Daily Hab-it: Don't blame players for being guarded
Montreal Canadiens' Hal Gill, left, checks Los Angeles Kings' Dwight King during second period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Wednesday, November 24, 2010.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
By Arpon Basu
Published Wednesday, February 9, 2011 12:07AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 3:10AM EDT
MONTREAL - Several of my colleagues in the media like to complain about how all hockey players talk like robots these days, spewing out canned clichés and avoiding at all costs saying anything remotely interesting.
Of course, that's not entirely true, but the culture of the media/player relationship has changed a great deal from the days when beat reporters were privy to a lot of things that never made the newspapers.
The current media environment means that intimacy has been lost, or at least severely eroded, and players are trained to always remain on their guard when there are reporters in the room.
But that is pretty impossible to do all the time, particularly after practises when reporters are free to hang around a little longer for more in depth interviews and such.
That was the case Tuesday morning in Brossard, when myself and a couple of other reporters were sitting around speaking with P.K. Subban, while another reporter interviewed Hal Gill in what was a largely empty Canadiens dressing room.
At some point during our conversation, Subban dropped his practice jersey on the ground and left it there. Gill noticed, and called out his rookie teammate for leaving the sacred CH just lying on the floor. As any veteran would, Gill spoke down to Subban a little bit and let him have it, but I never thought it was anything at all serious. In fact, I thought it was a great piece of insight into the relationship the two have built, largely because Subban had a massive smile on his face the entire time.
Except the result of that little exchange turned into this story about how Subban is bad in the dressing room, and how he's yet another example of today's rookie player skipping steps on his way to veteran status. The story was then translated into English later in the day, turning it into a double-translated story because the original quotes were all in English. General rule of thumb: double-translated is twice as likely to be inaccurate.
Anyhow, I really had no plans of writing about this little exchange between a veteran defenceman and his rookie partner, only because I'm sure moments like that happen every day in that dressing room between Subban and his teammates. The kid is 21 years old and he's learning how to be a pro. By his own admission and those of his teammates, he has a lot to learn. It's only normal.
The reason I feel somewhat obligated to spell out what exactly happened here is because the story took on a life of its own as the day went on, and then suddenly went national. Being one of only four reporters in the room, I felt a certain degree of responsibility to give my take on what happened. But normally, I seriously doubt I would have written about this at all.
Tough brotherly love, nothing more, nothing less
I was trying to interview Subban for a feature I was doing on the Heritage Classic, except we kept getting interrupted. Admittedly, I came around after he had done his big media session, and the room was essentially empty except for the group I mentioned earlier.
At one point, Subban was discussing the Super Bowl with someone when Gill piped up.
"P.K., what happened?" he said, in a voice so stern it couldn't really be taken seriously.
Gill was holding Subban's practice jersey, which he had picked up off the floor.
"Oh, did I just toss that on the ground?" Subban asked, his hand clearly in the cookie jar.
Subban began apologizing, promising it wouldn't happen again, to which Gill replied, "You're a (bleeping) idiot. You're a (bleeping) idiot."
The tone of voice on that one was as ridiculously stern as before, except it was even harder to take him seriously.
"Don't throw our (bleeping) team jersey on the ground," Gill continued.
Subban: "I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
Gill: "Sorry doesn't mow the lawn."
That's when I stepped in, because that made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. Gill went on to explain that when you apologize to your father for failing to mow the lawn, that's a reply he could use to show you that saying sorry is not nearly as valuable as avoiding the transgression to begin with.
"Sorry dad, I didn't mow the lawn," he said. "Well, sorry doesn't mow the lawn."
I thanked Gill for the tip, telling him I would save it for when my kids are old enough to mow my lawn, assuming I one day have a lawn to mow.
We then each went back to our respective conversations, which is when Subban quietly mentioned that the expression is a favourite of Gill's and that he hears it quite often, presumably because he is apologizing to Gill quite often as well.
That was that, and I honestly thought nothing of it other than it was a rare glimpse into a relationship that could very well have a big impact on Subban's future.
Subban being monitored
While I don't agree with the tone or the conclusions of the article mentioned above, I will concede that Subban's behaviour appears to be closely monitored by his teammates, particularly Gill as he plays what has apparently become his role as team mentor.
I never took Gill too seriously during that whole exchange, and Subban clearly didn't either, but the underlying message he was sending was probably very sincere: respect the jersey because that's what we play for.
It would not be the first time Gill has brought a teammate in line, as I noted in the story I linked to above, but it also wouldn't be the first time I witnessed a moment where Gill was watching over his talented, young defence partner.
I remember back in December that Gill was sitting at his stall when Subban came off the ice late after practice – as he does, by the way, after nearly every practice.
A decent number of journalists were waiting for him, and once he began talking practically every reporter in the room had a microphone in there.
On this particular day, there was no obvious reason to want to talk to Subban, but it was ahead of the second time the Canadiens faced the Philadelphia Flyers since Mike Richards' scathing comments about him and people wanted to know how he felt about a subplot he hadn't even thought about until he was asked.
I happened to be speaking to Gill when Subban arrived, and after finishing up our little conversation I turned around to catch what Subban was saying. As a reporter, it would be verging on irresponsible for me not to at least listen to what's going on, but I wasn't the only interested listener. I looked down and noticed that Gill, too, was intently listening in on the scrum, intrigued as to what his young protégé might say.
Gill was visibly amused by the attention Subban was drawing, but it also felt like he was taking mental notes on how the youngster was handling himself. I don't know that to be true by any means, but it's the impression I got.
Further solidifying the positive relationship Subban is building with Gill is this piece done by TSN's John Lu. Keep in mind, the Gill and Subban clips you see in the piece were shot mere minutes before the alleged argument took place. Unless you consider Gill's admission that he doesn't give Subban noogies as evidence of a clear rift between the two, I think the piece makes it pretty clear that Gill is relishing his mentor's role.
Arguments happen everywhere
The biggest thing I've learned since becoming a hockey reporter 10 years ago is how hard it is to get a real read for what's happening behind closed doors, what kind of relationships are being formed, how strong or weak they might be. Hence, drawing definitive conclusions based on my own observations should be avoided at all costs.
While media pressure in a big hockey market like Montreal can be overwhelming, the fact is that players are exposed to reporters for maybe half an hour a day, tops. And that's only the players that reporters want to talk to.
That kind of access provides very little real insight into the intricacies of what is, in reality, a family-like atmosphere. Yes, it's a cliché used by players all the time, but the more clichés you hear, the more you realize they are used because they are true. Players do actually take them one game at a time.
Hockey teams spend at least eight months a year together and they need to learn to co-exist, even if that means they don't necessarily get along all the time.
It's just like in any family.
But normal families don't have their disagreements over bathroom time or what to watch on television broadcast around the world within seconds and analyzed to death.
Nor are those arguments blown completely out of proportion because a comical scolding was interpreted differently by someone who is ultimately an outsider.