A Hockey State of the Union

(Content warning: discussion of mental illness, addiction, substance abuse, suicide, harassment, assault, sexual assault, sexism, discrimination, Patrick Kane, Mike Ribeiro, Slava Voynov in post and links)

On the eve of a new NHL season, here are some things I’m thinking about with regards to the Senators and the league as a whole in a two-part feature. Some serious, some not, this is where I’m at with the game right now. You can read Part One here. Part Two features thoughts on Ottawa’s opposition, the NHL, and hockey more broadly.

1. Is Mike Babcock’s lucky McGill tie (the source of all his power) still lucky now that he’s traded Detroit’s (and McGill’s) red for Toronto blue?

2. Is Ottawa’s dormant rivalry with Buffalo about to heat up? The two teams have met on several occasions in the playoffs, usually play close games, and have had some infamous dust ups in the past. Add to that the Tim Murray and ex-Senators connections and things could get interesting. Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart certainly make them watchable and potentially explosive in terms of offense and with Ottawa’s defensive issues, this could get interesting.

3. Ottawa’s hottest rivalry continues to be with the Montreal Canadiens. After another close playoff series with fresh controversies, is another early round match-up in store? I hope so. From the Ottawa perspective, it’s a much more enjoyable rivalry than some of the rivalries we’ve had in the past.

4. Aside from breaking Mark Stone’s wrist, there’s a lot to like about P.K. Subban on and off the ice. His absolutely massive donation to a children’s hospital in Montreal this month might be the best reason. He’s long been aware, and talked about the economic realities facing children who want to play hockey and has made donations to back that up. Now he’s taking care of kids off the ice too. That’s leadership.

5. I try not to make a habit of betting on players to duplicate career years. That’s not to say they can’t follow up the best year of their career with another good effort, it’s just that it’s unlikely they reach the same heights. Carey Price had a season for the ages, winning basically everything you can during the regular season. And it was well deserved. The problem for the Habs is they relied on every moment of his season to finish where they did. What happens if he’s just good and not Hart-worthy?

6. Interesting division crease battles in Toronto and Detroit. Both teams have new coaches and goalies like James Reimer and Jimmy Howard get a clean slate. In a division with Ben Bishop, Carey Prince, Tuukka Rask, and Roberto Luongo, I’ll take any goalie controversies I can get in division.

7. The crease battle I’m most looking forward to is in Dallas. The Stars are locking up more than $10M this season (and for the two seasons after that) in two goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi who are both over 30 and have consistency questions attached to their game. Should be fun.

8. Having traded Evander Kane, who will Winnipeg media blame for the inevitable slumps all teams go through this season?

9. Wayne Gretzky’s cowardice. No, I’m not talking about his recent political endorsement. After endorsing Patrick Brown for the leadership of the Ontario PC party this winter, it’s not really surprising that he endorsed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s re-election bid last week. It wasn’t lost on people that Gretzky was endorsing a PM he had never lived under and who had disenfranchised Gretzky and over a million other expats in time for the upcoming election. Gretzky’s entitled to say want he wants and endorse whichever politician he feels like. However, he could not have sounded more out of touch on Friday when he called Harper an “unreal prime minister”.

10. No, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the fact that a man so concerned about leadership that he’d endorse two men who illustrate their lack respect for women in their respective parties’ platforms; I’m talking about a man who spent most of his pro career as a captain in the NHL; I’m talking about Gretzky’s lack of leadership when it comes to his former team. Gretzky is still influential in hockey circles and he’s not attached to another organization at the moment. Nothing is stopping him from saying how poorly the Kings handled Slava Voynov’s domestic violence arrest and conviction. But then we didn’t hear a peep out of him when Drew Doughty was under investigation for sexual assault a few years ago. Nothing is stopping him from reaching out to former teammate and current Kings President of Business Ops Luc Robitaille. You want to start endorsing leaders with damaging policies to run the province and country I live in, fine, but the spotlight will then be turned on what you’re not saying.

11. This raises the question of what should be expected from team ambassadors, those still playing and those long retired. Rocky Wirtz has been celebrated by the community for changing the culture in Chicago, reconnecting with the team’s legends and bringing them back into the fold. The problem is some players should never be elevated to such heights. That Bobby Hull continues to be held up as a face of the organization is problematic. That he has a statue outside the United Center is problematic. That his Cup win and 600 goals for Chicago are more important than multiple instances of domestic violence speaks to the true values of the organization. Nostalgia and selling merchandise are not more important than the safety of women. Lots of people will suggest that people like Hull deserves second (and third and fourth) chances and my question would be: when did a second chance become synonymous with the exact same opportunities as if nothing happened? When did a second chance start to mean continue as if nothing happened and never acknowledge that wrong?

12. A collective “we’re not tone deaf” from teams under fire. During Patrick Kane’s ill-conceived press conference last week, Chicago insisted it’s not a “tone deaf organization”. But actions like playing “I Fought the Law” during a pre-season game at the United Center or the Nashville Predators anointing Mike Ribeiro with an “A” for pre-season games was never going to be missed by fans online and across the league.

13. I agree with John McDonough that these organizations are “anything but tone deaf”. These actions aren’t accidental, they’re deliberate and designed to put the players’ needs, and to a greater extent, the organization’s goals, ahead of all other concerns. Do you think Chicago was unaware as an organization that putting Kane in front of the media to read a poorly phrased statement and thank people for their questions would communicate to their fans an assumption of Kane’s innocence? Do you think management was unaware that fans would see the organization fully behind the player, allowing Kane to use its name and clout to proclaim his innocence, and cause fans to make an assumption that he isn’t guilty? Of course they did. For a player and team alleging they wanted to respect the legal process, there sure was a lot of influencing going on. David Poile in Nashville has to be happy that there’s less scrutiny on the Ribeiro re-signing now, enough that the organization felt comfortable rewarding the veteran with some leadership points in pre-season. It’s a literal marking by the organization that Ribeiro has come full circle, is someone younger teammates can emulate. Silly or not, it is another thing fans can point to and say that Ribeiro has nothing to be sorry about at all. Teams endorse players who still have use to the organization in part because many fans will go along with it.

14. The Kings are trying to change; Pierre LeBrun has told us many times. I’m unwilling to reward the Kings for their efforts thus far and I will remain ever skeptical that this is anything but a PR move. Titled “Conduct Awareness Training Initiatives,” without concrete language and descriptions of what the program entails, it’s hard to say if it’s a step in the right direction. There are reasons to worry it’s nothing more than a “don’t get caught” lecture based on the name and Lombardi’s fixation on drug-related arrests of two former players gives this “watch who you get drunk/high with” feel. Still, the Kings have partnered with a local violence prevention centre Peace Over Violence. I don’t know enough about Peace Over Violence to properly assess the organization, but partnering with a local violence prevention group that knows the community and the problem far greater than Dean Lombardi or the Kings do is the first correct step the organization has taken in a long time.

15. There’s every indication Dean Lombardi and the rest of the Kings organization still don’t get it. Conflating drug offenses, especially drug use that is quite possibly the result of injuries suffered during play, with assault is troubling on a number of levels. It lessens the seriousness of Voynov’s assault and distracts attention from how women are treated in the NHL – as partners and fans. Lombardi’s public consternation at the Mike Richards case in particular seems that the biggest crime committed by any King in 2014-15 in Lombardi’s eyes was being betrayed by a player he loved. A lot of his response to these charges frames the issues around how they’ve impacted Dean and that’s so far beyond the point that I question Lombardi’s continued role in righting these wrongs.

16. The NHL recently implemented new security measured league-wide. I’ve written about my concerns with these changes before and don’t want to rehash those points except to say the league’s refusal to act against DV/SA and respect female fans illustrates those security measures aren’t about safety if there was still any doubt. The NHL does not care about the safety of women. With the NHL insisting they don’t need to develop league-wide policy to prevent and address violence against women (they do), teams need to develop their own policies. The right policy will provide a clear framework for possible discipline, but it might actually prevent such incidents from occurring because it starts a conversation that changes minds and behaviours. Teams need to implement this at every level of their organization (minor league affiliates) and apply it to the office side of things too. That’s a level of commitment beyond PR. You need to step up here, Ottawa.

17. The Kings don’t have the right policy because the right policy is completely transparent. The NHL and its teams hate transparency; salary terms are often not released, injury details are hidden. At every step this league tries to control information and that’s a problem. By not providing more information than is absolutely necessary, it allows teams and the league to bend and ignore the rules to suit their needs. If this is really about concrete action and centring victims, SA/DV policy needs to be developed and implemented in consultation with third party experts who are not subject to team restrictions, policy, and oversight. They need to hand over the reins.

18. It’s part of NHL culture to victim blame and this needs to change. I’ve written about this before, but it deserves restating. It happens in game when players are injured. If a player is hit hard from behind, talking heads will squawk that he turned at the last second and put himself in a vulnerable position. If a player suffers a concussion, he’s told to keep his head up. It’s a lot easier to blame a player who’s suffered an injury than take a step back and really examine the way the game’s played and officiated, and the culture it creates. Is it any wonder NHL fans feel so comfortable victim blaming when attention turns to off ice issues? This is how we do things in this sport and it needs to stop.

19. The league’s collective failure on these issues is alienating, discouraging, and wearing on female fans. Women are simply tired of the league reinforcing how little they value them. It’s not about special treatment, it’s about the respect people of all genders deserve when attending a game and participating in hockey fandom. This is hurting our game.

20. Early chatter about next September’s World Cup of Hockey. I have issues with the NHL’s involvement in the Olympics but in general, international hockey is fun and we need more of it. Gary Bettman and the NHL love to bill these events as growing the game. My question is: why can’t we also have a Women’s World Cup of Hockey in addition to a Men’s World Cup of Hockey? European countries will invest more in women’s hockey if there’s more marquee events to participate in and a Canada-USA final just helps build excitement about hockey generally. With the NWHL joining the CWHL this season the interest in women’s hockey is growing. The NHL hasn’t been a big supporter of women’s hockey in general and the CWHL/NWHL in particular. For whatever reason growing the women’s game doesn’t make financial sense to the NHL. It’s yet another mistake and another sign of disrespect.

21. Former NHLer Todd Ewan died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on the weekend. Another suicide and it’s not being talked about enough. Say what you want about the recently retired Dan Carcillo, but his desire to help players transition to post-playing life is a good thing. It’s easy to feel not the least bit sympathetic for athletes who have trouble with retirement. After all, they knew it was coming, got to stop working a lot earlier than most people, and made a lot of money. This is of course true but doesn’t change the fact that we are consistently seeing cases of athletes who have trouble transitioning and what they need is empathy, support, and some solutions. Injuries, especially head injuries, and mental illness make this move harder. Best of luck to Carcillo, because this cycle of violence and anguish needs to end too.

22. The consequences of being an enforcer, of being a tough player, of fighting in hockey have been talked about a lot. But I wonder if we’ve missed another motivation in some of the cases. Head trauma obviously is of great importance here and I’m no expert on CTE or related traumas. But I know what it feels like to feel unloved and unliked, to be depressed. I know that so often it feels like no one can see you when you feel like that. I’ve played on teams and felt invisible to my teammates. I can see how a concrete action like standing up for the star player makes it impossible for your teammates to ignore you, forces them to see you. Gives you a concrete sense of your worth and their affection for you with all the fist bumps and high fives you receive. I can see how being hit or punched would give you something to center your pain on, or even just let you feel something again. I can see how that role would appeal to people with pre-existing mental illness. What I’m saying is we need better resources for mental illness in the minors and in junior hockey as well as the NHL. We need to talk about how signs of anxiety and depression manifest in sports and we need to watch out for them and reach out to players. We need to be vigilant. We need to provide support. We need to do better.

23. This is a liminal moment for my fandom. I don’t think I’m alone in that. The competing forces are seen in the competing forces of this piece. A new season is near and on the one side there’s jokes, concerns about my team, and questions about where the Sens fit when stacked against the competition. These are logical, acceptable, and typical things to be concerned about. It’s what fans are supposed to be preoccupied by. But then there’s the building storm, of disrespect and discrimination, of violence and sexual assault. It feels like this is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. But I can’t give up something I love right now and I won’t be made to go away or stop talking about it. There are many in the hockey community with a stronger resolve. This league with eventually, grudgingly, angrily submit and change.

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8 thoughts on “A Hockey State of the Union

  1. Maybe Subban could donate to sportslegacy.org for pounding a non-combatant’s head into the ice through an intervening linesman. Much more to like off the ice than on with him.

  2. Where’s the real welcometoyourkarlssonyears ? What have you done with them ? And how much money do you need to give them back to me? Karlsson is fun, energetic, and happy. Where did it all go guys? We used to be tight….

    • I couldn’t agree more, this new iteration is awful. And Gretzky is a coward because he doesn’t speak up regarding your personal agenda and a team he is no longer involved with? Give me a break.

  3. This is fabulous. I’ve been a hockey fan a LONG time and these issues colour my enjoyment of the game. You didn’t mention the whole Moore-Bertuzzi thing, but that’s part of the whole culture – blame the victim, elevate the aggressor to hero status …
    Hockey culture needs to step away from seeing ‘respect for others’ as weak and start seeing respect as a sign of strength. And that means, protecting women from violence, not excusing the abuser (no matter how well he can skate); valuing skill over brute violence on the ice; and supporting the players once they are no longer playing.
    Thanks for writing this.

  4. Pingback: Senators News & Notes | eyeonthesens

  5. Gretzky’s cowardice??? WTF. He’s a coward because he supports the Conservatives? Guess what? A lot of people do. And despite the best efforts of all those hand-wringing, bleeding heart types to demonize anything and anyone who doesn’t unreservedly endorse every facet of the liberal right-speak and right-think agenda, voting Conservative is not synonymous with being inherently racist, xenophobic, misogynistic or anything else of that ilk.
    I’ve done my best to read your posts Andrew because the first step in making positive change is to listen and to accept that from a different perspective familiar things may appear radically different. In a number of cases I think you raise very valuable points. In other cases I think you draw conclusions based on ideology more than evidence. And in a few cases I think you’re just plain wrong. Your trigger warnings are one example – they may be trendy as all get up but from a psychological point of view they do more harm than good. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/ – and calling Gretzky a coward is another. Hell, calling anyone a coward because of their political inclinations is weak. You disappoint me.

    • I’m gonna ignore the political stuff, because your politics seem amazing. Shine on you crazy diamond.

      But I’m gonna mention something about content warnings, because I think it’s important: if you are ok with the idea of a “spoiler warning” when you are discussing a movie or television program, then you are ok with a “content warning”. A spoiler warning is nothing more than an indication to the reader/listener that there will be discussions about something they might not want to talk about at this time, and they should act accordingly. A content warning is the same thing, but for real life. I don’t know why we acknowledging that some of our readers may not want to interact with certain content is a bad thing, but you certainly seem VERY passionate about it. Be advised that future content warnings will be prefaced with a content warning warning so you yourself can decide whether or not you want to further proceed with the article.

      As for that Atlantic article, this is not an academic setting. This is a website. We’re not coddling anything except for our own sense of fun.

      thx u 4 reading

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