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 October 28, 2010 :: 1:12pm ET

And Out Come the Wolves

LOS ANGELES, CA -- I tend to categorize all hockey players by A) talent, B) hard work, and/or C) character.

These types overlap each other in most cases, and one usually possesses a characteristic that is more dominant than the others.

Sidney Crosby, for example, is mostly talent-oriented, but also known as a great example of the hard work it takes to wear the C for the team. Ryan Smyth is an impossibly hard working player, universally appreciated for his fantastic leadership and being an all around stand-up guy. Some, like Joe Thornton (and previously Jeremy Roenick) are at a pretty even keel on all three aspects.

As a relatively open-minded hockey fan, I can get behind all variations on those three basic traits, but nothing fascinates me more than the players who get by mostly on sheer wit; the real character guys, the heart and soul of hockey.

In a modern game where skill is touted, pure talent is rewarded readily, and violence is the elephant in the room, these players are a dying breed. They often, typically fall into one or more of the following categories: tough guys, agitators, enforcers, characters, fan favorites*, goons, gongshows, plugs, hacks, dickheads (I'm personally not into labels).

*The old cliché of "you hate him because he's not on your team" comes to mind. He's the under-quoted guy in the room with the best quotes, often invisible on the score sheet but omnipresent in the penalty box and in your psyche. These genre-benders aren't the ideal role models (if you can read lips, it's all you really need to know), and even the league makes them sit in the back of the class (been there), often in the form of that proverbial scarlet letter called the healthy scratch. They are the punk-ass middle-children of hockey.

Darcy TuckerPerhaps this is all coming not-so-hot off the heels of a Darcy Tucker retirement announcement and more recently, the Rick Rypien incident; a symbolic closing of one door and opening of another. One that broke my heart and one that delighted me beyond belief; and showed me a glimmer hope for the future of my favorite type of player. Give me a player with a story, I say. As JD Salinger said "Give me an honest crook any day."

Rypien is a talented hockey player, he had an ideal junior hockey run, his numbers were impressive. But this, at one time or another, could be said about almost all the players in the NHL.

I feel that there is a point in every hockey player's career where they think "Okay, every player here is a good hockey player, I'm no better or worse, what do I do to put myself ahead?"

This is where the strong are separated from the weak, and the very few creative ones are separated from the rest of them. This is where the guys like Tucker, Rypien, Theo Fleury, Tie Domi, Marty McSorely, Georges Laraque, Dan Carcillo, Chris Neil, Derek Boogaard, and Sean Avery (the list goes on and on and on) take off. Where wit, controversy, pure heart, big balls, readiness to do-whatever-it-takes, and toeing of that fine line between fearless and totally nuts is the pilot light that sets the fire for the few that can take the heat.

When you don't, and aren't expected to behave, you are given the freedom to thrive. Character thrives. If you walk boldly, it doesn't matter how big your damn stick is.

Rypien is not a lunatic, and he isn't a criminal. He's a ballsy, restless, hockey player eager to create momentum in his career; in the game. Rypien's actions alone don't make him an unintelligent hockey player, on the contrary perhaps.

Rick RypienRypien went and dropped some knowledge on all of us. We all know who he is, and what he's capable of now. He turned heads in the best way he could (the best way a clever 4th liner can). He reacted in a painfully human manner; he took his licks, and will reap the benefits that come along with being infamous. He made the game, dare I say, that much more interesting.

It's not to say that there aren't legitimate criminals out there on the ice, but violent incidents are most often isolated and truly are out of context of the game itself, and instead on that individual's shoulders. As long as I'm alive, I will never say there is anything wrong with a little ingenuity.

Paul Bissonette is a creative hockey player, though not in the playmaking aspect. Bissonette brings an authenticity and a healthy dose of heart to the game in his own way, and hardly in the physical form. You hate to admit it (the way you hate admitting to DVR-ing Real Housewives of Wherever), but Paul Bissonette is changing the game; really, how can you argue that he isn't changing the game when Bob Miller is using the phrase "Biz Nasty" on the air?

In particular, I remember Bissonette once saying in an interview that he hadn't heard from his agent since the last time he was shut down for his whimsical Biz Nasty musings on Twitter, and that he never heard from him unless he was being moved or scolded.

That unashamed honesty about the realistic relationship between player and agent alone made me an instant subscriber to Biz Nasty World, these are the little things that reveal the real world of the NHL, the things that all fans can relate to, and in turn appreciate. They humanize the game. Players like Bissonette have multiple tricks up their sleeve (whether he is aware of it or not) to get under your skin. You could say there is more than one way to skin a Coyote.

Old school hockey minds don't always appreciate how these guys change the game, and the mockery they seem to make of this fine gentleman's sport. On the other end, puckheads of the modern persuasion are quick to write off their old school vibe as novelty.

It's a thankless job, really.

As if these players aren't putting in the same effort, if not more, as their polite/naturally talented/low-key peers; certainly more boldness is expected from a wolf than from gazelle. But these reactionary players exist outside of the game of hockey as well, and potentially always will.

They are showmen, they know how to "win the crowd" (like in Gladiator). In that aspect they do exactly the job they are put on the ice to do, which at the end of the day is to sell the game, and earn their paycheck. Paradoxically they often do that job better than the most fiscally valuable players.

Sean Avery & Martin BrodeurMaybe Darcy Tucker attacking guys on the opposing bench wasn't immediately necessary to the game of hockey. Maybe Sean Avery overtly distracting Martin Brodeur in front of the net wasn't necessary. Rypien shoving a linesman and grabbing a fan was probably not necessary. But it was memorable, and it set things in motion enough to change the game, even in the smallest sense (Avery's actions even enacted a change to the NHL rulebook).

I like to think of these players as a "gateway drug" for hockey fans. Derek Boogaard discussing his fight camp on Fox News, or Avery discussing his sloppy seconds can (and does) turn an unfamiliar eye to the game of hockey; and in turn the enigmatic star-power of Alex Ovechkin and the unbelievable offensive prowess of a sniper like Steven Stamkos can keep them hooked for life. Fans are not born, they are made.

The persona is mostly a full time job. As Boogaard knows, you can't be scary just some of the time. The strongest kind of character cannot be broken. He did not earn that $6.5 mil/4-year for being intimidating only part of the time. I find myself defending this rather taboo signing, because of the doors it potentially opens for the "lifestyle" or "situational" type players that don't normally receive a generous slice of the salary cap pie. I rarely touch on the cap, but I never believed that salary should be directly proportionate to ice time, or offensive production, but instead what the guy truly brings to the team.

The NY Rangers know that Boogaard's massive frame, and Stretch Armstrong reach are worth just as much as his maniacal fight-smirk that, alone, speaks volumes on the team's toughness, something that the Rangers franchise has always valued. Derek Boogaard forged his own path in the game, shook it up and made us look at things differently, an incredible feat for a 7th rounder who is almost non-existent on the score sheet and the ice.

Too many first- and second-round Draft picks fall into obscurity, they drown in a sea of anonymous, hungry, no-less talented players, but guys like Derek Boogaard are survivors. They rise above because their self-worth is not solely concentrated on their hockey skills.

Sometimes the "larger than life personality" pays off ultimately; former "a-hole" PJ Stock parlayed his into a broadcasting career (and less notably, a reality television career), Theo Fleury's life, which plays out like a David Fincher film (that would be dimly-lit, raw, punchy, and cerebral, whilst sentimental), is immortalized into an autobiography (and reality TV, which if you ask me is maybe a step back in the journey of life, but hey it isn't my journey). Sean Avery will always exist in his own genre and may inspire a few more rule changes before he's through, and Paul Bissonette's character is just too big to be contained by an ice rink alone.

What inspires me most about the game of hockey is what cannot be bought and sold; what cannot be taught or learned. It's the innate and visceral spirit engrained into the soul of the most transcendent hockey players. True character makes the hockey world go 'round.

The most important lesson in life I can think of is to always keep your wits about you. I can't think of a better lesson in hockey as well. Because when all is said and done, skates are hung up, jersey is framed on the wall, the body softens, and you start looking into night time adult rec leagues, what else have you got? Keep the faith.

Darcy Tucker, my friend, you will be just fine.

Lauren Belfoy is a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. Her features appear regularly on TFP. Follow Lauren Belfoy on Twitter


 

 

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