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Everybody Hates Ilya

Mike Spry (@mdspry) May. 7, 2014 2:09 AM
With the injury to Darcy Kuemper, and the ongoing complications due to multiple sclerosis for Josh Harding, Ilya Bryzgalov has stepped back into the NHL spotlight as the presumptive starter for the Minnesota Wild this postseason.

And oh how the enigmatic goaltender shines in the spotlight, much to the chagrin of the league. Bryzgalov is just what the NHL hates: unique, outspoken, not from Red Deer. The embattled and well-traveled goaltender is the antithesis of the typical NHLer. His idiosyncrasies, strange even for a goalie, rankle the entire NHL establishment, from players to management to media to that guy who lives in the apartment below yours with his mother who has a "prominent Predators blog." And as Bryz adds some animation to the typically lifeless NHL discourse in his return to centre scrum, it's interesting to consider why hockey hates him so.

[Getty Images]

For much of his career, Bryzgalov and his delightfully absurd aloofness was left to the bliss of the uncovered hinterland of the NHL. He was allowed to ply his trade in Anaheim and Phoenix with relatively little attention paid. But, in league circles, his oddities were well known, and even celebrated when the media required moments of levity. But upon his arrival in hockey hotbed, and noted goalie-killer Philadelphia, the affection the league had for Bryzgalov turned quickly to venom. His play certainly didn't help, but many an average NHLer with a slight sense of humour has been left to his own devices. But Bryzgalov's appalling strangeness in the eyes of the hockey establishment, a sinister outfit run by old white men housed in a secret lair below the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, made him a pariah, and nearly led to the end of his career. And by "end of career" I mean playing in Edmonton.

Perhaps no player has incurred the wrath of the NHL like the man the Wild acquired as insurance, and who is now their last hope to extend the season. But why? Unfortunately, hockey lacks Bryzgalovs. Of the four major sports leagues, it by far eschews personality and flavour more than all others. Hell, out of any sport it certainly boasts the most boring membership. No interview is less interesting than conversations with hockey players. Vanilla mocks the rabid blandness of NHLers. And those in NHL circles who do have personalities, like Sean Avery, Ted Nolan, or P.K. Subban, find themselves ostracized from the community, or like Subban unfairly labeled as troublesome on and off the ice. One would think a league that has struggled to find a market against its more successful sports brethren would embrace personality, but that's not the hockey way.

Bryzgalov is more than a goalie, more than a hockey player. He's a genuinely interesting and interested person. He has big questions. Like, "I'm very into the universe, you know like how was created, you know, like, what is it, you know? Solar system is so humongous big, right? But if you see like our solar system and our galaxy on the side, you know, like, we're so small you can never see it. Our galaxy is like huge, but if you see the big picture our galaxy (is) like a small tiny-like dot in the universe." Bryz is the opposite of boring.

[HBO]

But hockey is a factory of boring. The sport grabs youngsters at an early age, sends them to cosmopolitan metropoli like Chicoutimi, Lethbridge, and North Bay, and where representatives of the old boys' club teach them to lack in colour and dissenting opinion. There must be courses in stock answers and cliché given to aspiring NHLers, lest they find some horrific off-ice personality. One can imagine a factory churning out 6'2'' defencemen and gritty fourth line centres somewhere outside of Medicine Hat whose only answers are limited to:

•       Gotta play all three periods and go hard into the boards.

•       It's the coach's decision.

•       I enjoy CBC's Heartland.

Unfortunately, this formulaic tendency has corrupted on-ice play as well. In the past quarter century we've seen the game become more systems-based, removing individuality and scoring from the game. (Let's call this Lou Lamoriello's fault.)
Hockey enjoys being the definition of innocuous. What it finds funny, or interesting, is in the Jeremy Roenicks of its world, a sort of low brow, low risk comedy that makes Canadian sitcoms look like the bastard children of Louis CK and Sarah Silverman. And that affection for the benign has lowered scoring, homogenized the product, and made beat reporter's quest for an interesting quote an exercise in futility.

Bryzgalov is the kind of guy you like to keep in your pocket and take out at parties. He was the star of HBO's24/7, an ambitious show that tries to find intrigue in NHL locker rooms.His personality is as endearing as it playful. He's intelligent, well read, and happy to speak on any subject. And the NHL hates him for it. This is a man who when asked if he feared the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins before a playoff matchup with his Flyers responded, "I'm not afraid of anything – except bear. But bear in the forest." What's not to love? The pundits cited his personality as one of the reasons he failed in Philly, despite the fact that the Flyers organization is a wasteland for goalies whose failures have been the result of a flawed organizational concept as opposed to a Russian who enjoys tea and literature.

 What's most painfully difficult to entertain in this NHL with a hatred of the entertaining is the notion that there aren't more personalities like Bryzgalov. The difference with Bryz is that he shares his self with the world. I can't even describe the weird that my peers tend towards in the privacy of dark corners of Montreal bars, so one can't be naïve enough to believe that similarly intriguing oddity doesn't exist in NHL locker rooms. NHLers are only permitted to show their game face, or as Bryz puts it, "You know, I have many faces … masks. In home, I have one face. Public, I have other face. Uh … ahhhh, on ice I have different face. Day off I have four face. With you [media] I have fifth face." The tradition of the league has implemented a gag order upon its membership, which limits both its on- and off-ice products.
 
 The marketing of contemporary sport is about personality. It's what makes the moments between on-field greatness interesting. Chad Johnson, Dennis Rodman, or Steve Lyons would never be allowed to exist in the NHL. From a young age, their personalities would never be given the chance to blossom into anything other than milquetoast. Bryzgalov once said, "OK, they fire the puck from the blue line. Chief usually yelling 'block the shot' at the defensemen. They doesn't have the goalie gear, but they have to block the shot. So who is more crazy, me or the defencemen? Who is more weird?" No one, Bryz. No one. And that's a shame. For both the sport and its fans. This is likely his last few weeks as an NHL goaltender. And then exit Bryzgalov, pursued by bear.