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The Player Mailbag: Bounty system in NHL; gay player acceptance; does media know hockey?

The Player
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(The Player is an active member of a National Hockey League team. Anonymous by choice, he will provide insights about life in hockey on occasion throughout the season.)

Taking a break from the usual format, Puck Daddy readers sent in some questions that I've answered in this edition. Thanks for the insight; email to puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com for future mailbags.

"Have you ever encountered any type of bounty system in the NHL, a la the New Orleans Saints for big/devastating hits on an opposing star?" — Sean Whalen

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THE PLAYER: No.

There is a long tradition of "putting money on the board" in the NHL. What this means is that before a game, one or more players will pledge money for various things. Most often, it is simply a donation to the team fund for getting a win that night. Occasionally, it gets a little more creative with money going to whoever scores the game-winning goal or maybe to the goalie for a shutout. Players typically put money on the board when they are playing in their hometown, against a former team, in a milestone game, etc.

I have never seen, nor have I heard of, money on the board for knocking an opposing player out of the game. As far I know, that only happens in that one scene from "Slap Shot."

"Do you believe that the majority of media members actually understand the game? Or understand the game enough to question you or the coaching staff on a game's execution or outcome or even your own personal performance? How often do you think a line of questioning from a media member is so far off-base that you just want to tell them to shut the **** up?" — Eric Kollig

THE PLAYER: The short answer to your question is "no." I don't think a "majority" of the media understands the game well enough to be commenting on the nuances of the sport.

From what I've seen, you have one or two writers in most markets who know what they're watching, ask insightful questions, and can do more than just recount the events of a game. In some markets you have none — which is scary, because the fans who are reading the paper are taking the articles as gospel. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts, and it drives me crazy when you read things in the paper that simply aren't true. And all you had to do was watch the game to know they aren't true!

As far as the national media in both the US and Canada goes, I think that most of them understand the game well. They should, considering most of them have either played or coached in the NHL. That doesn't seem to stop most of them, however, from saying ridiculous things sometimes.

In my opinion there are several causes for this, and any one of them can leave the current players shaking their heads when some of the "experts" talk.

Some of them are too old and the game has simply passed them by. Others might have too much time on their hands; by that I mean, in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, these guys are totally manufacturing things to talk about. If you're asked to analyze ad nauseum when there is nothing to be analyzed, eventually you will say something stupid. Some are too concerned with being controversial or making a name for themselves to just stick to what they know.

Finally, some of the "experts" just aren't that smart. They might have been great players, but they have no business being on TV.

"Much is made in the media about team chemistry and the need for teams to get along and be cohesive. There is the culture of 'oh they hang out together off the ice - that's good' and it is seen as 'terrible' when there is a fight in practice or when guys seem to be arguing on the bench. How much does that matter? What is okay versus when does it become an issue?" — Karen Douglas

THE PLAYER: Team chemistry is a funny thing, and I really think it's unique on every team. No two teams I've played for have been the same in this regard.

Depending on the age of the players and their personalities, they might spend a lot of time together away from the rink — or very little. I think there is sort of an old school mentality that teammates benefit from hanging out a lot and drinking beer together. In general, I would say that this doesn't hurt, unless is becomes excessive, but it's not absolutely necessary.

For the most part hockey players are "good guys" and everyone tends to get along. I think it's important for most players to have a few close friends on the team, but aside from that you just want to have good teammates who work hard, do their job and don't aggravate too many people along the way. It's a long season and being in such close quarters with people all the time means that unselfishness and a sense of humor go a long way.

I don't think there is a hard and fast rule about fights in practice or arguments on the bench. When you have teammates that are really close, they can fight and put it behind them; they can argue with each other and move on. So, I would say that sometimes it's insignificant.

Other times, though, it can be indicative of a serious problem. I have seen a practice fight divide a team and result in players being traded. Also, if it's the same player constantly involved in the fights and arguments, it might mean that his teammates don't like him.

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"It's often mentioned that some markets, for various reasons ranging from weather, to market strength, to perceived lack of parks, can have an impact on where a player chooses to sign a free-agent contract. Prior to the season start, Winnipeg was considered a low-interest destination because of the winter. Do you think the enthusiasm shown from the Winnipeg fan base has changed perceptions about playing in the city?" — Colin VanOsch

THE PLAYER: As far as the perception of how "nice" a city is, I think that can absolutely have an effect on where free agents will look to sign. From a player's perspective, a lot of different factors will play into the perceived desirability of a team and city. It won't be the same for everyone, as different guys will have different priorities. Such factors might include the weather, the travel, the size of the city and its amenities, the strength of the team, the fan base, the role you think you might have on the team and … wait for it … the money!

The interesting thing to me is how people's perceptions of different markets can change over time. From the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, the Edmonton Oilers had a reputation as being a fun, exciting team to be a part of. Sure, they were a small-market team and the Edmonton winters are cold, but the fans were great and the players were treated like gold around town. There was also a feeling, as I said, that it was a special place to play with great traditions. The majority of the guys who played there seemed to really like it.

In 2006, the Oilers came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup. Instead of building momentum from the their Finals appearance, as Calgary had done in 2004, Edmonton took a huge PR hit when Chris Pronger asked out of town. All of a sudden no one wanted to go to Edmonton and the Oilers were soon forced to overpay players.

On the flip side you have the Chicago Blackhawks. I would say as late as 2007, Chicago was considered kind of a hockey wasteland. Players would go to the Blackhawks and were never heard from again. Everyone knew that Chicago was a great city but the team was bad, and nobody came to games because they hated the owner. Now, five years later, you would be hard-pressed to name a more desirable place to play than Chicago. Guys are taking less money for a chance to be a Blackhawk.

As is often times the case, perception becomes reality. When you are winning in Montreal, the fans are passionate and knowledgeable — the best in the world. Lately, they just seem to be more overbearing than anything else.

If the Jets can achieve some success on the ice and the people of Winnipeg can sustain their enthusiasm, it will be interesting to see how quickly perceptions could change.

"These days we hear "Fail for Nail" (etc), and the counter argument of 'the players are playing for their contract' - what do the players think once their team is officially eliminated from the playoffs? Are there talks of just getting through the remaining games in one piece, or are players focused on playing spoiler to playoff teams? We know guys are listening in on trade deadline talks, what about this time of the year?" — Jim

THE PLAYER: I think once a team is officially eliminated from the playoffs, the way a player approaches the remaining games has a lot to do with his particular situation. For the most part, these are not fun games to play in. Occasionally, you might get a chance to play spoiler against one of your rivals, but I think that can be overrated. Trying to affect another team's playoff position, when you know you have no chance of being in the playoffs, is not all that exciting.

The reality for a lot of players, particularly young players trying to establish themselves and players whose contracts are expiring, is that these "nothing" games are like extended tryouts. You are literally playing for your job — next year's job. That can be extremely motivating.

"Have you ever seen another player take PEDs? How prevalent do you think PEDs are in the NHL?" — Ben Berry

THE PLAYER: I have never seen, nor I have ever heard of, a teammate taking PEDs.

The strongest things in our dressing room would be a decongestant for a cold or a post-workout protein shake.

I think it would be naive of me to think that the NHL is 100 percent free of PEDs, but the overwhelming evidence suggests that our League does not have a drug problem. The evidence in this case being the lack of positive drug tests (I believe we've only had one in seven years) and my own personal experience.

"I would be interested to know where he thinks the support falls around the league for You Can Play. Most in favor? I guess the more direct question is how is the culture changing and are there still lots of guys in the leagues with serious issues... and are they farm boys and guys from small towns in Ontario, etc?" — Rocco Pendola

THE PLAYER: My gut feeling is that a large majority of the players in the League would support an initiative like You Can Play. I don't know that it's an issue of the "culture changing" because we've never had a gay player come out before, so we would have nothing on which to base that so-called change.

I don't think that hockey players are necessarily any different than the rest of society. Assuming that our culture is moving towards being more open-minded, I would also assume that hockey players are as well.

I believe that most players would be accepting of a gay player in the NHL because, ultimately, they would see it as the right thing to do. Obviously there would be exceptions (maybe more than I think), and the process wouldn't be without its complications (locker room issues, etc.)

I don't think it's possible to speculate how supportive a player might be based on his nationality or background.

"What do you consider to be the biggest challenge of your professional career? Is it more difficult on a player's mentality to make it to the NHL or to stay there? Does the threat of losing one's job affect performance? Is it a motivating factor or does it drain one of optimism to be sent down to the minors?" — PG Marsh

THE PLAYER: I think the most difficult challenges of playing in the NHL are not the same for all players.

If you are a "role" player, of course it's very difficult to make it to this level. You must struggle to create a niche for yourself, often times with limited ice time, and there are lots of other players fighting you for your spot on the team. The reality for this type of player is that the competition is never-ending. It's there every training and camp and throughout the season.

The challenge, therefore, is to maintain a constant sense of urgency to perform at your best. You need to be as desperate every day as you were on your first day as a pro. In this case the "threat" of losing your job has to motivate you. I really believe that the bubble players who learn to live with that stress and thrive under it are the ones who end up having the most successful careers.

For a star player, the challenge is entirely different. A lot of guys want your job but in the end there are a limited number of them who are talented enough to take it. For the most part, once a star establishes himself, his talent and reputation alone will allow him to have a relatively productive career. The challenge then is to stay motivated when you already have the money, the job security, and the success. What if you're in your early 20s, set for life financially and already have a Stanley Cup ring?

Some players in this situation might not be motivated to still struggle to improve.

That's why you want your star to have a great work ethic and an ultra-competitive personality. You want someone who wants to be the best and absolutely hates to lose — even if they have already won over and over again. They need to be driven when there is seemingly nothing else to achieve.

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