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Out of the Ice Age In contrast to their stereotype, most NHL players aren't dumb, toothless, beer-drinking brawlers

Oct. 08, 2001
Oct. 08, 2001

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Oct. 8, 2001

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Out of the Ice Age In contrast to their stereotype, most NHL players aren't dumb, toothless, beer-drinking brawlers

Chandler: Hey, y'know what? I've got two tickets to tonight's
Rangers game. You wanna come with me?

This is an article from the Oct. 8, 2001 issue Original Layout

Rachel: Cute guys in little shorts? Sure.

Chandler: Well, actually it's a hockey team, so it's angry
Canadians with no teeth.

--Dialogue from an episode of Friends

Maybe it takes four lines to win a Stanley Cup, but it takes
only a one-liner to win the audience when the topic is hockey.
Let's take those friends at face value for a moment. Suppose
Chandler does snag a pair of tickets for a New York Rangers game
at Madison Square Garden. When Rachel and Chandler settle into
their seats, Czechs Radek Dvorak and Tomas Kloucek and Petr
Nedved, Russian Igor Ulanov, Swede Andreas Johansson and Mike
Richter from greater Philadelphia might be on the ice at the
same time for New York. In fact, of the 714 players in the NHL
last season, only 53% were Canadian; that number was 72% as late
as 1990-91.

The teeth? High sticks and errant pucks always pose a threat to
the choppers, but the percentage of players with all their teeth
is on the rise given the compulsory wearing of full face shields
in junior hockey and by U.S. college teams and an increased use
of mouth guards in the NHL. "Most young guys have their teeth,"
says 21-year-old Colorado Avalanche left wing Alex Tanguay. "The
only time I've had work done on mine was for cleaning."

The classic 1974 Stanley Cup photograph of Bobby Clarke's
jack-o'-lantern smile is as dated as rink boards without
advertising. In addition to Chandler's misperceptions, there are
lots of other hockey stereotypes that need debunking.

--I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out. If you're
looking for fisticuffs, you're better off scoping out a mall
parking lot the week before Christmas. Last season 61.9% of the
games were fight-free (up from 46.0% in 1989-90).The culture of
brawling, diminished by instigator and third-man-in rules
legislated beginning in the 1970s, has been further marginalized
by increased specialization. More than 35% of the fighting
majors in 2000-01 were assessed to 33 players, resident
enforcers who represent 4.6% of the NHL population.

--Those enforcers must be real animals. Todd (the Animal) Ewen,
who retired in 1999 after an 11-year career, wrote children's
books and made figurines from hockey tape in his spare time.
Some tough guys of more recent vintage--Tie Domi of the Toronto
Maple Leafs, Stu Grimson of the Nashville Predators and Rob Ray
of the Buffalo Sabres--are among the leaders in charitable works
in their communities. "Fighters generally don't fight for
themselves; they fight for their teammates and for their
jersey," Detroit Red Wings associate coach Dave Lewis says.
"It's in their nature to be selfless. If a kid gets dropped off
in the dressing room, he'll usually be put in front of an
enforcer's locker. Those guys might play two minutes a game, but
they're the favorites of children."

--Hockey players drink a lot of beer. The truth is, hockey players
have become wine snobs. New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott
Stevens estimates that his 1,200-bottle collection is worth
between $60,000 and $70,000, but that is the pale blush of a
white Zinfandel compared with the 5,000 bottles that Pittsburgh
Penguins player-owner Mario Lemieux has in his 24-by-24-foot wine
cellar. "The challenge is finding great wines priced right," says
Stevens, one of several Devils who know that a premier cru has
nothing to do with Tony Soprano's boys. "Everybody knows the big
names, but finding sleepers is fun."

The wine trend began about 10 years ago when salaries jumped and
NHL initiation rites changed from the time-honored full-body
shave to the bacchanal of the rookie dinner, a team affair in
which the only things shaved are the rookies' bank accounts. The
wine list is often read from left to right at these meals, and if
a first-year player isn't too numb from sticker shock, he might
begin to develop a palate. "We had ours at Bern's," Montreal
Canadiens right wing Brian Savage says of his rookie dinner seven
years ago at the renowned Tampa steak house, which features a
prodigious wine list. "I sat with Mark Recchi, Vincent Damphousse
and Val Bure and learned a lot." Even players who still get
carded in liquor stores are joining the craze: In the plans for
his new house 24-year-old Sabres goalie Martin Biron has included
a wine cave.

--Hockey players aren't rocket scientists. No, but some of them
are close. Montreal center Joe Juneau earned a degree in
aeronautical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,
in Troy, N.Y., one of the leading engineering schools in the U.S.
He did that in three years, in his second language. "The first
year was tough," says Juneau, a Francophone. "In class I would
repeat an English sentence in my head 10 times to make sure it
would come out O.K."

Juneau, 33, who grew up in Pont-Rouge, a Quebec City suburb, is
one of the smartest men in pro sports, a designation that makes
him cringe. He ascribes his successes, like building a two-seat
airplane with his father, Georges, in his dad's basement in 18
months or constructing a cedar canoe from scratch, not to brains
but to desire. "When I have a passion for something, I seem to
have whatever it takes to do it," says Juneau, who earned his
pilot's license in 19 days.

Ron Wilson, who coached Juneau on the Washington Capitals from
1997 to '99, taped Mensa questions to the bulletin board for
Juneau's amusement. Before long Juneau and other players, such as
Todd Krygier, were bringing in their own brainteasers. Juneau's
favorite, which he tried on his Ottawa Senators' teammates after
signing with them in 1999, was, What is one divided by zero?
"Your high school math teacher probably said you couldn't divide
a number by zero because he didn't want to go into it," Juneau
says, "but when you get into higher mathematics, it's easy."

Nor does Juneau stand alone. The polyglot NHL has players who are
eloquent or entertaining in two or three languages, like Red
Wings veteran Igor Larionov (a Russian known as the Professor);
Carolina Hurricanes goalie Arturs Irbe, who hails from Latvia;
and Avalanche left wing Ville Nieminen, from Finland. For two
decades the league's brain pool has been deepened by an influx of
college players from here and Canada. There are also serious
students of history, like Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek and
Devils center Bobby Holik, and casual students of Shakespeare,
like Detroit winger Brendan Shanahan. He took a college
summer-school course on the Bard 13 years ago and can recite
Pyramus's speech from Act V of A Midsummer's Night Dream.

By the way, the answer to Juneau's question--which a handful of
Senators knew--is infinity. Even Phoebe knows that.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE Juneau, who is suave and well-educated, is hardly a cartoonish goon.COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY KEVIN POPE [See caption above]