A little salesmanship, please?
Someone tell NHL players it's OK for them to sell themselves. Really.
There's something about selling things that doesn't sit well with some of us. You can always pick out the type: First, look for the kids outside the mall on a Saturday morning trying to raise money for the local hockey team's trip to an out-of-town tournament . Then look for the one whose eyes don't meet yours, the one who whispers his request for your money, the one whose parents forced him there, the one who begged in vain that his allowance cover the cost of those cruddy almond bars. That's the type of tyke of which we type.
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Certainly, Gary Bettman and his merry band of marketers need all the help they can get. For when the players are always taking it one game at a time, forever giving 110 percent to the cause, admirably trying to help the team in whatever way the coach decides, when teams don't have TV and radio schedules prepared for the start of the season, they're not simply jacking up reporters' psychiatric bills. They're effectively beige-ing the game to death, is what they're doing, in the process helping to assure the NHL of its long-standing place in the latter pages of the sports section in many U.S. markets.
It's not only the tendency of many players to stay true to their omerta -- i.e., the mafia's vow of silence -- after a loss that's the biggest problem. It's the utter indifference some players -- and, even more surprisingly, some teams -- display towards the promotion of the sport that defies explanation. Such as the former captain of an Original Six franchise who would rather undergo a manicure with a machete than spare so much as two minutes for an interview, or one particular team's PR department -- you know, the folks who are supposed to get their players' names out in the community -- that out-and-out refuses to have their players participate in a five-minute interview, regardless the size of the publication.
Apparently, that team's braintrust employs the same method that took men's tennis from the heights of popularity in the late 70s-and-early-80s to mere blips on the sports radar today -- keep players' personalities from the sport, and watch more media-savvy leagues, like, say, the women's tennis circuit, leave you in the dust. (Note to Bettman: in no way is this to be interpreted as a request to outfit Zdeno Chara in a short skirt and tight top.)
Even in one of the league's most recent marquee commercials -- featuring Flyers star Jeremy Roenick and Saturday Night Live alumnus Tracy Morgan for a video game -- the boat is missed. This isn't to say the spot isn't funny, but Roenick doesn't speak word-one in it. Let's recap: You're paying perhaps the NHL's most intriguing personality to hawk your wares, and you put the mute button on him the whole time. (Now, if you wanted a guy who never says anything, there's a Detroit-area goalie -- at least, for the short term -- with some time on his hands that would've been a much better selection.) All in all, it might very well be the most colossal waste of a mouth since Creed was founded.
In the players' defense, you can understand where the hesitancy to do or say anything out of the ordinary originates. Their coaches want them to be interchangeable parts of a system that thumbs its nose at individual creativity. They spend their lives hearing about the joys of the team concept, that the whole is more important than its parts, that real men suck it up and forego words for action. Those beliefs are bound to earn players their spot in the honorable athletes' hall of fame, but they aren't conducive to moving hockey above arena football on the SportsCenter lineup. The game needs good citizens, but it also needs said citizens to wise up, open up and answer some important questions.
Like, why is playing with passion such an important part of the process for athletes, yet talking with passion is like stealing candy from a baby and giving it to a diabetic?
Like, why can't the league persuade players and officials to speak their minds, while at the same time avoiding personal attacks such as the jab Garth Snow took at Martin Brodeur? (For the unfamiliar, Brodeur commented on the ever-controversial size of fellow goalie Snow's equipment. Snow replied with a comment on Brodeur's rocky personal life. There's a difference there, and one that should be as vehemently discouraged as comments about or within the game are encouraged.)
Injecting new life into hockey isn't something to be written into the league's next collective bargaining agreement. It's more of an attitude, an acceptance of diversity among players and of the realities of the industry they have thrived in that must be fostered. Because when you've got crowds of less than 10,000 people coming out for games in some NHL markets, consumers are telling you what they don't want -- namely, the current product. Instead, consider this wish list:
• Give us Roenick talking trash to former teammate Roman Cechmanek.
• Give us a 24-7 reality show with Brett Hull and family.
• Give us the increasingly outspoken Mike Modano and his thoughts on the direction of the Stars and the state of the game.
• Give us Bob Gainey's white-hot contempt for fans that would further torment Patrice Brisebois.
• Give us guys who aren't afraid of having their words on the other team's bulletin board.
• Give us people who recognize that personalities, guaranteed win predictions, thrown-down gauntlets and verbal confrontations are the best parts of pro sports.
And if you're not going to give us any of those things, at least give us a pillow and a glass of warm milk. But don't sell it to us -- heaven forbid we ask for any more selling than is necessary.
E-mail Adam Proteau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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