Matt Read (@mreader24) checks his Twitter on during a game and then cries on the inside when you say cruel things to him. (Okay, not really, this is during the All Star Skills Competition.)

I literally cannot fathom being a professional hockey player: willingly putting ones body in danger, waking up sore every day, getting pummeled by 90 MPH shots (and not screaming, “OUCH! THAT HURT!” every time), plus having to be that competitive and that UP for every game.

My Type B-verging-on-C personality, my fear of pain and injury, and my negative rating on the Scale of Athleticism all lead me to look at pro players on the ice (and especially in the playoffs) and see superhumans.

So, the most surprising thing to come out of being credentialed media and talking to players after games is that most are smaller, thinner, and more soft spoken than I expected. They have ice bags strapped to body parts, black eyes, and butterfly bandages on lacerations.  They pause before speaking, not always because they don’t know what to say, but because they’re exhausted.

It’s in this setting that the cape comes off and players become at least a little human to me.

Still, I struggle with the juxtaposition between this average-sized, mellow young man talking into my micro-recorder, with the guy I just watched for 60 minutes, barreling through defenders, crushing and being crushed, processing the game at a speed I can’t even imagine, and giving life to hockey like a giant.

So it’s understandable when people aren’t 100% in touch with the reality that players are made of blood and flesh and bone and brain and heart. They experience fear and joy and pain and distractions just like us mortals.

The fact that, in NHL circles, some of them are making more money per year than many of us will make in a lifetime further serves to put players on this weird, not-really-one-of-us pedestal.

I have to assume it’s always been this way. From our couches, athletes are just two-dimensional characters playing out the story: heroes and villains, sometimes switching roles, sometimes being both at once, depending on who you ask.

Back in the day, you’d scream at the TV, curse their mamas, lob threats of fiery demise over the coffee table and then take out the trash and go to bed. Now, with social media taking over everything, we have access to boo and hiss directly at players, in real time, right to their phones and computers.

In these venues, it’s often all too apparent that a portion of fans either don’t get the concept that there’s a person at the other end, or they just don’t give a shit.

And I’m not just talking about the kind of hate aimed at Washington’s Joel Ward this past week, which is a whole different (disgusting) animal. I’m talking about, people who just spew derision and hate at players because they have a venue to do so.

Check out a player’s Twitter mentions after they do something a little shady on the ice. The venom pours in. It will make you sad for humanity, I guarantee it.

And it’s not just players. I see it happen to writers and analysts and team representatives. Billy Jaffe, who is one of my favorite analysts on NHL Tonight and I would very much like to have a beer with him, actually re-tweets his “hate mail,” which cleverly neutralizes it, but probably also encourages it a bit.

It happens on Facebook, too, even to the nicest guys. The Wild wished poor, eternally concussed winger Pierre Marc Bouchard a happy birthday on their wall this week. They had a big picture of him at a player event where a butterfly landed on his shirt. He’s THAT nice of a guy that a delicate creature like that would go, “Yeah, I think I’ll rest on you, little bald fella.”

The first comment – the very FIRST ONE! – was some derisive thing about how he’s just going to get hurt again next season and be out. Seriously, jerkface? The guy has been suffering from concussions for 2 seasons and you can’t be nice just this once?

I’m not innocent, of course. I’ve indirectly taken guys to task many times (never to their Twitter accounts), and probably in ways that were too harsh for the circumstances. (I’m sorry, Benoit Pouliot. Sorta.) But I’m trying at least, to think, “Is this analysis I can stand behind or am I just being a shithead?” (Or, “Is this funny enough that it’s worth being a shithead?” which also passes muster if the answer is yes.)

Every time I see the Golden Rule being taken out back and shot by some blowhard, I get this wave of visceral ickiness washing over me. It feels like we as fans are abandoning our own humanity when we think we can just say whatever abusive thing we want to a total stranger, just because they play a game we care about.

I’d like to think we hockey junkies are better than that, more decent than that (mainly because our lot is comprised of so many Canadians), but I suspect I’m just being naive.

Look, I’m not advocating for blowing smoke up someone’s butt or being a bunch of glassy-eyed Pollyannas. Just, you know, consider for a second that another human is at the end of that angry message you’re firing off into the abyss… and your name is attached to it. Doesn’t it just feel like bad mojo?

Maybe that’s why hockey was destined to come to the South, where the saying is, “If you don’t have something nice to say, say it behind their backs.”

P.S. Also, stop asking for retweets, for the love of God.

Comments (11)

  1. Well – the truth is that these players have been doing it since they were five years old. During this time, their determination, immunity to pain, acclimation to gut-wrenching fatigue, and incredibly high level of skill and timing have all been built-up and assembled one brick at a time, to create the now-finished product. Go to some rinks and watch the 5 year olds – that’s where everyone of these players came from.

    • Oh, I’m not questioning how guys survive (I just know I couldn’t). The point is, even though they seem super human, they are in fact human and sometimes fans need a reminder of that.

      • My point as well, m’ame. These guys did not arrive with their grit, determination et al, They took years and years to get there, yet are still just boys playing a game.

  2. I try, and sometimes fail, to remember when I’m yelling at a player because of a bad play or something, that that’s someones baby. Some poor woman had to give birth to that boy, raise it, teach it things, buy it stuff…. etc. That’s someones son, brother, grandson, boyfriend, husband out there. So be nice. … Except to Matt Cooke, he sprung fully formed from the devils brain so you can be mean to him.

    • Not the Cookie Monster! I think yelling at the TV is different, he/she just means people send hate mail so easily because we are behind a screen and do not see the faces and the lives of the players we are insulting.

    • Actually, Matt Cooke was at a hockey school years ago in Wellington Ontario that my 12 year-old son attended. Matt was terrific with the boys, and every part the gentleman. Wierd, eh?

  3. I have had the privilege of encountering a few NHLers in the real world, and I think there’s a certain amount of hesitation for them to interact with fans, for the reasons stated above. You’re either going to get “OMG OMG OMG YOU’RE IN THE NHL I LOVE YOU” or “OMG YOU SUCK”, and not much else in between.

    But, then again, I imagine the life of a pro hockey player during the season is quite busy. Not too many days off. Lots of travel. Between all this and family and personal lives, how much time do they have to check to make sure guys aren’t trashing them on twitter?

  4. As bad as this kind of thing is (and it’s really bad), it doesn’t just happen to well-known athletes. I’ve been known to spend an hour or two on the internet, and it seems like we’d all have better conversations if people would just stop acting like assholes simply because they can do so without it affecting their daily lives.

  5. I’m going to be the idiot that points out that the picture up top can’t be of Matt Read since there is an “A” on his jersey and the glove he is wearing says “GIROUX” on it.

  6. For a second there, I thought you were Ellen…

    Great article, btw!

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