One of the common knocks against hockey fans is that we seem to be wired to go negative, always thinking the worst of everyone who takes to the ice. And there’s some truth to that. After all, if you name a star player in today’s NHL, you’ll probably find legions of fans who’ve decided that they just don’t like him.
When Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson went head-to-head for the Norris Trophy, it wasn’t enough for fans to prefer one guy over the other – they had to decide that the other guy was a bum. Alex Ovechkin has a ton of fans, but also plenty who see him as an unrepentant hot dog who can’t come through when it counts. Carey Price is a year removed from a Hart trophy, but he’s a Hab and nobody who plays for Toronto or Montreal will ever be universally liked. And let’s not even get started on P.K. Subban.
Remember, there’s a difference between merely being popular and not being hated. Sidney Crosby is almost certainly the NHL’s most popular player, but for some reason, lots of fans have painted him as a boring whiner who’s been overexposed by the league. If we can’t get behind Crosby, then who do we like?
Well, there still seem to be at least a handful of exceptions to the rule. So today, let’s take a look at the rare players who have managed to pull it off. Here are twelve NHL stars who’ve proven to be the toughest to hate.
Why we like him: We might as well start with the easy one. In the years since his return to the NHL, Jagr has morphed into one of the league’s most beloved players. That’s largely thanks to his age – it would just feel wrong to hate a guy who’s still going strong at 44 – and the near-legendary work ethic that goes with it. But he’s also revealed a fun side, cracking jokes on social media and showing off that rarest of NHL possessions: an actual personality.
Mix in his apparent commitment to play for every team in the league before he retires, and it’s become just about impossible to dislike Jagr.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: I’m not sure I can come up with a great reason to hate the current-day version of Jagr. But can we at least acknowledge that it’s a little weird that we wound up here, given how divisive Jagr was earlier in his career?
When he first broke into the league on an already-stacked Penguins’ team, he quickly became the poster child for the flashy European star that so many North American fans had trouble with, all fancy moves and flowing hockey hair. By the time he was doing his own trademark celebration, lots of fans (and at least a few players) had had enough of him. And that was before he bailed on the Penguins, bombed for the Capitals, and bolted for the KHL.
Mix in his weird return in 2011, in which he infuriated Pittsburgh fans by feinting at a homecoming and then scorning them for their fiercest rivals (which a small handful still haven’t forgiven him for), and it wasn’t that long ago that Jagr would have ranked high on any list of the most-disliked players. But we all mellow with age, apparently, and now he’s become basically untouchable. That’s been a pretty cool evolution to watch, but it would have been downright bizarre to suggest it a decade or two ago.
Why we like him: He’s the other obvious choice for this list. While he doesn’t quite have Jagr’s longevity (yet), Iginla is firmly ensconced in the “beloved veteran” pantheon at age 39. He’s a surefire Hall-of-Famer who’s done everything short of win the Stanley Cup – and even that lone gap on his resume comes with an asterisk. He’s scored 600 goals, won two Olympic gold medals, and he had the loyalty to stick with one team way longer than he probably should have. You can’t really ask for more.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: As one of the last of the true power forwards, there’s a good chance that at some point he’s flattened somebody on your favourite team with a shoulder or a fist. But even that’s tough to get too worked up over, given that he was probably smiling when he did it.
Why we like him: Now we start to get into shakier territory, as there are still pockets of fans who insist on slapping Thornton with that “can’t win the big one” label that we all apparently love so much. But that group is dwindling by the day, especially after Thornton and the Sharks went all the way to the Cup Final this spring. In its place, the vast majority of fans recognize that we’re watching the tail end of the career of one of the greatest playmakers of all time.
Also, he once publicly told his boss to shut his mouth. The guy is living the dream.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: I mean, the whole beard thing was a little overdone, right? We’re kind of past the point where anyone should be especially entertained by the idea of someone not shaving for a few months, aren’t we?
No? Just me? OK, fine, moving on.
Why we like him: He’s arguably the top goaltender in the league. He’s a model. He’s in a rock band. He does a ton of charity work. He owns a restaurant. He loves his dog.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: The whole “never won a Stanley Cup” plot line—and the devastated reactions that accompany each year’s elimination—are the only things keeping his life from being completely perfect. If and when he ever wins a ring, we’ll all be fully justified in turning on him.
Why we like him: He’s a once-in-a-generation prospect who’ll be the league’s best player within a year or two, if he’s not already. He showed enough flashes as a rookie for fans to fall in love with his skill level, but the clavicle injury slowed him down just enough to make him still feel like an underdog. He’s flashy on the ice, but quiet and composed off of it. And he plays for the Oilers, so we probably still have a few years before he’s single-handedly winning Stanley Cups.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: It’s a 100 per cent certainty that a big chunk of fans will turn on him Crosby-style over the next few years. Seriously, I wish this wasn’t such a sure thing, but we all know it’s happening. Once he’s been in three commercials, we’ll start to hear about how the NHL is shoving him down our throats, and his “aw shucks” post-game demeanor will get ripped by the same fans who freak out at anyone who says anything interesting.
Basically, I wanted to put him on the list because it’s probably the last chance. We don’t deserve nice things.
Why we like them: It’s taken some time for fans outside of Vancouver to really embrace the Sedins, but as their career winds down they’re finally getting the sort of league-wide respect they deserve. (OK, except for Boston.) They’ve been productive for years despite weathering some on-ice abuse, and they’ve taken the high road whenever they’ve had to deal with occasional crass remarks from opponents.
Bonus points: This stuff will never not be funny.
Why it might be OK to hate them just a little: They screw up any list you put them on, because you feel like you have to make them one entry but then you end up having one more player than you said you would.
Why we like him: Two reasons. First, because he’s a fantastic two-way player with two Stanley Cup rings who took home two trophies at this year’s NHL Awards. And second, because if we don’t mention him then everyone on the West Coast will start screaming “East Coast bias!” at us like it’s our fault their games don’t start until four in the morning.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: He’s a phenomenal European player, which gets you excited about the upcoming World Cup, which makes you try to remember what team he’s on, which reminds you that the NHL went and made this year’s tournament all weird.
Why we like him: It’s tough to win three Stanley Cups without drawing at least a little resentment, but Toews seems to have largely managed it. He’s the prototypical two-way forward who can be trusted at both ends of the ice, which is the type of player fans love; we’ve already mentioned Kopitar, and Patrice Bergeron could have made this list too.
Plus, Toews has won just about everything there is to win. And as an added bonus, you never have to worry about him saying something controversial, because he hasn’t been programmed for that.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: The whole “Jonathan Toews is the best player in hockey” thing that crops up every now and then always seems a little too contrarian. Also, I don’t know what this is all about, but I don’t like it.
Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers
Why we like him: Luongo might be the textbook example of a player using social media to craft a positive public image. Thanks to a twitter account that features plenty of jokes (often aimed at himself), he’s made it clear that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
It helps that he also won an Olympic gold medal, has three appearances as a Vezina finalist, and 470 career wins.
More importantly, he briefly got Jagr to bring back his mullet.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: As much entertainment as it provided for the rest of us, Canucks fans may still not quite be over the whole extended saga with Luongo, Cory Schneider, and the contract that sucks.
Why we like him: Through seven years in the league, Tavares has established himself as a top-tier star, including earning first team all-star honours in 2015 and an injury-shortened stint with Team Canada’s gold medal-winning squad in 2014. Despite all that, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say anything bad about him.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: Is John Tavares boring? I feel like he might be kind of boring. Maybe not Sean Monahan boring, but he’s in the ballpark. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s always seemed weird that guys like Toews and Crosby get all the “boring hockey player” jokes while Tavares mostly avoids them.
(Also, everyone is going to be really mad when he signs with the Maple Leafs in 2018.)
Why we like him: How can you not like a guy who racks up points despite being half the size of the players trying to stop him? At only 23 years old, he’s already established himself as one of the top wingers in the game, and may have room to get even better. Given his size and his status as a fourth-round draft pick, that all adds up to the sort of underdog story that any fan can get behind.
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: He has yet to sign an extension with the Flames; when that day comes, expect some sticker shock from Calgary fans and some “he hasn’t earned it yet” hot takes from elsewhere around the league. Those grumbles won’t last long, but they’ll be there.
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
Why we like him: After years as one of the league’s most underrated defencemen, Burns broke out last season both on and off the ice. He had the best numbers of his career, earning second all-star team honours and a spot as a Norris finalist, then helped guide the Sharks to within two wins of a Stanley Cup. And he did it while letting his colourful personality shine through, with everything from all-star Chewbacca impressions to a sick gameday wardrobe. (No luck on that tiger yet, though.)
Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: A hockey player with a personality? Give it three more months before the backlash kicks in.
A few names that very nearly made the list.
Zdeno Chara: Is he also a beloved old guy at this point? He’s 39, so it feels like he should be, but I’m not getting that vibe yet.
Vladimir Tarasenko: NHL fans have never irrationally disliked a flashy Russian winger, right?
Cory Schneider: He’s basically a younger Luongo, but without the social media #branding.
Henrik Zetterberg: He’s certainly well-liked, but with the universally-loved Pavel Datsyuk having just left for the KHL, it feels like it’s too soon. Half of you wants to like him, half of you wants to yell “You’re not my real dad!” and storm out of the room.
Your favourite player: You know, the one who should so obviously be on the list that only an idiot would exclude him. I did that on purpose to make you mad.