Hockey players are famously boring. They respond to interview questions with rote, dead-eyed cliches. They appear at fan events clothed in loose jerseys and bland courtesy. In getting-to-know-you scoreboard bits, they come off as anything but knowable, a sequence of vaguely perplexed, monosyllabic answers that make it seem as though they’ve hardly heard of this notion of a ‘favorite band’ or what you Earthlings call “free time”. With the exception of a few who have penthouse apartments in major urban centers, they seem to inhabit a succession of sprawling beige houses with barely used kitchens and well-dented couches. Their favorite food is chicken and/or pasta; their favorite pastime is video games. Their wives seem pretty and nice. Their kids seem cute and nice. Despite his fabulous wealth and the bloody drama of his profession, the standard hockey player is plain, polite and dull.
Part of this is the culture of the game. Hockey is the most intensely collaborative of the team sports, where even the biggest stars only play a fraction of the game and responsibility for victory or defeat is very much a shared burden. From a young age, players are encouraged to subsume their personal desires for the good of the whole. Grinders are asked to forsake ice time when trailing, scorers are asked to suppress their flashy impulses in favor of disciplined two-way play, fighters are expected to use their fists to defend or avenge others rather than to express their own anger. Hockey is skeptical of even the justified hubris of the gifted. It has no patience the unjustified hubris of a diva personality.
Part of it is also the training. Because hockey is so intensely complicated and the specialization begins so young, it requires a lot of psychological dicipline. Fans understand this superficially, insofar as it is a part of game preparation, but what they sometimes miss is that this kind of discipline, undertaken over a period of years running into decades, is going to result in a degree of personality-atrophy. For many players, the amount of dedication necessary to reach the NHL has meant a life consisting of 80% playing, practicing, thinking, recovering from and dreaming about hockey. They haven’t had the time and space most of us get to cultivate varied other skills and interests. Such is the price of excellence in their field.
But I think there is something else behind the studied boringness of the average hockey player, something more than just Don Cherry values and Sidney Crosby obsessiveness. It’s not just a matter of culture or training. It’s rational self-interest. On the grand scale of all media-personality options that are available to the average player, ‘boring’ is by far the most sensible choice.
Consider how we develop our sense of other’s personalities in regular life. Most of the time, when people interact with other people, the exchange is on a fairly balanced scale. When we talk, we usually talk to one other person at a time. Maybe a small group of three or four. Sometimes, in a professional context, we’ll have to make a presentation to a group of a few dozen. But for the vast majority of people, the ratio of us-to-them in life is never more than, say, 1:100. Our notion of a human personality is based on such ratios, on the way we can act when we’re comfortable with a relatively small group with whom we can have an interactive, see-and-be-seen dialogue.
Fame, however, is a radically, terrifyingly lopsided relationship. A famous person interacts with others at ratios of 1:1,000,000+. On the one side, there is still only one individual, but on the other there are no individuals anymore, but simply a wall of faces like pointillist specks, a wall of voices like white noise. Although this wall is made of people, it doesn’t interact with the famous person in any identifiably human way. It is by turns wildly adoring and venomously hostile, obsessively interested and utterly indifferent. It throws out long sequences of repetitious questions at a player and then repeats his answers back in thousands of video clips, game recaps, radio shows, posts, and tweets. It takes whatever he says, slices it up, remixes it, critiques it, and throws it back in his face. Talking to the cameras isn’t like talking to a person. It’s like talking to a flock of insane parrots.
It is incredibly difficult to seem like even a normal human in this context, much less a fun, interesting, laid-back, friendly, sexy, cool human being. There is no question of simply ‘being yourself’. You can’t ‘be yourself’ in front of a wall of microphones and cameras that are only interested in fifteen-second bites of information. You can’t ‘be yourself’ to a line of eight hundred fans seeking autographs. No matter what the famous person does, only a tiny sliver of who he is can possibly get through, but that tiny sliver will be magnified to epic proportions and splashed across screens for millions of eyes to see. We take it for granted that celebrities are good at this, but most celebrities are famous for having professions that involve deliberate self-construction for a mass audience. Professional actors and singers are actors and singers because they have an aptitude for performing on a huge stage with emotion and style. Athletes, though, are famous for abilities that have nothing to do with looking good on camera. Only a very small percentage of them, entirely coincidentally, also happen to have the talent for creating a good public image.
But is it worth it to them to even make the attempt? What, exactly, do they get out of being more interesting to us? The wall of people they interact with is uniformly terrible at actually recognizing and appreciating character. It has no interest in the depths of human personality. It is very good at extrapolating, essentializing, reducing, judging, and making shit up. It is very bad at understanding, forgiving, complicating, and nuancing. It doesn’t want ‘real people’, it just wants more fun toys to play with, and the things that it finds most fun- sex, drugs, scandal, batshit craziness- are not necessarily the most fun things for a player to become famous for. We’re not interested in celebrity athletes being real guys, we’re interested in them being chattering cymbal-monkeys that we can make fun of, and I can easily understand why few professional hockey players are eager to take up that role.
Look at how the hockey world handles evidence of complexity. Once upon a time, Mike Richards said and did all the right things and was called leader, winner, future. Then he expressed a little too much of an interest in fun and got criticized as uncommitted. When he got angry about being criticized, he got called a cancer and a liability. Once upon a time, Tim Thomas was known for being a salt-of-the-earth, working-class, went-to-school, paid-his-dues goalie. Then he expressed some off-ice opinions and immediately came to be considered a complete whackjob. It is, of course, possible to be both. It is possible that Richards is both a man who competes fiercely in hockey games and a man who loves a good party. I have known such men. It is possible that Thomas is both a hard-working, genuine person and a holder of extreme political views. W have all known such people. But as much as every individual in the wall of people knows that human beings can be complex, the wall of people as a whole doesn’t understand this. It routinely judges a player only by the most recent piece of damning information it has about him, forgetting any previous virtues, tuning out any evidence of depth.
Look at what happens to players who diverge from the scripts. We love Ilya Bryzgalov’s improv philosophizing, but the wall of people treats him worse because of it- one goofy line and it screams humangous big over and over and over again, then condemns him as a bad teammate. Sean Avery gave us attitude and trash-talk, and even as we lapped it up, we also pilloried him as the World’s Biggest Douche. Patrick Kane gets seen out and about, being young and having fun, and rather than appreciating the very natural humanity of being young and having fun, we call him an asshole, a distraction, and possibly an alcoholic. Dustin Penner had an unfortunate encounter with pancakes and has had a terrific sense of humor about it, but until his recent on-ice heroics redeemed him, his reward was a wall of voices droning fattyfattyfatfat.
All it takes to ruin an image is the mismanagement of one interview, one bad soundbite, one embarrassing iPhone pic. Every player has something in him, some opinion, some idea, some off-ice habit that could be that thing, for things that are in no way wrong by human standards- like going clubbing, or not understanding Chinese tiger-poaching laws, or disliking the Flyers- are heresy for hockey players. Cross any one of these arbitrary and often invisible lines and your life becomes a sea of the same stupid jokes and repetitive questions, people making fun of your habits and questioning your character, which (again) is difficult to handle gracefully and even more difficult not to be distracted by.
The path of icy courtesy may be uneventful, but it is safe and simple. It is easy to do in front of the cameras, it often guarantees positive if lukewarm coverage, and sometimes no coverage at all. It won’t bug your wife, hurt your kids, or make you the subject of an image macro meme. It won’t piss off your coach or your teammates. It won’t hurt your future employment prospects or give the crowds on the road any further ammunition to hurl down from the upper tiers. It is the surest course by which a fairly average guy with no gift for public performance can navigate a treacherous media universe. Before we can have more interesting players, we- the millions-strong wall of people on the other side of the fame ratio- have to make it possible for players to enjoy being interesting to us. We have to make it more reward than punishment. Are we willing to do that? Can we?