Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Ebony & Avery

Los Angeles Kings forward Sean Avery sounded off tonight about Denis Gauthier's hit on Jeremy Roenick, and it wasn't exactly complimentary.

"I think it was a clean hit..."

"I think it was typical of most French guys in our league with a visor on, running around and playing tough and not back anything up."

"I'd think if a guy like Brett Hull was coming up the middle, somebody probably wouldn't have stepped up and hit him, but like I said, a typical move from a guy wearing a visor that certainly doesn't like to get scratched at all."

Avery apologized later, but the damage has been done. Or has it? I can't help but find Avery's comment refreshing, if a little distasteful. Personally, I hate hearing hockey players stand up and spout off their rote cliches. As such, I can't complain too much when a hockey player gives an honest answer to a question. One can imagine how frustrated Avery and his teammates must have been, and probably still are, after seeing a hit like that on a star player like Roenick. One must also assume that their frustration is even higher, knowing who put the hit on J.R.. My understanding is that Gauthier has built up quite a reputation with "questionable" body checks, a la Brian Marchment. Just ask Sami Salo. Still, it would seem that casting a whole class of players in a negative light based on one player's actions is a bit of a stretch. Kind of like calling all journeyman grinders "loud mouthed" just because one journeyman grinder can't keep his mouth shut is a stretch.

Unless, of course, it is true.

This whole matter ("Oh, you mean a sports matter?") brings to mind the infamous Don Cherry diatribe in 2004. The one that ended up with Cherry under federal investigation (whatever happened with that, by the way?). The question with Cherry, of course, was whether he was correct or not in asserting that it is European and Quebec born players who wear visors (I guess whether he had the right to say it on the mother station also plays some part, but I don't want to get into that here). If memory serves me correctly, someone went to the great effort of finding out that, indeed, the majority of players who wear visors are European and Quebec born players. Why, yes, here it is.

What nobody has done is prove that European and Francophone players are "soft" or "dirty" just because they wear visors. It is certainly implied in Cherry's comments, and Avery states it outright. I am sure that if you were to ask Canadians, at least those Canadians outside of Quebec, whether they agreed with the content of Avery's remarks, a disturbing majority would agree. I even found myself nodding my head in the affirmative when I was listening to Avery. Yet the statement really is tribalistic, and brings to the fore all that is nasty about the game of hockey. It implies that the game can only be played a certain way, by certain players. It perpetuates the myth that a player is not tough if he wears a visor, which leads to a reckless unwillingness to be safe and protected (I wonder how Jacques Plante must have felt). It reflects a long-standing undercurrent of animosity for players born inside of Quebec by those born outside of it , and a conservatism that is too often nothing other than racist. And it potentially brings us, yet again, to another powder-keg moment. The two teams play each other in eight days. Is the NHL going to have another moment of vigilante justice to tar its record? Does someone need to end up dead before players, coaches, management, and worst of all, fans, start to rethink the culture surrounding the game?

It is bad enough that the NHL is likely to lose an outspoken, charming and well-liked player in Jeremy Roenick out of this incident. If there is one player who can sell the game in LA LA land, one player in the NHL most like a movie star, it is Roenick. His loss is devastating not only for his team, but for a league trying to sell the game south of the Canadian border. But Avery has made it worse. His statements reinforce the image that hockey is a game for Cooperalled, bigoted apes. A game full of blood and brutality, signifying nothing. Certainly, Gauthier's cheap shots have no place in the game, and it is easy to argue that he, not Avery, is the real culprit in this matter. That it is his tactics that are bad for hockey. I do not disagree in this regard, although even Roenick admits that the hit was clean. But to retaliate with unsportsmanlike words, and possibly unsportsmanlike behaviour, doesn't make things any better. It just leads to an escalation, and I know what happens then. I've seen Boyz N The Hood. Here's hoping that Avery and his teammates get even with some clean hits and a winning score the next time these two teams meet, and here's hoping that a great player like Jeremy Roenick doesn't have to end his career because of a pre-season body check.


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