I’ve talked at length on Twitter about just how toxic hockey culture can be. But one of the aspects I haven’t really discussed are player interviews. Hockey fans have a joke about interviews. That you just take a few tired phrases, mix them up, remove most personality. Bam! You have the perfect hockey interview. And that no matter what players are asked, they’ll answer them in the blandest way possible.
So how can that possibly be toxic? Players go through intense media training in order to stop reacting to questions reporters might have. To reign in their emotions. All to avoid making the team look bad. Or to avoid having too much of a personality in order to possibly shake up the locker room.
Sure, the NHL does their yearly media day. (Well, they didn’t this year due to the pandemic). They bring in the faces of the NHL and ask them a lot of silly questions and put them in videos. But that’s guaranteed to be the most personality you’ll see out of any of these players through the year.
Instead, after every game, you’ll hear the same rote phrases. Talking about taking the puck in deep, driving it in, grinding it out….And yes, this all seems benign, but it’s a problem. It reinforces the idea that the team comes first, and individuals last.
Voráček Lashes Out
In fact, Jakub Voráček of the Flyers recently lashed out at a reporter. He said, “Does it matter what I say, Mike? You’re gonna write fucking shit every time so it doesn’t matter what you say. Yeah it feels different. I mean, we got four points out of these first two games. Uh, I wasn’t even gonna answer your question because you are such a weasel it’s not even funny. Next question.”
It seemed that this all stemmed from an incident around Halloween in 2019, where Mike Sielski had shared that Voráček had been laughing while Alain Vigneault had berated him. The original article made it seem like he was laughing at Vigneault, then later edited to reflect that he had just been laughing. Voráček tweeted that Sielski had avoided Voráček until that particular Zoom availability, so Voráček hadn’t been able to respond to it at all.
But predictably, despite Voráček having the kind of reaction that seems all too human, the NHL said that they had to talk to him about his outburst. (Yes, talk to him about swearing – instead of having a more public declaration that they addressed issues like homophobic comments made by players on the ice or talked to players about endorsing a social media platform filled with white supremacists.)
One of the biggest problems with hockey culture is the mentality that players should stay calm, bland and defer to the team at all costs. Because this doesn’t start at the professional level. It starts with youth hockey and through every other level.
Team first hurts individuals
And that team-first, say nothing mentality in hockey culture? It’s the mechanism that keeps people from reporting abuse. Whether it’s hazing, racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic comments, or physical abuse. Asking players to seem impersonal and stick to a script makes it more difficult for them to speak up when it really matters. Because you’ve taught them that isn’t the way to behave.
When fans urged the Pens to not go to the White House to visit Trump (pointing out that Trump already had said a number of things that violated the NHL’s Declaration of Principles, as well as enacted policies that harmed their plans), and were met with a bland line from players that it was an honor to go to the White House. That it would disappoint others. There were a few people who dissented when the Capitals went. But very few, unfortunately. The loudest voice was Devante Smith-Pelly, who flat out said that Trump had been sexist and racist. Braden Holtby also was very clear that going to meet Trump would violate his own values, but that it was up to each team member to make a decision.
When the US National teams went after the Olympics in Pyeongchang, the US Women’s National team were seen near Trump. Though notably, Hilary Knight was absent. As her teammates posted pictures with their medal and Olympic gear, she said that she wouldn’t want to be anywhere other than with her grandmother – showing both of them with her medal.
Most dissent in pro hockey is like Knight’s. Not a direct indictment, but a statement nevertheless.
I’m trying to find the quote (and failing), but I remember someone in the NHL at the start of the summer saying that they didn’t want to talk about George Floyd with their team, since it could disrupt the locker room. I remember thinking how hard it must be to be a minority in the NHL- afraid to speak up about something important to you, worried about losing the support of your team.
The NHL’s “change”
The NHL tries to promote themselves on being progressive about social change (though pretty graphics, some hashtags with corresponding merchandise, and a few deft donations), but simultaneously reinforces a hockey culture that rewards silence.
Disrupting the toxic aspects of hockey means undoing the mechanisms that let it continue – not just making blanket statements about what the league does and don’t stand for. It requires tearing down the framework to rebuild something stronger.
Any new framework should allow players to be people. To express frustration, discontent. To hold the sport accountable.