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Naturally, I’m referring to the outdated notion that nationality has some relationship to character or ability.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

  • stevezie

    Very good article JW. I think some (a lot?)of it is underpinned by insecurities. KHL can pay. Many other countries are producing many of the best players, be it in goal, forward or D. Gotta tear’em down.

  • stevezie

    Datsyuk or Malkin can play on my team any time. Igor Ulanov was a warrior.

    My concern with picking a Russian is simply that with the advent of the KHL they now have a well paying option closer to home in a less physical league (unless you’re talking about Radilov’s coach). Yakupov and Grigorenko have made it clear that their intentions are to play in the NHL.

    On a side note, looking at religious background rather than nationality, if Nail is an observant Muslim and avoids alcohol he’s a good bet to not pull an all nighter during the playoffs.

  • stevezie

    I think Cherry has reined it in quite a bit over the last decade. Relevence aside, he’s not longer the leader of this movement. His Ontario arguments had more to do with fans than who racism, I thought.

  • Zamboni Driver

    The Don rules. My wife watches little to no hockey, but she has to watch the Don on Saturday nights with me to see his suit. Its like hockey roadkill. She also is proud to be a fellow fabricland card carrying member with the great Don.

    Watching the Don for hockey analysis is like watching Oprah for spiritual advice. Its going to be a wee bit out there at times. The Don at least always has an opinion. The Don`s opinions come from his gut, hes not a some well connected media hack like Darren Dreger who can hardly form his own opinion on anything.

    Love him or hate him, hes still the most popular, and unreplacable person on HNIC. Long live the Don.

    And lets just draft the Yak.

  • Badger

    Birthplace when judging character is silly.

    However, due to the KHL I think birthplace when assessing risk is legitimate.

    The Russians are in an unique situation in that they can make as much money back home as they can in NA.

    It can be a difference maker and even the threat of going to the KHL when it comes to negotiating the 2nd contract or worse free agency is problematic when dealing trying to manage the cap.

    And in Edmonton’s situation atleast 3 other elite talents that you have to keep happy.

  • TwoSkidoos

    Agreed. Don Cherry has to go, he’s a relic and offers very little by way of constructive insight into the game of hockey.

    Plus he’s a dink to Ron MacLean.