In a recent interview with NHL.com, Max Talbot discussed switching sides within the Philadelphia Flyers/Pittsburgh Penguins rivalry, at one point saying about the Pens:
"I owe them a lot, and I hope Flyers fans can forgive me for saying that … But when I play them I'm going to play them as hard as I can .. .and do everything I can to beat them."
Well said, but as I'm sure he's aware, when you switch teams within a league and go back to play against friends still wearing the jersey you recently wore, it can be a challenging experience.
Those difficulties stem from a couple questions: How hard can you battle with someone you both like and wish success on, and how serious can you take a shift against a guy you once sang bad karaoke with? It's not always easy to get your head right in these situations.
If you're racing a defenseman for a puck and he's got a step on you, it's impossible to not notice what the namebar reads on the back of the jersey ahead of you. I've been in that exact situation when I noticed it was my roommate from the year before, a friend who I'd stayed in touch with over the summer.
If you don't finish that check and finish it hard, your coach may be inclined to offer you a comfy seat near the end of the bench for a period. Of course, you do want to hit your buddies when you get the chance, but not in the same way. There's no real venom there.
The best case scenario for hitting an old friend in serious, competitive play is that you make contact, he goes down, and nobody's hurt. Oh, and then you pick up the loose puck, score, then laugh and laugh and laugh.
But in reality, you never really know how a hit is going to unfold. Sometimes a guy will get in an awkward position and separate a shoulder on a seemingly innocent hit. Sometimes guys get their sticks jammed into the boards and damn near impale themselves (happens a lot in road hockey, it's the worst). You just don't know, and you don't want to be the guy to put your buddy out for awhile, so you have to make a quick decision. It's a fine line.
Since I wasn't an overly physical player, I rarely faced the concern of hurting a friend, but I definitely struggled with trying to be serious against certain friends who did nothing but make me laugh off the ice.
I was never the guy to put on some stoic game face and play my best friends as hard as humanly possible, then lighten up after the game. Instead, I usually made it my personal goal to make my buddy on the other team laugh (ideally getting them in trouble with their coach) — that would be playing right into my hands, as I was always a guy who constantly talked with his opponents and was about as focused as a goldfish. I tried to lure them to the lighter-side.
But I've played against friends who got serious with me, who I couldn't get to crack, which meant I had to resort to plan B: pest-mode. Since my friends know I'd never actually fight them, it was (apparently) infuriating to take whack after chop from someone you're not supposed to get mad at. It was like being Max Lapierre without the fear of facing any repercussions. Fun!
In the NHL this year, there is going to be a sizable number of players that have the chance to play old friends and teammates. This happens every year, but games like Los Angeles vs. Philadelphia (Richards!) are going to be particularly high-profile, as well as Philadelphia vs. Pittsburgh with the Talbot/Jaromir Jagr action.
I want single cameras focused on the returning guys in question in all of these games (and mics, too), because you're sure to find the following things:
• Some deft, cheap shot stick-work in the "let 'em know you're there" kind of way
• A suppressed smile while lining up for a face off
• An inside joke that makes no sense to us listening at home, but leads to said suppressed smile
• One serious altercation where two ex-teammates (or more) make no bones about the fact that they really never liked one another.
It's going to be an intriguing year for fans of NHL hockey this year with the amount of interesting personalities that switched sides.
If guys like Max Talbot have their first game against their old team circled in early September, best believe a few of his ex-teammates know when their first crack at him is too. That's must-see TV right there.