In leaving Canucks for Russia, Tryamkin deserves the benefit of the doubt

Apr 21 2017, 5:43 pm

If Tryamkin was just a buddy of yours who moved west to try his hand at working for a construction company in Vancouver before deciding it wasn’t for him, this situation would be rather bland. It would be a story of someone trying out a job in a new country, deciding he didn’t quite understand what the hell the foreman with the twitching moustache was always talking about, and heading back home to a more comfortable, happier situation.

You’d give him a bro hug, give him a bro handshake, and tell him “You do you bro, text me when you have your Xbox set up and we’ll play some FIFA.” And then you’d take a selfie together to commemorate the moment. That would be the end of it.

Except this story took place in the world of pro sports, where nothing is as simple as that. Instead we have two camps starting to form. Camp Happy and Camp Man-up.

Camp Happy

Camp Happy wants Tryamkin to just live life, and enjoy it, you know? Whatever makes him happy.

In his interview given after he decided to sign back in Russia, Google Translate painted a picture of a man who had a hard time understanding why hockey decisions were made. He didn’t know why his ice time fluctuated the way it did. He didn’t know why he didn’t start the season with the Canucks. Hell, he almost went home to the KHL in November, after the Canucks tried to convince him to go to the AHL, despite having a clause in his contract that prevented such a thing.

Going back to the KHL makes life much easier for Tryamkin, who also suggested, via our favourite translator Google, that ice time wouldn’t be an issue back home.

And it’s also probably safe to say culture shock played a part in the decision.

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Vancouver has had an interesting history with Russian players (Bure, we’re talking about Bure, you all knew that), and not very many Russians have played on the team as of late (shout out to Sergei Shirokov).

It’s easy to wonder how prepared the Canucks were to help acclimate Tryamkin to North America. Do you bring Andrey Pedan up even to be a healthy scratch just so there is someone who can speak Russian with Tryamkin? Maybe Pedan can help talk Tryamkin through the transition into North American life. Of course, we don’t know what the Canucks did behind closed curtains, but the speculation will be there that “more could have been done” to help ease Tryamkin into Vancouver.

Then there is the hockey itself. Nikita found himself in the NHL, where “HACK THE BONE!!!” is more likely to be screamed then “nice job on that poke check”. This was put clearly on display when he was surprised as to why Jamie Benn would want to fight him after a clean hit.

Assistant coach Doug Lidster talked about how Tryamkin would apologize after taking a penalty, and you could see it on his face any time he was in the penalty box. Nobody looked more ashamed of himself than Tryamkin when he put his team down a man.

While we pretend to celebrate that mindset with the Lady Byng trophy (“I’ll take what trophy does Alex Mogilny hate the most for $500, please”), if you’re a big defenceman, the NHL wants you to play mean. We’ve seen it with Marek Malik in Vancouver. When you’re a tall dude, people get confused why you aren’t crushing skulls out on the ice. “But dude, you’re tall. You were lucky enough to be tall. Use that size to your advantage, damn it!”

Even worse, Nikita was SO good at it when he did get physical. He was smart about when he laid out his hits, he wouldn’t often put his team in a bad position chasing a hit (hey Gudbranson). His super human strength rag-dolled people left and right without him even trying. It was like watching Andre the Giant on ice, you just want to see him body slam people.

Except Nikita probably just wanted to know if anybody wanted a peanut, instead. It was hard not to get caught up in the thought process of “But what if Nikita was mean every game?” It was easy to daydream of having an angry giant on your team.

Yes, the team sat Tryamkin down and tried to make him emulate Chris Pronger. It was done I am sure with good intentions, but you know when the video showed Pronger stomping on Kesler’s leg or ending Dean McAmmond’s career, he was probably weeping asking “Why would you wish that on anyone?” That’s also ignoring the absurdity of showing someone a unique generational talent on defence and telling them “be more like that”. It would be like showing a local indie wrestler a picture of Brock Lesnar and telling them “be more like that.”

Especially when juxtaposed to the helpful caring Tryamkin we saw most of the season. He was the first to lend a helping hand to a fallen teammate. This is a guy who hit Bo Horvat with a shot and was the first on the scene to apologize. Or was on the bench patting Alex Edler’s knee after Alex was bent over in pain. Or was helping slide an injured Brandon Sutter to the bench. It truly felt like “being mean” wasn’t really a huge part of Nikita’s makeup.

Then there is the infamous “step up” quote Coach Willie dropped on Nikita.

I know in media we can overreact to things, but that does seem particularly over the top from the coach to lay a loss at the feet of Tryamkin. Needless to say, you can envision a season of a team hammering away at him to play a style he just wasn’t comfortable with wearing down on Tryamkin.

Then you add in family concerns (his wife is from Russia), and you can easily see how Nikita found the KHL a more appetizing place to ply his trade.

Camp Man-up

On the other side, you have Team Man-up (Sutter is a full-time member I’m pretty sure, Nikolay Goldobin’s membership is pending).

This is the side that will put the onus on Nikita to gut it out. To get over the hardships of adjusting to life in the NHL. To put the team first and do what they ask of him. To make it his life goal to be the best teammate he can be, and that includes doing whatever they ask of him.

“Team first!” is a big issue people have with the Tryamkin situation because hockey is a team sport, and again, hockey has historically been very very very punishing to people who stand out and do things that are seen as “bigger than the team”. It’s a culture that shut down PK Subban for doing triple handshakes with Carey Price. Hockey can be weird sometimes.

Then there is the Cup. The Stanley Cup is the best trophy in sports, don’t @ me.

Winning that Cup and getting to hoist it over your head is the ultimate dream for many a hockey fan. It’s ingrained in our North American hockey culture that you do everything in your god damn power to achieve that goal. You’ll play on crutches, you’ll play on broken legs, you’ll play with a missing face, you’ll do whatever it takes to win that Cup. There is nothing quite as fun as getting swept up in the wartime metaphors used to describe a team willing themselves to a Cup win.

It’s the most romantic aspect of hockey and one I admittedly quite enjoy.

There is a reason one of the most famous pictures in Canucks history is a beaten down Trevor Linden and Kirk McLean.

You get a hockey boner just looking at that.

So when a player isn’t actively doing everything in his power to win the Cup, it can be hard to take. “But I don’t understand, why wouldn’t you want to win the Cup. Because it’s the Cup. That’s the god damn slogan man.”

“Why’d you murder that dude? Because it’s the Cup,” is probably a viable legal defence in Canada. Many people would give their left nut (or half their….labia?) to play for the Stanley Cup, so when you perceive someone not going all in for that dream it’s almost an affront to you as a person.

There is also the Russian factor. Again, we are diving deep into “hockey culture”, and I am not trying to bag on it too hard, because I grew up in it and participated in a lot of it so I understand it, but there is some shortsightedness to it. I mean, Don Cherry as a kid? That guy was the best. Rock Em Sock Em videos? Amazing. Those videos were YouTube before there was YouTube for hockey fans. When you got older though, you began to realize he had a very xenophobic approach to things, and you can see a lot of that in hockey culture in regards to Russian players.

From not bothering to learn how to pronounce European names (and to be fair, Bieska), to disliking “Euros” for not playing physical (it took the most illegal elbow of all time from Pavel Bure before Don Cherry gave him the time of day), it all resulted in talk of Russian’s being these mysterious enigmas. “They dance in the shadows, they eat babies at night, they cover themselves in blood, what else do these enigmatic Russians do???” Anytime Crosby has a scoring slump he’s “gripping the stick too hard”, anytime Ovechkin struggles, “he’s an enigmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” sort of deal.

An easy example of this bias is Shane Doan. Doan plays in the NHL’s version of the KHL. It’s a different lifestyle in Arizona. You go to the rink in shorts year round. Nobody really cares about your career when you’re over there. And you’re never going to win a Cup there. Yet year after year, Doan refuses to leave there, because he’s… happy there. You’ll see a bit of pushback from some fans questioning his desire to win, but for the most part Doan is seen as this noble creature, a guy who puts family life before hockey, and god damn, what a hero for sticking it out in the desert even if we witness his soul actually collapsing in on itself when Martin Hanzal gets traded.

But because there is the slightest (tiniest) chance he can win the Cup, and probably because he’s Canadian and thus not legally allowed to be labelled an enigma, nobody really questions his choices on choosing life happiness over career aspirations. There is also the romanticism of playing for one team his entire career to drizzle over top of it as well, and he’s the Captain, so “team first!” is easy to apply to him. Yet realistically, both Doan and Tryamkin chose situations they were most comfortable in, with family being a driving force, both of which significantly reduced their chances of winning a Cup.

What’s the end point, you ask? There is no real person or thing to blame in the Tryamkin situation. There is truth to be had from both camps. Honestly, Tryamkin has leverage a lot of players don’t have; an alternative to the NHL that they are happy with accepting. It would be foolhardy to think more players wouldn’t choose an option over the NHL if they felt it was on par or better than what they currently get. One only has to look back at the WHA entering the hockey world to see that players are, at the end of the day, independent contractors who will chase down the best path for them (Frankie Corrado would kill for a WHA league).

The NHL has a history of being the big dog in the yard (“This is my yard now” exclaimed Gary Roman Reigns Bettman amidst a shower of boos), and will do anything they can to flex their muscle. Look at the lockouts, look at the NHL emails that get released during court cases, or simply look at that absurd “reserve clause” which basically stated “screw you for trying to have options”. I mean, think about that clause. It’s insane to think that existed. “When your contract runs out, it doesn’t really run out? Like, when the contract dies it kind turns into a ghost, and that ghost keeps you for a year, then the next year, that ghost has a ghost, and it keeps you for a year, and it keeps doing this until you die. UNTIL YOU DIE.”

The NHL has done a very good job of not only indoctrinating the idea of “Cup or nothing” but also “NHL or nothing”.

So yes, at the end of the day, Russian players will always be risky acquisitions. They have the KHL option that many other players don’t have. There is a legitimate concern over investing time and money in them. But it’s not because they’re enigmas, it’s because they have options.

Tryamkin simply chose to exercise that option.

So I say to Tryamkin, “You do you bro, text me when you have your Xbox set up and we’ll play some FIFA.”