Like many NHLers, Scott Niedermayer preferred life outside the spotlight during his career.. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
I rag on NHL players a lot – and with good reason. Their boring nicknames roll off an assembly line, they’re far from the most worldly of individuals, and their union-maintaining abilities leave much to be desired.
But after witnessing the NBA’s orgy of egoism the last few weeks, I appreciate NHLers a little bit more than I used to.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t going to be one of the thinly veiled bigoted rants that often get tossed at NBA players. I covered the Toronto Raptors for a bunch of years – during the Vince Carter Era, mostly – and I found, in many aspects, basketball players and hockey players share the same experiences: the shortened childhoods; the temptations that come when the exuberance of youth and large sums of money are locked in the same room together; the drive to provide for families that sacrificed in the hope their prodigal sons would prosper.
That’s why I nearly threw up in the hallways of the Air Canada Centre years ago after an Maple Leafs game when, unbeknownst to them, I heard an NHL play-by-play TV announcer tell his color analyst partner that, “I got offered tickets to see the Raptors, but there’s no way I’m going to watch some f*%#!^g monkeys jump at a ball!” as the two of them giggled and snickered their way down one of the arena’s corridors.
So I’m very conscious of judging the NBA’s unheard-of free agent sweepstakes on its own merits. And unfortunately the merits of this particular free agent “summit” – in which star players LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh consulted with one another to choose where to play next season – are very few.
Of course, the degree of attention the NBA has received in this off-season because of the LeBron/Wade/Bosh saga is unheard of for that league (which is already one of the best-marketed operations in pro sports); David Stern & Co. have to be happy with the situation. Also pleased are fans of the Miami Heat, the franchise that already has landed Wade and Bosh – and the team that still could add LeBron to its roster by week’s end.
But what about fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers (LeBron’s team, at least for now) and supporters of Toronto Raptors (Bosh’s former team)? Surely the crushing disappointment and heartbreak those fans feel has to counter-balance the benefits of a newly formed super-group of stars.
Which brings me back to NHLers. Can anybody picture the day when one NHL phenom – let alone two or three – actively courts off-season attention the way those NBAers have? Without the use of hallucinogens, I mean.
I mean, Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, for instance, is only 22 years old, but he already looks like he’d rather have a battery acid shower than open up his life for 24/7 public promotion and consumption. Paul Kariya and Scott Niedermayer, among others, consistently eschewed hockey fishbowls such as Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal in favor of the anonymity of places like Nashville, St. Louis and Anaheim.
But beyond that, NHLers almost inevitably develop a deep and lasting connection with the teams that brought them along. NBA players only seem to cry when they’re drafted to a place they don’t want to be (see Steve Francis and the dearly departed Vancouver Grizzlies); NHLers bawl when they get moved.
Boston Bruins fans loved Ray Bourque so much for his loyalty, they openly cheered him when he was dealt to Colorado for a successful Stanley Cup run. The same will be true if and when Shane Doan becomes an ex-Coyote. When is the last time you heard that story play out in the NBA?
Sure, players in all sports earn their rights for free agency; in that regard, you can’t criticize Bosh, Wade and LeBron for choosing to let their futures unfold as they have.
Unfortunately, what players in all sports have to understand is (a) fans’ overwhelming natural urge to call and make them one of their own; and (b) the ramifications of breaking that bond. Maybe because most NHLers live with billets in the junior hockey system, they come to live that way more naturally.
Ask Vince Carter if the Devil he knew in Toronto wound up being worse than the ones he’s known since then. Ask Tracy McGrady the same thing.
All of us like to cheer for our sporting idols, but only when they’ve got sufficient competition to take on.
Batman and Superman would have a far easier time of it if they worked as a duo. But it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to watch them take out woefully overmatched villains.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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