February 24, 2011
The hockey community is a small one. When you're immersed in it for long enough, you become connected to every player on every team by two degrees of separation, at most. It's not uncommon to get a request on a player in the dressing room -- "Hey, can anyone give me a bio on that Jones rat?" I've never run into a situation where nobody on the team had either played with or against the guy in question during a previous season.
Because of this, when you join a new team it's inevitable that you'll already know a guy or two, but beyond that, it's also likely that you'll have been tangled up with three or four on the ice.
A few days ago, Matt Niskanen(notes) had to walk into the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room after fighting Sidney Crosby(notes) earlier in the year, and that's just one of the many situations in which that happens over the course of a hockey season.
So how long until that comes up between the two parties involved?
Well, usually immediately. And usually with laughs.
The best part about that first exchange is that it rarely seems to be awkward. If you know hockey people -- and I suspect you do -- you know they're a fairly special breed, not to pat us as a community on the back too much. There's an understanding within the game that fighting (or physical play in general) is just a part of the business, and if you're the type of guy who's not afraid to get into some skirmishes on the ice, chances are you get along with those same types on other teams.
If Matt Martin(notes), Michael Haley, Zenon Konopka(notes) and Trevor Gillies(notes) were on separate teams, it's safe to say they'd find themselves in a number of dust-ups. But as teammates, they're best buds. So barring a unique, heated set of circumstances that led to the scrap, you almost always end up buddies within minutes of meeting each other. It is what it is, and you know you're going to have to let bygones be bygones and become teammates.
But piping up in the dressing room is a whole other bag of pucks.
A good rule of thumb in those first few days is to shut up and ride things out. You'll be able to join in on the conversation soon enough, but day one might be a little soon to beak a guy from across the dressing room.
There's nothing more grating to a team than a new guys who's loud; it's similar to being a new employee in any line of work. The old group of employees had their own dynamic, they probably weren't pumped about it breaking up, so it takes some time to integrate yourself within that new social hierarchy. Training camp is incredible for defining that dynamic; anyone who shows up after immediately gets the new logo on their jersey, but still has to earn a level of acceptance from the guys in the room.
The good thing is, when you're on the ice, nobody expects you to hold back, and that's where you can really become a part of the team. You're allowed to holler for passes, finish your checks (within reason in practice of course) and play hard.
In fact, you have to. Nothing gets you in the good graces of a team like actually being good at hockey, shockingly. Nobody wants to pick up an anchor, so when a team senses you're a guy that can help, it's way easier than being some hanger-on.
The simple rule for new players is that there's just no need to force yourself upon the team. (I've seen new players try, fail and find themselves as social outcasts). Over the course of the season, chances to get to know your teammates come about organically; whether you're talking about plays with your linemates, being assigned a hotel room with a guy, or just sitting next to him on the bus, you don't need to press things when it comes to forming relationships. It can be lonely away from the rink at first, so sometimes it feels like you have to press.
The coaching staff often helps in the transition process, assigning roommates and stallmates based on what they perceive to be the best fit for the team's new addition. Everyone wants the new puzzle piece to fit in well, so you'd have to be abrasive beyond belief to not find a couple guys to talk to in those early days at the rink. Of course, there are always a few guys that aren't as easy going -- possibly the guys who play the same position as you -- but clowns like that are in the minority.
Those first few times in a new dressing room and on the ice can nerve-wracking, but in the end, there isn't a lot that changes from team to team; you get comfortable fast.
Hockey guys are hockey guys -- it's not too hard to figure us out.