Thursday, November 24, 2005

Sports Matter? Words Matter Too.

The Toronto papers have been playing up the resignation of NHLPA Player Relations Director Steve Larmer, and the mounting insurgency against the leadership of new Executive Director Ted Saskin.

Larmer, who served seven years with the Players’ Association, is respected by his peers. He registered a point a game for the Blackhawks and Rangers over a 1,006 game career, including a period of 884 consecutive matches for Chicago, and five 40 goal seasons. His 90 point rookie season earned him the Calder in ’82-’83.

Like the players, I remain impressed by Larmer’s on-ice performance. But I’m less enamoured of his resignation letter, which is poorly written. If you’re trying to rally people to a cause, non-sentences like this don’t help: “Where there has been misinformation and denial of information to the players, which is totally disrespectful.”

Larmer’s note isn’t quite as bad as that excerpt makes it sound – I’m being picky. Overall, it reads like the transcript of a verbal statement, and most of us don’t punctuate our speech very well. But it put me in mind of Jacques Demers recent admission that he coached 1,000 games for some of the greatest teams in NHL history while being functionally illiterate.

“I would always tell my players, I'm not a big X's and O's guy,” Demers explained.
“When he first began coaching in the U.S. with St. Louis, if a letter needed to be written or document signed, he would explain to staff that his English wasn't so good and they would happily assist. In Detroit, longtime public relations manager Bill Jamieson was a huge help to Demers. Later, when he returned to Montreal, he regularly had Habs trainer Eddy Palchak fill out the lineup card. An assistant would then check it for mistakes, a common practice amongst NHL coaches.

“When Demers was the coach in Tampa Bay, his last posting, he was offered the general manager's job, as well. He took it knowing he could never perform the tasks needed and immediately hired Fletcher and Feaster, who handled all of the contractual work.”
It’s relatively easy to imagine how Demers could coach all those years without being able to read, but less easy to understand how he could manage. It’s difficult to comprehend the handling of contract negotiations, scouting reports or administrative tasks: if Demers wasn’t performing these tasks, was he really the manager? Perhaps he led the first paperless office, and like President W preferred to be briefed while on the treadmill.

Unlike most in hockey, Demers didn’t spend his teenage years away from home playing in junior leagues – he came to coaching indirectly, without playing professionally.

But hockey’s development structure probably means there are plenty of players in the league who can’t read or write (Note to Larmer: Forget the letter; leave them voice-mail.). The long-odds of success also mean there are likely thousands of kids in the junior system who get left high and dry, having skipped out on their education, and failed to reach professional success.

Hockey would be a better game if Dr. Randy Gregg was its poster-boy. Sure, he never scored more than 40 points in a season, but years later, he’s still got a great career.


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