|Trash talk, anyone? Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin,|
right, has a pregame chat with Lightning goalie Sean
Burke a few years back at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Apologies for the delay in getting a new post up. Shoveling eight feet of snow will definitely throw a wrench into the weekly schedule. The following is one of my more "controversial" columns, because it really ticked off a colleague. And I guess that's the point of the column.
It wasn't my intention to upset or needle anyone. Honest. Instead, the idea of the column was to explain how, after a lifetime of playing between the pipes, I've learned to ignore trash talk. Usually, anyway. We all have bad days when the wrong comment sets us off. But, for the most part, I let trash talk slide off me like I was Teflon. Because, in hockey, trash talk is part of the game. At almost every level. If you let it get the better of you, your oponents get an advantage. And I wasn't going to give them that satisfaction.
Toughen up – Goalies need to develop a thick skin
During the holiday break, I found myself in the midst of a fun little Facebook exchange that somehow went off the rails. Well, I thought it was fun. Apparently, the sometimes colleague I was bantering with – I'll call him Barney, to protect the guilty and innocent alike – didn't take kindly to my comments.
So I'll let you decide (not that there's any "right" or "wrong"). A second colleague posted a terrific photo of himself and Barney enjoying an outdoor game at Boston's Fenway Park. Here are the pertinent comments, edited only for brevity:
Me: "That's great, guys! I'll be there next time. And tell Barney to get a bigger jersey! Ha ha!"
Barney: "Brion, I asked for a bigger one, but since your ego wasn't going to be attending, they didn't order any XXLs."
Me: "Ho ho, Barney ... I believe they had goalie jerseys. Those should have done the job (maybe)!"
Barney: "They didn't. But hey, this has been a delightful reminder of why we're not actually friends on here anymore. Always glad to get a refresher."
Me: "Barney, how did you ever survive in a hockey locker room? It's all in good fun, my friend. Really ... try not to let your own ego get in the way. You'll laugh more!"
Barney: "Don't you have a cloying column to write about how kids should be nice to each other and respect the game? Been a while since I 'read' one of those."
Me: "Nice try, Barney. Really, you need to lighten up. Good-natured ribbing is a great hockey tradition ... Anyone who actually played the game knows that."
And that was pretty much it; nothing worthy of Don Rickles (or, for younger readers, Bill Burr or Kevin Hart). I hardly gave it a second thought.
The exchange ended with my sometimes colleague sending me a private message, saying I was the exit point of the gastrointestinal tract. I laughed. I've been called worse by better. Plus, I just didn't see the big deal (which, I suppose, was his point). Barney's major complaint was that Facebook was a "public" venue, and that his family and friends could see my posts. Um, OK. My personal approach to Facebook is to avoid taking anything on it too personally, and I didn't find anything remotely hurtful in my comments (or Barney's), and still can't. Sophomoric? Probably. But mean-spirited? Not at all. Maybe that's just me.
But the exchange got me thinking about why I could shrug off Barney's comments, while others might take similar comments personally. That brought me back to his comment, "Don't you have a cloying column to write about how kids should be nice to each other and respect the game?" So that's what I'm doing, since there's a lesson here.
I do advocate respect. Like hard work and accountability, respect is one of the game's founding principles. So is having fun. There's a certain amount of good-natured teasing and trash talk that makes the game so entertaining. Why do we love "Slapshot," hockey's seminal movie? Because playwright Nancy Dowd absolutely nailed the sarcastic and often edgy wordplay between teammates, and opponents.
Now, in some circles, this might be called bullying. I get it. I'm a parent, and my daughter played co-ed hockey through 8th grade. Believe me, she's heard some pretty nasty stuff. Last year, when one young man called my daughter something particularly egregious during a goal-mouth scrum, she yelled: "Go ahead, tell the ref what you called me." It was brilliant. The ref inquired, the kid confessed, and sat for a 5-minute unsportsmanlike penalty. Then he had to explain it to his coach.
For the most part, though, wisecracking repartee is gamesmanship. As long as that banter stays within socially acceptable bounds, I'm perfectly fine with it. There's a big difference between bullying and agitating.
What's more, goalies have to deal with it. Opponents will try to get under your skin any way they can, and that part of the game isn't going away. They might bump you, snow you, or say nasty things about you. This happens to every player, and it happens in almost every sporting competition (including such "gentlemanly" pursuits as golf and tennis).
Take NFL cornerbacks, those tough-but-undersized defenders with oversized egos compressed into smaller frames. Trash talk is their stock in trade. It might unnerve rookies or untested players, but the response I really enjoy seeing is when a veteran receiver simply smiles at them.
That's a goalie's best option, too. Laugh it off. It's not always easy, and I'm not suggesting it comes naturally. You might have to work at developing that bulletproof veneer. But it's your best defense. When an opponent gets in your grill, and starts woofing, just smile, and remind him (or her) that you're not going anywhere. You can't go crying to your teammates, your coaches, or your parents. You need to be tough. Mentally tough.
Sports psychologist Saul Miller also talks about being emotionally tough. With a position as demanding as goaltending, "you either love the challenge, or fear the challenge," says Miller. Opponents will prey on those fears, using trash talk to drive an emotional wedge between you and the task at hand. Ignore them, so you can focus on stopping the puck.
Of course, you can always chirp back, but you better be ready to back it up. I personally believe it's in a goalie's best interests to keep trash talk to a minimum, since our job is tough enough. The last thing a goalie needs to do is start yapping at other players, especially in a game. It's the quickest way I know of to get a puck fired at your melon.
I recall an opposing goalie in high school, from a top-ranked team, making disparaging remarks about my gear during warm-ups (there was nothing wrong with my pads, but they admittedly weren't the latest and greatest). I told him to come talk to me afterward. But my teammates heard him, and got fired up. Our squad – which wasn't very good that year – battled to a 2-2 tie, knocking Mr. Wise Guy and his team out of first place. I'll never forget it, because the guy didn’t have anything to say after the game. Not … one … word.
Neither did I, as much as I wanted to, other than "nice game" in the handshake line. That's the respect part of the game. We stole a point, and I was happy with that. But my teammates were happy to taunt me afterward, reminding me of the two shots that hit the posts, and another bound for an open net that my defense blocked.
I laughed along with them. They were right. It was a game we had no right being in, but we had Lady Luck on our side. I told my teammates it was karma, and the hockey gods were scolding a derisive opponent. They told me I was full of it, and they were right. That year, like I said, was a long one, with few highlights. But it made me tough, and taught me to laugh at myself. That's served me well, not only as a hockey player but also in life, as a coach, a journalist, and even as a parent.
Hope that doesn't sound too cloying.