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?