How bad teammates can disrupt dressing rooms, team chemistry

New York Rangers defenceman Tony DeAngelo. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Jerks don’t know they’re jerks because they aren’t constantly jerkish. It would be a lot easier if they knew, but alas, they do not. Think about the ones you’ve let into your life – there has to be stretches of times they’re decent, or you’d have never let them in to begin with. But over time a pattern of jerk-like moments emerges, and all the runs of decency start to exist in their shadow.

Those people choose to see the other times, the more decent ones, as what defines them rather than the bad moments, which they see as outliers. Everyone deserves chances and has their imperfect moments, of course, but sometimes the balance is just tipped too heavily the wrong way for them to be right on that.

This is a winding way into the conversation about Anthony DeAngelo and Evander Kane, two players who have earned clear reputations for themselves around the NHL. If that reads like me calling them jerks, well, I don’t personally know them, so it’s more like me relaying that the guys they play with think they’re deserving of the label.

Here’s a news update from San Jose Sharks beat writer Kevin Kurz that’s titled “Several Sharks teammates don’t want Evander Kane back on the team.” The NHL is investigating Kane after his wife alleged that he is "compulsive gambling addict" who has thrown games to win money. Kane has adamantly denied the allegations. Here’s an article from earlier this year called “Tony DeAngelo should be out of chances” by Shayna Goldman that compiles a list of his transgressions, including reportedly getting in an altercation with former New York Rangers teammate Alexandar Georgiev, roughing up officials and using a slur against a teammate while with the OHL's Sarnia Sting. He wasn’t bought out of his lucrative contract because he’s not talented — it’s the jerk thing.

And so here we are, with a 25-year-old right-shot D-man that can ably run an NHL power-play one scraping for a one-year deal just above league minimum, and the Sharks trying to trade a bruising forward who scored 22 times in two-thirds of a season with no left-winger depth behind him. Being a good teammate: apparently important to NHL teams.

So how big a deal is this, really? How much can a hockey dressing room survive jerks, and bad teammates, because let’s face it — there’s a sliding scale here. We see teams put up with larger amounts of jerkish behaviour from better players. Meanwhile, NHL fourth lines are almost devoid of personality issues, because nobody is putting up with a fringe player making league minimum who’s also a problem. Those players are easier to replace given the smaller talent downgrade from one replacement-level guy to the next.

Hockey teams play within systems, links in a chain that rely on one another to stay together. If one single person doesn’t do their job, others must abandon their posts to cover, and the links fall apart. Often, to execute a system, players must leave areas of the rink open and trust that someone else is switching to that spot, which can feel like a trust fall. Only in hockey, if you just hesitate – which can happen if you’ve been burned before – you can be too late getting to where you need to be, and the metaphorical fall can be all the way to the ground. Bam, goal against.

Trust between teammates is paramount, and players who take risks to maybe get an offensive bounce can occasionally subvert that.

San Jose Sharks left wing Evander Kane. (Rick Scuteri/AP)

On the ice, demonstrating that the team's needs come first is easy. You can block shots, take hits to move the puck somewhere more advantageous and change when your line is heading into the offensive zone rather than the opposite. The list is long.

These things bleed off the rink. Most pros today put in the extra time in the gym to be stronger. Most players are punctual so everyone can keep their schedules moving and have time to do the things they need to do to prepare for practice and games. Most players take care of themselves off the ice so they can be their best, which benefits everybody.

Much like in any place of business, it can rub people the wrong way when co-workers obviously prioritize their interests over the teams, whether that be on the ice or off — in the cubicles or out of them.

For these jerks, they’d argue that they still perform in the upper echelon of the league doing it their way, so “watch your own bobber.” (I love that expression — essentially, control what you can control and don’t look over here and worry about what I have going on.)

By and large, teams and players do their best to do that, as long as that performance is up to snuff. It’s still wildly frustrating see someone play well who could play better, but it’s tough to argue with good play. And so, jerks exist on teams and in the league and aren’t punted out entirely.

There’s a threshold though where teams don’t care how well you play if you make being at the rink miserable for everyone. That probably involves verbal and physical abuses, being regularly tardy so others can’t do their jobs, and just generally being a curmudgeon who doesn’t want to buy in and pull the rope the same direction as everyone else.

The common refrain I’ve heard is that a team with a good culture can take on a player who’s self-centred and survive just fine, but you never want two of them. Dressing room wisdom says that players like that gravitate towards one another and form a coalition of negativity, which is a larger problem if they’re a pair that like to drink, gamble and generally carouse. They can enable one another, try to bait in others and form legitimate opposition to the common cause.

I wouldn’t know how many guys you’d label “jerks” around the NHL, but it isn’t many, at least not the out-and-out kind that are genuinely self-motivated with little regard for others. Maybe there’s a dozen? Two dozen, depending on how you set your arbitrary cut-off of acceptable? But this is part of the reason these guys are tough to find homes for around the league — if nobody wants two on any given team, and there’s already a number of them out there, then there are not many teams left to choose from. And in Kane’s case, with the big salary in a tight salary world, and his larger off-ice problems still unfolding in real-time, it’s almost impossible to see a team thinking he’s worth taking on.

Hockey players are justifiably mocked for being comically homogeneous, with bland stock answers coming from a line of guys with cookie-cutter appearances. It’s at the root of the sport’s issue with an utter lack of diversity, from appearances to voices to opinions and more (that’s a much bigger issue than just “how do jerks disrupt what pro hockey teams are trying to do”). Much of that general vanilla-ness stems from a desire to portray themselves as players that can fit in, and can help any team that’s trying to pull that rope in one very specific direction. I think they’re subconsciously signalling their willingness to play the system, be a part of the bigger machine and not cause anyone’s energy to be spent cleaning up additional issues.

Teams root out jerks the way the body roots out viruses, as they take energy to remove but will let the greater system function better once eliminated. Fevers are your body raising its own temperature to make that happen. Fevers in hockey teams are “Several Sharks teammates don’t want Evander Kane back on the team.”

As I mentioned, there’s a sliding scale of how big a jerk you’re allowed to be in hockey (and many lines of work), and it directly correlates to how talented you are. Morally, that’s not how it should work. But with job preservation a priority for most in front offices, and elite talent hard to come by, that’s reality.

It’s possible that DeAngelo has learned his lesson, and will mature. It’s possible that playing for Rod Brind’Amour and the Carolina Hurricanes organization will keep him in check. It’s possible that Kane finds a new home, scores goals and stays out of trouble for a while.

Jerks aren’t always jerks, and while under extra scrutiny the way these two are, I’m guessing things are fine with both for a while, at least in terms of not adding additional issues to their respective piles. But these patterns of bad behaviour rarely just die out forever. I’d bet that the issue won’t be for their teams in the immediate season ahead, but the next ones who bet on them having changed for good.

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