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NHL FanPulse: What is hockey culture?

This week’s question showed an interesting mixture of your ideas.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

What do you see here?

What words stand out to you? If you believe that hockey culture is a net positive, you might see words like “tough,” “family,” “loyal,” “gritty,” and “intense.” If you view hockey culture as problematic or too traditional, you’re more than likely going to see the words “toxic,” “bad,” “macho,” “racist,” and “old.”

Cognitive biases impact how we think about things and also how we see situations and images. If you view all of hockey culture as problematic and wrong-headed, then you’re going to come into this article - and the question that it’s based off of - with a particular view in mind and no one is going to change it. Likewise, that’s more than likely true if you’ve clicked this article with the viewpoint that hockey culture promotes a positive lifestyle and is beneficial.

How about this: hockey culture (and sports culture as a whole) promotes positive learning experiences and behavior while, if norms are not paid attention to, can also promote negative behavior and attitudes. It can quite literally be both good and bad, and a lot of this depends on the behaviors tolerated and the expectations held by those in charge.

Think of your high school days. If you played sports, or paid attention to those who did, did you ever notice how athletes of one team acted versus athletes of another? Did you have a team on your campus that thought their shit didn’t stink? Did you have a team on campus who always seemed to be the kids who did what they were supposed to do, and who were respectful to peers and teachers?

Did you ever mutter “man, fuck those ____________ guys. They’re assholes”?

You did? Now check with someone else and see if that team was the same at their school. No? Sometimes it’s football, sometimes it’s soccer, sometimes it’s basketball? It’s almost as though it’s not the sport or the sport’s culture that causes that kind of behavior - it’s the expectations of those in charge. If you have a coach (or organization, or league) who tolerates disrespect and who demonstrates disrespect, you’re going to have a toxic culture. If you have a coach that is a hard nose but who shows the players clear expectations and what they will and will not tolerate, you have that group of players that folks know are the “good kids.”

It’s not just true with malleable children. It’s true with adults too. Where the negativity of hockey culture comes into view is when adults know what behavior is appropriate and when they can call out inappropriate behavior when they see it. Bill Peters hitting guys on the bench? Keep your damn hands to yourself. Peters using racist slurs? No place for that on a team or society. Mike Babcock playing weird mind-games with rookies? The players know that’s not the behavior of a coach who wants them to succeed, so they stop playing good hockey for him, regardless of how many Cups and medals that coach has. Marc Crawford sending guys out to head-hunt and nearly kill people?

Ok, I never said that the judgement of adults is perfect.

But what I am saying is that there’s enough - if not more - good in the culture to continue to tamp down the bad. Racism exists in hockey. It’s not the dominant viewpoint, but - much like in life - you’re going to get some racist assholes that crawl out of the woodwork. It’s up to the rest of the guys - players, coaches, and management alike - to communicate that there’s zero place for that in the sport. Making homophobic slurs, even in jest? No place for it. Saying someone’s playing like a girl? While I’m sure that if you meant they were playing like the US Women’s Hockey Team it would be taken as a compliment, but if that’s not what you meant then it’s not appropriate.

Regardless of what anyone says, I like to think that a vast majority of grown adults, men and women both, understand that. When noticed, people need to take a moment and address toxic behavior like that as they see it, as adults. It doesn’t do much good when you say an entire group of people is toxic. You kill expectations for change, and believe it or not, you’re stereotyping. You’re hindering your own behavior, because once you stereotype, your ability to have a rational, productive dialogue goes right out of the window.

There is a lot of good in hockey culture. It teaches cooperation and teamwork. It teaches that even though you might not like everyone on your team, you have to find a way to deal with that or you’re going to lose. It can teach life skills that you can transfer to other fields, other situations.

The community’s response after the Humboldt bus crash was quick and heartfelt. Teams, from the NHL on down, have fantastic charity initiatives for their communities that players participate in with gusto.

Look at where most of the Blues spent their days with the Cup: family, hospitals, sick children, supporting the local communities where they grew up. Giving back.

Watch Colton Parayko go grab Laila Anderson so she could be with the team as they celebrated. Watch him hoist the Cup with her.

You do that, and then you try to deny the good in these guys.

There are people in every sport, every profession, every walk of life, who are not good people. There are coaches, players, and executives of every North American sports league who people will call assholes behind their backs, and probably some who have been called an asshole to their face. But there’s a lot more good out there, and that good is very aware where things need to change, and how they need to.

Just like with goalies wearing masks, or helmets becoming mandatory, or visors becoming the law of the land, you’re going to get pushback at first. Then one day, you’re going to wake up, and Craig MacTavish will be retired and the thought of someone daring to skate without a bucket in today’s NHL will be the strangest thing you’ve ever heard of. A relic of the past.

If enough good people in hockey, sports, and life in general step up and say that they won’t tolerate harmful behavior tarnishing what they love, it’ll dwindle too. Will it ever disappear? No, and that’s why it’s important to know right from wrong, appropriate from inappropriate, and continue to teach people and show through your actions that there’s no tolerance for doing or saying things that may hurt others.

I feel that there’s enough good in hockey - and in people - to do that with our sport, and with the world. I’ve seen enough people grow and change through the guidance of coaches and mentors.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.