Trending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you’re only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead?
All it takes is one mistake.
As you might have heard by now, Russian hockey players are, by nature, at least one of all of the following things:
Lazy, selfish, quiet, obsessed with their homeland, loners, bad teammates, lazy, lazy, selfish, lazy, and of course enigmatic.
But no one was paying a particular amount of attention to the work of Russian players in these playoffs, at least not through the lens of, “Look at what these Russians are doing,” and were instead just judging them as players.
We have by now all seen Keith Jones’ brutal takedown of a guy who we can now at least guess was at least overtired if not actively hungover, and there’s no excuse for that kind of behavior from a team’s leading scorer in the playoffs. The most of it was disingenuous, with Jones pointing out missed nets on the rush and turnovers along the boards in Game 1 as signs he’s not performing up to standards. He even blamed a point man bobbling a pass on Radulov almost-losing a puck.
Then Jeremy Roenick added his two cents on the subject — which was worth far less than that — about how they must not track plus-minus in the KHL (and childishly pretending he didn’t remember the league’s name) given that it’s such a telling and important stat; which is funny, because they do track plus-minus in the KHL and Radulov was a plus-98 in the last four seasons. He’s also a plus-29 in the NHL in less than two seasons of work.
But nonetheless, it was fair enough, even if it continued NBC’s proud tradition of slagging off European players given the slightest opportunity. Radulov had a just point and only one shot to his name in the first two games of the series, both of which Nashville lost.
Then it came out that Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn stayed up late drinking in Glendale, had a bad Sunday, and thus started a firestorm of xenophobia and anti-North American prejudice that you’ve come to expect from that kind of incident.
To be sure, their decision was selfish. Radulov looked lazy. And you can certainly argue with some amount of success that this makes him a bad teammate. That hits enough items on the checklist for this kind of talk to heat up in a hurry. But what that doesn’t do is give everyone the right to start bringing up the dilemma Russian players pose for teams that employ them, which has been a topic of conversation throughout the week.
Everyone came out of the woodwork, including legendary Edmonton Sun writer Terry Jones to have his rather bigoted say on the subject earlier this week.
“The way the Russians are going in Stanley Cup playoffs, Oilers better give a real, real, real, real good hard think about Nail Yakupov, huh?” spewed the actual Hockey Hall of Fame writer.
And that was before it was ramped up most considerably when Radulov and Kostitsyn were told they’d be watching Game 3 from the press box.
We can all agree that people are not defined by their nationality except for maybe, like, their traditions and the languages they speak, right? At least, not this broadly.
You know, no one would ever call Pavel Datsyuk a “lazy Russian” even though he finished the Wings’ one-and-done playoff appearance, despite putting up just one goal and two assists in five games, none of them particularly important in the end. And why? Because his game has a terribly North American flavor. He plays with extreme defensive responsibility and a dazzling skillset. And therefore, even though he wasn’t even born on this continent, he’s a good guy, and all the mean stuff everyone says about Russians doesn’t apply to him.
The same is not true for poor Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, who bore a considerable amount of slings and arrows for their performances.
Malkin’s performance in the Penguins’ meek bounceout against the Flyers was actually criticized, despite what logic should dictate. What a bum, shut down by a rookie and held to only eight points in six games! He was only second on the team behind Jordan Staal, who had the series of his life, probably because he’s a Good Canadian Boy From Thunder Bay Let’s Go. If he was the true leader his team needed, he would have used some KGB mind control to make Marc-Andre Fleury not wet himself every time Claude Giroux came into the attacking zone.
And there’s no Gary Roberts to come in and make apologies for him like Sid Crosby received.
Kovalchuk also caught a fair amount of crap for only putting up 3-3-6 in eight games before it came out that he was logging an average of 25 minutes a night with a herniated disc. Not that anyone felt particularly bad for saying all that stuff though, even though Rich Chere had guessed that whatever was ailing him was serious as far back as April 21.
(Although one imagines his Game 3 performance will garner some praise.)
That’s because Russians are Russians and much like one cannot count on a leopard to change his spots, you can’t expect non-Datsyuk Russians to ever stop living up to every one of the stereotypes we have about them, even if they hardly ever do it.
What all of this criticism and characterization of Radulov as a typical Russian player ignores: The fact that though he is indeed guilty of being born 1,100 or so miles from Moscow, he’s actually anything but a typical Russian player.
He was brought up as a player largely in North America (at least at the highest competitive levels). Though his amateur team at the time the Predators drafted him was Tver of the then-Russian Superleague’s second division, he spent the next two seasons playing for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL — and that’s CHL hockey, where all of the world’s try-hardest hockey players matriculate into dominant on-ice forces.
After two years of that, instead of heading back to Mother Russia, Radulov instead shuttled back and forth between the NHL and, shock of shocks, the AHL. I seem to recall this having been often remarked upon at the time: That by eschewing the traditional Russian development curve — staying shrouded behind whatever remains of hockey’s Iron Curtain until he’s into his mid-20s — Radulov was ushering in a new era of how we would think about players born in that country.
But after earning a full-time role with Nashville in the penultimate season of his entry-level deal, he very noticeably jumped to Salavat. And thus, his spending four years playing at various stages of the North American development system for four years, like any mid-first-round Canadian kid whose game needed a little work might, was erased overnight.
He was once again a Red Menace, an inscrutable mystery who doesn’t care about anything but himself and a payday (ignoring that NHL players don’t get paychecks during the playoffs), certainly not his teammates and certainly not a Stanley Cup, which is a strictly North American tradition.
Kostitsyn, who’s not technically Russian but from One Of Those Countries Over There, gets lumped in because it’s a hell of a lot easier that way. You know how they are over there.
There’s the old saying that no one complains about positive stereotypes and that’s certainly true in hockey. No one on earth has ever objected to the media’s regular characterizations of Good Canadian Boys as those players who work hard in the corners, win draws, score goals, and fight each other with a gentlemanly ferocity to honor the Hockey Gods.
Why would you raise a stink about someone saying that about you? Americans are attributed the same characteristics (but with lower levels of ability and certainly a lovable loser persona). Finns are all excellent checking-line forwards and great goalies. Russians are very skilled. And so forth. The things that we as hockey fans value in the players and teams we watch get painted in extremely broad strokes, and no one, really, notices. It’s casual prejudice, and those who aren’t hurt by it don’t think it hurts anyone.
But think of it this way: Could you say the kind of stuff people say about Russians about a group of players on whose behalf a vocal group, even a vocal minority, would object?
The second anyone brings up that players from Quebec will flop on the ice at the first opportunity and won’t back up their dirty stick work away from the play, there’s a whole lot of you-can’t-say-that’s issued by the Francophone media. It’s a well-worn and, of course, not entirely accurate claim that French guys don’t fight, can’t fight, won’t fight; and even if it’s for the most part true, there is enough of a voice admonishing those who would speak it (while ignoring the ample abilities of guys like Georges Laraque, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and everyone in the LNAH to mash opponents’ faces into red messes) that no one — not even Don Cherry — actually does so any more.
Clearly, none of this xenophobia is going to change until there’s someone that will harangue those who perpetuate it into stopping. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.
The Russian media is too lazy to do anything. Bad countrymen and all that.
Pearls of Biz-dom
We all know that there isn’t a better Twitter account out there than that of Paul Bissonnette. So why not find his best bit of advice on love, life and lappers from the last week?
BizNasty hasn’t Tweeted since April 18!
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