The cult of the NHL player

Momo Lin / The Peak

With the start of training camps around the corner for the National Hockey League, one could get the feeling that the league is relieved that its players are back to work and aren’t getting into trouble. Maybe it’s time we stopped trying to brush these problems under the rug.

It has been an offseason the NHL will want to forget, with many of its star players getting into trouble with the law, such as Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks being accused of sexual assault, and Ryan O’Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres crashing his truck due to drunk driving.

The Los Angeles Kings had the trifecta of now then-players Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards, and Slava Voynov become infamous due to charges of possession of a controlled substance, being arrested and investigated for possession of oxycodone after attempting to cross the border, and being sentenced to jail time for domestic abuse, respectively.

The NHL has had an increasing number of problems in the past few seasons, ranging from the aforementioned domestic abuse to its treatment of women as fans to its ongoing problem with rape and rape culture. Even with all that being the tip of the iceberg, articles are constantly being written trying to dismiss these actions, like this following lede from Pierre LeBrun, posted on ESPN.

“The NHL is not accustomed to headlines involving arrests and court dates,” says LeBrun, falsely. “That’s normally for other sports leagues.”

This sentiment has been prevalent around media and fans throughout this time, treated as a “Please like my sport!” attitude, trying to highlight a sport which is trying to separate itself from the other major sports in North America despite drawing nowhere near the same viewership.

Ari Yanover, the managing editor at Calgary Flames blog Matchsticks and Gasoline, believes that this attitude that the media promotes is downright wrong.

“Hockey journalism is a mess,” she said. “Of course, hockey itself is a mess, but all hockey journalism really does is contribute to it. It’s as if it only exists to serve its master, never to question it, which seems to be pretty much the opposite of what journalism is supposed to be.

“Hockey likes to present itself as this all-important, historic, mystic environment that’s beyond reproach, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Yanover says that if the media allows the NHL to believe that it doesn’t have a problem, then it will never improve its standards.

Here at SFU, the men’s hockey program feels as though the team is capable of ensuring they represent themselves as athletes and the school as whole, and doesn’t have to actively ensure the students aren’t becoming a liability.

Hockey likes to present itself as [ . . .] beyond reproach, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It’s not really about speeches before games,” said Chris Munshaw, director of hockey operations. “It’s more just that on a day-to-day basis on how they hold themselves [. . .] they understand that they’re in a privileged position to wear the logo and represent the brand of Simon Fraser University.”

To their credit, the team does have a meeting during the pre-season to go over expectations, and have the players go out and get involved in the community, mentoring at local schools and rinks.

It helps give the players a sense of who is out there watching them, and the effect they can have on their fans. To date, SFU hockey has never been involved in a major scandal.

However, that approach isn’t a viable option for the big leagues. These are men who are worshipped from as early as 15, and don’t always have to face up to the consequences of their actions. Yanover believes that if the NHL wants to have any chance of improving its players, it needs to take a look at a different North American sports league.

“Look towards the CFL, which has implemented league-wide policies for literally every aspect of league life, from staff to players to fans attending games,” she explained. “That’s a league that has taken steps to work with people who know what they’re doing in these fields, to ensure every single person involved with the CFL knows how to conduct themselves, and a league that will remove offending parties if determined necessary.

Of course, this has not completely eliminated the problem in the league. In 2013, receivers Taj Smith and Eron Riley, as well as defensive back Dwight Anderson, were all arrested on charges of aggravated assault.

Only time will tell if the National Hockey League can take a serious look at the charges and allegations facing its players lately, and work towards making serious change for the better. Until that happens, the cult of personality surrounding the NHL player is here to stay.