A Narrative Revisited: Hemsky 83

Author's Note: As the Hemsky firestorm looks to careen off the rails in the next two weeks, I take a look back on the construction of a media narrative.

Photo by Peter Ellis at en.wikipedia

You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks

Ballad of a Thin Man

"At this moment [Feb. 4th], Ales Hemsky's situation is the most important decision for the Oilers," writes Jason Gregor. It's hard to think of a more pressing situation. Indeed, the Edmonton media has been rife with Hemsky speculation since at least mid-December. This speculation, however, has not been limited to the dry endnotes of contract terms and trade rumors. Rather, the Hemsky talk of the last several weeks has traded on the currency of insinuation and taken on the shape of a clumsy, hectoring hive-media.

I first really took notice of this after listening to Jason Gregor's interview with Mark Spector, the so called Spec Report, on Dec. 9th. I posted in reaction to this segment on Dec. 12th over at Oilersnation (comment #123). In brief, I took issue with a couple of Spector's arguments and the sentiments underlying them. Here's some excerpts from the transcript and my comments:

Gregor and Spector talking about Ales being first off the ice after practice:

Gregor: No one debates Hemsky is not one of the most skilled guys we've seen in Edmonton... but do you ever remember him working on his game late in practice ever?

Spec: He's the first guy off the ice every single day. Right? There's no question about it. And not only that. He does not hang around the dressing room. I mean, I can count the number of interviews I've had with Ales Hemsky... whoo boy... since that 2006 cup run... I can count those interviews on... certainly on two hands if not one... how about you, when's the last time you had a good long chat with him?

Gregor: Oh, I've had good long chats with him...

Spec: Haha... when was that?!

My take away from this is that Spector has conflated his own lack of media access to Hemsky with Hemsky's apparently poor work ethic. Otherwise, why would his concern for Hemsky leaving practice on time (is this really an issue? if so why?) bleed into his concern that Hemsky doesn't "hang around the dressing room." And Spector makes it clear that the basis of that critique is not that Hemksy is missing out on palling around with his teammates, but that Hemsky is avoiding the media. This becomes even more clear later in the interview when Spector claims:

But, Ales has always been... you know Hockey has always... and the whole process has always been laborious for Ales, you know he doesn't really like doing interviews at all and he doesn't really stay out in practice very long and you know he's... he... gosh the minute the whistle blows and he goes back from wherever he is on the ice to the bench, the body language is always like 'oh, this is so hard' and.. you know he's a different cat.

Note that in Spector's list of grievances with Hemsky, #1 is that he doesn't like to do interviews. This we can all agree is the case for Hemsky. Although, I suspect we would come to very different interpretations regarding the importance of that fact. Regardless, the rest of the grievances seem to either emanate from this fact or rely on the weakest possible data. I don't see how Hemsky's on ice play can be seriously questioned on the basis of his

  1. media relation skills
  2. interest in staying AFTER practice
  3. body language

None of these are satisfactory arguments to make the case that Hemsky has a poor work ethic, lacks determination, or ought to be under-estimated as to his impact on the team.

A couple of weeks later Hemsky lost his poise talking to Jim Matheson at Leduc. This led to a series of interesting articles that pushed back against the growing media narrative surrounding Hemsky. I want to follow up that conversation by making a few points.

1) Regarding Hemsky's treatment by the media: Derek Zona has said it much better, although much more stridently than I would. So for the most part I will defer to him on this question.

But I will say this: In any particular instance I don't think Hemsky has been poorly treated by any member of the media. Fair questions are there to be asked surrounding his performance, health and future with the team. And, I don't think there is a concerted or conscious effort to drum Hemsky out of town (this is where I part with Derek).

What I do think, however, is that the media in general and in the aggregate have accepted a narrative that is pretty thin, relies on the interpretation of notoriously useless data like "body language" and has led to the collective hectoring of a player.

This narrative comes through most in Matheson's posts about Hemsky. He has questioned everything about Hemsky's game, character and leadership in recent weeks. He has called him "petulant" "wishy-washy" "too comfortable" a "follower" and said his "body language is off."

Here's an interesting point to mull over:

Matheson is convinced that if Hemsky says his shoulders are fine, then if he is not producing it must be because he lacks determination and conviction for the game. On Dec. 28th Matheson wrote:

Again, he said his shoulders were fine now. But, if they are, where are the points?

He followed up this line of thought on Dec. 29th, writing:

Oilers head coach Tom Renney has said that Hemsky has been taking treatment after leaving practices, but Hemsky said the treatment wasn't for his shoulder. They're fine.

However, this is not actually the whole context of what Renney said. Matheson is alluding an exchange between Jason Gregor and Renney on Dec. 19th (follow the link to oilers video website. Go to Dec. 19th and find the video labelled "Renney vs Detroit Pre" the exchange is about a minute in). Here's a partial transcript of Renney's remarks:

Well [Hemsky's] also got a body that suggests... you know... he needs help... I'm not going to sit here and tell you what he goes in and treats but he gets off the ice so he can be prepared tonight... he goes right straight to the medical room and I think you all know why... I mean at the end of the day he's all in that's the main thing.

"and I think you all know why"

How does Matheson interpret that statement? Is he aware that NHL teams routinely say things like "upper body injury" to evade directly stating the problem? What could Renney mean here if not Hemsky's shoulders? If the concerned Edmonton media "knew" something about Hemsky's treatment needs other than his shoulders it surely would have been reported. It is clear that Renney is suggesting Hemsky is having work done on his shoulders after practice/before games.

If that is the case, why would Hemsky say his shoulders are "fine"?

I don't think it takes a huge stretch of the imagination to figure this out. Isn't it possible that one can say after major shoulder surgery that one's shoulders are "fine," i.e., repaired in the medical sense but not necessarily strong enough to perform at 100%?

Moreover, even if Hemsky's shoulder was 100% why should we not countenance other factors sinking his performance. What about the psychological factor of confidence? Or, other physcial factors like missing most of two years of playing, missing training camp, missing most of the exhibition games (i.e., missing a lot of the prep time other players have before the season starts)?

It strikes me that it can both be true that one's shoulders are "fine" and that they need work/are not 100%. For example, Whitney's ankles were repaired and are fine in one sense or another, but he continues to struggle with them because they lack strength and give him great pain, which is, I think, to be expected after a major surgery.

It seems pretty clear to me that Matheson is calling Hemsky to the carpet and binding him to an odd either/or: either you are injured and shouldn't play or you are healthy and should be back to your prior form. I don't see why Matheson needs to hold Hemsky to this standard.

It's also very possible Hemsky was just blowing Matheson off. My shoulders are "fine" - leave me alone.

But is Hemsky's performance really down? Is it really in the Scott Gomez basement such that it deserves this kind of hectoring?

It is worth noticing that while Hemsky's struggles have been greatly publicized and criticized, no one - least of all Matheson - has bothered to mention that he has 11 points in his last 14 games (.785 PPG) and that if he can keep this pace up he will finish the season with 45.5 points in 69 games for .659 PPG. That's not great by Hemsky's career and post-lockout standards but it is a marked improvement and is, I think, a great story, one of recovery, conviction, determination, etc. It would be a shame if the media bought into the persistent Hemsky narrative and didn't tell that story. In fact, it's a shame this trend went unnoticed as recently as today. [Edit: I bungled the math because, you know, I'm an idiot. Sorry. I've updated the post to reflect the proper PPG%. Thanks to Bruce McCurdy and Ryan Batty for keeping me honest. Again, I apologize and take responsibility for the error.]

How do you write a story about Hemksy's production and not mention that he's on the right trajectory? That his numbers are improving? That this is common for players coming off injury, i.e., players struggle to regain form and familiarity for a period before they eventually regain their stride.

Given that this article today is about how many players don't ever return to form, isn't the fact that Hemsky's numbers are trending in the right direction a pertinent piece of information for that discussion?

And, while it's nice to see Hemsky get some attention after shaking off that Kronwall hit, especially, after being called out for a lack of determination and conviction... it is interesting that Hemsky's heart, courage and level of competition is relegated to a "p.s" in this article. You'd think that might be a bigger story given the amount of ink spilled to claim Hemsky has a lack of conviction.

2) Regarding Hemsky's Leadership, or Lack-There-Of

In this article from Dec. 28th Matheson questions Hemsky's leadership skills. The basis of Matheson's complaint stems from the Leduc situation mentioned earlier. What Matheson accomplishes, however, is a nifty two-step to equate a serial lack of poise, affability, engagement, forthrightness and cheerfulness on the part of Hemsky's media relations with Hemsky not being a leader.

The transition in that article from a complaint (that is pretty curt and personal) that Hemsky is "petulant" for not being as forthright with the media as Ryan Whitney, to Hemsky being a "follower" on the team is so awkward Woody Allen's oeuvre could fit in there and still leave room for Wanye to swoon, have an attack of the vapors and collapse awkwardly in the corner if he ever got to share a Lady and the Tramp bowl of spaghetti with Eberle.

To say that Hemsky lacks poise and even maturity in his media relations is fair and I think you'd be hard pressed to find detractors.

Although I do think he gets pressed on this too much. All the things Matheson wants to hear from Hemsky - that he takes responsibility for his poor play, that he wants to perform better, that he will give his best no matter where the coach plays him, etc - he has said in front of cameras.

I'll use Matheson's OWN reporting to show the odd standards Hemsky is held too and the way the narrative trumps facts. On Dec. 28th discussing the Leduc situation Matheson writes:

[Whitney] said it was killing him that he can’t do what he’s paid to do because his right ankle isn’t strong enough. Whitney feels he’s letting a lot of people down: fans, his teammates, the people signing his cheques twice a month. Absolute right thing to say.

Hemsky should be saying the same sort of thing. It would have been smarter from him to say "you know, I’m not playing well guys. No excuses. My shoulders are perfectly fine now. I’ve got to start carrying the ball here and taking some pressure off the kids."

The following day, still discussing the Leduc situation, Matheson quotes Hemsky from the day before

"Three goals isn’t enough, but nobody said it was going to be easy (coming back from major repair work). I’m not hiding behind anything," Hemsky said.

So one day Matheson's complaining that Hemsky didn't say something (and apparently tying this non-said thing to a lack of leadership) and the next day he quotes Hemsky from the previous day having said the very thing on the very day he complained he didn't say it. hmmm.

Moving on, I simply don't get how the legit gripe that Hemsky is bad at media relations (although I think due to the nature of their jobs the media stress this issue well beyond its import) massages its way into a criticism of Hemsky's leadership.

It is fair to say, one leads by example (on and off the ice) and that by showing a lack of poise off the ice in relations with the media Hemsky is a poor example for the team.

But, I suspect that is not the aspect of leadership the team, the coaches or management care about. I doubt anyone on the team watched or heard about that incident and gave it much thought. And there is no way they gave it as much import as Matheson did. I can't imagine Eberle saying "Well Hemsky you blew Matheson off in a press gaggle, so your advice on seaming a pass through the slot is useless, I question your character, heart, determination and commitment and can no longer follow you." Does that seem like a reasonable pro athlete response?

Here's an example to think about:

John Tortorella routinely blows up at the press in ways that display almost a perpetual lack of composure (well beyond anything Hemsky has ever displayed). Do you think his players and his manager question his leadership of the team for his poor media relations?

I would suggest that the media have suffered from a herd-like quality in the case of Hemsky. They have allowed their pride in their profession and access to the Oilers to get the better of their judgment and they have bought into or helped to construct a narrative about Hemsky. In short, they have treated Hemsky like a leper and a crook. He deserves better.

NB: I wrote this in response to a commenter at (see #76). It has been repurposed to post here per the suggestion of Doogie2K. Thanks to CoppernBlue for letting me publish this here and for helping to clean up my post! Sorry for the length. Thanks for reading!

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