A couple of nights ago, Hockey Writer Jack Todd sent himself to Twitter Ratio Hell with a tweet that was to the effect of “Auston Matthews has a personality of Boiled Cauliflower, yet the Toronto Media are already comparing him to Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky”. I’d just link it to you, but he’s since deleted it (of course, if you want more Auston Salt, his twitter search for ‘Matthews’ is a goldmine).
To me, this felt like an incredibly weird argument to use against Matthews. Not as good at hockey as two all-time, generational talents? Sure. Boring? I dunno about that, and especially so when your counters are Crosby and Gretzky, two legends who, for better or worse, spent most of their careers playing it safe with a camera or microphone on them.
It was a rough tweet from Todd (though still not as bad as when he compared hockey analytics bloggers to ISIS). Gord Miller’s indirect response is what really got me, though:
I’m amazed when people say Crosby/McDavid/Matthews have “no personality.” They are humble, unselfish and generous…what more do you want?
— Gord Miller (@🏠) (@GMillerTSN) October 18, 2017
To me, this is a very curious way at looking at what an NHL Superstar should be, and part of the reason that the league continues to struggle to emerge in markets that it doesn’t already have a foothold.
Hockey has a distinctly unique culture to it, in the sense that players and teams are supposed to pretend that they aren’t doing anything of significance and that everything that ever happens is actually routine, unexciting, and just another day at the office. Every individual play must be traced back to a team effort made in a practice six and a half weeks before. Got a jersey number you like? Be careful, someone may have worn it, and even if you wear it in tribute of that person, you still might be disrespecting the sport.
Having fun in your personal life and talking about it is a sign that you aren’t taking the game seriously, even if it’s time off. I’m pretty sure the first hockey analytic to gain universal acceptance will be one that weighs a player’s age and importance of goal and declares whether or not it was okay for them to celebrate, and heaven forbid you acknowledge that you’re an elite talent and not one coaching decision in Bantam away from being a depth player on your friend Billy’s D-Level beer league team back in Small Town Ontario.
When you’re an outsider, “look at us sticking to our roots and not making a fuss out of it” isn’t going to pull in attention. Big highlights pull you in. Big personalities with charisma, whether they’re heroes or villains pull you in. Rivalries that go beyond “well, we play each other more often than the other teams” pull you in. If anything, the “aw, shucks” attitude is borderline patronizing, as if we’re all wasting our times if we invest ourselves into a league where everyone insists that they aren’t worth the attention.
The worst part is, most of these players aren’t devoid of personality. For example, this is the type of interview that someone like Miller will praise out of Connor McDavid: Calm, well-spoken, professional.
Not a single person who doesn’t already care about Connor McDavid is going to care about him giving softball answers to softball questions, though, which is what makes it so upsetting to see that these are the qualities that the league and its media want to see out of someone who can present themselves like this:
And are the exact opposite of boring and generic on the ice:
Thankfully, McDavid might get a bit more rope to be himself moving forward, at least from a marketing perspective. Adidas is his anchor sponsor, and it seems like they’re going to take what they’ve learned from basketball, soccer, and other sports and focus on marketing individualism and excitement to younger fans rather than going with the “what a great sport we have as a whole” narrative to people that are already sold on the game, as seen here:
That’s just a drop in the bucket, though. Hockey’s struggle for personality doesn’t end because 2 or 3 players do a few great commercials; as long as we’re ostracizing excitement, confidence, and extroversion, we’re going to have a hard time convincing potential new fans that this is something worth being excited about. This isn’t to say that we need to force the players that are genuinely humble and uncomfortable with attention to manufacture themselves a personality, but those who do already have them; the PK Subbans, the Alex Ovechkins, the Brent Burnses, and apparently the Connor McDavids, they should be encouraged to spread their wings a bit.
Given the product we have in our grasp it just seems to make more sense to flaunt it and try to get new people to live vicariously through the excitement, rather than trying to make people who are going to watch anyway feel that it’s okay that they didn’t make it, or aren’t still playing themselves. As such, I don’t think asking for our stars to carry themselves like stars is too much to ask.