When I was growing up hockey was the source of the vast majority of my role models, and some of those figures still resonate as significant archetypes for what being a gentleman and/or an athlete is all about. There might not have been religious iconography in my home as a kid, but there were plenty of hockey sticks, hockey posters, and more jerseys and hockey tape than six boys knew what to do with. My Holy Trinity consisted of Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, and Mike Richter and when Halloween rolled around I was either a hockey player or a ninja (presumably a hockey player in disguise). Hockey found itself worming its way into my other hobbies. I spent countless hours of my youth staring at hockey cards and trying to draw them. Before the adorable talons of Pokemon got to into me, the vast majority of my video game experience orbited around hockey starting with Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel on NES, to Hit the Ice and NHL 94 on SNES, all the way to NHL 15- which I still play with my brothers far more frequently than is healthy or socially acceptable.
What did a hockey player represent to my developing brain? An almost supernaturally talented hardworking athlete that was a tough s.o.b. on the ice and a gentleman off of it. Players like Adam Graves and Mike Richter made significant impressions on me with their perseverance, philanthropy, and charisma. How could they not? There's a good reason that I have about a dozen three-ringed binders choked with old hockey cards. Hockey was one of the major unifying forces for my brothers and it provided us with something to talk (and argue) about despite our age differences, extended separations due to college, and natural instinct to loathe and destroy one another. It was because of this that hockey players were my heroes and role models and for as long as I can remember I was told and I believed that they were simply better people than other professional athletes.
I was wrong.
"Is this the summer where we can finally stop saying that hockey players are different from other athletes? That they're all good guys, that never do things like drugs or date rape or these horrible types of things? Can we just stop that?" - Jeff Marek from Marek vs. Wyshysnki, 8/12/15
Trying to find the origin of this particular thread of hockey folklore is all but impossible because of its anecdotal nature, but it remains as commonplace a stereotype as seeing a player suffer a minor injury and hearing the phrase, "He'll be alright. He's a hockey player."
As uncomfortable as it may be, I think we would be remiss to not attribute the perceived good behavior of hockey players to the racial makeup of the NHL. One needs only look at the roster of the New York Rangers to see the lack of racial diversity that is the norm throughout the league. When we pair this with the fact that the majority of hockey players come from the middle class (or more privileged) upbringings, the reason why we expect and believe that hockey players possess a moral compass that points to true north more often than not becomes quite clear. Even if it only occurs on the subconscious level, many of us do expect white kids from relatively stable homes to stay out of trouble far more often than black and Hispanic kids playing basketball, football, or baseball do. This is a problem.
A sense of invulnerability, more money than most people would know what to do with, visiting upwards of four cities a week during the regular season, and the fact that the human brain often isn't fully developed (especially the decision-making part of the brain) until about 25 years of age is a potent recipe for tragedy and the kind of headlines that we've seen far too much of this summer. Although the offseason of 2015 has gained a good deal of infamy for hockey players having run-ins with the law, bad behavior by NHL players is by no means a new thing. It is simply being covered more often and in a sports media that has social media and the internet as its vital organs, it is a great deal more difficult to keep things quiet in the way that was commonplace just a generation or so ago.
I think it is important to take a moment to acknowledge that vilifying all hockey players is just as bad, if not worse, than painting them with the same broad strokes that they are all better than other professional athletes. Thankfully, for every alleged case of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and driving while intoxicated there are dozens of cases of selfless charity, perseverance, philanthropy, and the everyday heroics of being a good father, husband, son, and brother. Of course, this holds true with professional athletes regardless of their sport or the color of their skin. At the end of the day the headline that catches the attention of the most readers is the one that draws attention to all things scandalous, negative, criminal, and titillating.
Perhaps it is unfair just how much of the spotlight allegations of crime and misconduct get compared to acts of selflessness and charity, but that is how the public has chosen to prioritize things with our demand for scandal and bad news. Most people couldn't care less who was going to be on the cover of EA Sports' upcoming NHL 16, but almost everyone who is tapped into the hockey world knows that Patrick Kane has been pulled from the cover.
So, what can be done to curb misbehavior and criminal behavior among professional athletes? To some extent young men will always make the idiotic, grave errors that some young men make, but education remains the best preventative measure for any and all criminal and deviant behavior. It goes without saying that more time should be taken to ensure that hockey players, who have an alarmingly atypical adolescence once they get on track to pursue the sport as a career, are better educated about the vulnerability of all professional athletes to violent crime, drug abuse, and the other issues that seem to plague our athletes. Just how much of this is already happening and in place, and is it happening early and often enough to make an impact?
When we read about the alleged crimes of players like Patrick Kane, Mike Richards, and the dozen or so other players that have gotten headlines over the past 10 months for all the wrong reasons, the notion that hockey players by definition are better behaved and better people than other professional athletes becomes a disturbing parody of itself. The insular and intense nature of hockey fandom turns some of these mottos into something akin to tenants of belief, but that by no means makes them infallible. As comforting as the thought of all of our favorite players being boy scouts may be to some of us, it is long past time that we let that part of the living folklore of hockey atrophy and die of neglect.
I do not say the following as an effort to excuse or endorse any of the behavior that has stained the names of more players than are worth counting this offseason, but we must remember that they are human beings capable of making terrible mistakes, and must be held to the same standard that the rest of us are. In turn, the players on our hockey cards, in our video games, and our plasma television screens must remember that as well.
Thank you for reading.