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?

Comments (18)

  1. I believe you mean Dustin Penner had an unfortunate run-in with a stack of pancakes

  2. Good, the less interesting the personalities from a media perspective the less chance of attracting the casual troglodyte NFL/NBA fanbase. Nobody needs those knuckle draggers around. And I don’t want to see NHL coverage devolve into the 24/7 tabloid-esque coverage of those other sports.

  3. Do you think that another factor contributing to the boringness might be the cultural/family background that tends to be common to NHL players–that is, Canadian/upper-Midwest small towns? This probably goes along with the team mentality, in that putting yourself forward or acting in a diva-esque manner are pretty severely frowned upon in places like that, not just in sports but in most things.

    • This seems right to me. Add in a bunch of Europeans with varying degrees of English/French-speaking skills and you’ve got your quiet, understated hockey-speak. It also seems like the NHL is more interested in keeping players from stepping out of line than say the NBA or NFL. I don’t think NHLers could get away with half of what is commonplace in other leagues.

    • Completely agree that small-town/upper Midwestern America and rural Canadian cultural/family background is a key contributor to the vanilla extract. However, I think that the overwhelming denominator is, “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.”

      Nowadays, if you want to pursue an elite career in the NHL you have to start preparing well before you’re a pre-teen. This costs your parents a lot of money and it costs you and your family a lot of quality time that most of us take for granted. Family vacations will revolve around things like hockey camp (fun, eh?) and other siblings’ activities will have to take a backseat because of home or away game commitments, etc. Parents will neglect certain aspects of their relationship to fund and make time for hockey. It’s All Hockey All The Time. It’s an admirable effort on everybody’s part, and when it all works out it generally seems like all the blood, sweat and tears was worth it, even if Mum & Dad are no longer together and prodigal son missed out on bonding with most of his siblings or non-hockey playing friends because of… hockey.

      “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.” So very insightful! As you also point out, even though actors and musicians seem to be a lot more interesting and comfortable in the public eye, I would assert that even hockey players contend and struggle with the same empty aspects of living much of their lives on the road as their splashier counterparts: Insufferably bored, impossibly horny and crushingly lonely.

      Finally, the team-first ethic that stems from players being “encouraged to subsume their personal desires for the good of the whole” is hugely responsible for guys being reluctant to be more assertive and expressive. Perhaps if they hung out more often with guys their own age who DID NOT play hockey, it would be an eye-opening revelation to them that there are worse things than not being a mirror-image of your teammate. You don’t have to drive the same car he drives, live in the same neighborhood, buy a fishing boat ’cause he just did or date his wife’s sister. It’s easier said than done when you’ve essentially spent all your quality time off the ice with hockey players. Self-confidence comes from having unique solo experiences that you can learn from, as well as team-related experiences. I think the solo experience is what’s overwhelmingly missing with these guys. It’s okay, but it’s glaringly missing.

      As always, this was a fun and fascinating read.

    • I think it is the most important contributing factor. Most of the parents have sacrificed greatly so their kid can be a pro. I sincerely doubt they would look favorably on their kid acting like a spoiled child, diva, or whatever. The Predator players say that one huge bonus in living in Nashville is that they can go out and about without being harassed by fans. And contrary to popular opinion, there are a whole lot of fans in Nashville! lol

    • I’m just one person, so I can’t speak for an entire culture, but coming from that cultural background myself, I find the diva-ish behaviour of star athletes in basketball and football pretty off-putting and definitely at odds with how I was raised to conduct myself. One of the reasons I enjoy hockey is because there are fewer prancing displays of rampant egoism. I guess maybe that reads as boring for people who come from a more rah-rah, cheerleaders-halftime shows-fireworks culture. It’s nice when players can string an interesting thought or two together in an interview, but I’d much rather they leave the flair for what they do on ice.

      I think you can also see this divide in the Canadian vs. the American approach to political figures. I don’t know where the Prime Minister goes to church or whether his ex-girlfriend’s father supports aborition or whatever. There’s a level of colourful biographical detail that seems to be seen as an integral part of public positions in the US, whereas in Canada those things are generally part of the private sphere even for public people, not fodder for a Barbara Walters interview.

  4. I feel like other sports have personalities, and yet, they deal with pretty much all of the same issues that a crowd of insane parrots presents. I feel like hockey’s biggest obstacle is itself. It’s certainly not the players, although they do succumb to the pressure of the culture. Every sport takes extreme dedication. Every sport could potentially wallow in vanilla. But it seems like hockey is the only sport that does so.

    At the risk of offending some people. Maybe it’s a Canadien issue? Maybe the US hasn’t caught on to how best to draw out the personalities of a mostly Canadien culture? I’m just thinking out loud here.

    • I deliberately avoided getting into comparisons with other sports simply because I don’t know enough about them to speak firmly to their dynamics. However, if I was going to go with my vague impressions, it seems like some other sports- basketball and (American) football especially- have much more comfort with the idea of the superstar player, and will allow for diva personalities in such players. Beneath the star level, though, they seem to have a bunch of pretty anonymous, unspectacular guys just like hockey. So maybe what we’re seeing is really just another incarnation of hockey’s persistent suspicion of talent. Other sports are willing to put their best players on a pedestal in a way hockey isn’t (perhaps?).

      • And maybe that’s a uniquely American vs. Canadian contrast. I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that Americans like to romanticize the contributions of the individual. I’m not canadian, and i have little exposure to canadian culture outside hockey and… i dunno a couple movies? So, i’m sort of talking out of my ass on this.

      • I think there’s a tie-in with hockey’s connection to history, culture and even national unity in Canada. This obviously deserves a lot more study and attention… There’s a certain reverence for the game up north that is rooted in Canadian history and culture – the Memorial Cup, for example, which was conceived to honor Canadian veterans, etc. It’s one of the few things that all Canadians generally consider to be “Canadian” – hockey. English, French, First Nation, Ukranian, Greek. Whatever part of Canada you’re from and regardless of your ethnicity, chances are you like hockey or know something about it whether you want to or not.

        Canadians are not shy about putting players on pedestals – and putting a LOT of pressure on them – but when they do, it tends to be in connection with an international tournament or an event that has national significance (hello, Paul Anderson and Sidney Crosby). So yes, maybe Canadians are less into celebrating players “just” because they’re awesome. It’s hard to explain. It’s deeper than the individual talent. The recognition is there but the context has to be bigger to send it over the top.

  5. What is the purpose of reading an Ellen Etchingham piece?

    Well, firstly, there’s the odd-angles insight offered by someone late to the game. Sort of like a foreigner coming over to the States, taking up (or resuming) writing and then making us see what a gorgeous language English is. Nabokov and Hemon come to mind. Ms. E. is all about the angles and the bounces that make hockey so interesting.

    Secondly, there’s the multiple levels of humor that Ms. Etchingham displays, whether it’s cuddled in curse words or meandering in words that mystery that make it de rigeur to be armed with a dictionary (personally, I love this aspect of her writing. I immediately feel more intelligent after finishing one of her posts).
    And, thirdly?
    Well, if you’re a band in search of a name she’ll always provide you with material in each of her musings. In this piece, “flock of insane parrots”, “World’s Biggest Douche” (or Sean Avery, but that names already taken), and “chattering cymbal-monkeys”. I’m sure you can pick out some other great band names.
    Another fine post, Ms. E.!

    • Thanks, Darko. I’m so glad you’re still around- one of like the 3 or 4 people who’ve been reading me through the whole evolution…

      • Ellen, without sounding too cloying, you are such a marvelous talent, it’s scary. When I go back to your older “Theory of Ice’ posts, where space and time do not handcuff you and a simple idea soars into a philosophy, I wonder how thoroughly engaging your thesis work @ McGill (an undergrad myself eons ago) must be.
        Just keep on writing how you’re writing. Each post is another brick in an imposing building. Simply jaw-dropping writing.

  6. Nice work, Ellen.

    I too have noticed the added press garnered when a specific athlete deviates away from the typical hockey personality. I’m not sure I blame ‘us’ for judging him/her too harshly; rather, I blame the MSM for spoon-feeding us a player’s missteps, and asking us to discuss.
    As a follow-up piece, I would be interested in you doing some writing/researching on player-media interviews in an upcoming segment for your excellent “History Lessons” series.

    A couple questions I would be interested addressing are:

    – When did these between-action interviews start? And not just start, but become acceptable and common-place. I recall watching a game from the NHL-Gamecenter vault and seeing a between period interview with Stan Mikita, and remarking: “I didn’t think they did those interviews that early.”
    – Is there a connection between the changing culture of hockey and the soundbite? I’ve read some books that suggest the ’80s are to blame for destroying the integrity of previous generations of hockey (some blame expansion). Do any blame the infiltration of the dressing room by the media?

    Thanks.

    • It’s hard to know where the MSM ends and the audience they purport to serve begins. I know I’ve heard people in the blogosphere say that the little soundbite clips get far more traffic than more nuanced pieces, which creates a pressure on websites to do more of them. Not sure if the same dynamic is a force in television and print, though.

      Those are some excellent questions re: media. After the playoffs I’ve got a couple pieces I want to do on the early history of the relationship between the League and the press, but I’ll keep an eye out for answers to your questions moving forward. I expect the evolution of television coverage is going to be important.

      • I think MSM wants to showcase blips that they assume will be interesting and titillating to fans, whether those fans are on the web, watching TV or reading a newspaper. Players’ missteps are purposely sensationalized but don’t forget that even mundane things like playoff beards and guys sporting playoff fauxhawks on the same team are sensationalized too. Whenever something remotely left-of-center goes down, it just gets blown up. I can see that people want something more or something else sometimes – and MSM plugs into that – but it’s gotten out of hand.

        It’s at a point now that for me, the playoff beards are so 1980 and done. I love the beards but enough, already. I’m tired of hearing about them and looking at them and having them deconstructed for me; even players who I think would look good all year round with one are starting to look fugly to me. ;) Start a new playoff tradition, for a good cause, and cross your fingers people won’t chatter it into the ground before it’s had a chance to take off.

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