Rivalries, like pricey beers and jubilant doofushood, define sports. Nowhere are these parallel antagonisms more juicy–or more obscure–than in the NHL. With the bottomless pockets of Crooked Scoreboard at my disposal, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the lesser-known rivalries in hockey.
Ilya Kovalchuk vs. Alexander Semin
This is a battle of enigmas. Ilya Kovalchuk signed a 15-year, $100 million contract with the New Jersey Devils, then absconded back to mother Russia after just three years. Semin, on the other hand, has been dogged his whole career by accusations that his puddle-deep work ethic betrays his Marianas Trench-like talent. Also, he nearly had to abandon the NHL to fulfill his abdicated Russian military duty.
This one got ugly quickly, as the two Russians fought for the twin titles of “Most Enigmatic Russian” and “Name Most Frequently Used In Front Of ‘Enigmatic Russian’ By Bad Writers.” Both players demonstrated major-league levels of opacity in their race to the cryptic top. Kovalchuk raised the bar when he legally changed his name to “Skater X” and refused to comment on Speed Racer’s mysterious past. Semin, not to be outdone, took up smoking cigarettes and wistfully looking out rain-streaked cafe windows.
In response, Kovalchuk famously began refusing to address reporters in anything other than Esperanto. When he learned of this, Semin began requiring all questions to be submitted in Braille, a language he himself could not read. This was the genesis of Semin’s famous quote about Wayne Gretzky, a player he infamously referred to as “Bump Bump Dot.”
This rivalry goes to Alexander Semin, though, for living in anglophone North America for twelve years, with that last name, and never once cracking a smile or beating up a wiseass middle schooler.
Roberto Luongo vs. Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Jonathan Quick
Goalies are weird. They just are, and everyone knows it. As Hemingway immortally said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” Well, goalies stare down hundred-mile-per-hour vulcanized rubber buckshot thirty times a game, so it stands to reason that they’ve got some broken places (hint: delicate groins). One of the more famous–and unusual–rivalries in recent memory is that between goaltenders Roberto Luongo, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Jonathan Quick. The three men are competing for the title of weirdest pre-game ritual.
Luongo, who recently moved from the Vancouver Canucks to the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers, spends every day out on a chartered deep-sea fishing vessel, wrestling with mackerel and his demons. He applies only SPF 30, directly to his corneas, so his eyesight is crystal clear for the game.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Stanley Cup-winning goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins, has the equipment trainer bring him several volumes of Shakespeare so he can rip out and eat every mention of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He then holds a Roman Catholic Mass for his facial hair (“to save his soul patch,” he says), laces up his pads, and spends five minutes in the mirror repeating the affirmation, “Play time’s over, Marc-Andy. It’s Marc-Andre time.”
Meanwhile, Quick, himself a Stanley Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings, likes to ride around East LA in a low-rider, bumping “The Chronic” and misunderstanding the general cultural address of hockey. Before heading to the Staples Center, he stops by the learning center and drops out of his GED class so that he, in his own words, “won’t have any goals tonight.”
Joe Thornton vs. Erik Karlsson vs. Nicklas Backstrom
There are lots of fun hockey nicknames for nice passes: sauce, apples, beauties, and so forth. Passing is not just a means to an end in hockey; it’s an art in itself, and the NHL has quite a few artists. But just as artists can transcend the tiresome roach-like exoskeleton of reality with their beauty, so too can they and do they love a good poo-slinging, debasing rivalry.
Indeed, things got out of hand when Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks, Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, and Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals decided to take the art of passing all the way to its logical asymptote. It began when Joe Thornton flicked a backhand to his teammate that landed on the player’s tape and clung to it like grim death, for Thornton had dipped it in the automotive adhesive JB Weld. Karlsson, upon seeing this on Sportscenter, dazzled crowds the next night in Ottawa when he pantomimed a cross-ice pass to a teammate before skating over and pulling the puck from the player’s ear, along with a velveteen white rabbit.
Backstrom surely closed the book on the subject, though, when he began shooting every puck that came to him–effectively “passing” on the very act of passing, itself.
Salieri made Mozart better, Armageddon needed Deep Impact, and hockey loves rivalries. Ashes to ashes, puck to puck.
Jason Rogers is Crooked Scoreboard’s hockey editor. You should follow him on Twitter.