The Stupidest Bit of Conventional Wisdom Still in Hockey

Jonathan Willis
May 07 2012 09:34AM

Despite the fact that we’re no longer living in the 1950’s, there are still commentators out there devoted to certain maxims of that bygone area. It leads to stupidity in the various mediums where hockey is covered.

Naturally, I’m referring to the outdated notion that nationality has some relationship to character or ability. It doesn’t.

Don Cherry’s the easy target here, but he’s also the wrong target. Despite his impressive pulpit, Cherry’s days of being a major influencer of opinion are all but numbered; he’s a dinosaur, with his coherence fading and his take on the game grounded at least three decades in the past. He’s simply not a credible analyst when compared to the various recently-fired coaches and ex-players that provide expertise at TSN and CBC and Sportsnet.

The real problem are the hockey commentators that are less obviously relics of a bygone era.

Who are they? They’re the commentators that can be heard muttering about Swedes and Danes after a Canucks playoff loss. They’re the people looking at the Radulov/Kostitsyn incident and wondering aloud if the Oilers really want to take a Russian with that first overall pick. They’re the ones who pointedly noted Milan Lucic’s birthplace last year but failed to make mention of it after a goalless first round this year. They’re the ones who talk about “good” Russians and “bad” Russians, but have no similar comments for Canadians.

Because make no mistake – when it comes to lazy, underperforming, underwhelming, or just plain odious hockey players, Canada has contributed its share. Sean Avery, the poster-boy for locker-room disruption in the modern NHL, is a proud native of North York, Ontario. Dany Heatley, the two-time 100-point scorer who barely cracked 50 this year, is a good Western Canadian boy. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, routinely vilified after every Sharks’ playoff exit, represent Ontario and Saskatchewan, respectively. Imagine if Richards and Carter were Mikhail and Ivan rather than Mike and Jeff during the whole ‘dry island’ furor – what sort of commentary would we have heard on Russian players? What sort did we hear on those crazy, partying, Canadians?

Few things beyond the puck and the ice are really black and white in hockey. Reasonable people can disagree on a multitude of points. This, however, is one of those areas where there is a clear, black-and-white answer.

We can note the different job market for young European players, who as a rule are far more willing to accept jobs in Europe than North Americans. It’s a fair point. Of course, when a player comes to North America prior to being drafted and makes it clear in every interview that his only goal is the NHL, it’s less of a fair point, but I digress.

The bottom line is this: the world’s best hockey players have celebrity, fantastic sums of money, and a schedule that includes lots of time in lively cities far from home thrust upon them at a young age. Many, understandably, choose to indulge in the vices afforded by such a life. Some, equally understandably, miss practice or stay out too late or refuse to accept certain restrictions that come with being a real professional.

Canadian, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, American, whatever. Every hockey player-producing nation also produces hockey players that live it up a bit too much, don’t try hard enough, or have other failings.

With Canadian players, it isn’t taken as a commentary on our society as a whole. The actions of Sean Avery don’t reflect negatively on Ryan Smyth. Jeff Carter’s miserable year in Columbus doesn’t make teams think twice about drafting Ryan Murray.

Normally I wouldn't retake this same ground less than two months after making similar points.  But the general tone of playoff coverage has sent me back here, because the same sort of asinine comments keep getting made.

When a commentator takes some misstep by a Russian player and uses it to make a larger point about Russians in general, or keys in on a Swede and comments darkly that he just made an un-Canadian play he’s not telling us anything about Russians or Swedes or even hockey.

The only thing he’s making clear is that he’s willing to make idiotic generalizations.

Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.