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Hockey culture is at odds with itself right now.
From the Blackhawks to Evander Kane, the NHL has been marred by multiple controversies in recent months. It’s also one of the most expensive youth sports to playwhich limits participation and limits growth.
Yet never before have so many people involved in hockey worked to move the game forward. There are learn-to-play programsscholarships to expand access for youth of all genders and backgroundsdiversity and inclusion initiatives, and even climate change initiatives.
The game is more dynamic than ever on the ice, but there are old players and coaches who think high-flying skill is nothing but “showboating.” Tyson Nash and John Tortorella have both admonished the lacrosse-style goals that are quickly becoming a signature move of sorts for Anaheim Ducks rookie Trevor Zegras.
Whether hockey is ready or not, the game is changing, and its players like Zegras, Toronto Maple Leafs style icon Auston Matthews and other skilled young players changing it by being themselves. The future faces of the game are encouraged with the direction of the game and its culture, but know more can be done to bring awareness to important issues and to help fuel the game’s growth.
“I think the league has been doing an exceptional job with the ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ message,” Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said. “But it’s continuing to find ways to grow the game. I’m not saying that there is complacency among organizations, but I think that each team should take on the responsibility of growing the game.”
Here’s a glimpse into their world and how they view the game they play.
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How they’re Using Social Media
Talking to veteran players, they view social media as an afterthought. They might be required to put up a sponsored post or use it to promote their charities. But it’s different for the new generation of athletes. Social media is how they stay in touch with their former teammates and families abroad, get information and express themselves.
“I always posted on Instagram, it’s just something we all did,” Zegras said. “And it’s one of those things like, you just end up playing in the NHL and you have a different type of audience. I feel like I’ve posted the same stuff since I was 15 years old, but I guess there’s more attention on it now. I think it’s great though. I think it’s great for hockey and great for fans. I have a lot of fun with it and I know other guys do too. “
“I like it,” said Devils rookie Dawson Mercer. “But I use it too much. The last few years with COVID has been weird and we haven’t been able to connect with (fans) in person, so I think social media has definitely helped that and brought in a nice way for that aspect for the game. ”
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How they View Mental Health
Robin Lehner won a Masterton Award in 2019 and delivered a powerful line that has resonated with many in the game: “I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill, but that doesn’t mean mentally weak.”
Other players such as Tyler Motte, Stephen Johns and Connor Carrick have openly discussed their own struggles. It has laid the framework for a younger generation that feels more comfortable discussing the subject and even using mental health as a tool to improve on the ice.
“It’s been a topic that has been brought up a lot, and it’s something where we always need to be doing more,” said Devils forward Jesper Bratt. “I think it’s an extremely important thing. The league has talked about it more and people have opened up more so I hope we can continue with that.”
Beyond the performance aspect, several players have said they are more at ease discussing the subject and would feel comfortable asking for help, depending on the team.
“I think everybody deals with it in different ways and certainly I have my own process with that, as I’m sure everyone does,” McAvoy said. “It’s great to see that when it comes to that playing field, people are much more open to conversations, to acceptance, to understand just how people are feeling.
“I think it’s a lot of pressure playing a professional sport, but at the same time, it should be equally as fun. Having people there on your team to help encourage that balance is important to everyone’s well-being.”
Being open about mental health is just one way players are sharpening their minds. Mental skills coaching has long been a part of baseball, but it’s relatively new to hockey. That could be changing. New Jersey previously worked with renowned sports psychologist Dr. Aimee Kimball, a mental training and player development specialist. The Washington Capitals now employ Kimball and she works with the US women’s national hockey team as well.
Bratt is currently amid a breakout 25-goal campaign. Now 23, Bratt credits much of his success to working with a mental skills coach in his native Sweden, Andy Sward.
“It’s maybe a sensitive thing to talk about, but I think it’s super important,” he said. “It’s one of the things that has helped me most to stay at the level I have and to improve every single year. It’s extremely important. There are a couple of guys using coaches like that and I hope we see a lot more.”
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How they would Change the Game
The most talented young players are already changing the game just by their play. Zegras’ ‘Michigan’ plays probably won’t be controversial a decade from now when others are trying them too.
“I don’t think these kids are showboating. I think that’s what they’ve grown up doing and it’s the norm,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper recently said when asked about the Anaheim Ducks forward.
It’s entertaining. The highlight-reel goals will be all over social media for younger generations, and if it encourages a kid to pick up a stick or one family to purchase tickets to a game, then it has served a purpose.
So, I asked players what they would change off the ice. Unsurprisingly, Zegras had an idea.
“I would love — just absolutely love — to be able to wear whatever you want to the games. I think that would be so much fun,” Zegras said. “A lot of us young guys, and maybe some of the older guys would get into it too, but I just don’t love wearing the same suit every day. I love watching all of the basketball guys walking into games. I love LaMelo Ball, I love Tyler Herro, I think those guys are so cool and they can kind of express themselves any way they want coming into games. “
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Bratt took it a step further: Why don’t TV cameras roll on the players when they drive up to the rink? Why not give fans an idea of your off-ice interests during your off-ice time or offseason?
“It’s cool to see the fashion part of it and the expression of what people do in the summer, and the cars they drive and all of that stuff,” Bratt said. “Especially with NBA players. I think it brings a cool look and some excitement for the fans too. I think it would be something that hockey could evolve a little bit in and be better at.”
This generation of players was heavily influenced by PK Subban and his outsized personality. They saw how his popularity grew on social media, how he interacted with fans, and his willingness to push the envelope with the dress code. Now, they look to Auston Matthews, a GQ cover model, for fashion inspiration.
“I’m big into clothes and maybe not being crazy with what I’m wearing, but I like being a little different and be able to showcase who you are as a person and where you came from with what you’re wearing,” Zegras said.
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How they’re Adapting their Personalities to the NHL
Before most players understand what it is to be a true professional and the platform that comes with being one, they make their debut and realize a dream come true.
Welcome to the show, kid.
“Every Christmas I would ask for a new jersey and getting that was always so special. I would wear them around the house, wear them to games, I would see the teams when they came to the (Nassau) Coliseum to play the Islanders, “McAvoy, a Long Island native,” he said. “I think for me when I showed up on my first day and I looked in my locker and I saw my jersey, that was a moment I had to kind of wrap my head around.”
Then the reality of the situation sets in: They’re expected to conduct themselves like adults when they’re often still only teenagers. They have to learn to get themselves to practice rink, to games, events, and team meetings on their own. Teams will offer help to get them adjusted and veterans often step in to offer support, help, and even housing as well.
But this is where it can be tough to show who you really are underneath the gear. Hockey players have long had a reputation for being nice guys, but somewhat devoid of personality. Saying, “We just need to get pucks in deep,” or “We need to play a 60-minute game,” doesn’t offer much to fans.
Rookies often feel pressure to fall in line and the media training provided enforces that. In an anecdote that has made its way around NHL circles this season, Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield was told by the team’s new vice president of communications, Chantal Machabee, to show more of his personality. Caufield responded by saying, “You know it hasn’t always been like that here!”
Slowly, this is changing.
“I’ve always been comfortable doing my own thing,” Zegras said. “I don’t want to say I’m different, but it’s one of those things where you’re on the bus with everyone, post a funny photo, maybe come up with a funny caption. I’m not doing it to brand myself or anything like that. “
He’s just doing it to himself.
“I think we’ll get there one day, but it’s one of those things I think will take some time,” Zegras said. “I think the more guys that come in and aren’t afraid to be themselves, then that’s the direction that we’re headed in.”