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What’s In a Word

Why Zack Kassian Needs to Learn A New Vocabulary

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Kassian has been a topic of conversation in my home for the last couple days. This is, in itself, unusual because no one in my house really likes Zack Kassian, or his style of play. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl receive a lot of conversational air time, but outside of a the occasional query around what some think Kassian’s next contract should look like, he doesn’t get mentioned. He’s a non-entity.

Honestly, we ponder our condo corporation’s snow removal services with more intensity. It does have more direct relevance, so forgive me.

And so for Kassian to be a topic of conversation is both strange and generally means that someone has put their foot right in it. In this case, Zack managed that in his post-game comments. Let’s be clear, my criticisms in no way distract from the fact that I think Matthew Tkachuk is a weaselly little asshole who’s actions in Saturday night’s game were not in the best interests of player safety or the creation of an on-ice product with sustainable marketability. I definitely think both of those things.

But it should also be noted that I managed to express myself above without resorting to a misogynist descriptor of Tkachuk. As always occurs when I step on my soap box, which as a woman in environment predominately populated by men, I full expect to be told that Kassian’s comments are not in fact misogynist. Such commentary is, quite frankly, incorrect and problematic, but expected.

First, let me explain, bluntly, why Kassian’s commentary was misogynist and offensive. (It is my hope this will forestall the majority of respondents which wish to point out he didn’t mean it that way.) Kassian’s intent has no impact on whether or not his comments are misogynistic. It remains that Kassian likened an individual who he found reprehensible to a part of the human anatomy which is associated with women. And only women. He did not liken Tkachuk to masculine genitalia. There is a reason for that. Whether, it is something which is accepted by everyone doesn’t make it less true.

In doing so, he made being a woman a pejorative. He used a social understanding which labels women as lesser, conniving, deceitful, underhanded, and untrustworthy. Whether or not one believes this to be true does not change the social understanding. Women are lesser, associated with bad things, and one does not wish to be one. Kassian wasn’t using his selected word because he felt it was a good thing.

So, intentions aside, Kassian was misogynistic. I might be able to let this go if he even seemed to realize that he was or there was some sort of apology directly relating to his word choice. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been.

Actions like this are a problem for hockey, especially NHL hockey, for a couple of reasons. One I wrote about a while ago. As far as I can tell, there has been no meaningful change. That particular trip to stand on the soap box was related to Slava Voynov’s suspension and the pattern of violence (especially sexualized violence against women) which has been noted in the NHL over the last number of years. I received ample feedback about how there was no problem and I was just trying to smear the multi-millionaires. If anyone needs to revisit my points or the commentary, it can be found here.

Second, Kassian’s comments – and the lack of public censure on the misogyny they contain – normalize many of the concepts which are used to explain (in some cases justify) violence against women. In doing this, it becomes easier to normalize more extreme actions because much of how we understand the world is build through the language we use. It is, after all, small steps which make larger ones more palatable.

Dr. Kristopher Wells pointed out that Kassian’s language isn’t fitting of a role model or a workplace. He is correct in both of those points.

My argument is more targeted. The hockey world, and the NHL, are developing a wider fan base. There has been an increased global reach for NHL games with various games being played across the world to create more interest and profitability. The NHL has always, in the last several years, marketed events specifically to growing the number of women invested in the league. Think of events like high heels and hockey. As such, it is time for the NHL to be more aware of the image created by its players (who represent it in the media) and work to align that image more closely with where societal norms currently are located. Which Kassian’s comments do not reflect.

Kassian is marketable to a select group of fans – who exalt the idea of a throwback to what was before – but the NHL needs to look at something beyond those fans if it wants to continue to grow. One way which this can be accomplished is to take seriously concerns which are being voiced around language and environment. If hockey is to be for everyone (as the NHL spends a month halfheartedly trying to convince me) then it needs to be so at all 82 games and at all the times in between.

So, in short, yes language does matter. It matters even more when trying to change a subculture which has a venerated position in society. So, in short, Zack Kassian needs to call Tkackuk an asshole or a weasel or something similar. But he can’t use the word he chose. Because when he uses words like that he sends a message which makes hockey a place which is not safe for women or LBGT individuals or people of colour.

And that has to stop.