There is nothing quite like vengeance in sports.
It can be incredibly effective; it can be incredibly silly.
Silly was on display Thursday afternoon at Ufa Arena. The scene was, well, preposterous. Nail Yakupov, captain of the Russian team in the world junior hockey championship, was on the ice, but sitting as comfortably in a chair as if he were watching Russian-language reruns of The Office. He had no intention of coming off.
At the edge of the “mixed zone” where journalists wait to talk to the players as they pass by, there was an anxious contingent, only none of them was Russian. They were, to a man and a woman, all Canadians, and all chasing the same story that was refusing to take flight.
Somewhere in the mists of time, young Yakupov – who played his junior hockey for the Sarnia Sting and is a draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers – had been quoted as saying the following hideous, unspeakable lie about Canadian hockey players.
They are dirty.
For days the Canadian media had been chasing the 19-year-old future superstar to explain himself. He could do it in Russian or English, which he speaks adequately, it didn’t matter. What did matter was that he either confess to this stunning slander or recant.
Either that or some good Canadian hockey player would have to drive him through the boards when the two teams play on New Year’s Eve.
He would not come out on Tuesday, or Wednesday, or now Thursday. He was refusing to discuss the matter.
Besides, two Russian media handlers in a row told the Canadian media, if he had said so, it was all a misunderstanding. He had been talking generally about all hockey players, they said, and just happened to say that the Canadians could play any game required to win, dirty included.
Ha! declared the diligent media. Let him say so himself, then. It would be a chance to explain the misinterpretation. Sorry, said first one Russian media handler and then another, but he will not be available.
Nail Yakupov is no fool. He knows there is no victory possible in such a case. Say it again and you’re going to pay. Claim you didn’t say it and you’ll still pay, you gutless wonder.
Sports is often called the sandbox of journalism, but it is far more the schoolyard, where chants of “Your mother wears army boots!” can still lead to a fight among grown people who should know better.
And Canadians, it seems – despite Sprague Cleghorn, despite the Richard Riots, despite Bobby Clarke in the ’72 Summit Series, despite Gordie Howe’s elbows, despite the pregame bench-clearing brawl of the Flyers and Canadiens, despite the headhunting, despite even the two majors and two match penalties assigned Canada in Friday’s 6-3 win over Slovakia – CANNOT BEAR BEING CALLED DIRTY!
Just listen, if you will, to Don Cherry’s Twitter rants on Boxing Day alone: “I see where Nail Yakupov said Canadian hockey players are dirty. Let me see … We let him take a Canadian kids spot in the Canadian Hockey League, let him learn his hockey in our program, treat him royally, give him great coaching so he can go number one overall and he calls us Dirty. Canadian people are not naïve, no let me change that word to dumb. We love everybody and everybody hates us. Like I said, when you hear Russians cheering for Germans you have to wonder…”
Enough of that. We all get the point.
The media know a good story when one slips out of a player’s mouth. If he’s put his foot there, it will have legs.
Three world championships ago in Saskatoon, all attention was on Swedish forward Magnus Svensson Paajarvi, who happened to say early on that if the Swedes got up a couple of goals on Canada, the Canadians would soil their pants.
Or so it was reported in family papers, anyway. He may or may not have said “soil.” Paajarvi made the mistake of meeting time and time again with the media, who kept pressing him for more. He never delivered but hardly had to. He didn’t deny saying it. The stage was set.
Only it never happened. The two teams never met in the tournament, the highly touted Swedes losing to the Americans in the semi-finals and the Americans surprising Canada 6-5 in the final to take the gold medal.
Paajarvi and Yakupov are now both Oilers, so perhaps the Swede had a few words of advice for the Russian. Whatever, Yakupov was not about to set up the coming New Year’s Eve game – “dirty” Canadians against “mouthy” Russians – for the poor media.
The setups rarely work anyway. Most hockey people remember that March meeting a couple of seasons back when the Pittsburgh Penguins came to Boston to meet the Bruins for the first time since headhunter Matt Cooke, Canadian, had cold-cocked Marc Savard, Canadian, effectively helping Savard on to early retirement from the game. The Boston Herald even ran a “Wanted” poster of Cooke on the front page.
The Penguins left with a 3-0 victory following a night of non-events.
Some inspiration. Some vengeance.
“We’re just going to play our game and not worry about anything else,” Mark Scheifele, Canada’s top player in Friday’s 6-3 win over Slovakia, said when asked about the alleged Yakupov slur on Canadian hockey dignity.
“It’s not something we can control.”