Friday December 10th, 2010

The Rangers' Sean Avery is one of the NHL's most colorful, widely known -- and disruptive -- personalities. (Lou Capozzola/Sports Illustrated)

By Stu Hackel

By its nature, hockey's culture may be preventing the sport from gaining a wider acceptance in the United States. That question lurks beneath the surface whenever the game's fans, executives and analysts discuss their concerns about TV contracts, attendance problems and the general popularity of the NHL as opposed to other professional sports.

The hockey community is forever scrutinizing itself, striving to come up with explanations for the NHL's seemingly permanent niche status in the United States as it struggles for a magic recipe -- or at least a realistic formula -- to broaden its appeal. Even in Canada, fans and the media gaze upon the the hockey scene to the south and regularly wonder just what is holding their great sport back.

Of course, it doesn't help when a player appears to flick blood at his opponents' bench or shish kebab a guy on the other team, a pair of lovely incidents that occurred on Thursday night (although some would view the latter as just an example of good, old time hockey).

Two outwardly unrelated stories brought this wider appeal matter to mind this morning. The first is an article in the New York Times by Katie Thomas about athletes who have been trademarking their catchphrases and slogans so they can exploit them on merchandise. It isn't just the commercial aspect that makes this interesting, it's the blatant self-promotion and even self-aggrandizement that has mushroomed in sports other than hockey during the past couple of decades. It's part of America's "Look at me!" celebrity culture that turns people into objects and creates a social hierarchy of human worth based on fame and attention.

That sort of narcissism is just not seen in hockey. The sport is marinated in a team-first mentality -- and not without good reason, because it requires an inordinate amount of teamwork to succeed while selfishness generally leads to defeat. Players who call undue attention to themselves, on or off the ice, create an undesired sideshow that tends to disrupt a team's smooth functioning. If you need some recent examples, there's Ray Emery, whose fights with teammates, disinterest in practices and poor driving habits made him a pariah in Ottawa; and Sean Avery, whose behavior during his disastrous Dallas tenure nearly ended his NHL career. Unsavory Avery had been pretty troublesome in Detroit and Los Angeles, too, but he's been somewhat better behaved during his second stint as a Ranger, probably because he recognizes that this is his last chance.

And that brings us to our second story, one by Cam Cole of The Vancouver Sun about Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban.

Some background for those who need it: A hugely popular rookie defenseman who has been touted as a potential Calder Trophy candidate this season, Subban has been a healthy scratch for Montreal's past three games. He played recklessly against Edmonton last week and was relegated to street clothes in favor of Yannick Weber. That triggered a new controversy in controversy-prone Montreal that François Gagnon in La Presse called this year's version of Jaroslav Halak vs. Carey Price.

But it wasn't Subban's play that Cole (and others, like the Flyers' Mike Richards and CBC's Don Cherry) focused on. It's the fact that Subban has a strong personality and plays that way. He plays with verve while engaging the opposition in non-stop trash talk dialogues (or maybe monologues) during games, and for an NHL rookie, that's considered disrespectful behavior.

That led Cole to write, with some mild exaggeration, "The crime of which Subban was so guilty that his benching required a TSN panel to analyze it? He had resisted hockey's No. 1 law: conform or sit.

"He was quotable. He was fun-loving. He was cocky. He chirped at opposing players more famous than himself. He refused to bow and kiss the hems of their robes just because he was a rookie. He drew the ire of Sidney Crosby and Mike Richards and eventually -- though he was playing like a Calder Trophy candidate most nights -- this outrageous non-conformity of his could no longer be tolerated by the world's dullest hockey coach, Jacques Martin.

"So off to the Habs' press box went P.K. Subban, and let that be a lesson to him.

"When he returns, hopefully it will be with no personality at all. Never will he speak another interesting thought, if he knows what's good for him. He will spout cliches in the style of Jason Spezza or Richards or Dion Phaneuf or, yes, Ryan Kesler -- and when asked what he has learned from his benching, he will say: 'It's not about me, it's about the team.'"

Well, he may be dull at times, but Martin had other reasons -- namely, Subban's play and the desire to give Weber a shot -- to keep P.K. out of the lineup. Yet, he also validated Cole's point by acknowledging, "It's important to keep in perspective that it's a privilege to play at this level and there are lots of responsibilities attached to it."

And that's the crux of the issue for hockey. On one hand, there is a certain pressure to conform; however, in both the U.S. and Canada (and likely more so in the U.S.), we live with a dire need to consume The Next Big Thing, to have it invade our consciousness -- and it has to stand out from The Last Big Thing. Sometimes, the the louder, the more thrilling, the more outrageous it is, the better.

Well, that may be okay for other sports, but it's just not how hockey functions.

Still, you can bet that someone in the NHL offices or perhaps some player agent picked up the Times today, read Thomas's story and thought, "We need to make our players more like that." It's easy to see the necessity of concocting some scheme to manufacture something, to get someone to act buzz-worthy.  And that push to promote individuals, and make some personalities stand out, will run the risk of clashing with the traditional habits and mores of the sport.

What gets lost in this discussion, however, is that hockey players don't need to beat their chests, spout slogans and catchphrases, or clamor for gossip page exposure and TV facetime to be engaging personalities. Sure, we'd like them to be more candid at times, and Cole argues for that quite well. But smart hockey players understand how being that way can be problematic in their jobs.

When you see a P.K. Subban interview, he is not what he's alleged to be on the ice; he's respectful, deferential and quite articulate when addressing the public. He confines his outspokenness to the ice. The curbing that Cam Cole fears will afflict Subban has been there all along, and he's still a good interview.

So hockey players' normalcy ends up being their charm, and in a galaxy of sports stars who are climbing over each other for their "Show me the money" moment, our guys come off as refreshing in their reserve and propriety by comparison. And some are and have been colorful, as this photo gallery demonstrates, although not always the best effect.

Hockey's biggest advances during the past two decades have involved enhancing its better intrinsic qualities by emphasizing speed and skill in the post-lockout rules. That's what accounts for the positive vibe around the NHL that the Board of Governors trumpeted earlier this week. The same should hold for the players.

Critics may chide the NHL for discouraging attention-seeking behavior, but I suspect that the upcoming HBO "reality series" featuring the Penguins and Capitals will reveal what we already know -- that NHL players are really normal, funny and engaging people with great dedication and competitive drive who don't need to swagger and strut in front of the cameras or package themselves or their utterances to be appealing. But the question still remains: in America's outlandish, celebrity-crazed culure, is that enough to help the NHL, and the sport, get the attention it deserves? What do you think?

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