Fan Favourite

Photo credit:Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
When it comes to fans and the players that they cheer for you can always count on certain things … there are certain players who will always be beloved by the fans and there will be certain players who will be scorned and in both cases this adoration or disdain often will have nothing to do with the actual value of the player to winning.
As an aside there will also always be fans whose likes and dislikes border on the weird … I knew a guy who was a Blues fan because his favourite player was Inge Hammerstrom. I also knew guys (a lot of guys) who would rather have Wendel Clark on their team than Wayne Gretzky …
Everyone loves the Superstar but that’s too easy … cheering for Conor McDavid and his otherworldly skills is like being a Habs fan in the 70s or a fan of the Yankees or Manchester United in their heyday. The Artist (think Ales Hemsky) is a player who has his following but also his detractors.
Think … the Thumper. The UnderDog. The Everyman. These are the players who are, if not universally loved, then certainly the favourites of most fans. And on the flip side … the Overpaid, the Subtle and the Skilled but Soft.
Let’s start with the latter group first of all.
The Overpaid – For some fans every hockey player is overpaid. Everyone knows a guy who says ‘I would play for free’ which I always get a kick out of because that’s really dumb. Nothing sours a fanbase on a guy quicker than when he suddenly gets paid. Remember Shawn Horcoff? Here was a terrific player, a heart and soul guy who worked his ass off and was a terrific captain for many years. As soon as he signed his big contract a large number of fans turned on him because in their eyes he was not worth the money.
The Subtle – You can’t win without scoring goals but there is a lot to the game of hockey that does not show on the scoresheet. Patrice Bergeron has always produced offence but he is like an iceberg … so much of his value (and what makes him probably a top-five player of his generation) lies in the little things that he does on the ice that leads to team success. On a micro level (and hold your fire I am not comparing Jesse to Bergeron) a guy like Jesse Puljujarvi is a guy like this. He drives play and does a ton of little things that help the team win but a large part of the fanbase despise him … why? Because things like great positioning don’t show up on the scoresheet. (Of course, if Jesse scored some he would help his cause …)
The Skilled but Soft – you can put this one in air quotes because pretty well any player who is in the NHL is a hundred times tougher than you, you couch potato. They play through pain that we could not imagine and deal with angry hopped-up opponents and their sticks, elbows and fists on a nightly basis. So when I say soft this is the fan’s perception. The puck-moving defenceman is a favourite target here … Oilers’ fans love to hate guys like Poti, Gilbert and Petry, guys who don’t separate forwards from their faculties every time they come down the ice. Never mind that a guy like Tom Gilbert blocked more shots than almost anyone in the league for years (the joys of playing heavy minutes on a garbage team) and dealt with a bad back for much of his career amongst other injuries. Again … I am talking about perception here.
There is a lot of overlap here too … players who subtly make a big difference to winning are often players like the puck-moving defenceman who creates offence and changes the game with his ability to head man the puck. These players get paid because they have value but their counting stats don’t blow you away .. that first pass may trigger the offence but it does not make it to the scoresheet and thus to the layman who does not see a sixty-point defenceman, that player is overpaid.
Now on the flip side.
The Thumper – everyone loves the guy who hits and fights. It’s one of the reasons that Darnell Nurse is so popular and why Gordie Howe is Mr. Hockey. Howe did not have to hit or fight much because he was so fearsome … a vicious and dirty thug whose gentle off ice persona distracted from the fact that there was nobody meaner who ever played the game. Fans love guys like Nurse and Evander Kane because they bring to the rink an edge which nearly every player used to have (in the 50s and 60s even the star players were noted for using their sticks and elbows with abandon, you could not survive otherwise) but which now has mostly disappeared from the modern game.
The Underdog – the guy who was a late draft pick, the undersized, the guy who succeeds despite a clear lack of elite skill. Everybody loves an underdog. Everyone!
The Everyman – The guy who apparently does not have a plus level skill but who is hugely successful despite this, mostly because of his work ethic. Think Ryan Smyth (although Smyth was actually an excellent hockey player) … Smyth was an elite grinder and was beloved because he would go into the corners and to the front of the net with abandon. The fact that he scored 90% of his goals from about two feet out helped too … every fan would see him tap another one in and say ‘I could do that’ … Ales Hemsky’s elan and genius was far beyond anything a mere mortal could imagine doing and so he never received the love that he deserved.
There is a reason that a guy like Wendel Clark holds an oversized place in Leafs’ lore … an undersized guy who laid out opponents with huge hits or his fists, the big wrist shot, the aw-shucks persona … Sundin, Matthews, Marner, even Doug Gilmour, all far superior players, were never as adored as a guy who couldn’t check his hat and had Cy Young like numbers most of his seasons in the NHL. One of my favourite players of that era, Steve Larmer, was an unreal player who could do everything but if the Leafs had ever traded Clark for him straight up Leaf fans would have burned Maple Leaf Gardens to the ground. Funny huh?
This all brings us to a guy who when he signed with the Oilers I told fans they would love … Zach Hyman. And of course, he is loved, moreso as he puts up a career year. Hyman works like an animal. He always has. He is relentless on the ice and the fans love nothing more than a guy who gives a hundred percent effort at all times. That effort extends to the off-season as well. Reminiscent of Crosby talking about how one summer he worked on faceoffs constantly because it was a perceived weakness in his game, Hyman has gone from being a grinder with hands of stone (seriously, his first couple of years with the Leafs he missed so many gimmes while playing with Matthews that it was a running joke) to a guy who can create offence and finish at a high level. How? Because he worked at it.
What is ironic about Hyman is that he is the ultimate overdog when it comes to his background. Hockey has changed so much at the minor level, not for better, as it is expensive, so expensive that elite hockey is beyond the reach of most families. Most NHL players come from at least middle class backgrounds, many from wealth but few, if any, from as much money as Hyman. His father was heavily involved in minor hockey here in Toronto and by heavily involved I mean he owned many of the minor clubs in the city.
So for Zach Hyman, at least in his youth, he had to deal with the whispers that he was only on teams because of his old man. And I suspect that this motivated him more than anything. Ironic isn’t it? His motivation was not growing up in poverty or overcoming adversity but rather that to prove that he was not on the team because of who he was … by working harder than everyone else nobody could say anything about him. Amazing hey?
Funny stuff.

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