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Naturally, I’m referring to the outdated notion that nationality has some relationship to character or ability.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.

  • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

    Great article JW.

    I used to watch Don Cherry every Saturday night when I was younger. I found him entertaining and insightful. Then I grew up and figured out what he was all about. I haven’t watched a coach’s corner in about 15 years.

    It’s always a slippery slope when discussing nationalities, style of play, type of person, etc because it’s way to easy to start generalizing. As Willis points out,a douche bag like Avery shouldn’t have any bearing on how other Canadians are judged.

    It goes both ways too. When the Ward-twitter thing blew up, a black friend of mine was so angry that he went as far as pointing out that it was great that he scored the goal against Thomas, the white goalie who refused to go see Obama, a black president. A couple of us kinda freaked on him, as it was an absolute bonehead thing to say as Thomas made it clear that he wasn’t going to the White House because of his political views and not because Obama is black. We told him that’s it ok to not like someone without being racist.

    The fact is, there will always be douche bags no matter what race, nationality, religion. If you judge an entire race or nationality based on a few douche bags then you become one of the douche bags of your race and nationality.

  • Reg Dunlop

    I have looked for the most updated stats and from what I can see:

    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.

  • Chris.

    Are you saying that Tambo should ignore the possibility that Nail might 1) be actively persued by the KHL, 2)that he might choose the KHL pay day ahead of the Oilers? This opposed to making the same risk assessment on Murray or Galchenyuk.

    If he does not weigh those possibilities is he a Xenophobe?

    This in fact is what Spector has said in interviews with Gregor; You can’t ignore the potential allure of the KHL to Russian born players. The money difference and the culture of the KHL is a world apart, certainly from the AHL or riding the pine in the NHL while you are learning the trade.

    Of course any number of people can take this to far and some afraid of being labelled a xenophobe, not far enough.

    As one other poster noted Europeans have a different mind set to what they value, remember Omark saying that he would rather play for Sweden in the Worlds than for OKC for the Calder. Acknowledging these facts is not Xenophobia it is reality.

    So, getting back to the important question in all this – who should the Oilers pick first? Not quite sure.

  • French Toast Mafia

    Hey JW do you not think that blaming playoff exits on guys like Thornton and Marleau who just simply haven’t played on good enough teams is just as bad as saying that Russians are bad pick ups for teams. Thornton has never been close to as bad as people say he is in the playoffs, people just talk about it because it’s an easy thing to say. Like Gregor mentioned last week Marleau is one of 5 active players to have scored 50 or more playoff goals. There are a lot of things you hear all the time like Russians are bad and “this guy disappears in the playoffs” that are not accurate. People just constantly say it because it makes them sound bold and smart being critical of someone that doesn’t win a cup or is from Russia.

  • French Toast Mafia

    As long as KHL stays in operation it remains a concern . Let us not also forget the NHL is also looking at expansion overseas . Either one could make signing outside current NHL dicey down the road . Safe bet would be stick with N.American if possible .

  • Quicksilver ballet

    This type of thinking reminds me of unions. For the most part unions do some positive things but they’re also there to protect some who aren’t an ideal fit. If you need someone to insulate you from the conditions of the workplace/market, you’ll soon be weeded out. Grapes is a non union kind of guy. Sink or swim based on your own abilities. Dons methods/ways would still work surprisingly well today, despite what the pencilnecks think.

  • Banger

    “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.”

    Don gives his opinion and holds nothing back. I respect that. I find him very refreshing to most of the crap that people throw out there and try and make it a story.

  • Magnum

    Right, national identity has nothing to do with forming a person’s thoughts, ideas, and personality. But for some unknown reason we have the best hockey players per capita in the world… must be a coincidence, not related to nationality, geography or anything like that, totally unrelated.

    I like JW’s articles about numbers better.

  • stevezie

    It is perfectly sensible to examine all variables when you are dealing with an extremely valuable pick that could be leveraged to fill several glaring holes in your line up in one transaction.

    I have seen too many bad attitudes, and poor commitment levels from too many Russian scorers over the last 25 years. Gritty role players and defensive specialists it doesn’t seem to be anymore of a problem than with any other nation. It’s the hotshot scorers.

    Of course there have been many great Russian players and no one is questioning their ability. Ability alone will not win cups.

    I would have Larionov, Tony Semenov, Vlad Konstantinov or Ulanov on my team any day.

    Kovalchuk, Mogilny, Kovalev, Radulov etc I could do without. I wouldn’t have Avery, Heatley, Petr Klima or several other types on my team either.

    I think the scouts had better get a very good read on this kid’s personality and character before they take him in exchange for the first over all draft pick. Especially when you consider his diminutive size and the lure of the KHL.

    Would I draft this kid in the top ten? Sure I would. But first overall I think there is a better way to go.

    You obviously disagree with me Willis, that’s fine, but spare me the politically correct sanctimony.

  • stevezie

    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.

    • Wax Man Riley

      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?

  • Giant Squid Overlord

    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.

  • Giant Squid Overlord

    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.

  • Giant Squid Overlord

    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!!

  • CaptainLander

    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.

  • Reg Dunlop

    @ 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.

  • Reg Dunlop

    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.

  • Reg Dunlop

    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.

    • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

      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.

  • RexLibris

    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.

  • RexLibris

    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.

  • Reg Dunlop

    @ 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.

  • Reg Dunlop

    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.

    • Wax Man Riley

      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.~

  • stevezie

    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.