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When personality matters in professional sports

Ilya Bryzgalov was bought out by the Flyers Monday, at a cost of $23 million. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Ilya Bryzgalov was bought out by the Flyers Monday, at a cost of $23 million. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

“Personality is the glitter that sends your little gleam across the footlights and the orchestra pit into that big black space where the audience is.” – Mae West

“In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence.” – Henry Van Dyke

In many professional pursuits, personality matters more than it ought to. People get recognized and celebrated on the strength of charm while those of more substance and less sparkle linger in the background. But in the hockey world, the converse is often the case: someone’s exuberance and colorful nature overshadows expertise and on-ice impact. Their glitter and gleam is used as a shimmering scarlet letter, a warning to all: this person has a mind of their own and they’re not afraid to use it.

This week in NHL circles, there were two notable examples of what happens to those whose personalities take precedence over their performance and the choices left to them once that happens.

The first came via new Canucks coach John Tortorella. Notorious for his stared daggers, curt communication and naked contempt for the media, the man who won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning and who was the scariest beast New York City has seen since an oversized ape scaled the Empire State building, looked decidedly different in his introductory press conference in Vancouver. Tortorella was – I can’t believe I’m about to type these words in this order – affable, relaxed and humble. Mr. Hyde was gone and Dr. Phil was in his place. Anyone watching was a little bit suspicious computer-generated special effects had reached new heights, but for one day, the nastiest hombre the sport has seen in some time appeared to self-neuter.

“Have I made mistakes? Absolutely,” Tortorella said. “I make my own bed in this type of situation with the perception of myself in the media…I know how important it is with this job here, especially in this city and this province. I am dedicated to make that work. I realize what's happened with me. I am going to work at that to cultivate a relationship with all of you (reporters).”

Only time and an extended losing streak will tell if Tortorella has really changed his ways and come to understand his bully routine has a shorter shelf life with every season that passes. However, Canucks management clearly recognized they had to rehabilitate the wild bucking bronco Tortorella had become. He’ll never be a petting zoo pony, but at least he’s acknowledged he had gone too far.

I’m not sure we can say the same yet about the other outsized personality who made the news this week. Before the team announced Tuesday it would be buying out the remainder of his mammoth contract, now-former Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov showed no signs of learned lessons from his train wreck time in Philadelphia.

In fact, the way he acted once the Flyers’ season had ended – endorsing infamous Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and ripping poor people in need of welfare and food stamps – it seemed Bryzgalov was the same shoot-yourself-in-the-foot-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of guy who couldn’t understand you have to win, and win a lot, before you can indulge your every urge to speak. Maybe he was doing it to force Flyers ownership to make the very expensive move of amnestying his contract (at a cost of $23 million), but something tells me no matter where he lands – either with another NHL team or in the Kontinental League – Bryzgalov won’t exercise more caution. In some ways, this buyout is a positive reinforcement of his ill-advised behavior. Rock bottom may be a ways away for him. Let’s hope he gets it sooner than later.

Listen, I’m the first person to say the NHL (and the hockey community in general) is too hard on anybody who isn’t a vanilla robot programmed to speak only in harmless clichés. We all want players to be human, insightful and honest. But there’s a big difference between someone who is candid and someone whose reckless ego is unconcerned with the carnage it leaves in its wake.

As Henry Van Dyke noted, the evolution of personality begins with assertion, but it can only move forward after it accepts the interconnectedness of all personalities. In hockey, one of the ultimate team sports, the establishment and cultivation of that interdependence is the foundation of any success that follows.

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Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.

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