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NHL needs more nicknames

1/29/2004

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.

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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