Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Locker Room Cancer: NHL Gossip

Heatley cartoon
In any workplace, a person's performance can be broken down into three general categories: competence, responsibilities, and emotions. This also applies in the hockey world.

Competence: does the player consistently perform his role and put in a strong effort?

Responsibilities: does he come to the rink, airport and team events on time? Does he follow the advice of his coaches and try to improve his skills?

Emotions: the big one. How does he interact with other players, the coaches, and even the fans? Does he speak in a professional and respectful way to the media? Can he keep things in check at crucial times during the game and not take stupid penalties? In short, does he play well in the sandbox?

And just like in most job situations, emotions are often the weak point of hockey players. It can be the main reason that a player is shipped to another team. Or at least the tipping point that exaggerates other shortcomings and makes a trade seem like the only way to deal with the problems.

Teams are unlikely to ever come out directly and state that a player had some kind of personality defect that made him an unwelcome presence in the locker room. They may speak in code and say that the player was "not a good fit," but no one is going to air the team's dirty laundry.

Yet the salacious, gossipy type rumours about internal team conflict turn into some of the most popular stories. These types of stories have gained more popularity recently and will receive even more coverage in the years to come. This is for a number of reasons.

First, the rise of the internet, and the increase in the number of sports networks and the resulting 24-hour coverage of all things hockey. No off-season exists for the media outlets that strive to supply a never-ending stream of content for hockey fans.

Also, a realization exists amongst the people responsible for creating content, that gossipy stories are some of the most popular amongst fans. These are the articles that appeal even to the casual fans. It is easier than ever to determine what content resonates with fans and to subsequently justify writing and "researching" more of the same. Click-throughs are easy to measure and so it is a simple matter to determine what "sells."

Though "serious" fans may deny any interest in such prurient topics, you can bet that many of those same individuals have read all the details about the latest melodrama and have formed an opinion.

Conflict sells and is at the heart of all drama, whether fiction or non-fiction. The best regular season and playoff games are themselves stories, with stars, plots and turning points. An easy-to-understand storyline that everyone can relate to, and one that everyone has played a part in, is that of the co-worker who can't get along with others.

What better way to ratchet up the prurient intrigue than for the story to include a highly paid professional athlete who may be on your favourite team, or, perhaps even better, a team that you loathe?

Finally, gossipy stories full of speculation and rumour require far less expertise and familiarity with the game to produce.

To be sure, there are different degrees of gossip, and the vilest insinuations lacking sources (even unnamed) or evidence of any kind will only show up in online locations where there is little or no accountability. But even more reputable outlets are starting to get in on the action.

Leave it to the online hacks or self-proclaimed gossip columnists to get the ball rolling, then everyone can join in the fun with the qualifier that the coverage itself is now a story, and hell, might as well venture forth a smug tut-tutting with some related commentary tucked in for good measure.

Prima Donnas, Punks and Pissants


Just as there are common stories that have been played out hundreds of times with varying details in popular films and books, so too there are some common themes that turn up time and again in NHL melodramas. One of the most common is the "locker room cancer."

The locker room cancer is a player who is a negative influence on those around him and can infect an entire team with an insidious outlook on life and the game. Also known as locker room poison.

What is a Locker Room Cancer?


What does it take for the locker room cancer tag to gain traction with a player?

They are often very good players. A scrub who is also a nasty piece of work in the locker room just doesn't resonate in the same way.

Obviously, the unpleasant personality and/or behaviour does have to exist to fuel the rumours that eventually surface. The behaviour itself could take many forms. From sullen and disinterested, to abrasive and abusive.

A poor stretch of play from the player in question and or the team on which he plays is often a prerequisite for the unpleasantness to come to the surface. Winning is easy. The real test for anyone is when the losses start piling up.

Usually the player has been traded at least once. This provides plausibility to the claims.

The first whispers often coincide with the trade. While the public pronouncements from the team from which the player was traded are always positive, the stories start to circulate. It's "never say anything bad about anyone, ever" for public consumption.

Even though teams pay lip service to that sentiment, too many people are involved with a team for the truth not to come out. The stories have to come from somewhere. For the most part, journalists in the mainstream media don't just make stuff up. Extrapolate, speculate and exaggerate? Of course...filling in the blanks when the full story is not known is what humans do best.

The final factor is that the claims must have an air of truth about them to resonate with fans. How does the player conduct himself on and off the ice? What about his mannerisms and body language?

Anecdotes gleaned from personal contact at autograph sessions, sightings and other non-game situations can play a part as well. It all adds up to a public image. And so, if the stories match up with the public presentation, the claims become believable.

New Beginnings


Luckily for most players tagged as difficult (the locker room cancer is only the extreme), there are going to be other teams willing to give them a chance.  Because it's all subjective. Maybe the other players are the ones who don't know how to interact.

Or maybe it is the coaches or more generally the overall team culture. And of course, even if there is some sense that a team is taking on an abrasive personality, there is always the hope that a person learns and changes over time.

In the end, despite public comments to the contrary, teams may take on a player knowing full well that he is a petulant, glory-seeking prima donna. But that talent is so irresistible that the rationalizing takes over and team management convince themselves that things will be different this time around.

The fans who claim they have no interest in such stories are the rarity or more likely, being disingenuous. Other people's lives intrigue and amaze. Especially when they are rich, talented, and play on the teams that fans love to cheer for. The insight gives a more interesting picture of the players fans love to watch. At the very least, it  provides a point against which fans can rank themselves. "Harummph! I'm too sophisticated to be interested in crap like that."

Amongst all the great games, performances, and playoff races, you can be sure that the coming season will also feature plenty of gossip, rumours and innuendo.

No comments:

Post a Comment