(Bill Wippert, Getty Images)

(Bill Wippert, Getty Images)

Jannik Hansen is a goon. Jannik Hansen is a clean, honest player.

Matt Cooke is reckless and dangerous. Matt Cooke is a changed man.

Danny Briere is the dirtiest player in the league. Danny Briere is a lovable little guy.

Perception is a funny thing: the same play, player, game, or season can be viewed in thousands of different ways, depending on your frame of reference. If you’re a Blackhawks fan, you’re more likely to have seen Jannik Hansen’s hit on Marian Hossa as intentional and malicious than if you were, say, a Canucks fan. If you thought that Matt Cooke sliced Erik Karlsson’s achilles tendon with his skate on purpose, you’re probably not a Penguins fan. If you find the idea laughable that lovable little Danny Briere could be called dirty, you’re probably a Flyers fan.

When Jannik Hansen hit Marian Hossa in the back of the head with his arm, I wasn’t surprised to see an outpouring of vitriol aimed at the Danish winger. I was surprised, however, to see what some peoples’ perception was of Hansen even before the hit. I saw him called a goon, a dirty player, and a cheapshot artist, as well as a few worse things.

It caught me a little off-guard: Hansen had a career-high 34 minutes in penalties last season and, as far as I knew, didn’t have much of a reputation for dirty play. But his detractors had evidence in abundance: YouTube videos showing him hitting someone behind the play, allegedly spearing an opponent in the junk, and, worst of all, shoving Nicklas Lidstrom after a goal. Add that to the hit on Hossa, which was variously called vicious, a flying elbow, brutal, and completely unintentional, and it becomes easy to see how the perception developed. If those few videos were all you know about Hansen, seeing him as a dirty player makes some sort of sense.

Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Ottawa Senators, went off the deep end a week ago, ripping into Matt Cooke for taking out his star defenceman, saying that Cooke shouldn’t even be playing in the NHL. In response to the idea that Cooke has changed, Melnyk scoffed, “At what point do you say, ‘you know what? Maybe he’s not changed.’ You do this enough times, don’t try to convince me or anybody else.”

Cooke’s penalty minutes dropped from 129 to 44 last season and his hitting style has completely changed. But if you didn’t watch Cooke play last season, the main thing that comes to mind when Cooke’s name is mentioned is dirty hits and suspensions.

Cooke’s teammate, Tanner Glass, made some comments on a radio show about Danny Briere being the dirtiest player in the NHL, leading to a delightfully homerrific article from Randy Miller of the Courier-Post on the subject. Miller made sure to call Glass obscure and a journeyman to try to invalidate his comments, then referred to Briere as a “lovable little forward” so that there was no doubt where his allegiances were. Oddly enough, Glass admitted that he had never had an incident with Briere, but had mainly just “seen his clips.”

All of these incidents speak to how perceptions of players are formed. Fans of a team, as well as beat reporters and local commentators, spend so much time watching that team that they begin to identify with the players on that team. Fans watch them on the ice, but they also get to know them off the ice, to a certain extent, by watching interviews, behind-the-scenes videos, and features on those players.

Questionable hits, dirty plays, cheap shots, and the like are the exception rather than the rule. They’re relatively rare, even when it comes to someone as notorious as Matt Cooke when he was at his worst. Someone who watches every Penguins game for years will see a much higher percentage of non-dirty plays from Cooke, to the point that the cheap shots fade from memory, overloaded by the positive memories.

A fan of another team, however, generally only sees Cooke when he’s done something wrong or questionable, as video of the incident will show up on every sports highlight show, blog, and sports website. Even when he cleaned up his act last season, the only context in which non-Penguins fans heard about Cooke was in relation to him being a dirty player who had changed.

I’ve followed Jannik Hansen’s career since he was a prospect playing for the Manitoba Moose, so when I think of him, I think of a speedy, defensively-responsible, checking-line winger with enough skill to play on the first or second line in a pinch. I think of his hilariously high-pitched voice, getting Gene Simmons to sign his stick during pre-game warmups, and his despair at missing out on meeting Pamela Anderson. In my mind, and in the minds of many Canucks fans, Hansen is a bit of a goofball who happens to be one of the Canucks’ best two-way forwards. I definitely don’t think of him as a dirty or cheap player and he generally stays out of the penalty box.

But a fan of the Boston Bruins will have a far more limited view of Hansen. They won’t remember the goals he’s scored or his solid defensive play. They won’t care about any of the silly things he does off the ice. But they will remember when he hit Andrew Ference behind the play. That’s what will stand out to them. Then they’ll see Hansen hit Hossa, remember the hit on Ference, and conclude that he’s a dirty player, a cheapshot artist, and a goon. They’ll think of those plays as the rule rather than the exception. If those are the only moments that stand out about a player, the assumption is then that they do that kind of thing all the time.

The first thing you hear when someone is involved in a controversial hit is that team’s fans saying, “He’s not that kind of player” or come up with some other excuse. When Mikhail Grabovski bit Max Pacioretty, Leafs fans leapt to his defence, saying Pacioretty shouldn’t have put his arm across Grabovski’s mouth. When Duncan Keith threw an elbow to the face of Daniel Sedin, Blackhawks fans pointed to an earlier hit by Sedin on Keith as a mitigating circumstance.

Grabovski isn’t a dirty player, said Leafs fans. Keith isn’t a dirty player, said Blackhawks fans. And now, Canucks fans are saying that Hansen isn’t a dirty player. They’re right. All of them. Grabovski, Keith, and Hansen aren’t really dirty players; they’re players who happened to do something dirty, maybe intentionally, maybe not. Those incidents, however, are the ones that are going to stick in people’s minds.

Next time Grabovski is involved in a questionable hit, someone will say, “That’s the type of player he is. He’s a biter and a cheapshot artist.” If Keith catches another player with a headshot, it’ll be cemented as part of his reputation. If Hansen so much as high-sticks an opponent, someone out there will suggest that he did it intentionally.

I’m not saying that dirty players don’t exist in the NHL, because there are guys out there who consistently cheapshot their opponents. At one point, Matt Cooke was one of those guys. Even then, he had his defenders. “He’s a family man,” they said, or “He’s just playing the only way he knows how.” Maybe they went with the old standby that he’s “good in the room” and “his teammate’s love him” or the tried and true, “You’d love to have him on your team.”

If you follow any player closely enough you identify with them and it affects your perceptions. When I first saw the Hansen hit on Hossa, it didn’t even occur to me that it might have been deliberate. I saw the puck go up in the air, I saw him leap for it, and I saw Hossa go down. I immediately thought, “Oh no, what a terrible accident.”

I’ve seen almost every NHL game that Hansen has played and have written numerous blogposts about him. He’s one of my favourite players on the Canucks, so it’s entirely possible that my perception of the incident was completely skewed. Maybe it was as bad as some Blackhawks fans thought it was. Maybe Hansen is a goon.

Okay, that last part definitely isn’t true. Seriously, people, how do you not know what a goon is?

Comments (23)

  1. Hansen’s not a goon, certainly. But as a Bruins fan, of course I’m going to think of him as a cheap-shotter. It wasn’t just his behind-the-play hit on Ference. It was spearing Adam McQuaid in the nads, it was slashing David Krejci in the leg (and refusing to drop the gloves when Krejci wanted him to answer for it). And that was just in one playoff series.

    One play – it happens. Anyone can have a momentary lapse. When it becomes a pattern, yes, then I have a problem.

    And Matt Cooke is still one of “those guys.” He can go to hell.

    • Agreed here on all points, and with comments below re: I don’t give a crap about Keith vs Sedin at all as a Bruins fan.

    • Oh, I know Bruins fans have a litany of complaints when it comes to Hansen. I don’t disagree, he was very chippy in that series. Honestly, though, and I doubt you’ll believe me, but that entire series was completely out of character for Hansen. I honestly think the emotion of being in the Stanley Cup Final got the better of him.

      So when you say “that was just in one playoff series,” I nod and say, “Yep, just in one playoff series.” No excuses for it, but it doesn’t define him as a player. I don’t know, maybe it should.

    • Let’s be honest, the officiating in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is non-extant. I could point to several instances where it seemed like the Bruins got away with stuff, just as much as you can.
      You probably don’t think Johnny Boychuk is a dirty player or a goon, but he did the same thing to Raymond that Jannik Hansen did to Hossa. He hit him in an awkward and illegal way, with no intent, that resulted in an injury. The players were rivals, but they weren’t headhunting.
      I am a Canucks fan, and I don’t believe Jannik Hansen is the second coming of Matt Cooke, but I understand why you feel that way.

    • That Canucks Bruins series was one of the dirtiest playoff series I can remember. I think that because a couple of the games were not close, players were going for retribution for previous plays or just taking shots at the other teams star players.

    • I am not sure how Canucks were seen as the “goon” team in that series. I mean, wasn’t Boston the rough team and the Canucks the skilled team? For example, the Marchand punches to Sedin. Everyone in Boston sees this as awesome but isn’t that a 3rd liner taking advantage of a non-fighting skilled player? Isn’t that against the code?

      Also pointing out some slashes by Hasen is rediculous in the context of that series. Both teams were chippy, both teams were dirty. It was a hard fought series. I totally agree with Daniel. There are a few dirty players in the league but really, most are not. Fans need to look in the mirror sometimes.

      Perfect example is Bruins vs. Canucks finals and more specifically Marchand and Burrows. Vancouver hates Marchand, Boston hates Burrows, but aren’t they the exact same player? They play hard with some skill but also some edge. More often than not they play a solid two way game but every so often they cross the line. Ya, Burrows bit a guy, but Marchand has been suspended for slew footing and low bridging (clearly much more dangerous). Don’t get me wrong I HATE Marchand (sports hate), but at the same time, I don’t think he is dirty. Maybe chippy. And I can see why people say the same about Burrows. But I know Burrows is a hard worker (ECHL to AHL walk on to NHL) and plays with an edge.

  2. I thought maybe it was just a typo, but then you did it again, so I thought I’d let you know that Duncan Keith plays for the Blackhawks, not the Bruins. Good article though.

  3. I think it runs even deeper than this. I think that the media has a huge part to play in how a certain player is perceived by fans. By and large, hockey journalist are incredibly lazy, having to report in incidences, and games that they never actually watched. They rely on the information that they glean from other trusted sources. The PJ Stock episode where he told a national audience that PK Subban’s teammates don’t like him because of a video clip of him walking into the arena alone is a good example. He never took the time to find out that he drove to the arena because he was out to lunch with his teammate Brandon Prust and his girlfriend. To these guys, perception is the rule.

    So you hear that Guy X is great in the room, and all of a sudden he’s a guy that plays the game the right way and vice versa. At least with fans you can attribute their lack of knowledge about guys on other teams to the fact that they ONLY watch their own team play. The astounding laziness of the hockey writers out there is a huge part of why they see certain guys as “goons” or “cheap” when they finally witness that guy do something against their team, that every other player in the league does too.

    • “The PJ Stock episode ”

      Good point. I would agree that some writers are just lazy and fall back on generalizatons frequently * cough * Damien Cox * cough * but the changing newspaper world probably plays a role too. With the cut backs and layoffs, these writers are expected to churn out alot of content without much time. It doesn’t leave much room for insight or perspective.

  4. I don’t think he’s a goon; I know what I goon is. Like Char above, I think he’s absolutely displayed a pattern of recklessness, cheapshots, and dirty play that means he deserves his reputation as a dirty player, no matter how many goofy off-ice videos he makes.

    Of course most of his play is clean. Most of everybody’s play is clean. Doesn’t mean he’s not the type that won’t take the opportunity to damage somebody if he thinks he can get away with it.

  5. Yeah, really was amazing what happened on twitter after that, so many opinions and insults! Though I would add, that if this weren’t a Canucks player I think we’d have seen a milder reaction to the incident!
    But since it’s Vancouver, it fits perfectly into the narrative of a dirty, diving team of cheapshot artists…

    As an aside: Why would Bruins fans so vehemently stand up for Duncan Keith if he’s never played for them?!

  6. Eh, for my money, a guy who crosschecks a linesman for the reason of “the poor guy was trying to drop the puck on a faceoff” is a complete dirtbag. Only other guy I can think of who stooped that low is Downie…when he was a rook at the time…and Downie’s a notorious loose cannon who began his career with a 25 game suspension. And it’s not like Hansen fouling the linesman is ancient history; he did that last month.

    Good article otherwise.

    • Meh, the crosscheck to the official was a nothing play that didn’t even merit a report to the league from the refs. He didn’t hit crosscheck him because he was trying to drop a puck (which is a really odd assumption) he was trying to push him out of the way to stick with his man in a scrum and prevent one of his teammates from getting jumped by a second guy.

      Honestly, if the guy who got crosschecked doesn’t care, I’m not sure why anyone else does.

      That said, thanks for liking the article. :)

  7. This article is so true. I often hear about this with Chris Neil. While it’s obvious he’s a guy willing to drop the mitts, as a follower of the Sens I see him scoring scrappy goals, working hard to set the tone of a game with the forecheck. To me he’s one of the best examples on the Sens of work ethic on the ice and bringing energy on his shifts. The guy is 33 years old and brings it every shift he’s out there.

    But to hear a Leaf fan talk about him he’s the dirtiest player in the NHL and always picking fights with smaller guys. Then on the other hand I’ve heard many times over the years if there was a player that another team could cherry pick off the Sens roster, it would be Neil.

    • yeah, Neil plays on the edge, but I feel like he knows the line. Considering his style of play, the fact that he has never done anything to warrant a suspension is a sign that he has respect for the other guys on the ice.

      Also, he’s a fucking puppy dog off the ice, it’s kinda hilarious.

  8. Good article and great comments. Feels good to read honest critiques and well-thought opinion, especially after scrolling through the Yahoo comments on Puck Daddy.

    Yahoo comments–yeah..yeah, I know. What can I say, it’s debate porno for me.

  9. i bet dallas fans think pavel bure is the dirtiest player to ever live…

  10. Everyone connected with sports reporting has to dance around the topic, but fans commenting on a topic can go ahead and say what they think about the consistency of officiating on the ice as well as these higher-level discipline decisions. Now that the lockout is over, seeing the bizarre non-calls and inexplicable disallowing of goals is coming home again, to me at least. It isn’t just a homer thing: play is whistled down, and the announcers say, “ah, that’ll be a penalty to X. Oh no, it’s Y, they’re giving it to Y, or could it be both? No, it’ll be just Y, and that will be either roughing or high sticking. Boarding, no, they’re calling it boarding, and Y goes to the box.” If even seasoned pros sound like that when they’re calling it, there’s something wrong with the protocols given to the refs.

  11. Taylor Hall is a goon!!

    Oh wait, I’m not helping.

  12. The good versus bad narrative fits the nature of most sports fans I guess, and hockey is great example of that. I follow the Sens and rather unbelievably some were trying to suggest in Twitter that Chris Neil wasn’t a goon in the fallout of the Karllsson/Cooke affair. That’s so one-eyed. Every team has their guy(s) .

    In response to the above, I was sure the Bruins were seen as the tough tea, during the 2011 Stanley Cup. Wasn’t that in the fallout of the Chara hit on Pacioretty (spelling?) v Montreal a month or two earlier…

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