Mark Popovic, KHL player and former NHLer, on hockey culture and labour vs. passion in a pro career

This is a post stemming from The Hockey Conference that I attended in London, ON from June 18-20, 2014. As I did not digitally record any of the proceedings, any direct quotations may contain slight inaccuracies – however, I have endeavored to capture the essence of the commentary and to reproduce it as accurately as possible.

The first keynote of the conference featured Mark Popovic, a former NHL player who played 81 games over five seasons with the Anaheim Ducks and Atlanta Thrashers, and current player with Croatian club Zagreb Medvescak of the KHL. For reference, you can view his career stats here.

The keynote took a unique form, as conference organizer and Western University sport historian Dr. Don Morrow conducted a one-on-one interview in the vein of the popular Inside the Actor’s Studio television program. Popovic was gracious and forthcoming with his answers, although, as will be discussed, there was a contradiction in his views on the labour process in hockey that was not adequately resolved during the session. Nonetheless, Popovic provided great insight into the life of a professional hockey player and some of the struggles, challenges and rewards of this career. After the jump, I review three of the interesting themes that emerged from this session: hockey as labour, players as commodities, and the expression of passion and love for the sport. I conclude by briefly attempting to explore the apparent contradictions between the first two topics and the latter one.

Hockey as Labour

Very early on in the interview, Popovic made it clear that from a young age he had understood hockey as a form of labour in which he was willingly engaging. He described himself primarily as “an entertainer” whose job is to provide an enjoyable and credible on-ice performance (side note: there is a contemporary Goffmanian analysis of sports performances dying to be conducted). Popovic stated: “I’ve been a pro since age 13.” Popovic was honest in admitting that one of the appeals of being a pro hockey player was the income he earned. He is a father of two young children, and he recognizes that hockey is a way to earn a good wage and provide for his family.

Popovic’s self-awareness about his role as a hockey labourer was insightful, and certainly suggests that contemporary hockey players are not “dupes” who are blindly exploited by greedy owners and feel fortunate to simply to be earning a living playing a sport. Rather, players like Popovic are keenly aware of their role as workers and enter into this arrangement willingly (this is not to suggest that power dynamics are not at play in this process). And, as with all jobs, there are some major downsides to his chosen occupation. A hockey labourer is only as good as his tools: his hockey skills and his health. Popovic, like many hockey players, has played through injury for fear of missing out on key games or being seen as an injury-prone player. He described that he is going later this week for a cortisone shot for an injured shoulder that he played through last season rather than getting surgery. Players have short careers, and their incentive is to squeeze every opportunity they can before their bodies deteriorate and their careers (and money earning potential) diminish.

Players as Commodities

“I’m a commodity. That’s something I learned early in my career.” – Mark Popovic

As the above quotation suggests, hockey players abandon a huge amount of autonomy over their labour conditions and terms of employment. Players can be literally bought and sold, forced to move cities whether they wish to or not, be demoted and promoted between leagues (and, often, salary grades) on a regular basis, etc. What is particularly fascinating, and problematic, is how this process plays out at lower levels of the game where financial insecurity is higher and agency over one’s working conditions lower than at the top levels.

Popovic was keenly aware that he was on the path to the NHL based on his success relative to his peers. At the midget level, he was one of the top players in the Greater Toronto Hockey League alongside peers (and current NHLers) like Mike Cammalleri and Steve Ott. He was drafted first overall in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) draft, and appeared destined to be a high NHL pick once he was draft eligible (he was expecting to be drafted as a mid-first rounder in the 2001 Entry Draft, but slipped to 35th overall). Even at these early stages of his career, Popovic was aware that he had been singled out as a future NHLer but also that limited leverage in determining what path his career took. Interestingly, because of his high status and because he held dual citizenship, and thus the possibility of attending the US Junior Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan instead of the OHL, Popovic was able to dictate the team for which he played; he was thus able to get drafted by the St. Mike’s Majors and remain close to his home. He is keenly aware that this is not a luxury afforded to most other junior-aged players, many of whom must move hundreds of miles from home to pursue their hockey dreams.

Popovic’s career as a commodity has involved a great deal of moving. After being drafted by the Anaheim Ducks and playing for three seasons with their AHL affiliate, he was traded to Atlanta in 2005. He bounced between the Thrashers and the AHL until 2008, when, with his NHL career uncertain, he accepted an offer from St. Petersburg of the KHL due to the fact that he could earn considerably more money than he would in the NHL. He returned to Atlanta for one season, before moving to play in Switzerland for three seasons. Just last season, he moved back to the KHL.

His journeyman career has also affected his family. His wife, whom he met in Southern California, has had to either move with him or be part of a long distance relationship; and she has had to put aside some career ambitions due to the uncertain nature of her husband’s work. Popovic noted that the move to Europe hasn’t been too tough on his kids, as they are both very young, but that his goal is to be settled somewhere permanent before his oldest starts kindergarten, so that the children can have stability and continuity in their school and friendships. The impact of pro hockey careers on family members is not usually acknowledged, and so Popovic’s comments were particularly insightful as to some of these challenges.

Passion for the Game

Somewhat surprisingly, given his self-awareness about his role as a labourer and entertainer, Popovic expressed that love for hockey was one of his favourite things about his job. Furthermore, he hopes to stay involved in hockey upon retiring from his playing career; he suggested consulting with hockey parents or teaching hockey camps (which he already does in the off-season) as two potential jobs to transition in to. Clearly, for Popovic, there is an attachment to and genuine passion for the sport and its culture. But the theme of passion that came up throughout his interview seemed to contradict, somewhat, his pragmatic understanding since adolescence of himself as a labourer and a commodity. I would have loved for Dr. Morrow or some of the audience members to press him further on this apparent contradiction, but unfortunately the session wrapped up with little time for questions. As such, Popovic did not peel back the layers of how reconciles these competing frames of his hockey career.

Hockey as Labour vs. Hockey as Passion: Exploring the Contradictions

To me, this contradiction speaks to the broader ideological workings of hockey culture in which the labour of its players (to say nothing of low-paid or non-paid personnel in pro or recreational levels, such as concession workers, “ice girls,” hockey parents, volunteer coaches, etc.) is masked by rhetoric that suggests that they should feel privileged to be playing a sport and that millions of other men would happily do their job for next-to-nothing. Such a discourse was the backbone of NHL owners’ anti-unionism in the 1950s, a fact expertly discussed in David Cruise and Alison Griffiths’ 1991 book Net Worth: Exploding the Myths of Pro Hockey. Certainly it is possible to both be a labourer and enjoy one’s labour, and certainly many hockey players are, at some level, driven by passion for playing the sport, but the uncritical and oft-proffered cliché about hockey players “playing for the love of the game” often obscures rather than complements their role as workers. No wonder, then, that Don Fehr sought to reframe the role of the NHL player by speaking to the Canadian Autoworkers Union during the 2012 NHL lockout.

While Popovic spoke equally well about his career in hockey labour and his love of the sport, the apparent gulf between these sentiments was never satisfactorily resolved to my liking. Nonetheless, Popovic’s insightful and eloquent keynote shed some valuable light on careers in pro hockey.

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