Yesterday, Pierre LeBrun of ESPN wrote an article documenting off-ice issues surrounding the NHL. This is of interest to me, because I think that this is a vastly undercovered subject in hockey writing circles. Here at Jewels, we have been known to chime in, and there are always a few sites here and there that write quality pieces when the situation calls for it. Unfortunately, at the national level, we haven't seen big players in the game covering things seriously.
When LeBrun released a piece that sort of tied a bunch of ends together, I was interested. Asking players about what's going on off the ice! Great! Good!
LeBrun's piece immediately reads as a defense of the NHL's supposedly pristine image.
For a sport so accustomed to a clean image, the past 12 months have been a tough pill to swallow for the NHL and its players.
Suddenly, hockey is sharing some of the same dubious headlines normally reserved for other sports and leagues.
This is not the angle from which we should be approaching any of these subjects, whether they be violence against women or drug abuse. However, LeBrun decided to haphazardly lump these subjects together with an opening volley chock-full of the kind of dog-whistle politics that is so prevalent in discussion about hockey.
This is also factually incorrect. Major off-ice incidents have marred hockey several years running, not just over the past handful of months. We have had multiple players accused of violence against women. The league, like the NFL, is struggling to manage its concussion problem. Possibly related, the sport appears to have a serious problem with drugs, specifically prescription painkillers. Dany Heatley killed a man! Back in the '80s, the Oilers signed Craig MacTavish while he was in jail for committing vehicular homicide and he still works for them today. This isn't to vilify a man further for something in the past, but to show you that pretending the NHL has always had a squeaky clean image and the utmost regard for human life is patently untrue.
LeBrun also fails to actually tie these ends together. Instead, he wads them into a ball before throwing them on the ground. Let's be exceptionally clear: painkiller abuse and violence against women are entirely separate issues with entirely separate causes and different cultures that nurture them. While both of these things may stem partially from hockey's issue with flexing its masculinity and toughness, they thrive on different elements.
Furthermore, I think the society of hockey really needs to separate Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards. Stoll was arrested with party drugs in a party city in a party setting. Drugs are bad and all, but this is kind of meaningless. He committed an entirely victimless crime. While Richards' is also a victimless crime, painkiller abuse in the NHL is a huge issue. This is an issue that deserves coverage. It doesn't deserve to be lumped in with a rich bro doing rich bro things.
Violence against women is not specifically a NHL problem, but it is something that is perpetuated in sports through the deification of its athletes. Tying this problem to drug abuse is to forget the victims that suffered the actions of this league's supposed deities.
LeBrun didn't take a nuanced approach to his piece in the slightest. He plunged headfirst into a pool he doesn't actually seem to want to be in at all. As a result, the article - and LeBrun himself, in a way - comes across as not caring about women. His disinterest in his own thesis becomes apparent from the first quote he uses out of Sidney Crosby. As the league's shining star and LeBrun's first quote, you'd hope for - at the very least - something interesting. Instead, we get slop that doesn't even make it clear what was asked.
"I think as players we're all aware of it," superstar center Sidney Crosby told ESPN.com this week at the Player Tour event. "The league and Players' Association do a good job of informing us and making us well-aware of certain situations and consequences, things like that. I think it's something that everyone, whether you're a professional hockey player or a professional athlete, in general everyone is trying to educate each other in terms of situations you could be put in and making the right decisions.
"Obviously, when you're a professional athlete the expectations are a little bit higher, that's something we all understand. It doesn't mean we're above making mistakes or that we won't experience challenging situations. At that point, it's about making the right decision."
What is Sidney Crosby aware of? This response makes it sound like Crosby was asked, "hey, have you heard about the off-season's biggest news stories?" Of course he's aware of things! Who isn't? Why bother telling us that players are aware things are happening? What questions are you asking to make this the most interesting quote you can pull from the league's best player?
From there, LeBrun sticks to his real motive: defending the NHL's integrity. The victims of specific incidents don't deserve our care, nor do the players affected by the league possibly having a culture of painkiller abuse, but the institution allowing these things to happen sure does. The quotes he pulled from Dion Phaneuf, and the following paragraph, illustrate LeBrun's real intention in writing this article:
"And it's been a tough summer for the National Hockey League," added Phaneuf. "But it does raise awareness for guys, and it should raise awareness, about how we conduct ourselves as professionals. I'm not going to talk about any one incident, that's not fair for me to say, but as professionals and representing the National Hockey League, I feel that we have a very good reputation and we want to uphold that."
As it stands, the NHL routinely educates players each year both through a presentation to all 30 teams by NHL security staff, and Behavioral Health Program doctors also make yearly presentations to the players about key issues to be aware of.
See everyone? It's okay! The NHL routinely educates players. Handing players a pamphlet and saying drugs are bad counts as education, right? Case closed. The NHL is great.
LeBrun meanders on for awhile without doing something that is objectively awful, then we get to some thoughts on social media, I guess.
Another dynamic at play here is that never before has every action by a pro athlete been more under the spotlight. Social media's 24/7 glare is a reality that players are very much aware of.
Can I just say how tired of this argument I am? Ah, you can't fault the players, they're under more spotlight now. You'll love our players until you get to know them, and really, whose fault is that?
More to the point, this isn't the article for this particular diatribe. What does social media have to do with hockey players abusing women or doing drugs? These are serious issues. The NHL and LeBrun both seem more upset that people know about bad things happening than they are about the actual bad things that are happening.
The article's low point - think of this as the bottom of the Dead Sea - comes when LeBrun accepts a dare involving Tyler Seguin saying words. Why LeBrun would do this is beyond me. Tyler Seguin hasn't said anything worth hearing in his entire life.
Let's first look at how LeBrun arrives at his quotes from Seguin:
Star center Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars says he's still learning how to deal with these realities. He was recently called out on Twitter by former Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Richard Peddie, who tweeted this in early September: "Tyler Seguin now behaving himself? Yorkville neighbours sure don't think so. Lots of loud noisy parties to 6am Lots of garbage left behind."
What do we think Tyler Seguin's quotes are going to be about, based on this framing? Are they going to be about social media? About how he probably shouldn't have left trash behind? No? Then what?
Seguin told ESPN The Magazine he was out of town when Peddie made those comments.
"You have to be so careful of other people," Seguin said this week. "It's changing to the point of where it was cool to see a celebrity athlete out, to 'How can I get money?' or 'How can I hurt this person?' It's sad. It started in the other leagues, now it's coming to our league.
Excuse my language, but what the heck is this? What does it have to do with what immediately preceded it? Tyler Seguin's response to leaving garbage around all the time was absolutely, 100% not what was quoted here. He's talking about something very specific here. It sounds an awful lot like he's talking about the concept of "gold diggers." That has nothing at all to do with what preceded it.
That might be because it isn't. LeBrun didn't include that lead-up to Seguin's quotes in his original piece. This is his original piece:
Tyler Seguin is 23. The time to hang out and "be a kid" was 10 years ago.
LeBrun only added the bit with Richard Peddie's accusations after the article faced considerable scrutiny. From there, LeBrun seemed to misinterpret what the fuss was about. At any rate, Seguin's remarks lead with talk of money and being hurt by others, and I doubt Richard Peddie is at all interested in either thing.
It seems plainly apparent to me that this wasn't what he was asked about, and the unannounced addendum was an attempt to cover up for Seguin and LeBrun. If it was what Seguin was asked, then I'd love to see the exact line of questioning. This is another problem in the article: it is a sampling of quotes from various sources. How much did LeBrun directly ask people? Most importantly, what were the questions?
The backlash to Seguin's comments was immediate, as it should be. He quoted an antiquated myth about rape accusations. LeBrun's decision to include this quote in his lackluster defense of the league is a pretty embarrassing backfire. Hot tip to any writer trying to defend the NHL: don't quote Tyler Seguin.
LeBrun's effort was embarrassing, but sadly expected. The article he wrote suggests to me that he didn't want to write about this subject. The problem is that no one seems interested in seriously covering these subjects, yet the NHL keeps throwing them at us.
This is my call to all hockey writers out there: do this better! It's good when blogs like ours write heavy-hitting pieces, but much more change is affected when substantial outlets are covering these issues. Women - specifically the victims of hockey player violence, but also every woman that is a hockey fan - deserve a lot more. The players struggling with concussions, drug addiction, and the related depression deserve a lot more. Ask better questions and get better answers. There are plenty of stories out there that need to be told, so please go out and tell them well.