Cal Botterill is a pretty fascinating guy. He spent three years in the 60s with the Candian national hockey team. After his playing days ended, he got a PhD in psychology and began teaching courses in sports psychology at the University of Winnipeg. He spent eleven years as a sports psychology consultant for several NHL teams and wrote a book called Human Potential, about developing mental skills like focus and perspective. He's got two children; daughter Jen plays for Canada's national women's hockey team and his son Jason is the Penguins assistant GM. Botterill knows hockey, and he knows psychology. So, who better to ask why the NHL culture drives established players to criticize rookies who dare to be outstanding?
He's been as fascinated as the rest of us by the reactions of guys like Mike Richards and Don Cherry to P.K. Subban's flamboyance, and to the Lightning's criticism of Oiler rookie Linus Omark's fantastic spinerama shootout goal.
"I think it's against the grain of the traditional culture of hockey," muses Botterill. "Historically, on the negative side, my God, there was hazing to no end. There was real oppression of rookies. I think this is changing as we're seeing more and more exceptional rookies; more and more Sidney Crosbys who come along and can clearly make an impact on a team right away and are pretty much welcome because they're recognized for their talent and what they can do. So I think the culture is changing."
Botterill thinks self-preservation on the part of players who already see the end of their own hockey road, or who've been around long enough to know time at the highest level of the game is fleeting, plays a role in the criticism of guys like Subban and Omark by veterans.
"They're protecting their turf. If too many cocky good rookies come along, some of their positions will be lost," he says. "So, if you look at it kind of cynically, they're promoting humility and a super-high respect level partly to make sure young players don't become a threat to their own culture on the team. I don't know how much of that is still the case, but historically, that was a big part of it."
Botterill also sees a link between military culture and that in the NHL. Both have long histories and a tradition of hierarchy.
"They're protecting that hierarchy. I had to go through it, so you have to. I always thought that was about the worst reason to do anything. The biggest thing that perpetuates this is the history of the game. Whether it's appropriate or not, it's gone on much longer than it should have. Hopefully, it's changing."
One of the things he thinks should happen to make that change is a more focused approach to mentoring young players by veterans.
"One of the guys I thought was an amazing mentor was Chris Chelios," he recalls. "He'd be the first guy to take a rookie out to lunch and kind of educate him on the realities of the game and show some support for him, but also warn him about the risks he needed to avoid. He was a pretty good influence on the young players when I was around. He helped a lot of them deal with the pressures and the temptations of the game.
"On the good side of what a culture has done," Botterill continues, "if you look at the Dany Heatley story where a kid is killed when they're racing cars through town, clearly there were no senior character players on that team. And here were these kids, young stars with their egos totally out of control, and in the end risking civilians and costing the life of one of his teammates. In the NBA, and they've got a bigger problem than hockey, they're trying to institute a program where they align every young player with a veteran character player, just to mentor them and educate them on the realities of the game and avoid some of these problems with egos getting too big too early."
So, from the sports psychologist's perspective, is P.K.Subban doing anything wrong?
"I think he's doing a great job. I was kind of surprised that Jacques sat him for a couple of games. I think he was probably protecting him from a more serious barrage along those lines," he opines. "I haven't heard anything from the kid that's problematic. I think that the extent of the attacks by Mike and Don were a little overboard. We talk all the time about giving kids the confidence to be able to play and admiring those that have it, and just because a kid is confident and, in this case, pretty articulate, why are we chastising them or imposing that much negativity on them?"
Botterill is convinced the future of hockey is in the hands of young entertainers, not in the staid methods promoted by the veteran hierarchy. In that regard, he thinks Subban and Omark are pioneers for the kind of game the league is slowly moving toward.
"I hope the idea of embracing confident young players becomes a bigger part of the culture," he explains. "Whenever there's change, this is usually the way it happens. There's a dramatic case, and then after a while people start to say, hold it, he's not a bad kid. He's trying to be as confident as he can and doing what he needs to do for his team, so let's back off. We need more players like this. It's good for the game. But cultures don't change overnight, so it might be a little while.
"I think there's an element of what the game needs in that creativity and in the confidence to try things that other people haven't tried before, so the quality of the product gets better for everyone involved," he continues. "Right now they're not doing that. They're kind of clinging to this old school idea of pecking order and hassling the kids a bit. This is a dynamic process and I think these things are part of what will change it. Hopefully sooner rather than later."
Cal Botterill's opinion is, of course, just that of one man. So is Don Cherry's. Of the two, one might argue that the person who believes young, creative players should be embraced rather than vilified has the better credentials.