How many times do we say we want something more than the standard clichés from hockey players, only to vilify them when they actually speak their mind?
Honesty is a double-edged sword and when it comes to athletes or anyone in the limelight, it can cut pretty deeply when wielded by a media hungry for attention-grabbing headlines.
24-year-old Washington Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth did an interview with isport.cz in his native Czech Republic, which was then translated by Karolina Martinková of hockey-on.blogspot.cz and relayed by Russian Machine Never Breaks in part one and again in part two.
By the time it reaches North American publishing filters, Neuvirth’s comments have the potential to be pretty explosive. Hence the need for context.
Let’s open with his thoughts on team captain Alex Ovechkin, which begin with a bang.
“He isn’t what he used to be, that’s for sure.”
Ruh-roh. There’s your headline. But delve a little deeper and put it in context; what the youngster is saying has merit.
“He isn’t what he used to be, that’s for sure. And if a team like ours wants to have a chance in Stanley Cup, we need Ovi to be the best. We all expect that from him; he has to be the real leader. But it’s hard you know, he achieved everything as a player. He was on absolute top, and then one can only fall down. I just hope that Ovi will stop falling and instead stops and maybe tries to get back on top. As for his attitude in the locker, he is still the same guy. Even when it’s not working out for him, he is in a good mood, he celebrates with the others. He is the right team player. He will stay like that forever.”
When you’re No. 1, there’s only one place to go but down. True statement. Chalk the ‘maybe tries’ to get back on top twist up to the translation and how meanings can get lost between languages. Neuvirth calling Ovi a great teammate and always having the right attitude will be the parts of that quote most-often swept under the rug as this story gains more traction over here – bet on it.
Another big star left the Caps – Alex Semin. Some say it will help the club, some say it won’t. What do you think?
“Something in between. I see the leaving of Semin as a huge minus for the team, but then again I think it may do some good. He didn’t have the best work ethic. Maybe now when Ovi will be without him, he will put more into hockey. Maybe that’s what the management was going for.”
Matt Bradley said things about Semin’s work ethic as well, and he had to apologize…
“But I think it’s nothing that isn’t well known. If Semin wanted to, he could have been the best player in the world, but he doesn’t want to every day. And that’s wrong.”
If he finds out what you said, you may expect to be hit in the head with the stick next time you play Carolina, don’t you think?
“[Smiling] Yes, that could happen, we play Carolina pretty often.”
On Adam Oates
“I haven’t met him in person yet, but I spoke with him over the phone and felt good about it. He is definitely a legend of Washington hockey, plus he was an assistant in New Jersey, against which I’ve always been pretty good, so I think he is positive about me. With new coach, it’s new beginning and I am happy about Oates. Also because it means Dale Hunter isn’t staying.”
Your teammate Roman Hamrlík wasn’t happy about Hunter either. What didn’t you like about him?
“If only because Holtby was number one under him in playoffs. Generally, I didn’t find a way to him. I had good relationships with [Bruce Boudreau] and with farm-team coach Bob Woods, but not with Hunter. I don’t know, he simply didn’t talk to us goalies at all, I think he criticized us sometimes for no reason. From my point of view, it’s good he left.”
Again, do you want honesty or do you want stock answers?
Neuvirth is certainly not the first person to be critical of Alexander Semin and won’t be the last. The difference here is that Neuvirth actually saw the guy play every night. Semin seems to receives too much abuse from fans and media alike using the same tired talking points. Many of these same people rarely, if ever, truly tend to watch him out on the ice to break down his game and credit him with any progress. The hustle on the backcheck goes unnoticed. Just don’t miss the point Neuvirth made about Semin leaving being a ‘huge minus’ for the team.
As far as the coaching comments, are they really that bad? If Hunter didn’t have much communication with his goalies, he didn’t have much communication with his goalies. Sometimes it’s up to the keeper to do his talking on the ice. Besides, Hunter wasn’t even there a full season. Boudreau was fired at the end of November. Small sample size.
In terms of Holtby starting in the playoffs, Neuvirth was hurt. He alludes to that fact in a different part of the interview, which is also where more potentially controversial remarks are made.
On his position as starting goalie on the club
“It’s true that until now, I have never been an official number one. But I have played just over a hundred games in NHL. That’s nothing. I’m starting the season sure that I want to play forty/fifty games and I am really sure that I have the weakest competition (Braden Holtby) I’ve ever had. I will try to be number one goalie this season. Finally!”
Again, you can bet that the ‘weakest competition’ declaration will spread like wildfire. Watch for the real context further down though.
Also, lest we forget in that same paragraph Neuvirth is talking about playing 40 or 50 games. Sounds like he’s expecting a basic platoon situation with the confidence he’ll get a slight edge in the number of starts over an 82-game schedule, no? So even if someone totally ignores the later frame of reference that puts the ‘weakest competition’ in context, he’s saying right in the same sentence that even if he emerges as the starter (‘I will try’), it’ll still basically be a shared crease situation.
So let’s all just take a deep breath here.
They say you’ve always been a bridesmaid in the crease, not the bride. You are always the second. How do you see it?
“But it’s important to look at which players always were in tandem with me. At first – the Russian [Semyon Varlamov] who was always in front of me because he was drafted higher and played in the NHL sooner. It was hard to get in front of him. But in the end I played much more than he did. Last year, I had Voky (Tomáš Vokoun) next to me and I guessed in advance that he would probably get more space in the goal than I would. I came to camp ready, but it the end the season was as it was… I left it behind and I’m starting the new one ready to fight for my spot. This is the turning-point year in my life; it will decide where will I go on with my career.”
In the end, neither of you (he and Voky) started in the playoffs, although you were supposed to be the Czech tandem going for the Stanley Cup…
“It ended the worst it could have. But they say everything bad is good for something, and that’s how I take it. At least I had great fun with Voky. I got to know him as a person, I got to see how he gets ready, how he practices, what he does before the game and that helped me a lot. Besides we got really close, we are still in touch, I and my girlfriend visited him on Florida for a few days. We became great friends.”
In the end you both got replaced by Holtby thanks to injuries…
“[Vokoun and I] were both really sorry about that. We were angry that neither of us started in the playoffs, there’s no doubt in that. But that’s the life, things like that happen in sports, and we can’t do anything else than to forget about that last season. Voky is going to fight in Pittsburgh and I in Washington.”
You mentioned that Holtby is the weakest competition, but he was awesome in playoffs, don’t you think?
“He sure is a great goalie. But I can’t compare him to Voky or Varlamov, that’s what I meant. In comparison to those two, he played nothing in the NHL and that’s why I take him as the weakest of them three. I’m definitely not saying that he is bad, not at all. I actually like the way he plays. But he is the worst of them three, that’s all.
I’m not afraid because of how he did in the playoffs. I think that a year ago I played in the playoffs the same as he did now. They always say that the second season is the turning point, I’m curious how he will do…
He is a friend, too, of course. I actually always try to be friends with the other goalie, I don’t like to start a fight. We get along with Holtby pretty well, we played together for two years on the farm club. He was my number two there, when we won the Calder Cup twice, so we have known each other for a long time, over four years. We are not such friends to go out for dinner with each other, but we sit next to each other in the locker room and we always chat. But we don’t do ‘dates’.”
So as far as the ‘weakest competition’ mention, he’s clearly just saying that Holtby is the less-experienced NHL goalie of the group. Big deal.
There’s more to the interview, but the most interesting comments came regarding Vokoun.
“I was the one who advised him to leave for Pittsburgh. I know he had many offers from Russia, but I told him not to go there especially. Just when I was at his place, a few teams contacted him and I told him to go with the Pens. He has a big chance to win the Stanley Cup there. Besides, they told [Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury] he will play less, because his last playoffs didn’t really work out as well. Anyway, what’s written on paper in the summer doesn’t mean much, anything can happen during the season. That’s why I am glad Voky signed with Pittsburgh, I think he did the best thing he could. I’m sure his wife and other guys advised him as well, but maybe my opinion helped him decide as well.”
Bottom line with Neuvirth’s interview?
Take anything translated with a grain of salt. While it’s easy for someone to play the ‘lost in translation’ game, nuance is something often just not carried over between languages.
Also, don’t let a few attention-grabbing lines detract from the overall points he made on each subject. The explanation for each statement is there for the reading, so it’s up to media outlets to be responsible in reporting the whole story and for fans to go beyond the headlines.
The more hockey players get blasted anytime they step outside the proverbial cliché box, the more likely we all are to get the same tired old lines from them nobody wants to hear.