Problem Athletes, Not a Problem in Hockey

If the NHL wants to think of itself as one of North America’s premiere sports –which it clearly does– then comparisons to other major sports will become a bit more apt. The ongoing labor dispute between the league and NHLPA takes a parallel approach to how the other big boys of the industry pay their employees while also remaining both efficient and profitable. Other, larger-scaled leagues are able to divide revenue in a manner that pleases the majority of owners, and therefore Gary Bettman and company want to do the same. These conglomerates know the stakes and the potential for expanding profit margins, but they are also starting to develop a new, healthier trend.

You can call it a sign of ongoing economic trends or you could call it just smart business, but employing a diva or prima donna athlete in professional sports is, much like casually investing in the stock market, no longer a risk worth the reward.

Earlier this month, football’s Miami Dolphins cut former superstar wide receiver Chad Johnson following an unnecessarily crass press conference and a subsequent head butting / domestic disturbance with his wife Evelyn. Johnson, at the time, was the top wideout option for the Dolphins– who have not made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. Yet, when the option came between keeping a trouble-making player or taking your chances with the same evils of last season, the team chose the latter.

As far as the major North Americans sports are concerned, football may be the most lenient. Whether it is a controversial player like Dez Bryant — a convicted felon accused of threatening to kill his mother — or Adrian Peterson– arrested for resisting arrest earlier this summer– the sport typically hits their players with a slap on the wrist. Players with DUIs like Marshawn Lynch and Kenny Britt face a pithy suspension, at best.

The NFL may not necessarily crack down on the specific behavior of such players, but the individual teams may be catching on to a developing trend. Teams that essentially win championships do so because of their cohesiveness as a unit.

Egos aside, it takes every player on the team to act in unison as a cog in an asynchronous machine. This trend holds true with regards to all major sports:

  • The Miami Heat finally won with their ‘Big 3′, but only after their stars found a way to win together. And losing the hard way.
  • The New York Giants found their mojo late in the season, improving after fully understanding how to work together. In fact, it took some players getting ‘called out’ to actually get the point across.
  • The same can be said of the St. Louis Cardinals who stunningly found a way to get performances out of not only top players such as Albert Pujols, but also unheralded players like David Freese and Kyle Lohse.
  • And in Los Angeles, the Kings found a way to stay tight defensively and score goals in bunches; despite several star players, no one ego was bigger than the team as a whole.

In a world of exorbitant salaries, owners, and coach staffs alike want to make sure they are fielding an actual team. And in order to do so, sometimes immensely talented but troubled players need to be shown the door.

The Media Influence

Now that we live in the Twitter era– a 24-hour news cycle that not only gives fans a deeper perspective into the life of these players — the perception has changed. Instead of reading quotes intertwined in a beat writer’s column, an unfiltered interview is now accessible. The layman can now see how the player took the question, how he responded and put it into context with the actual words. In short, there’s more to infer now than 20 years ago.

Additionally, the influx of bloggers and independent news sources makes the room a bit more crowded. While athletes can still engage personally with individual reporters, the general feeling of clutter, scrambling for quotes, and unnecessary questions somewhat dehumanizes the process.

This new environment allows for the fans to get more information, and do so instantly. And because of this added knowledge, or using a better word: access, fans are increasingly informed of what should, and should not be accepted by the masses. Not only do fans want their favorite players to be role models in the media, but they want it instantly. Perfection is expected not only by the owners, and to a lesser degree the players and coaches, it is now exponentially craved by the die-hard fan base. And even in situations where the media consistently scrutinizes a player, coach, or team, the masses demand favorable responses, which is, in itself an added and somewhat unnecessary pressure.

Blame whoever you want for the sudden change, but these athletes have essentially two choices: shape up or find a different employer.

A Different Moral Code

Call it old school, or call it contrived but the NHL got this issue right a long time ago. Its moral compass, guided by the old boy’s club, has the power to blackball players as well as rules in the CBA, ie. offer sheets. If a certain player finds their way to the outside of that circle of trust, may his career rest in peace.

A perfect example of the flawed player was the agitating Sean Avery. Avery, as a member of the New York Rangers, was a game changer. He brought energy to a heavily European lineup full of aging scorers, and helped transition the team from Tom Renney’s prevent defense to John Tortorella’s up-tempo offensive system ‘new trap‘. In New York, Avery was a god, which is why after getting released for his indiscretions in Dallas, Glen Sather gave him another chance.

But as the team’s system changed from emphasizing the individuals to playing as a team, Avery became an expendable part. Even though he was capable of playing a fourth-line shift on last year’s team, the Rangers demoted him to the Connecticut Whale of the AHL in favor of ‘team players’ like John Mitchell and Stu Bickel. And while in the AHL, Avery was relieved of his duties as the organization’s progeny prepared for their own playoffs. In other words, no matter how talented he was/is, the organization, and the league –Avery did clear waivers twice last year– wanted no part of his ‘talents’.

And the team– note the word: team– was better without him. The Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1997. The fan perception may not have changed– in fact, most die-hard Rangers fans still love the guy — but his act was long overdue in the Big Apple for Tortorella.

Similarly, the Boston Bruins will need to move on from the Tim Thomas era– one that netted them in the top-6 in goals allowed in each of the previous four seasons. The Bruins knew that Thomas, as an aging player, would eventually need to be replaced by the younger Tuukka Rask, but who could argue with his stellar play over the last four years. Not only did he win the Vezina Trophy twice in three years, he also led them to their first Stanley Cup Championship since 1972. Yet after Thomas refused the shake the hand of President Barack Obama and revealed himself as a member of the Tea Party, his notoriety became bigger than the team.

So when Thomas decided to take next season off, forfeiting a hefty salary in the neighborhood of $5 million, the Bruins essentially said good riddance. His cap hit, which essentially becomes dead weight, can be pawned off on a team approaching the cap floor, or it could be part of a rumored amnesty buyout. One thing is for sure: the team will be more cohesive without having to consistently answer questions on their starting goalie’s political values.

Last season, the Bruins lost in the first round to the Washington Capitals in a series that was probably a bit too close. As the second seed in the Eastern Conference and after going on a monumental run during the regular season, the Bs lost by just one goal in a Game 7 upset. Their scapegoat: none other than the man in nets for Joel Ward’s fateful tally. Will the Bruins actually be better without a star of Thomas’s caliber? Hard to argue with the point that less distractions could lead to added focus– especially considering the plethora of depth this team boasts at all ends.

Nowadays, Thomas continues to vaunt his political beliefs onto his fanbase over his personal Facebook page to mixed results. While his picture is shown lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup, his priority remains supporting ‘his’ party, not the organization that paid his bills for the better part of a decade. Thomas may or may not deserve all the scrutiny he deserved after playing lights-out hockey for years. But then again, it’s hard to not ask the fans to judge the actions that are so readily in front of their eyes.

Our last example is one that has been touched on several times, but still deserves mention. Our very own Jeff Angus took us on a terrific ride down enigma lane in his apt dissection of Alexander Semin.

Semin, who may be the most talented player in the entire sport, spent almost a month as a free agent. After a few up-and-down seasons with the Washington Capitals, it became league-wide knowledge that he would never become the sum of his parts; it was if the league decided they knew his fate without actually knowing the future.The Capitals didn’t make a grandiose effort to re-sign their homegrown player, and according to industry sources no one else did either. Semin settled on a one-year pact worth $7 million as he hopes to regain his scoring touch with the Caps’ rivals: the Carolina Hurricanes.

Was he a playoff scapegoat like Thomas? Not necessarily. At times, Semin was lauded for his adaptation to Dale Hunter’s defensive system. However, he was also prone to ‘taking off games’ — a scarlet letter imprinted onto the front of his sweater. During the July 1st free agent frenzy, former NHL coach and TSN analysts Marc Crawford and Pierre McGuire specifically went on a diatribe on Semin, accusing him of being a locker room cancer among several other pleasantries. Again, one of the more talented players in all of hockey, a player who has netted at least 25 goals in five of his seven NHL seasons, and he couldn’t find a contract until 31 days into free agency.

The sensationalism of the media could be to blame for several aspects of these high-maintenance players– nobody really should be defined by their every action, especially if that action is televised. But then again, star athletes are highly paid and should find a way to curtail their egos or emotions and spit out a cliche answer in the worst of times. They should also find a way to work well with others considering the high stakes of their salaries. And if they don’t, it really isn’t unacceptable to be known as scapegoats or be blackballed from the major sports altogether, but that just shows how high the stakes continue to be.

If we were to look back 20 year, 30 years, etc. the history really would not be all that different. Yes, there was less access for all parties, and some of what went on in the locker room stayed there. But salaries continue to evolve and so do the personalities, and egos, of these athletes. And in doing so, owners and those in charge have also learned to evolve in their perspective and employ players that not only give their team the best chance at success but also the best change to grow as players, in unison with their teammates.

We can look back and see some of the more egotistical teams in history — the 1977 New York Yankees and 1979 Montreal Canadiens immediately come to mind — win at the highest level. Yet today we see other things like increased parity and more players dubbed superstars, making these powerhouses the exception to the rule.

Is it right to remove a player from a team based on their attitudes, or even external factors? At this point it really depends on what is best for the team. We all know removing said distractions is a proven motivator, which in turn is best for the team.

**All images courtesy of US Presswire**

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