Friday, November 1, 2013
Chris Neil A Pariah on Twitter, Loved In The Stands
I can’t seem to understand it.
During a Senators game I’ll occasionally scroll down my Twitter feed to see what everyone is saying, maybe catch a few good one-liners from Bonk’s Mullet or the handful of other people worth following. The majority is just Sens fans reacting to whatever play just happened, like an Erik Karlsson rush or a Joe Corvo “uh oh” moment. There’s fans throwing in the towel after one goal and fans pleading for the team to trade the last player who touched the puck. You know the drill.
I get all that. I get the instant passion that causes people to write things that could get them thrown in a jail cell if said on the streets. People have always said this stuff, except for most of a century they’ve been screamed inside a living room in front of a TV or next to a Victrola radio cabinet where only the neighbours could hear you lose your marbles over an offside call.
But one thing I’ve never understood about Sens fans on Twitter, that certain young demographic that’s completely dependent on social media for self-expression, is their almost total committed haranguing of and dislike for Chris Neil.
It doesn’t make any sense to me, but admittedly a lot of things don’t, like Dexter or Robin Thicke.
It would make sense to dislike a player that doesn’t play to the best of his abilities, that doesn’t play with passion and doesn’t stand up for his teammates. It would make sense to rip into a guy who’s not effective on the ice no matter how hard he tries.
In the case of Chris Neil, none of these attributes apply. Not even close.
I don’t feel I need to go into what Chris Neil brings to the table, because anyone who has watched hockey for more than a few years will understand that, but here it is anyways. He’s a role player, and a very unique one, because he’s one of the few guys playing that has almost 100 career goals, can fight a heavyweight like Milan Lucic, plays meaningful minutes and is an acknowledged leader for his team. These kinds of players are highly coveted by general managers and coaches for a reason.
What I don’t understand is how Twitter fans don’t feel there’s a need for this type of player on their favourite team. Part of it, I feel, is that Neil is part of the “old guard”, players who have been around so long that they’ve been picked apart by fans for years. Familiarity breeds contempt. Chris Phillips gets slung by a lot of these same arrows. But it could also very easily be a case of “don’t know what you got until it’s gone”.
Whenever Neil takes a penalty, and it’s often, fans lose their minds, as if it was some outrageous act of laziness and stupidity. A player like Chris Neil, with the role he plays, is going to take lots of penalties. That’s just the way it is. Penalties are a part of the process of playing the game the right way. You have to cheat and play as close to the edge of what’s acceptable to win hockey games unless you’re extremely skilled like Pavel Datsyuk or Sidney Crosby. The problem is, those players are harder to find than Florida Panthers fans. They exist, but you gotta be lucky to stumble onto one.
Coaches play these kinds of role players because they go out and hit guys like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and try to wear them down over the course of 60 minutes. Or they match up with their counterparts and it becomes a war of third and fourth lines, made up of checkers and pests. These battles can be just as important, especially in tight games. Facewashing, hacks and whacks are all part of the recipe.
It works, otherwise these players wouldn’t have jobs in the league. Teams win with a combination of all different kinds of skills, partly by necessity, partly by design. It’s not the argument from me that should win you over, it’s the fact that MacLean and every other coach in the league plays these guys, sometimes for significant minutes in the case of Neil. It’s self-evident. I’m merely pointing to the rosters and ice-time and saying “Look for yourself”. What more do you need?
For the most part, Neil’s penalties are from playing on the edge of acceptable levels of aggressiveness. Sometimes Neil gets caught, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he gets over emotional, but that’s also a strength of his in certain situations. He’s brought an entire rink and his own bench to their feet with a massive hit or a fight at the right time. It doesn’t always work, of course. People love to snarkily point out that a fight or a hit didn’t do a thing for the team’s momentum, but the fact that it works SOME of the time is the reason it keeps happening, and the reason a guy like Neil is so valued by the organization in Ottawa. The old saying of “it takes a lot of different ingredients to bake a cake” is relevant here. You win by having all the elements, not just one. You need skill, you need goaltending, you need defense and you need toughness. To embrace one side of the team over the other doesn’t even seem rational if you want your team to succeed in today’s NHL.
Chris Neil brings a vital element to the Senators, even if his importance is not on the level of Spezza or Karlsson. The fact that he’s loved in the community and loves playing for this team is just a bonus. There’s plenty of tough players out there who work as mercenaries, going from team to team and not making much of a difference along the way. Neil has roots in this city now and plays his heart out every night, even if that emotion gets him into trouble on occasion.
You may not like “tough hockey”, and you wouldn’t be alone in that sentiment, especially nowadays with the puritan trend in full swing with the media, but you can’t argue that it’s not part of today’s NHL game, because it so clearly is. And not many play that type of game better than Chris Neil.
The divide between fans in the rink, who cheer Neil after every hit, and the whining about him on Twitter is something I’ll never understand. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.