ESPN.com’s Emily Kaplan wrote a fascinating story today about a linguistic quirk among hockey players: how they never refer to themselves in the first person in interviews. It’s a quick read, do yourself a favor and go check it out.
I’ve observed this quirk myself over the years, but never taken time to ask players about it. Kaplan’s piece left one of my longstanding questions unanswered, too.
Hockey’s group-think culture exists in spite of, not because of, players’ cultural backgrounds. NFL players are overwhelmingly American. It stands to reason that they would conform to similar linguistic standards. Hockey is a relatively international sport. English is the second language for many. How hockey players manage to coalesce around a “me-second” mentality is fairly remarkable. At what point in their lives did players decide to abandon their use of the first person?
I actually think hockey could borrow a lesson from the most American of sports: NASCAR.
NASCAR drivers get it. They’re one cog in a big team that includes an owner, a crew chief, a pit crew, and a team of technicians. Yet all the glory inevitably falls on the driver at the end of each race. Listen carefully, and you’ll see that drivers are quick to give credit where credit is due.
And yet, drivers also understand why they are the face of the team. They know why reporters are shoving a microphone in their face and not the face of their spotter. They take agency for their hand in every turn, every pass, every split-second reaction from lap to lap. If they’re asked a question focused on their personality, or something off the track, they don’t shy away. When it’s appropriate — not always, but often — they use the word “I.”
Hockey players have individual personalities. If reporters (acting as an extension of fans, and the public at large) ask a question that demands an individualized response, the player needs to understand that he is speaking not just for his team but his sport. Sometimes it’s OK to use the word “I.”
That’s why it was refreshing to see this quote from Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly in Kaplan’s piece:
“I joke with the guys that if I ever score a hat trick in the Stanley Cup Final, I’m talking about how good I was, and I’m not talking about any of you. We always joke around about stuff like that. I do wish that guys would — I wish Ovi would say, ‘I’m a sniper, I’m the best goal scorer in the league.’ But that’s not what hockey players do.”
Memo to all hockey players: it doesn’t have to be this way.