December 18, 2015

The lack of common human decency in hockey

If I remember, I'll add links later on this post.

So the the latest Hockey Twitter outrage is...on-ice trash talking. Which has been around since pretty much forever, really. With competition comes trash talking - it's just human nature.

However, the point of today's outrage isn't that it happened, but what was mentioned. A former NHLer, Patrick O'Sullivan, has written a book and a blog post for The Players' Tribune (a site produced by former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter) detailing the physical abuse that he suffered at the hands of his father while he was growing up. He mentioned on Twitter yesterday how another player - Alexandre Burrows - tried trash talking him during a game by using his childhood abuse and that's why he didn't like Burrows.

Then, of course, Burrows tried to backtrack by saying that he didn't realize it was so bad, and that "if" it was offensive he was sorry. (I'll give it to him, though - at least he owned up to it.) It's doubtful that he's actually sorry for saying it, since he didn't seem to have a problem saying it in the first place. It's far more likely that he's sorry that it created so much bad publicity for himself. Still, "if" it's offensive is a pretty laughable comment.

Which, naturally, set off the fans, bloggers, and some media about how awful that was that Burrows said that to O'Sullivan - no matter what the circumstances were. And then, to add insult to injury, it came out that an anonymous NHLer was quoted in an article that basically the women in other player's lives are "fair game", while children and pets aren't when it comes to trash talking.

So it's basically a consensus among NHLers that children and pets deserve far more respect than women, generally speaking.

Here's the thing for me: I've known for years that there's no honor nor respect among NHLers. I mean, there's a reason why injury reports are so general that it's almost laughable that they even bother distinguishing between "upper" and "lower" body injuries. It's totally because NHL officials know that if they give out the actual injuries, there will be players trying to take advantage of that information on the ice.

Having been an athlete myself, I know that trash talking isn't about being respectful. It's a tactic used to throw a competitor off his or her game. The entire point is to get into their heads so that they're distracted and not playing at their best. It happens all the time, in every sport, and at every level. And it's particularly bad when people don't teach their children about proper sportsmanship and how to lose gracefully.

I do have a problem with people claiming that it's a part of the hockey "code", however. First of all, there is no "code". It's just a term tossed around to make guys feel better about doing unsavory things that they have no real justification for doing. There are players that have individual standards of conduct that they adhere to, but that's about as far as any "code" goes.

Also, I've always thought that trash talking is pretty juvenile. There are better ways to throw someone off their game - like outplaying them, for example. I never found a use for it when I was an athlete, and it never bothered me when someone tried doing it to me. I found it funny more times than not, in fact, because it was so silly that they'd bother.

And, frankly, if you let someone manipulate you with something as obvious as trash talking, then you deserve what you get.

The only times I've ever talked trash was when I was joking around with friends playing a casual game. I've never done it seriously. Why bother? I've got better things to do than to waste my breath on something that probably won't even work. It takes too much time and effort to come up with that kind of crap when I could be thinking about the next play.

Honestly, I've never held NHLers up to some high moral standard, so that part doesn't actually bother me very much. Competition either brings out the best or the worst in people, and that's just human nature. I do think that there are lines that people shouldn't cross, but that comes down to simple human decency rather than putting anyone up on a pedestal.

If you're going to trash talk, then keep it to the person directly in front of you. Don't involve their history of mental illness, any past abuse of any kind, any addictions or suicidal stuff, any family members, or any significant others. Involving others outside of the person your trash talking, or bringing up traumatic stuff, isn't creative. It's contemptible.

If you really need a code of conduct to live by while on the ice during a game, then here's a very simple one for you: Don't be an asshole.

September 17, 2015

There's outrage because what happened was outrageous

NHL supports Blackhawks in Patrick Kane training camp decision
There was some thought that the NHL could step in to suspend Kane if the Blackhawks chose to have him at camp, evoking Section 18-A.5 of the CBA that gives Commissioner Gary Bettman the power to suspend a player that creates “a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the League.”

Obviously that’s something that isn’t happening now, but Daly’s “given the circumstances that exist now” signals that if a grand jury indicts Kane, the NHL’s approach could change. It suspended Slava Voynov of the Los Angeles Kings after he was arrested for domestic assault. The Blackhawks also said they would reevaluate if Kane was indicted.
So here's the thing.

Yes, Patrick Kane is innocent until proven a court of law. In the court of public opinion, most of the hockey media - and most female hockey fans across the NHL - are pretty sure that he's guilty. Many of the male fans think so, too. Basically, the only people who don't are the people who think women lie about being raped, and people who think of athletes as things.

Now, I'm sure Kane genuinely believes that he's also not guilty - just as this woman who's pressing charges obviously believes that he is.

However, I've seen time and time again over the years on message boards, on social media, and in comments sections that a lot of men don't always know when they've raped a woman. (Or women don't know they've raped a men, for that matter.) What women think of as rape, a lot of men don't - and a lot of that is based upon assumptions rather than facts. Just because you think something is true, doesn't always mean that it is.

The bottom line there is that, unless the other person specifically says yes, you always assume that the answer is going to be no until you ask and are told directly otherwise. And that means don't be putting hands, fingers, or other things in places without the other person saying yes, it's okay. Rape isn't just intercourse, after all.

Despite that, the entire point of the Chicago Blackhawks press conference, I'm sure, was to announce that training camp was going to be business as usual. That there's nothing to see here, and to just move along. That everything was essentially normal for them.

However, it's definitely not normal, and we all know it. All anyone wants to ask about are the allegations. No one cares about the hockey part of things - they want the details about the controversy. And if no one's going to talk about that, then there's no point in even showing up.

So why go through the motions? Why put on this farce of a press conference in the first place? Why try to ignore the elephant in the room?

Regardless of what Brian Burke says at the end of this post, in the real world, companies will suspend (often without pay) or outright fire employees in legal trouble. It happens all the time. The more high profile the case, the more likely the employee will be fired or suspended, in fact.

And that's where part of the fan outrage is coming from. Fans aren't necessarily jumping to conclusions - though, if asked, most have already made up their minds about this case - and they're not convicting Kane. All they want is for the Blackhawks, or the NHL, to treat Kane like they would be treated if they were in his place by their place of employment.

The other part of the fan outrage are the multitudes of female fans who have either been abused, sexually assaulted, or raped - or have had friends or family that have - that are being told by the actions of the Blackhawks and the NHL that women are liars about that sort of thing.

Men would be surprised by how many women have had something shady happen to them. For example, while I have not personally had anything serious thing happen to me, I have had inappropriate things happen. A friend's father put his hand on my hip while he thought I was sleeping, for instance. I was probably 14 years old at the time. But that's as far as it ever went - and I was never comfortable around that guy ever again.

Every single woman that I know or have ever known has at least one story like that. And there are plenty of men in the same boat as well. Some are the extreme ends where family members sexually molested them as children or being brutally raped by someone they knew, and some are at the less horrific end like me. No one likes to talk about it openly, however, because they're afraid of being made fun of, ridiculed, or worse.

So to have a team that you love, or the sport that you love, defend a guy that's been accused of doing something like that to another woman is beyond appalling. There are women - life-long hockey fans - who are questioning whether they want to watch hockey anymore because of this. And still the team and the league refuse to acknowledge that it's even a possibility that it happened.

And not just the them, but this guy's teammates as well. Everyone's blindly standing by Kane, simply because he's a teammate. Now, I get wanting to get along with your teammates, and how guys spend at least seven months in each other's constant company. But there are teammates that don't get along, and they avoid each other whenever possible. That's just how it is. Frankly, it's just better not to discuss it at all if they're put in that awkward situation.

So you have the NHL and the Blackhawks both trying to sweep this under the rug while the fans want transparency. And that's the disconnect; that's the problem. If you're not going to talk about the problem, and you want to carry on like it's business as usual, then don't call a press conference. It's really just that simple.

Because, obviously, it isn't business as usual if you're calling a press conference about something you refuse to discuss.

September 11, 2015

Doesn't matter who said it, but here's who said it

League moving to educate players, curb off-ice issues

I'm in a particularly blunt sort of mood, so I'm not going to sugar-coat any of this. Most of the morning on Twitter, people have been talking about this article. The first and last quotes in it are why.

The first:
"I think as players we're all aware of it," superstar center Sidney Crosby told this week at the Player Tour event. "The league and Players' Association do a good job of informing us and making us well-aware of certain situations and consequences, things like that. I think it's something that everyone, whether you're a professional hockey player or a professional athlete, in general everyone is trying to educate each other in terms of situations you could be put in and making the right decisions. ..."
And the last:
"You don't like the negative image on the league," said Team USA Olympian Justin Faulk, of the Carolina Hurricanes. "But it is a little bit of a reminder that you need to be careful with everything you do. You don't want to jeopardize something in your life, let alone someone else's. You don't want to hurt your team, the league, or have an affect on someone else's life that can be bad."
Anyone care to take a stab at why one of these is good while the other is bad? No? Maybe they look the same to you? Because to many other people, they look like total ends of the spectrum - one end being how most people think, and the other being completely out of touch with most people's reality.

The difference comes down to this: "in terms of situations you could be put in" versus "or have an affect on someone else's life".

Crosby is the out of touch one here. He obviously believes that things just happen to him - that he's a spectator who has no control over anything that he's around. He gets "put into situations", rather than puts himself into situations. It's extremely passive wording, and it tells you a lot about how he views the world.

He doesn't see himself as a part of the world, so nothing is ever his fault. His own actions have no meaning, as he apparently believes that they don't affect anyone else. He views himself as a victim and takes no responsibility for himself; if bad things happen to him, then it's always someone else's fault. After all, how could it possibly be his fault if he has no control over anything? It's the view a child would take - or someone not very emotionally mature, at least.

Faulk's view is the more common view of people outside of sports - that his actions have consequences and those can hurt others, sometimes severely if he's not careful. He believes that he's at least partly responsible for the bad things that might happen to him. He is not a victim nor emotionally immature, but an adult who knows that what he does impacts himself as well as others around him. His view is one of someone who actively sees himself as a part of the world around him.

The problem is that most of the players in the NHL (as well as professional hockey in other leagues) view life like Crosby does, and not like how Faulk does.

Bad things "just happen" to players; it's not their fault. Even on the ice, you see this victim mentality where, if someone gets hit clean but hard, they think that it's a dirty hit and they were being singled out intentionally to be injured. You almost never hear anyone say, "I was sort of in a bad position when he hit me." Instead it's usually something like, "It was a dirty hit."

So it's no wonder that no one off of the Chicago Blackhawks would say anything bad about Patrick Kane's rape allegations. They supported their teammate because that's what teammates do - but also because they probably don't believe he did anything wrong. But how can a player know how to respect women when players don't even respect each other?

(Incidentally, this Washington Post report suggests that only 35% of rapes that happen are reported, and of those that are reported to the police, only around 7% are false accusations. Therefore, the odds that Kane actually did it are really pretty high. So before doing that classic knee-jerk reaction of "this woman's trying to just get money out of him" rationalization, look up the statistics.

Also, admitting to being raped is a profoundly emotionally painful, intensely shameful, and humiliating experience, and most people who have had that happen to them don't like talking about it in the first place to anyone - which is why most don't report it. So do you really think someone would want to do that in court in front of potentially hundreds of people? Especially in this culture of victim-shaming? And against a high-profile man such as a professional athlete?)

Two things need to happen to help hockey players help themselves, quite frankly.

One, they need to realize that they're a part of the world. They need to know that these situations that they "happen to be put into" are situations that they actually put themselves into. Even if they're just standing there, not saying anything to anyone, they're still a part of the situation. It's their choice, it's their decision, it's their body that they put there.

The Nuremberg Defense - "I was told to do it" - doesn't work in real life, you know. They still have the choice to say "no". They still have the option to walk away. The decision to follow through with something is still theirs, no matter what someone else tells them to do.

The second thing that they need to realize is what respect really is, what it means, and how to respect others. That starts with respecting themselves, and respecting their teammates. Because once they learn how to properly respect themselves and others, chances of them becoming a crime statistic seriously go down. That includes a team's front office and their coaching staff as well, frankly.

Part of the problem as well is that some athletes see women as fans see them - they're things; commodities to use and / or enjoy. So if they don't like being used by others without their express permission, then maybe they ought to not use others without their express permission. Being treated how you want to be treated - and not how you are treated - is almost never a bad rule of thumb.

This isn't hard, but if you're not taught it like most kids are, then it becomes hard. This doesn't start when guys hit the pros. This aspect of hockey culture starts way before then. And maybe they ought to address it when it starts, so that the NHL doesn't have to figure it out after the fact.

July 2, 2015

My professional opinion, for what it's worth

After talking to a few people, we've all pretty much come to the same conclusion. Mark Barberio signing with his hometown team of Montreal has set his career back. Reactions ran from him being stuck in the AHL forever now, to him being stuck in pretty much the same position he was in in Tampa.

He chose comfort, familiarity, and childhood dreams over his NHL career, and that's going to cost him. Probably. Another NHL team may pick him up off of waivers when he gets sent down to St. John's in Newfoundland and save him from himself. But if that doesn't happen, then chances are good that he'll be in the AHL for a large portion of the season.

And the thing is, he's not an AHLer. Right now, he's probably a #4 or #5 defenseman on an NHL team that needed a guy like him, and he'll only get better if he's playing against top competition. He probably would've had to have worked up to that from starting out as #5 or #6, but still. Being in the AHL won't give him that. He may dominate in the minors, sure, but he was doing that three years ago. It's a step backwards, not a step forward.

I don't know what kind of offers he was getting, but the first question he should've asked himself about any of them was if he'd get consistent NHL playing time. And if the answer to that wasn't yes, then he should've passed. There were plenty of NHL teams out there in need of a defenseman like him, and they probably would've given him a good 70 games this year.

Montreal has plenty of defensemen, so chances of him living the dream in his hometown are pretty slim. Especially since the head coach, Michel Therrien, probably won't like how he plays. He would've had a better shot at playing there towards the end of the NHL career instead.

I understand that it probably seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it really wasn't. Montreal's always willing to listen to the agents of good players who are from La Belle Province, and particularly if they're from the town itself. They're pretty infamous for that, in fact. So it wasn't a matter of "if" so much as a matter of "when".

You can't take one aspect of a decision and decide that's all you need to make something work. From the outside looking in, it appears to be an impulsive decision that was entirely based upon family and / or childhood dreams that potentially could end up costing him an NHL career. And he's just too good to be a life-long minor leaguer, which is the tragedy of it all.

Could he make the opening night roster in Montreal? I'd like to think he could, because I know he's a good player, but at the same time I sort of doubt it. They've already got established defensemen that they like and are comfortable with - and he is not one of those. Again, if he's playing with the NHL club, he'll likely be doing some press box time - which is exactly what he was doing in Tampa Bay.

Thankfully, it's only a year contract, he could get picked up off waivers, and he's 25 years old - so it's not a total disaster. That's the one bright side to all of this. But I hope he likes Newfoundland, since he's probably going to be spending some quality time there.

June 29, 2015

The pitfalls of NHL free agency

Free agency for NHL fans is considered "Hockey Christmas", since the players get picked up by their favorite teams are like presents getting handed out at Christmas. Most of the time, they're unexpected happy surprises, and other times, it's nothing that they wanted. But, it's always exciting, either way.

From the player's side of things, it's likely incredibly stressful. Hockey players are creatures of habit, and creatures of habit don't like the uncertainty of trying to figure out what to do next. Thankfully, they have agents to help them out with that, but it's still probably pretty nerve wracking.

First, it comes down to teams reaching out to agents to see if they're interested. Or sometimes, it's agents reaching out to teams - and, seriously, it never hurts to ask - if the player so requests, from what I understand. Oftentimes, players don't realize that they're a part of the equation and have a say in what they want to do, so they leave it up to their agents. But the agent works for the player, not the other way around, so players can totally steer their career in the direction that they'd like to.

Once there are offers, then the sorting begins - and this is where players can screw themselves over. Take Vinny Lecavalier, for instance. Any fan knows that the Philadelphia Flyers are not a great place for an over-30 player to go. It's a total no-brainer, in fact. But he let his wife decide where she wanted to live instead of him deciding where he wanted to play, and now he's in a position where he's with a team that no longer wants him despite him still wanting to play.

It isn't just about location; it's about what's best for your career and what work conditions you're willing to put up with. Playing for the San Jose Sharks, for instance, might seem like a good idea since they've still got a decent team and a new coach. But there's a lot of locker room drama going on there, and if that's going to be something you're not willing to deal with, then maybe the Sharks aren't for you.

Naturally, everyone wants to play for contending teams - the point of playing the game is to get your name on the Stanley Cup, after all. But not only is the competition for the few open spots available insane, it may not be the best option for a career. Especially for a younger player, who's still trying to establish himself in the league.

I think that what's best for a player's career should come first, followed by the team's culture, their ability to contend, and then the location for a younger player. For older established players, then probably ability to contend moves to the top of the list - depending on their age and where they're at in the careers. Rarely, if at all, will all four of those things line up into a perfect situation, though, so it's best to not even expect that to ever happen.

So the teams to avoid (from the fan's perspective), if you were an unrestricted free agent, are:
  • Boston Bruins
  • Dallas Stars
  • Edmonton Oilers
  • Philadelphia Flyers
  • San Jose Sharks
  • Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Vancouver Canucks
  • Winnipeg Jets
There may be others, but those are the big, glaring problem children of the NHL right now off the top of my head. Those are the teams that most fans, bloggers, and media cringe at players signing with. Some are worse than others, but those are the teams you have to think twice about when it comes to how they're managed, at least.

Still, a player has to do what's best for him and his career. And hopefully, he's got people who know the league that can help advise him. But the bottom line is that it's his decision, and he has control over his own career - not his agent, not his wife or girlfriend, and not his parents.

May 21, 2015

A ghost of a defenseman

What Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper - and his defensive coach Rick Bowness - have done to defenseman Mark Barberio this season is completely and utterly wrong. I don't care who the guy is; you don't treat players like this. It's things like this that make coaches lose their rooms and their jobs.

But I guess we should've seen this coming, as he'd only played in three of the first 18 games of the regular season. A streak that may have gone longer had I not called out Cooper on Twitter for it. Coincidentally or not, Barberio played the following game after that.

The biggest part of the problem - for there are many parts to this - is the lack of playing time, especially in playoffs.

Here's a well-liked player among his teammates, who put in 52 games of work in a difficult situation, and he excelled at it. The Lightning were down four defenseman, and Barberio was tasked to step in and help cover for that. And not only did he play well enough to have earned a spot in the roster, he was a key part of top-rated penalty killing units.

But right before and at the start of playoffs, all of those defensemen came back, and he hasn't been seen again. Not just in the lineup, but also by the media. He's become a ghost - someone no one either acknowledges nor talks about publicly, for whatever reason. Even people who work for the team, who probably see him on a regular basis, almost never mention him even as a part of the scratches.

What makes this all worse is that his head coach is the very man who helped him reach the NHL. Who leaned on him hard during their time together in the minor leagues and counted on Barberio to get the job done. And now, that same coach takes him apparently either for granted or has put him in the dog house - that part of the situation isn't clear from the outside looking in.

What is clear, however, is that Cooper is no longer a fan of Mark Barberio. And because of that, Barberio doesn't get to play. Which is completely unfair that it's come down to this. Barberio was praised all season long for doing everything that he was supposed to, for being able to step into a game seamlessly when he'd been sitting out for weeks without complaint, and yet he's been push aside like an empty coffee cup.

He does everything his coaches asks of him, and he's rewarded by sitting in the press box.

Now, people may give me crap for this, but I genuinely believe that he's just as good as Anton Stralman. In my opinion, the Lightning's current defensive depth is Victor Hedman being a bit ahead of the rest, then Stralman and Barberio, followed closely by Jason Garrison and Nikita Nesterov. Then it drops a bit to Braydon Coburn, and a bit more to Matt Carle. Finally, it's Luke Witkowski and then Andrej Sustr.

After last season, when the Lightning coaches were switching up defensive pairings all over the place, I got to see who Barberio played best with. And the guy that his playing style had the best fit with was Victor Hedman. By far. Not only were they very creative together and solidly responsible defensively, but offensively as well.

So my pairings, were I in charge of that for the team, would be Hedman-Barberio, Nesterov-Stralman, Garrison-Coburn, and then maybe rotate in Carle or Witkowski as necessary.

I have no problem with Andrej Sustr - I really don't. I'm sure he's a very nice guy and everything, but he does not fit in at all with this defense. He's not strong positionally, and instead tries to recover from his mistakes with his insanely long reach. Much of that time that actually works for him, but when it doesn't it's disastrous. He's definitely the weakest player in this type of system for the Lightning.

As for Nesterov, in the coaches' eyes he jumped over Barberio at the end of the regular season in the depth chart. Nesterov had shown more of an interest in being the offensive player that Barberio had been known as in the AHL, which is probably why. Barberio was content at being more of a stay-at-home defensive player, which is apparently not what the Lightning were hoping to get out of him at the NHL level. But that makes sense - if a guy was an offensive force in the minors, then chances are, that's what they'd want out of him in the majors. The trick is maintaining that defensive responsibility while doing playing more offensively at a higher level of play.

To be clear, when a defenseman is considered more "offensive", it's that he's being more of a playmaker rather than just a guy sitting at the blue line trying to keep the puck in the offensive zone. A "scoring" defenseman gets maybe 15 goals a year, but that's not very common. It's racking up the assists that give a defenseman a reputation for being an offensive player more so than goal scoring.

Now, is Barberio #2 defenseman material? No, not right now. But that's not the point here, either. People often get caught up in depth charts and assigning meaningless status to players as a way to evaluate them, when they ought to be looking at what abilities compliment other player's abilities. Barberio's ability compliments Hedman's in a way that no one else's can or does on the Lightning. That's all. That doesn't automatically mean he's the second-best defenseman on the team, however.

Another big part of Barberio's lineup problem is that the coaching staff has become very rigid this season in their thinking about the defense. They're determined to keep a right-shooting defenseman paired with a left-shooting defenseman. And as Sustr is a right-shooting defenseman, that means that he's automatically in the lineup, no matter what. So, naturally, that makes him the weakest spot in the defense, which other teams can exploit to their advantage - either through getting him to take a penalty, or overwhelming him on the ice.

Of course, Barberio hasn't done himself any favors by trying to be inconspicuous, either. Here's a guy who is very adept at flying under other people's radar when he chooses to. In this case, that's caused him to be overlooked even more, even as he's likely frustrated by the fact that he's sitting in limbo and black aces are being talked about more than he is. If you want people to notice you, and to perhaps give you a shot, then you have to make a little noise in order to their attention focused on you in the first place.

About the only good from this playoff run is that Barberio is eligible to get his name on the Stanley Cup, even if he doesn't play, and if the Lightning make it that far. Players had to have played at least 41 regular season games, or played in one playoff game, to qualify for that. It'd be a bittersweet and somewhat empty victory for him, I would guess, but it would help him out in the long run over his NHL career.

Despite Matt Carle being out of the lineup and questionable for Game 4 tomorrow, I'm not holding my breath that Barberio will make it into the lineup even if Carle is out. I'm actually expecting Cooper to go with a 12-forward / 6-defensemen setup, in fact. Which means that Nesterov will be in, and Barberio will still be sitting in the press box. If, by some quirk of fate Barberio does make it into the lineup, then I expect very limited playing time for him. It's clear that the coaches don't want him to play, so why give him playing time if they don't have to?

Is Barberio blameless in this situation? Of course not. I can think of a number of things that could've been done differently, and have mentioned a couple of them here already. But as the decision to play him or not lies primarily with the coaching staff, the burden of the situation rests more upon them than it does on him.

At this point, Barberio's a restricted free agent come July 1st, and I'm seriously hoping general manager Steve Yzerman lets him go. Or, at least, trades him. Barberio has earned better treatment than sitting in the press box as his coaches take him for granted. He's obviously been buried in the depth chart with the Lightning, so he's likely not going to get any more playing time were he re-signed - especially not by a coaching staff that has consistently shown no interest in playing him.

My greatest fear is that Yzerman does re-sign him, in fact. In which case, I would hope that Barberio jumps ship for Europe, since the current coaching staff likely won't change their minds about him. There's no point in sticking around if all you're going to end up doing is sitting in the press box for half the season and all of playoffs, after all.

So, Yzerman - let him go. Let him find another team that will actually give him a legitimate chance, instead of adding more defensemen to the roster so he can't play. His coaches apparently don't want him there, so why re-sign the poor guy? If you want to reward him for putting in the time and effort and helping out the team in a pinch, the let him find a new home. Give him that chance to be the defenseman that you wanted him to be on another team, since his current coaches won't.