NHL needs more freedom of expression

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” But does that apply if you play for the Montreal Canadiens, or any other NHL team?

On Tuesday night, after the Canadiens lost 2-1 to Florida in a shootout, Alexei Kovalev freely expressed his opinion. The veteran Russian winger told reporters his team should have called a timeout before a Panthers power play that led to Nathan Horton scoring the tying goal with an extra attacker and 11 seconds left.

Kovalev’s comments were seen as second-guessing head coach Guy Carbonneau, who retorted the next day: “Alex is entitled to his opinion, but I wish he had kept it in the room. If he had something to say, he should have come to me.”

The mini-controversy was good fodder for Montreal journalists, who can make a seven-course banquet out of a side of poutine.

But really, what was so awful about what Kovalev said? He didn’t say, “Carbonneau is incompetent.” (Bonus points for those who remember Henri Richard slapping that term on Al MacNeil after Game Five of the 1971 Stanley Cup finals.) Nor did he say Carbonneau should be fired.

His exact words were, “It was just my idea that we could have taken a timeout, get organized, and get the right people on the ice. Maybe it could have been better.” How many more “maybes” and “my ideas” did Kovalev need to include?

This is hockey, not intergalactic warfare. Many Bothans did not die to bring us the information that popped out of Kovalev’s mouth.

Granted, a guy who earns $4.5 million a year and spends his spare time zipping around with private planes and motorcycles isn’t exactly what most of us would call “repressed.”

The point is, what Kovalev said injected some much-needed color into the usual cliché-fest of post-game interviews. And it’s little exchanges like this one that people recall with interest, years after anyone’s ceased to care whether a club was over .500 in October or how many power play goals it scored at home.

Controversy, humor, debate, and candor are effective marketing tools. For instance, do I deeply care about NFL football? No, I’d rather watch what the world outside North America calls “football.” But when that classic rant by Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green comes on TV (”The Bears are who we thought they were!”), I stop and stare every time.

Remember Jeremy Roenick and Patrick Roy sparring through the media in the 1996 playoffs? Roenick said Roy was “probably busy adjusting his jock strap” when the Chicago forward scored a slick goal on him in the Western Conference semi-finals. Roy, Colorado’s goalie, shot back: “I can’t really hear what Jeremy says because I’ve got my two Stanley Cup rings plugging my ears.” That was great.

But of course, those were two superstars with sizable egos, and those guys get more latitude. You can’t expect rank-and-file NHLers to step outside the culture of conformity unless they’re assured by the league and management that it’s OK to do so.

And they can’t fear that this is hockey’s answer to Mao Tse-tung’s Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956 and 1957, where the Chinese dictator encouraged intellectuals to voice dissenting opinions–before ruthlessly cracking down on them.

Now, not every player can be Mr. Quotable. Even if Joe Sakic got his own show on HBO, he probably wouldn’t deliver a profanity-laden monologue about Joe Louis Arena collapsing under the weight of the Avalanche next time Detroit hosts Colorado.

However, hockey’s more entertaining when you’ve got Alexander Ovechkin joking about his “gangster” haircut and the way his chipped tooth impresses the girls on whom he practices his broken English.

Let the guys express their personalities on the ice, too. In 2006, Ilya Kovalchuk scored on a power play howitzer and then pointed at Sidney Crosby as the latter exited the penalty box. So what? Nobody got injured, and it was a memorable and dramatic little sequence. Far more ridiculous was Don Cherry’s assertion that someone should have broken Kovalchuk’s arm.

Ultimately, hockey players are too humble as a group to outstrip the NBA’s braggadocio or the NFL’s end zone celebrations anyway. They also realize a spontaneous outburst can have consequences. Crosby can’t have forgotten what Kovalchuk did, and it probably gives the Pittsburgh captain extra motivation. It calls to mind a 1981 incident with Montreal goalie Richard Sevigny, who told a reporter prior to a first-round meeting with the Edmonton Oilers that Guy Lafleur would “put Wayne Gretzky in his back pocket” before the series was over. (Oops. Edmonton swept Montreal in three straight games.)

But still, there’s plenty of room for more color in this sport. Hopefully, the NHL will encourage its players to be more candid with the media, because that will help sell the game. Meanwhile, let’s not convene a state tribunal every time an NHLer voices a non-conformist opinion.

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