I've been a hockey fan long enough to know what I like. I like my forwards fast and tricky, my defence mobile, yet bruising, and my pre-season interviews boring. I read yet another interview with Mike Cammalleri today, and while I'm glad he's happy to be in Montreal and he seems to be a positive guy, I cringe when he talks about returning the Habs to the top.
I want to believe him. I'm quietly hoping everything he's saying is true and we'll all be smiling in the spring. But I'm very nervous about players who say too much too early. Remember Chris Higgins two years ago? He was fresh off a summer of intense training and really believed he could score forty goals and forty assists. That belief in himself was great for him, but his mistake was in telling the media. After he said it people held him to it, and when he couldn't back it up he got a bad case of self-doubt. I don't know if the expectations he built up around himself and the subsequent disappointment he and his fans felt led directly to his departure from Montreal, but I'm sure all that pressure didn't help.
In Montreal, a player's ability to succeed is all about how well he handles pressure. Andrei Markov thrives because he chooses to keep himself out of the spotlight. He's a league all-star, but you'd never know it by the number of newspaper stories written about him. Maybe he could be accused of hiding behind the language barrier even though he speaks pretty good English these days, but it's allowing him some privacy in a city that needs to know what its hockey heroes are doing at all times. If Markov thinks the Habs could contend this year, or if he expects to put up seventy points himself, he's not going to run out and tell the public. He knows it's tough enough to satisfy the screaming throngs in his adopted city without adding extra expectations. Guillaume Latendresse knows it too. If he thinks this is his breakout year, and he believes he can put up 25 goals, we're not going to hear about it until he's at goal 24 with ten games to go.
Tomas Plekanec learned the hard way that he should keep his interviews as neutral as possible. He's never going to be allowed to forget his infamous "little girl" comment, or the ones he made last season about playing so badly he didn't know why his national team would want him for the world championships. If he'd said, when questioned about the state of his play two years ago, that he felt he needed to drive the net a bit more or win more of his battles in the corners, nobody would remember it. Unfortunately, he made the colourful "little girl" remark and now he's got a reputation for being a soft, tentative player, which he never had before that comment.
Words create expectations and perceptions. A bad reputation can be built or a good one destroyed by some ill-considered comment to the wrong person, and with so much riding on this new group of players finding their feet in Montreal quickly, they can't afford to say the wrong thing before they even get started. The problem is, sometimes even the right thing can be the wrong thing. When a guy like Cammalleri says he thinks the team is going to be good and there's no reason why the forwards can't find linemates that work for them, it sounds great. But if the team comes out of the gate and is not good, or if Cammalleri doesn't have chemistry with his centre and he struggles, his words will be thrown back at him with questions attached. I think there's quite enough pressure on Cammalleri and his new teammates already, without adding the possibility of eating their words before Christmas.
When the team takes to the ice next month I want to see forwards who are fast and feisty, the D responsible and tough and the interviews as bland and unremarkable as possible. Shhhhh, Mike! If you don't put it out there now, it can't bite you later.