Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Game 7: A Stereotype Wrapped in a Trope Inside a Cliché

Hockey has, in the past thirty years, become a polyglot sport. There’s hardly a dressing room in the NHL that doesn’t speak four different languages, and many of them have six or seven represented. English remains the lingua franca of coaching and training, and one assumes all players learn enough of the technical vocabulary to understand what they’re supposed to do, to speak the rudimentary on-ice dialect of yelps and profanity, but it’s not only in Montreal that most of the local team cannot speak the local language.

Unfortunately for all the Europeans who come to sell their talents to the NHL, this remarkably multilingual institution is located mostly in North America, which means it serves one of the most chronically and stubbornly monolingual populations remaining anywhere in the world. Despite the persistence of Quebec and the ever-increasing prevalence of Spanish in the United States, a majority of the English-speakers on the continent not only speak no other language, but self-righteously speak no other language, and consider it right and reasonable to expect that anyone setting foot on their soil ought speak to them in that language at all times. It’s a culture where people are blithely indifferent to the difficulties of language-learning and the hardships of a life lived in translation.

The NHL is still, in many ways, a league of language barriers, a fact that is seldom given due credit among the English-speaking fans and media. On many teams, at least half the players, every time they give an interview or record a television spot or do a charity autograph signing, are speaking their second or third or fourth language. Most of them speak it remarkably well. The Swedes and the Finns and the Quebecois generally speak clear, idiomatic English by the time they make the pros. The Czechs and the Slovaks sometimes do. The Russians, however, are rarely good English-speakers when they start out in the League.

Sports language involves a double process of language learning- it’s learning the words themselves, but also the structure of communication. The vocabulary and grammar, which is what most people imagine to be the substance of learning a language, pose no few difficulties in themselves. Words come easily enough, but one language’s typical manner of saying things may be nearly incomprehensible in another. A person pasting the words of a new language onto the syntax of his native tongue is going to come up with nonsense. Hill up have two the horse, as the Mandarin textbook says.

But then there are the idioms, and not just the common idioms universal to the language, but the idioms of hockey. Hockey English is a whole other level of English. Sports-speak is a highly precise, carefully coded dialect, and even native English speakers take a long time to perfect their usage of it. The scene in Bull Durham is the most famous example, but it’s something we all intuitively know: part of coming up talented in sports is learning the clichés and how to deploy them effectively. A Canadian player spends years learning how to talk to people about his play. He is trained in particular phrases and attitudes that appear culturally correct, and even if he does not wholly imbibe such into his heart of hearts, he learns to fake it. To talk about his successes, slumps, struggles, and strategies in the comforting, unremarkable way. Listen to Sidney Crosby talk, for Christ’s sake. The man is the greatest talent of his generation and possibly one of the greatest of all time, and he has never said one single thing about the game that has not been said by a thousand grinders a thousand in a thousand intermission interviews going back to the 1950s.

The Russians are doubly disadvantaged when they come into the NHL in terms of their communication skills, and it’s hard for them to catch up. Some do, some never do, and part of it may be disposition, but part of it is almost certainly language-learning ability. We are conditioned to expect this hockey-speak. It is what sounds ‘normal’ to us, and a player who speaks it competently- regardless of his actual talent or personality- sounds perfectly ordinary. A player who doesn’t speak it, however, will sound strange. Off. Peculiar. Eccentric. There is a particular blankness common to people who are trying to fake their way through a conversation in a foreign language that they only half understand. Trust me, I know this expression, I’ve deployed it across three continents and three second languages, and I’ve had it shot back at me in equal measure, and it’s exactly the expression of a twenty-one-year-old Russian player being interviewed after a game. They aren’t monosyllabic because they’re taciturn and mysterious. They’re monosyllabic because they literally, on two different levels, don’t know what they’re supposed to say. Ovechkin, happily malaproping his way through ESL learning, is a singularly brave person. Few people, in any profession, speaking any first language, are so willing to sound ridiculous on camera.

And so the Russians get called ‘enigmatic’.

‘Enigma’ is the Winston-Churchill-approved hockey code word for ‘Russian and inconsistent.’ The word strikes players in inverse proportion to their English abilities. Virtually no Anglophone anywhere in the NHL is ever called enigmatic. Every now and then a Finn or a French-Canadian gets the designation, but it’s primarily reserved for Russians and Czechs. Similarly, no Russian ever gets described as ‘a character guy’ who’s ‘good in the room’- because those qualities we judge based primarily on spoken language ability. But Lord knows, if you’ve ever had a Russian player who was good sometimes but not always, you’ve had an enigma on your roster. It’s an acknowledged stereotype, but it’s often one that people will defend as honest and legitimate. At this point, the Russian proclivity for mysteriousness is an agreed-upon fact in North America, exemplified by players from Afinigenov to Zherdev

Since Alexei Kovalev moved north, Andrei Kostitsyn has been Montreal’s enigma-in-residence. It’s a useful thing to have on a hockey team, an enigma. For one thing, if you’re a hockey writer and you find yourself short of material during the February doldrums, a what’s-up-with-that-enigma column is always good for 750 words. But an enigma is also the easiest way to stave off the creeping horror that your team is not really all that good. Because we have a black box on the first line! Who knows what bottomless potential might be held within! If only we had the key to unlock this secret! If only someone could unravel this mystery, we would have… well, we don’t really know, but something pretty damn good.

Andrei Kostitsyn came into the League in 2006, and he showed runs of talent, but a lot of inconsistency, which is not at all remarkable. In fact, it is utterly typical, so typical it should be almost boring. Lots of young players are inconsistent for their first three or four years. Some players are inconsistent forever. It’s a goddamn hard game to play consistently, for Canadians and Americans and Russians and Finns alike. But a player who can talk about his struggles and his development in the language and clichés we’ve come to expect is quite sympathetic- just a kid tryin’ to find his stride and adjust to the NHL game. Chris Higgins played this role for years in Montreal, and people may have found him frustrating but no one ever found him enigmatic. Higgins knew how to give a great interview.

But Kostitsyn, being Russian and not knowing how to give even a passable interview, has never been just a young player struggling to find his level in the League. No no no, he’s an enigma. He’s a mystery to be unraveled, an onion to be peeled, a black box in need of unlocking. People have had endless fun positing hypothetical ‘keys’ to his strange, strange behavior (the best, I think, and by ‘best’ I mean ‘most creepily inappropriate,’ was the suggestion that he’s a Chernobyl child, and therefore developmentally disabled in some peculiar way that allows him to be an elite-level hockey player but prevents him from playing consistently on the first line, which has got to be the most awesome form of radiation-induced-developmental-disability one can have.) Now he’s hot and playing well, and apparently there’s been some sort of magical solving of the riddle. Eventually he’ll get cold again, and I give you… oh, let’s say 4-1 odds we’ll see a spate of articles lamenting, oh-the-mysterious, oh-the-inscrutable. Kovelev got the ‘mystery’ treatment for his entire tenure in Montreal, and it apparently never occurred to anybody in Habistan (including me) that he was just an aging and chronically inconsistent dude.

Russians are not enigmatic. They’re just people from a different culture, who grew up trained in an utterly different hockey idiom, and (shock!) sometimes people from other cultures, while making their way in a foreign land, find it difficult to express themselves in a clear and natural way. The fact that they seem mysterious is a function of our own ignorance as much as anything they do. There might, indeed, be strange and peculiar Russians out there- the Glen Anderson of Magnitogorsk- but before we deploy the enigma (article) machine, we owe it to them to try to find a good translator first.

(And no, Google-translating Russian web pages does not count. Google-translate is a universal mechanism for making everyone sound ridiculous in every language.)


Scott Reynolds said...

I'm loving these articles! You're of course correct that the "enigma" tag only sticks consistently to the Eastern Europeans, even though the struggles are pretty universal. It's crazy that a player like Andrew Cogliano (ridiculous speed, two consecutive seasons of flagging point totals whatever the cause) might owe his continued NHL employment to his proficiency with the English language. The Russian version may already have been cut loose.

Coach pb9617 said...

Brilliant post, E.

Julian said...

It's probably true what you say about Cogliano Scott, but it does make sense. If you've got Player A and Player B on your roster and you need to cut one, assuming all other things (skill, age, money etc) are equal, you're probably going to go with the guy you can communicate with, the guy who doesn't need adjusting to the culture, the guy who knows what's expected of him without having to be explicitly told.
It probably explains why the vast majority of 3rd and 4th liners in the NHL are North American, and Europeans are disproportionally represented on the top two lines.

As someone who works exclusively with people speaking their second or third language to me, there are plenty of misunderstandings, linguistically and culturally to be had. If they can be minimized, especially in that sort of environment, I can't really blame a GM who goes with the local guy.

Ellen, you might write a habs blog, but it's all Oilers fans commenting.

saskhab said...

Ellen, you might write a habs blog, but it's all Oilers fans commenting.

Hey, I'm here!

This is the classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario. Coaching is also not universal... it's enforced by the top minds of each national federation. Canadians influenced Swedish and Finnish hockey, as well as German and Swiss... so the concepts are also easier to grasp. The Iron Curtain prevented this from happening in the USSR and Czechoslovakia... so not only is there a language barrier, some common hockey terms aren't really translatable, because they weren't ever used at all.

If it wasn't for Canadian hockey players being some kind of hockey missionary in Northern and Central Europe, we might have more problems with the Swedes, Finns, and Germanic players. But they play the game with a similar style, a similar understanding.

On Off the Record the other day, Bobby Holik (a Czech) made sure to point out that Kovalchuk is Russian, not European. He also said "all Swedes make great teammates." I think it's more than linguistically based... there is a cultural reality there based on 50-100 years of hockey development.

saskhab said...

BTW, I like this entry as a counter to your first section of Game 1, in which you blatantly said to never learn a foreign language.

E said...

i think the coaching thing is a bit of a different issue. it might be unfair, but i wouldn't necessarily blame a team for choosing players they believe are easier to communicate with in the coaching idiom they use. but if you think a dude has the talent to spend a draft pick and some developmental resources on him, then it's worth making sure an 'attitude' problem isn't just a language problem.

i deliberately avoided touching on culture in this piece, because it's so deeply loaded and i cannot necessarily speak to it. i have no doubt that russia has a distinct hockey culture, but the language barrier and the stereotypes run so thick that it's very difficult for us on the north american side of things to accurately characterize it. if anything, my major point is that- whether it's langauge or culture or both- nhl fans and media seriously underappreciate the significance of these barriers, when they evaluate players and their personal qualities.

this hasn't been much of a habs blog for a couple years, but one needs to have some abiding loyalties, so... call the canadiens my framing device.

obviously i have a lot of ambivalence about the years of my life spent in language classes. possibly because one puts in so much freakin' work and yet still ends up struggling to really communicate. *sigh*

Geographer said...

Great article! My only concern is that you refer to Ottawa as north of Montreal ("Since Alexei Kovalev moved north..."). Seems to me that west, or up the river, is more appropriate, no?