Bringing NHL Feuds to Centre Stage

Oct. 19 marked the second of four meetings this season between the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings. The first two matches were a mere 11 days apart. On those game days, and the 11 days in between, there was one story that was hard to overlook: the Drew Doughty and Matthew Tkachuk feud.

In the media, and all over Twitter, capturing the banter between these two stars seemed to be priority one. The rivalry is fun, it’s gripping, and it has been going on for several seasons with no real end in sight.

Whenever the Flames and Kings play each other, Doughty and Tkachuk are almost certain to get questions about their rivalry in pre-game or post-game interviews. Usually, they give fairly vanilla answers, as hockey players are known to do. But if you were paying attention to Doughty’s Oct. 18 interview, setting up the next day’s match against Calgary, you may have caught this intriguing nugget.

“I think it’s good to have guys going at it, but I have a guy I go at it with on every team […] That’s just how it is. It just happens he plays in Calgary so a bigger deal is made about it. I have multiple rivalries with multiple guys on every team, but you guys just don’t know about it. “

So far this season, the only comparable player feud to Tkachuk/Doughty, in terms of quality and quantity of banter, might be between Evander Kane and Ryan Reaves. It’s still early in the season, but two is kind of a sad number.

According to Doughty, there are far more than two player rivalries in the NHL that the reporters (and by extension, the fans) just don’t know about. Apparently the banter and juicy sound bites are taking place beyond the reach of the media’s microphones.

Flames left wing Matthew Tkachuk
Flames left wing Matthew Tkachuk (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

As a fan who wants to see more player feuds in the media, I found myself simultaneously excited to hear that there’s more inter-player drama out there and disappointed that none of it was getting discussed in the press.

I’m not so naive as to think that there are hundreds, or even dozens, of player rivalries in the NHL as entertaining as Tkachuk/Doughty. But one can’t help but wonder: why don’t we see more of these rivalries play themselves out in the media?

There’s likely a plethora of reasons, and to claim to understand all of them would be laughable. But I believe both the players and NHL media can play a part in helping, or hindering, this type of story from reaching the fans.

Covering Rivalries: the Players

No matter how skilled an NHL reporter or analyst is, no player feud gets published or aired unless the players are willing to open up about it first.

Doughty and Tkachuk’s candid comments about one another, which have been well-documented, are an extremely rare occurrence in hockey. That’s why they have received so much news coverage; it’s a fresh and unexpected type of entertainment that hockey fans crave.

Drew Doughty
Drew Doughty #8, Los Angeles Kings – December 18, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For players to go after one another in the media is far more common in other sports leagues like the NBA and the NFL. To quote Lisa Dillman and Scott Cruickshank in The Athletic:

Generally, I think, most people take a positive view of the [Tkachuk/Doughty] grudge — as long as it doesn’t escalate into drop kicks in the parking lot. And if there happens to be a few more juicy soundbites along the way? All the better. Juicy soundbites are a daily, if not hourly, occurrence in the NBA.

from ‘Roundtable: Why is Matthew Tkachuk vs. Drew Doughty so good for hockey?’, The Athletic, 10/18/2019

In the same interview where he revealed that NHL player rivalries are more common than people realize, Doughty was asked if he envied NBA culture where players routinely roast each other in the media. His response:

“Definitely it’s a different culture in the hockey world — we’re more about being respectful to each other and just kind of finishing things on the ice.”

It’s no secret that hockey culture is somewhat more conservative than other leagues. The prevailing mentality is that individual players should not draw attention to themselves and away from the team, or that “the logo on the front is more important than the name on the back.”

But as a fan, it would be refreshing to see the players deviate slightly from the norms of hockey culture when they discuss how they feel about their opponents, on the record.

When it comes to enhancing player rivalries, and the entertainment value they provide, a little candor goes a long way.

Covering Rivalries: the Media

One common theme in the media surrounding the Tkachuk/Doughty feud, particularly at the beginning of the season, was: are these player rivalries good for hockey?

Several NHL analysts on top networks, and even the players themselves, got asked this question in some form or another. Tkachuk and Doughty dismissed it fairly quickly, other players had more to say.

Reaves, who himself is no stranger to player rivalries like this, was also asked if he thought the Tkachuk/Doughty feud was good for the game:

Vegas Golden Knights Ryan Reaves
Vegas Golden Knights right wing Ryan Reaves (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

“To be honest, I think that stuff is fun for the game – people stay interested in that kind of rivalry […] You can ask Evander, but I’m sure he likes the little rivalry we have, too. I definitely enjoy it. I think some healthy hatred is good for any sport.”

The talking heads in the media agreed. The NHL is in the entertainment business, these sound bites are entertaining, thus the banter is good for hockey.

So the players like it, the reporters seem to like it, and the fans love it. There appears to be consensus on this issue, and consensus is rare when discussing hockey culture. Remember last season’s nearly constant debate on whether or not the Carolina Hurricanes’ Storm Surge was “good for the game?”

Once again, speaking as a fan, I would like to see NHL media personnel put this matter to rest and stop asking whether these rivalries between players are “good for hockey”. To ask is to discourage players from speaking honestly, by implying that their answers could somehow be “bad for hockey.”

This is the content fans want. We can see the players chirping each other on the ice, but unless you are an excellent lip reader you won’t catch what’s being said. This sport needs more juicy sound bites in front of cameras and microphones. 

How do we get more of it? I believe a little more frankness from the players, combined with NHL reporters asking the right questions, will make all the difference. Unorthodox as it may be, the Tkachuk/Doughty feud improves the NHL’s quality as an entertainment product.