NHL needs more nicknames

Updated: January 29, 2004, 2:10 PM ET
By Adam Proteau | The Hockey News

In the same way that short, Hawaiian shirt-wearing guys named Bernie have been a staple at local racetracks, so too have nicknames been part and parcel of a pro athlete's life. Nicknames help us feel closer to­ or, in some cases, superior to­ the people we fork over obscene amounts of money to see.

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But whether you hear the moniker "The Big Hurt" and think of baseball's Frank Thomas or whether Alexander Karpotsev comes to mind instead, the point is made: Nicknames further engage fans to the athlete, and by extension, to the sport they earn a living playing. And the NHL's dearth of quality handles is but another indication that the league's collective fruit-of-the-looms are sized a tad tight.

We can hear you already: "What about Ken Linseman, a.k.a. 'The Rat'?" Or 'The Little Ball of Hate,' Pat Verbeek? Or Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, 'The Bulin Wall'? Don't they count, Mr. Not Enough Unspare Time?"

Of course they count. We're not implying that hockey never has been graced by standout nicknames. On the contrary. Why, get yourself a load of these doozies, (found, of course, in The Hockey News' Best of Everything In Hockey magazine): Bert "Pig Iron" Corbeau. Alfie "The Embalmer" Pike. Rene "Rainy Drinkwater" Boileau. John Ross "Little Napoleon" Roach.

Cool, eh? You tell us you wouldn't pay to see a game where "Little Napoleon" is squaring off against "The Embalmer," and we'll tell you there's a bright future for you in the Bush administration. There's just one problem: Those of the group that haven't already passed on to that big dressing room in the sky wouldn't be in any condition to play, as they played in the league during the early part of the 20th century.

Instead, these days, the NHL is a league of "ers," "ies" and "esses." That's the formula for hockey nicknames, Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote told the Associated Press in June 2001.

"You just add a 'y' or an 's' to the end of the guy's name," said Foote, known to his teammates as, naturally, "Footey." "Pretty much that's what happens."

Wow. You heard the man. "Pretty much that's what happens." That's intricacy. That's craftsmanship. Why, harnessed correctly, the creative force behind Foote's nickname assembly line might be able to light a match that's been lying out in the Mojave for a few months.

Still, it's hard to convince players otherwise, even when their on-ice personas practically sue you into doing something more than tacking a letter or two on to their surname.

Take Darcy Tucker, owner and operator of one of the league's most expressive faces. Taking into account his on-ice theatrics ­which, to his credit, he has greatly toned down of late ­ someone came up with the tag "Sideshow Bob." He loathed it. Granted, if we were saddled with such a nickname, we wouldn't be happy hearing it for the rest of our days either. But doesn't anybody turn lemons into lemonade any more? Or at least, doesn't anybody freeze their lemons, then throw them at the heads of their enemies when their backs are turned anymore?

What we're saying is, if you're Sideshow Bob, be the best Sideshow Bob you can be. Use it to your advantage. Seek out an endorsement deal the next time the Bros. Ringling are in town. Have your agent pitch a guest spot on The Simpsons. Do like Bono, and don't let the bastards grind you down.

And definitely don't let said bastards leave you with the nicknames you've got now, Darcy. "Tucks" sounds like a drive-through plastic surgery franchise. And "Tucksie" sounds like a drive-through plastic surgery franchise for kids. Sideshow Bob may not be ideal, but it's memorable, and memorable usually commands more dough at the autograph booth after your playing days are done.

Sometimes, a blueprint like Foote's does inadvertent harm. Look at a guy like former NHLer and current American Leaguer Karl Dykhuis. Using Foote's approach, Dykhuis' nickname might not bridge the substantial gap that exists between pro sports and the gay community. Or how about Carolina's Bob Boughner? Is he Bob "Boogie" Boughner, Bob "Booger" Boughner or Bob "Boogs" Boughner? None of the three sound especially enchanting, but they're a marketer's dream when compared to the unfortunate options Oilers winger Fernando Pisani and Penguins defenseman Dan Focht face under Foote's system.

All in all, Foote's treatment only goes further toward ensuring the extinction of lineup cards. When all NHLers all play the game the same way, when they all talk in the same clichés, when their nicknames are Muzakked beyond recognition, you might as well stop calling it hockey and rename it chess. Like that strategically interesting, but fan-unfriendly game, hockey will soon resemble a bunch of inanimate objects utilizing a competitive philosophy that only a handful of its players and fans recognize as entertaining.

We can hear you again: "What are you, the bastard son of Vince McMahon? Must everything revolve around the selling of the game?"

Yes, inquisitive reader, it must. We're not proposing it as a mantra, but nobody should ever forget how precarious a perch sports rests on. With the expansion of technology and the number of video game-playing children cresting like the pompadour directly above Robert Goulet's eyebrows, consumers have myriad more choices on where their spare change winds up. And when the marketing of outdoor recreation and of in-home comfort items make it all but impossible to fool people into thinking a mid-February game between the Blue Jackets and Blackhawks will be worth buying a ticket to, the NHL and its players shouldn't be above any method of marketing. (The sole exception being the autograph/aggression therapy tour featuring Ted Leonsis, Latrell Sprewell and former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.)

Are you feeling as badly about the state of hockey nicknames as we are. If so, unplug the hairdryer, turn off the bath and quit your despairing. There's still time to attach a semi-witty pet name to your favorite player.

To wit: Martin "Where's Your" Erat. Or Jamal "Oscar" Mayers. Or Mathieu "Get your" Biron. Or Antii "That's Right, My Name Is Antii Laaksonen" Laaksonen. A reader of The Hockey News suggested Rico "Hello Muddah, Hello" Fata, and that will do fine, too. As will "Travellin'' Wade Brookbank, Steve "Trojan" Shields, "The Oracle" Cristobal Huet and "Mr. Javelin" Mats Sundin.

And let's not leave it at the players. When Gary "I'm Going To Put a Cap in This League's A#$ If It's the Last Thing I Do" Bettman and Bob "Visors, Schmisors" Goodenow face off this September, we want some fun at their expense as well.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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