Today’s the NHL Entry Draft – even more than the Men’s World Juniors, it’s the event on the hockey calendar that makes me most uncomfortable with the ethos of the NHL. The NHL draft, since it’s played on paper and not on the ice, is pure ideology for NHL general managers. Skill seems to become an afterthought to size and a nebulous definition of “character” that really means having good manners. Every year, NHL GMs make the same mistakes, being misled by the same traits, because they don’t seem to want the NHL game to change. The NHL analytics community has done great work exposing how these biases hurt teams on the ice (for example, see Rob Vollman’s Stat Shot: The Ultimate Guide to Hockey Analytics). My point here instead is to look at how these biases hurt the culture of the NHL, because if the player does not already have these nebulous manners, NHL teams will apparently break a player until he does.
Yesterday on Twitter, Dan Harbridge (@danharbidge) pointed out how in an Athletic article about “An oral history of Nazem Kadri’s early years with Leafs” much of what is presented as “inspiring” in “molding” Nazem Kadri is actually rather horrifying. Kadri apparently did not meet the NHL’s definition of “character”, but was so skilled and “had a mean streak a yard wide”, that he went 7th overall to the Maple Leafs in 2009. Like how draft picks are treated as objects, Kadri’s voice appears nowhere in the article – instead his story is told through ex-Leafs GM/now Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke, ex-Toronto AHL coach Dallas Eakins (who was just hired to another NHL head coaching job in Anaheim despite a disastrous run in Edmonton exposing him as all style, no substance), former teammate Tyler Bozak, and ex-Leafs assistant coach/now Colorado AHL coach Greg Cronin. That Kadri’s voice is absent is typical of how NHL draft picks are supposed to be seen and not heard, as moldable objects who’s character depends entirely upon their acquiescence to the way “things are done”.
The reoccurring story in this oral history is old white guys yelling at Kadri. Burke, Eakins, and Cronin all call Kadri confident and “cocky”, which seems to scare them as it verges upon arrogance (as anyone who’s ever met junior hockey players would know, this is not exactly rare). Burke even had Kadri billet with a police officer because according to Burke “cops are generally quality people… they’re disciplined.” But why has Kadri been singled out as a “problem”, despite unlike some other high profile draft picks, never having specific instances of “trouble” that can be pointed to? Unspoken in the article, in his ten years with the Leafs, Kadri has only had one racialized teammate (Mark Fraser, for 45 games). Former head coach Randy Carlyle once joked he had the team’s best tan after the team returned from the all-star break. In 2012, Courtney Szto covered another profile of Kadri, portrayed there as the second generation immigrant living the Canadian dream. She wrote:
The fact of the matter is that hockey is still largely marketed to a white demographic which means that those who play the game had better be marketable to that white demographic. You can be a Muslim but you have to be the Kadri type of Muslim, which in the article is explained as faith with a “Western flexibility”. The quiet Muslim who doesn’t fast during hockey season because hockey comes before religion. You can be black but you have to be Jarome Iginla black, not Ray Emery black. In other words, you must be the polite black guy who plays by the white Canadian rules outlined for you. You can be black, you just can’t act black
What we really see in the oral history is the molding of Kadri into the “guy who plays by the white Canadian rules outlined for you.” The Leafs worried about Kadri still hanging out with high school friends. Former Leafs Assistant GM Dave Poulin told Kadri “You’ve gotta make some friends in this room. Forget your high school friends. They’re not your friends anymore. They’re not on the same path you’re on” (which is weird, because remembering you were pre-fame seems a character thing. Elias Petterson has earned praise from the Vancouver media for staying grounded and still talking to his old friends in Sweden). Is it a wonder Kadri might want to have friends outside the blizzard-level whiteness of hockey?
Even worse, the oral history plays into fears about immigrant violence. Burke recalls
After the draft, I went over and said hi to his parents and his dad said, “If Naz ever gives you a hard time, punch him in the head as hard as you can and then call me.” And I remember one time, Dallas Eakins called him in and said, “I’ve had enough of you, I’m calling your dad.” And Naz was almost in tears. “Whatever you do, you can’t call my dad. I’ll work harder. I’ll do better.”
The NHL has a habit of framing disturbing situations are “motivating”. We have no clue what Kadri’s dad is like. This specific claim seems borderline libelous. But what we do know is that the Leafs organization had no empathy for what such a situation could do a young man but rather put it into a torture tool kit to help shape their prized prospect.
To pull this back to the NHL draft, remember tonight as these teenage boys go up on stage they remain people, not the objects of hope for teams and their fans they are transformed into. The discourse about the ideologically ideal NHL player, a mashup up of midwestern farm boy with northeastern prep school manners, who if they can not be found, must be, as in Kadri’s case, created, represents the NHL at its most subtly toxic. And yet hockey media is far from realizing this. Instead as the Kadri Oral History demonstrates, the media continues to not just not question, but to celebrate such molding as necessary to continue to reproduce a league becoming increasingly stale.