Sports  Hockey’s ‘Other’ Problem

Russian players face prejudice within NHL

As the Nashville Predators struggled through their 2012 playoff series with the Phoenix Coyotes, NBC Sports commentator Keith Jones unleashed a two-minute tirade during an intermission in Game 2 against the ‘enigmatic’ and ‘lazy’ (as described by some media members) Russian forward, Alexander Radulov.

Showing clip after clip from the game, Jones ripped into Radulov’s effort, seemingly taking pleasure in his own criticism. While some was valid, there was a problem with his footage – the clips were taken out of context and served to deliberately crtiticize Radulov. This extra attention and extra criticism came because Radulov was a highly sought after Russian player, and this rant is just one part of what has been the most disturbing trend of the post-lockout NHL: the general distrust of Russian players, the ‘outsiders’ in the NHL.

The treatment of Russian players within the NHL landscape by media, scouts, and personnel has become extremely prejudiced. When someone needs a scapegoat for a team’s performance, or a reason not to sign or draft a player, a Russian (or any  Eastern European) player is most often the target.

For example, Alexander Semin, a Russian forward who has averaged nearly 32 goals per season since he entered the league, struggled to find a contract during this year’s free agency period as teams shied away from a player whose passion for the game has constantly been questioned. The NHL free agency period began on July 1; the Carolina Hurricanes finally signed Semin on July 26. He was only given a one-year deal, indicative of the hesitance the team had in a long-term commitment with Semin.

This assumed lack of emotion and interest from Russian players is not, however, indicative of a lack of excitement towards the game, explains Sergei Federov, one of the first players to defect from the USSR to the NHL. It is a product of Russian societal norms, where outright displays of passion and excitement are not encouraged.

Bias abounds for other, more varied reasons. Mikhail Grigorenko, initially rated the third-best prospect in the 2012 NHL Draft, dropped to the 12th overall pick as anonymous scouts and media sources floated rumors that Grigorenko would sign with the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s major national hockey franchise), as well as concerns over his work ethic and reported age.

The evidence that these scouts pointed to was Grigorenko’s performance in the second round of the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) playoffs, where he produced only 2 points and -5 plus/minus rating in his last four games while his team, the Quebec Ramparts, blew a 3-0 series lead. While this led scouts to question his toughness and resolve, the truth was far more innocent: he came down with mononucleosis during the series and decided to play through the ilness. His gutsy decision to do so was written off by many scouts as merely an excuse for poor play.

This fear of Russian players has become comical. Alex Galchenyuk, drafted third overall by the Montreal Canadiens, was cited as having “Russian connections” in a Montreal Gazette article – despite the fact that Galchenyuk was born in Milwaukee, considers himself an American, and is ethnically Belarussian, not Russia. While Galchenyuk did live in Russia for a couple of years, the idea of insidious Russian connections preventing him from NHL success is laughable.

Russian players often do have trouble adjusting to the NHL. Imagine moving to a new country, learning a new language, and leaving your friends and family – and then having to compete at the NHL level, something Federov has called the “saddest and most lonely thing you can ever imagine.” On top of this, their non-Canadian or non-American demeanor is often misunderstood as indifference.

Unfortunately, these problems have been used as an easy way to blame Russian players for an entire team’s woes. While hockey is a team game, the new media landscape always looks for one person in particular to blame – and the Russian players in the NHL have become that subject.

This prejudice has a historical context: Canada ruled the hockey world until the 1950s, when Russian teams began to dominate international competition. The idea that Canada wasn’t always the pre-eminent hockey nation in the world threatens many Canadians’ sense of national identity, and helps explain the current atmosphere of Russian distrust. Many Canadians and Americans in the hockey world would rather see Canadians and Americans succeed, and when they need someone to blame, the easy way out is to blame the Russian players, the Other.

Thankfully, there are some members of the media who have begun to attack this xenophobic mindset, and some scouts and general managers who continue to evaluate Russian players based on talent alone. Still, it may take many years before there is complete acceptance. Until then, there will be extra criticism heaped onto players who want exactly the same as every player, no matter what nationality: to succeed.