Almost anyone who has watched a hockey game, or press conference for that matter, can recite any number of the classic clichés that come with the sport. You know that the boys are hustling out there, you know that they have to get more pucks on net in the third, you know they’re just happy to be playing games in June, you know they’d happily lay down everything for a Cup. Predictability is synonymous with dull and it signals a greater crisis of sorts within the NHL.
There are no exciting personalities in hockey.
The problem at-large, and that is an apt characterization here, becomes much easier to quantify when you juxtapose it with other sports across the world. As much as we can point to a Crosby or Stamkos and analogize them to greats like Tim Duncan or Tom Brady or Lionel Messi in terms of their sheer excellence, sports aren’t necessarily driven by, and certainly don’t thrive, due to the legends who play them. They’re driven by the moments where the bombastic personalities come out and shine. Not many who will read this could name the top six players in Oklahoma State football, but we all know the “I’m a man, I’m 40,” rant made famous by Mike Gundy. It just so happens he’s a good football coach too and his team is quite good.
The value of entertainment in sport comes in equal measure on and off the playing surface. We may fall in love with the product during the play but it’s the people who keep us tuned in year round. There are no entertainers in the NHL. The modern game lacks an Eddie Shack or Gilles Gratton (who is, by far, the most interesting man I’ve ever talked to). There are people who warrant attention, or have forced us to pay attention, like Paul Bissonnette or Sean Avery, though if we’re being realistic, BizNasty is your run of the mill ‘bro‘ and Avery is a ‘troll‘ — pretty generic guys who get credence because they play sports for a living.
The ironic part is that we, as hockey fans, are partially to blame for this trend. There is a certain… arrogance which comes with being a hockey fan and compels us to believe that ‘our guys’ are better than theirs. We’re familiar with the “hockey players are the greatest guys in the world” shtick — the Don Cherry credo we subscribe to no matter how much we love to criticize his wardrobe or belief system — and the sad fact is it’s not true no matter what we want to believe. We’ve forced them to live up to this ideal which saps any semblance of humanity from their personas. They are robots that fit into the strong, silent roles we’ve ascribed to them. There is no reason to hear what they hear what they have to say.
God forbid they talk out of turn and say something rude. That would make them ‘classless’ while we continue to flog the dead horse with the narrative.
Occasionally we get the moments where they actually admit they have feelings. Sidney Crosby said he doesn’t like players on the Flyers. Imagine that, a star player doesn’t like the guys who play for his most heated rivals in an incredibly emotional sport. And he admitted it! It takes away from the handshake a little bit. They don’t do that in other sports, you know.
Alex Ovechkin does lots of commercials and stuff. Maybe he should work on his two-way game! The guy clearly doesn’t have what it takes to be a winner. He doesn’t care enough to just focus on hockey. Typical Russian — just another regular season darling.
The confusing part of this deficiency in truly interesting hockey players is that it comes at a time when there has been virtually no drop off in the amount of must-watch athletes around the world of sports. Individuals who find a way to balance performance with notable quotes and storylines. Some individuals for your consideration:
To start things off from the world of basketball is a fellow who changed his name to Metta World Peace from Ron Artest. He recorded a rap album a year after being suspended for a full season for starting a stadium brawl. He finished in last place on Dancing with the Stars. Obviously there are some idiotic accomplishments on his résumé — namely the Malice at the Palace — but he’s an interesting listen nonetheless. It’s funny to give him this credit, but there is something incredibly cerebral about Artest that warrants attention.
Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli burned his house down with fireworks. He had a child expelled from an elementary school for bullying one of his fans. He drove a car into a women’s prison because his brother asked him what it looked like inside. Oh, and he’s only 21 and has already won England’s FA Cup, and a Premier League title on top of his Scudetto and Champions League title in Italy. Super. Freaking. Mario. Sheer talent meets ‘Really?’ in a human form.
Canadians can be buzzworthy too, and Jacques Villeneuve may be the best case of this even though he is currently done with Formula 1. He took up racing against the will of his mother given his father’s tragic death at the Belgian Grand Prix. Jacques dominated F1 during the 90s, was engaged to the younger sister of Kylie Minogue, among others, pursued a music career after he retired, owned a nightclub, and generally said, and still says whatever he damn well wants. He has never been short on opinions.
Deion Sanders, like Villeneuve is not an active football player but still remains a face of the game which fans recognize. He is, in many ways, the ultimate sports personality. When your nickname is “Prime Time” you tend to grab headlines. Sanders was also a rapper at one point, filmed more commercials than every contemporary of his in professional football and probably only stands second to Michael Jordan in total airtime for corporate ventures. He has one of the most recognizable faces in sports and a disposition worthy of the Prime Time handle. He is a star.
So, it appears as though we’ve reached a disparity in hockey. Which player is the Metta, Balotelli, Villeneuve or Prime Time of the NHL? As much as there may be an inclination to resist these magnanimous characters, and there most certainly is amongst the holier-than-thou contingent of hockey fans, the game truly needs characters whether we choose to collectively admit it or not, and we won’t.
Wayne Gretzky shot a ton of commercials. Most of them were completely terrible — the NHL has inherent ability to bleach any semblance of humanity from its players and that makes it awfully hard to act like one on TV. Yet, he’s the icon, the Great One, to which all hockey playing being must aspire to. A man with zero elaborated interest in anything but hockey. The curious part of this is why the sport, at the professional level at least, decides to wipe any semblance of charisma from its product. Gretzky’s IMDB page is loaded with appearances because that came with the gig of being him. We don’t consider that as part of the true embodiment of a star.
Patrick Roy found a way to exhibit excellence and maintain his ability to give a good quote. He’s the guy with the butterfly style and the Stanley Cup rings plugging his ears. Carey Price better keep his mouth shut and focus on the game though.
The troubling fact is that we, as a collective fanbase, want to heap praise on the stoic. In a bizarre, twisted way, we want to see the players cry after a crushing loss and we will hold them accountable if they pop up in any non-hockey setting until we deem it’s appropriate for them to come out of hiding. We want to see individuals consumed with the game. We want to see, or think at least, that they care more than we do without reflecting on what that means for ourselves. Lord knows we don’t have lives outside of our jobs, and neither should they.
There are going to be those who are resistant to this line of thinking, much like there are those who would make a point of resisting a mundane point like regulating skate lace colors, but for the game to grow it needs those faces to come through. It needs Alexander Ovechkin’s goofy, toohless grin to gain more traction. It needs to have someone who can make the non-hockey watching populous tune into SportsCenter for a quote and a game to back it up.
You wanna talk about practice, Allen Iverson? Let’s talk about the morning skate, anybody on skates. Unfortunately, Jeremy Roenick isn’t coming back any time soon and it’s time we had someone worth listening to.
The NHL needs guys with more beerability, before they bore us all to drink.