It was a little under two weeks after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had sat during the national anthem in a preseason (which eventually became kneeling in the ensuing weeks), protesting police brutality against black people and inspiring both followers and controversy.

“If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game,” said John Tortorella, the head coach of the US national hockey team for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, as quoted by ESPN’s Linda Cohn.

It was typical Torts.


The subject of multiple Youtube montages of soundbites, a TSN Top 10 moments countdown, and even a song created from a mash-up of his quotes and actions, Tortorella is no stranger to controversy. Over his coaching career, he is probably more well known for his snappy responses in press releases than for his actual coaching record.

And it didn’t just appear to be just an off the cuff remark to a question he could care less about either.

“When there are men and women who give their lives for their flag, for their anthem, who continue to put themselves on the line for our flag, for our anthem, families that have been disrupted, traumatic physical injuries, traumatic mental injuries for these people that give us the opportunity to do things we want to do, there is no chance an anthem and a flag should come into any type of situation where you’re trying to make a point,” Tortorella said in a Sportsnet article.

But the bigger point of this, was that Tortorella probably didn’t even need to say this. It was, as Sportsnet’s Luke Fox called it, a “moot point.”

It seems unlikely that a hockey player would have protested the matter in such a matter, anyhow.

Here are some of the reactions from the players on the team, as quoted in the aforementioned Sportsnet article:

“There’s so much respect for that flag and that anthem, it’s just coming out [. . .] We’re really here to play hockey now, to represent the country and USA. We want to do our best there, so it’s about doing it the right way” – Joe Pavelski

“You’re not going to see anything from us, obviously, with Torts. I have no problem with that” – Seth Jones (a black defenceman)

NHL hockey famously has a culture of conformity.

The NHL is a league where a general manager is well regarded for his “rules” for players, on everything from hair length to jersey numbers (no number 13) — all for “team unity” . While this is an extreme example, it exemplifies the conformity expected in the NHL.

No one would expect an NHLer to take a controversial stance on this, especially during game time. While opponents of Kaepernick’s protest complained about the distraction from the game, one can’t imagine how it would’ve been tolerated in hockey culture (well, I guess he would’ve been benched).

redditScreen capture of Reddit reactions to Seth Jones’ comments regarding Tortorella.

One of the few responses to John Tortorella’s comments from an NHL player came via Twitter, from JT Brown, a black Tampa Bay Lightning forward:


It’s important to note, however, that Brown was neither on the World Cup roster for the US, nor on Tortorella’s NHL team, the Columbus Blue Jackets. And despite appearing supportive of the cause and movement on Twitter, he has not sat out an anthem himself, and stated he did not plan to do so.

It’s unlikely that this would fly in a culture that so predominantly emphasizes the team over the player.

The Culture of Conformity

Watch any interview taking before, during, or after a game with a player — or most interviews at any time. They’re boring. While there are certainly exceptions, most players will only say, as the one Reddit user in the screen capture said, “canned, predictable answers.”

Something about effort, something about chances — but probably not deep revealing, insights. You’re probably not going to get Allen Iverson complaining about “practice.”

This is the premiere star of the NHL, and probably the closest thing to a face of the league:

Far from a big personality.

Messner (1990, cited by MacDonald, 2014, p. 104) argued that “sport acts as a site where emotion is unnecessary and discouraged.” While on the ice, emotions can certainly get out of hand, and play a large part in any game, in post game interviews, they are largely devoid of them. Hockey players create an image of a stoic warrior only focused on winning, but calm and mature, willing to leave whatever rivalries on the ice.

Players who fall outside of this norm are often mocked and ridiculed. Take the example of former Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. A Russian goalie with a high-pitched voice and an accent many fans found funny, he frequently gave answers that were, to say the least, unconventional.

From comments like “Why do you have to be mad, it’s only game,” (often repeated by fans as a joke, imitating his accent) to saying that his team had a chance to win a game because he wasn’t playing, he often did not portray the seriousness and dedication that hockey players are expected to portray in interviews. Sometimes, he just comes off as different, like when he said his thoughts on the universe in the HBO 24/7 documentary on the lead up to the 2011 Winter Classic.

While it would be a stretch to suggest that his career ended solely because of his lack of conformity — he massively underperformed on a nine year, $51 million contract with the Flyers and was bought out, and his last season of play with Anaheim Ducks, in 2014/15, he had an .847 save percentage in eight games — he comes across as an outsider in those 24/7 clips. His teammates seem somewhat uncomfortable around him, and at times there seems to be an edge to their words.

Gruneau and Whitson (1993) noted the importance in hockey to “‘fit in,’ not only on the ice but off it” (p. 116) and that “the NHL has been a highly conservative subcultural world in which ‘tradition,’ [. . .] has counted for more than anything else, a world in which newcomers are likely to be greeted with suspicion and resistance unless they operate in the old ways” (p. 125-6).

Lorenz and Murray (2013) noted the negative attitude towards “behavior that falls outside of what is expected of a professional hockey player,” using the case study of Ray Emery, a black goalie for the Ottawa Senators, whose “individuality that the club management nipped in the bud” (37).

Hockey is a sport in which “some offensively minded players are accused of floating and of being more interested in personal statistics than team success” (Gruneau and Whitson, 1993, p. 120), while role-playing grinders or enforcers, who buy into the team game are often adored by fans.

Perhaps the best example of this old-school enforcement of traditional hockey values is Don Cherry, who “has constructed a persona as an outspoken supporter of ‘Canadian’ hockey values, and a critic of Europeans and anyone else he sees as undermining the Canadian way of playing the game” (Scherer and Whitson, 2009, p. 217). His “reputation in Canada as a controversial figure is eclipsed perhaps only by his popularity, making him and his HNIC intermission feature Coach’s Corner lightning rods for both outrage and adoration” (Norman, 2012, p. 316).

Sometimes he talks about class — as in classiness:

But what’s clear, is that there’s always a right way to do things as a hockey player (and human being) according to him. There’s a right way to play hockey, there’s a right way to dress. And the right way reflects a certain type of person.

We can see parallels with how Hylton and Lawrence (2015) describe whiteness as “not a simple allusion to skin colour; rather, it is a reference to a way of conducting, acting, dressing, speaking, being and living with and through a racialized body. In this way, understanding whiteness as performatively constituted points to the possibility that anybody can ‘do’, or indeed fail to ‘do’” (p. 769).

In the idea of everyone wearing suits and being what Cherry calls full of “class,” there is certainly an idea of “whiteness” portrayed. But it goes even more specific than that.

Dallaire and Denis (2000) write that “Cherry’s well-known animosity toward European hockey players is merely the flip side of his liking of big and tough English-speaking Canadian players, especially if they come from the Prairies” (p. 419). Cherry promotes this idea of not only “whiteness,” but hard-working, blue collar white English Canadian as the ideal player — for all players to emulate and assume the role.

He will frequently criticize players who celebrate too much after goals. Cherry’s rhetoric does not only show the emphasis on the conformity to workman attitude, but also how this culture in hockey “helps reaffirm historical links with war and the military” (Jackson, 2014, p. 904) with “high levels of deference to formal authority and to tradition” (Gruneau and Whitson, 1993, p. 194).

So What?

While this culture of conformity means we’re going to probably see boring quotes in post-game interviews and hockey players dress in suits before games, you’re probably wondering, why does this matter?

For one, you probably aren’t going to hear too much on social issues, at least ones that would make the player “too controversial for the administrators of their code” (Connor, 2009, p. 1374). While initiatives like the You Can Play are widely supported by players, it’s an opinion that probably does not offend or raise the eyebrows of much of the audience that the NHL targets.

However, one of the biggest concerns this culture creates is how it reinforces the power relations in place in the NHL.

Since the early days of the NHL, “managements around the league promoted the idea of the team-as-family, and they were often quick to castigate players who wanted greater control over their work conditions or salaries as selfish malcontents who put their own interests ahead of ‘the good of the game’” (Gruneau and Whitson, 1993, p. 124).

Labour relations have come a long way since the early days — NHL players are represented by a player’s union — but NHL players are still exploited.

While some at the top echelon of the NHL, and major sports leagues, are safe — Alex Ovechkin likely wouldn’t lose his job for anything he does — Connor (2009) argues “that athletes are interchangeable and lack power” (p. 1370).

And the conformity that comes into play in this situation of conformity.

Connor (2009) writes, “These values are internalized and acted upon by individuals who aspire to, and conform with, the dominant narratives of sport, such as playing while injured, giving one’s all for the team, and being honoured to represent the team/country. Thus the athlete is willing, but only in so much as we are all willing, to engage in normative behaviour, directed by and through our social position” (p. 1371).

In the NHL, players are looked down upon for taking measures in their own self-interest by management, as well as frequently media and fans.


Take the case of Jonathan Drouin, a young forward with the Tampa Bay Lightning. A 3rd overall draft pick in 2013, last season, he requested a trade reportedly “unhappy with his career trajectory in Tampa, where it has stalled on takeoff.”

Fan opinion was somewhat mixed, but many fans took it as an “attitude” problem — a position on the side with management.

drouinScreen capture of Reddit’s reaction to Drouin’s trade request.

Though fans do not have a direct impact on front office moves, it can be argued that the impact on the marketability of a player, could have impact on his future success.

Eventually, after missing nearly months with the team, Drouin rescinded his trade request and is still with the Lightning.

Though some criticize NHL players for their boring quotes, many fans still take the side of management and ownership in these disputes, and become disappointed when players refuse to conform to the needs of the team. While fans may complain about the lack of personality in players, they still often expect this culture of conformity to stay in place, fulfilling their expectations of what a hockey player is supposed to be.

With a “reserve army of athletes attempting to play at the elite level,” (Connor, 2009, p. 1369), NHL players will continue to be exploited. And with a culture of conformity that forces players to keep quiet, and — at least on the business side — is largely supported by fans, change looks unlikely.

Works Cited

Connor, J. (2009). “The athlete as widget: How exploitation explains elite sport.” Sport in Society, 12(10), 1369-1377.

Dallaire, C., & Denis, C. (2000). “If you don’t speak French, you’re out”: Don Cherry, the Alberta Francophone Games, and the discursive construction of Canada’s Francophones. The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, 25(4), 415-440.

Gruneau, R., & Whitson, D. (1993). Hockey night in Canada: Sport, identities, and cultural politics. Toronto: Garamond Press.

Hylton, K. & Lawrence, S. (2015). Reading Ronaldo: Contingent whiteness in the football media. Soccer & Society, 16(5-6), 765-782.

Jackson, S. (2014). Globalization, Corporate Nationalism and Masculinity in Canada: sport, Molson Beer Advertising and Consumer Citizenship. Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, 17(7), 901-916.

Lorenz, S. L., & Murray, R. (2013). ” Goodbye to the Gangstas”: The NBA Dress Code, Ray Emery, and the Policing of Blackness in Basketball and Hockey. Journal of Sport & Social Issues.

MacDonald, C. A. (2014). Masculinity and sport revisited: A review of literature on hegemonic masculinity and men’s ice hockey in canada. Canadian Graduate Journal of Sociology and Criminology, 3(1), 95-112.

Messner, M. (1990). Boyhood, Organized Sports, and the Construction of Masculinities. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 18(4), 416-444.

Norman, M. (2012). “Saturday Night’s Alright for Tweeting: Cultural citizenship, collective discussion, and the new media consumption/production of Hockey Day in Canada.” Sociology of Sport Journal, 29, 306-324.

Scherer, J., & Whitson, D. (2009). Public broadcasting, sport, and cultural citizenship: The future of sport on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation? International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 44, 213–229.

Photo Credits:

Shea Weber Walkway (Featured Photo) –  NHL

Tortorella – Inquistr

Drouin – Sportsnet