Tyler Seguin makes tone-deaf comments on NHL language barrier

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·MLB Writer
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Tyler Seguin’s comments his teammates speaking languages other than English has not gone over well – and rightly so. (NBC)
Tyler Seguin’s comments his teammates speaking languages other than English has not gone over well – and rightly so. (NBC)

Generally speaking, the NHL is not a very diverse league. It draws players, almost exclusively white, almost exclusively higher income, from a northern sliver of the world.

However, accepting that premise, the league is certainly enriched by the talent from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In decades past, the NHL was a purely North American league, but no one would dispute the influx of Europeans has made the game better.

That increase in European content has also made locker rooms more complex, as there are more languages and cultures in play. Emily Kaplan of ESPN wrote an excellent feature on that topic (read the full piece here), where a number of players weighed in on the topic.

There are a number of somewhat uncomfortable answers within, but the winner for most unacceptable undoubtedly goes to Tyler Seguin:

“Guys always talk in different languages. Sometimes you just put your foot down. We’re in North America, we’re not going to have a team of cliques.”

This answer is horrifying for a number of reasons, so let’s list them:

No one has any right to tell another human being what language they get to speak, and they especially don’t get to put their foot down.

This is pretty self-explanatory.

North America is not exclusively a place for English speakers.

Seguin was born in a country (Canada) with 7.2 million people who speak French as their first language, according to the 2016 census. South of the border it was estimated that 38.3 million people speak Spanish as their primary language in 2012, that’s a number that’s undoubtedly grown.

The implication that North America is for English speakers is offensive and ill-informed. English wouldn’t be spoken west of the Atlantic at all if it weren’t for a violent colonization to begin with, so it’s pretty hard to justify it as the official and exclusive language of the continent. Long story short, there’s no way to say “This is North America we speak English here” without sounding ignorant.

Avoiding a team of cliques isn’t a possible or necessary goal

Teams in all sports tend to have cliques regardless of languages. Position groups tend to hang together. High-paid veterans often don’t mix with fresh-faced rookies. In baseball clubhouses, Spanish-speaking players usually gravitate to each other for obvious reasons that aren’t remotely malicious in a way that doesn’t tend to undermine team unity.

The idea that everyone needs to hang out as one big family is a fantasy, and a convenient excuse to ask someone to conform. Teams can have social factions and still pursue a common goal effectively. They do it everyday.

There is a 99.999999% chance this statement is enormously hypocritical

The cherry on the sundae of Seguin’s words is that he had a chance to live by his “When in Rome” principles. During the NHL lockout the Dallas Stars centre played in Switzerland, a country with four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.

By his own principles he should have accommodated the locals by conversing with them in their turn. Moreover, he had a few options (although Biel, the city he played in, French and German were the primary choices). Here’s betting that he pretty much stuck to English though. That can’t be proven definitively, but there is a clip of him being interviewed in English by a Swiss reporter for whom English was not a first language, despite the fact both parties were clearly in Switzerland and should have been conversing in the local tongue.

Seguin’s lucky none of his teammates with Biel HC put their foot down.

Beyond Seguin, Kaplan’s article is peppered with NHL stars responding to questions about the language barrier with answers that are, let’s say, less than optimal.

Patrick Kane describes speaking to Russian teammates in English but with a Russian accent as if it’s some sort of compromise. He also recalls simply leaving an area of the bench when another language is being spoken. Jack Eichel frets that his Swedish teammates might be talking about him.

The voice of reason in the piece is undoubtedly Kevin Shattenkirk, who says the sort of thing a decent human would.

“You have to respect the fact that a lot of times it’s just easier for them to communicate that way. But it also goes outside the rink. You’ll see them going to dinner together on the road. There’s a comfortability factor — being able to speak their language gives them a sense of home. You can’t take it as them not wanting to hang out with you.”

That about sums it up.