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Guest Post – Callum McCarthy’s Piece “NHL’s Cold War on Character”

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This piece is absolutely tremendous.  Enjoy.

*****

NHL’s Cold War on Character

-by Callum McCarthy

 

Hockey has always been a sport filled with consummate professionals — real men with stiff upper lips that grew moustaches for no other reason than to wear them as a beacon of sheer manliness. The sort of guys that your manly Dad wouldn’t mind your sister marrying simply because they could go on fishing trips together. In fact, they are the sort of men who enjoy fishing, period.

This goal was stupid-good. Google "Linus Omark Shootout" and have a ball.

Being from The Middle of Nowhere, Sweden, Linus Omark is more than likely to have cast a line or two in his time on Earth, but it appears that despite making fish late for something being a likely hobby for a young man born in a shack somewhere in the hills, Omark is not the sort of guy who would grow a moustache. No, sir.

Omark is the possessor of something that has been beaten out of most in the NHL — a genuine sense of fun. I’m not talking about your average douchey jock-in-a-dressing-room sense of humour, where lining someone’s jock strap with deep heat is deemed the pinnacle of wit, no. I’m talking about someone who has the social and mental maturity to have a little fun whilst plying his trade.

Hence, Omark felt that it was time to bust out a spin-o-rama move to begin a shootout attempt. He scored, but after the game, several members of the opposing Tampa Bay Lightning deemed his play to be disrespectful, and that this just showed “what sort of person he is.”

Yes, Dan Ellis. he’s the sort of person that can do a spin-o-rama 80 feet from net and still have it confuse you 3 seconds later. That either makes him a hypnotist, or you a terrible goalie. 

It’s no surprise that hockey is the last of North America’s big four to embrace and accept those who display signs of “eccentricity”, and it seems that even after 30+ years of the NHL being a multinational entity, the idea of multiculturalism still has those in the higher echelons of the sport reaching for something to throw up into.

When you get the chance to use this picture, you take it.

In a league where, as of 2008-09, 27.3% of the players are of European origin, the culture of hockey hasn’t changed anywhere near accordingly. In fact, the only real change within the NHL’s unwritten “socially acceptable behaviour” laws are that moustaches are now grown ironically.

Instead of the influx of Europeans balancing the NHL’s style of play to represent the world game, imports are expected to play the Canadian way from the very beginning to have any hope of making it as a professional in North America. Unless your talents are at the level of Alexander Semin (The Most Talented Guy In The League), deking a D-man at the blueline will have you benched for the forseeable future.

Being the lifeblood of a nation, hockey in Canada has come to represent its people in a most unflattering manner. Conservative, respectful, focused and modest are four qualities that, without context, are almost universally seen as positive characteristics.

However, in the cases of Omark, Subban, Kabanov (to an extent) — and in times gone by, Pavel Bure — these qualities do not apply, nor should they. Outgoing, playful and human to their very core, these men will never fit into the mould that coaches and GM’s pour their draft picks into from the very moment they take the stage wearing the team hat.

Beyond nurturing youngsters to be ready for draft day, Europe’s contribution to hockey outside of international play in the last 20 years has been almost unnoticeable. There are no European coaches in either the NHL or the AHL, and most notably, there are none in junior hockey either. From the moment that those from different cultures come to North America to ply their trade, it’s either play our way or not at all.

A few semi-talented kids....

For Omark in Edmonton, it may well be exactly that attitude that is taken with him. His showboating that brought smiles to so many has no place in an asylum still under the vice-like grip of its wardens, who are keen to fight change from the ground up until they are nailed into a box.

Once the current generation of overseers die out, there will be hundreds of like minded simpletons to take their place. Men like Brendan Shanahan — one of the few talented enough to make it as a hockey player and a socially skilled human being — are few and far between.

In order for the NHL to follow suit, grow and build a product that is both entertaining and welcoming to those outside of its borders, it must allow other cultures to flourish and blend within its ranks instead of forcing them to conform to the Canadian way.

But for as long as people like Don Cherry and Dan Ellis have any say as to what is deemed acceptable behaviour on NHL ice, that idea will continue to be a pipe dream — a dream that was crushed by an archaic Cold War mindset that will prevent the natural progression of a game that does not belong to any one nation or set of values. 

*****

Callum aka Crushasaurus can be found on twitter and his blog

Comments

22 Responses to “Guest Post – Callum McCarthy’s Piece “NHL’s Cold War on Character””
  1. andy says:

    excellent work.

    its funny, if you read accounts of hockey from the early to mid 70s (look at ken dryden’s ‘the game’), its the canadian game that is built on fun and skill and emotion. the european game was built on systems and team play…

    maybe the influx of players like eberle or hall, to name two easy examples, will push the fun factor a bit.
    just look at any of eberle’ goals or when hall dopped the puck to hit feet while circling the zone…

    as much fun as ironic mustaches are, they aren’t a replacement for actual joy.

  2. HockeyPhool says:

    Well done, Callum! JT – thanks for continuing to give other bloggers exposure on your blog.

  3. Deirdre says:

    Those were both beautiful goals, and if Ellis couldn’t get his legs shut in time that’s his problem! The Swiss goalie seemed to take the fake and pop-over move without whining.

    Players actually enjoying playing is what draws people to hockey. If it ever becomes 100% business it’ll be as boring as baseball.

  4. Argyll Robertson says:

    Stop being such a left-wing pinko.

    If Omark new what was good for him he would have dumped that puck into the corner and started a cycle. That’s how real men play hockey.

  5. SDC says:

    Nice write, Crusher.

    The whole “new-NHL” thing has noticably spawned an influx of young talent — a good chunk of which are wild, uncontrollable, and don’t respond to discipline. It seems the more brash they become, the more veteran players want to “put them in their place”, like Philly’s Richards did with his verbal tongue-lashing of PK Subban and his apparently disrespectful playing style, earlier this year. Only thing is, neither Richards nor anyone else physically did anything about it, except threaten that someday, somebody was going to “get him” or something equally unphasing.

    Perhaps it’s the new rules, or just the simple fact that as much as older players hate the attitude of these young, talented players, they are still aware of the overall value they bring to the game and the league. Either way, angry vets, whether cross with Omark’s goal, Subban’s attitude, or whoever else, seem about as threatening as Grandpa Simpson shaking his fist in his rocking chair; that is, until one of them (moustachioed or not) finally steps up and fists their teeth down their throat and backs up their pointed intimidation. That is, if any of them can catch them first.

  6. KForbes says:

    Argyll – Totally laughed out loud at your post. On the weekend, my buddies and I went to a junior game here in Halifax and that was the running joke among us the entire time. “Breakaway? Better just chip it in and head for the change.” “Lane to the net? Safer to dump it into the corner and start digging.” “Other team caught on a bad change? Best course of action is to just clear it high off the glass.”

    Couple things here. For one, Callum, see if you can pick up Mark Moore’s book Saving the Game. He’s a former player, brothers with Steve and Dominic (got the Harvard education as well) and wrote it just after the lockout. He talks about a lot of things that need fixing in the game. One of them is I think something that you’re talking about here. The current pro game is quite a distance from the sport of hockey, whereas a lot of it is less trying to win and more trying not to lose. Moore explains it much more in-depth than that, but if you see the difference, it’s probably worth checking out.

    Subban – This is a weird one and I’ve been trying to figure this situation out since the beginning of the season. I think the whole thing would be viewed differently if Subban was playing as good as he did in the playoffs last year, but he’s not. I think he’s naturally a pretty confident/cocky fella and playing in Montreal amplifies that a lot. Obviously the media/fans anointing him as the next greatest defenseman when he’s just barely begun his pro career is a little much. But I also think that the Habs are aware of this and trying to handle it the best they can. Hopefully Subban isn’t too far gone to get the message.

    Finally Kabanov…when is it time to stop beating that dead horse, give it up and just admit that he might not be that good? It’s been almost two years since he’s done anything that fully showcases the talent that started this hype thing. Overrated doesn’t even come close to explaining the place that this kid finds himself right now in his career. At this point, his image (and name) is more a caricature then anything else, with almost no correlation to the actual player.

  7. Me says:

    Amen. One of the reasons I enjoy watching Brent Burns play is because he visibly enjoys playing. Ever see him come out of the tunnel at the end of an intermission? He often takes a few quick steps and then slides down the length of the bench… He’s having a blast playing the game of hockey for a living and he’s letting it show.

    On the Omark spin-o-shootout goal… I’d wager money that Ellis is one of those who dislike the shootout. One that thinks it is a joke to decide a game via individual skills competition rather than team competition. A chance for a shooter to show his individual skill level is higher than the individual skill level of the goalie. Nothing to be upset about, Omark is just doing what he was asked to do.

  8. JIllian says:

    I think his spinout was pretty cool… good for him to have a good time out there… and Ellis is an idiot, I think we all learned that from his twitter gaff.

  9. Matt says:

    I like the flashly plays like Omarks shootout goal. I only hope that the NHL never goes the way of the NFL, where every routine tackle is celebrated with its own little dance.

  10. Neil says:

    I agree with your main point, that the NHL culture needs to lighten up a little bit (I though Omark’s goal was sweet, and this — “he’s the sort of person that can do a spin-o-rama 80 feet from net and still have it confuse you 3 seconds later” — made me laugh out loud).
    I wasn’t gonna bother posting my gripes with the piece but it doesn’t seem like anyone else is gonna say anything so I feel kinda obliged.
    I think you’re treating two very different things as though they are the same. There is a traditional mindset in NA hockey culture that views excessive ‘flash’ or whatever you wanna call it as unsportsmanlike and disrespectful, in the same sense that fist-pumping after the 9-1 goal is, or punching a guy on the ground is. That’s one thing. Second, there is a difference between North American style hockey and European/Russian style hockey. That’s another thing. I’m confused at how you’re connecting these things. Your comment about European coaches failing to move into leadership roles in NA seems to suggest that you think they aren’t finding jobs because they don’t adopt North American hockey culture (rather than not being skilled at coaching a particular style of hockey). This conflation of two very different things runs through the whole piece and ends up being used to support some arguments that I find questionable.

    For example: “Beyond nurturing youngsters to be ready for draft day, Europe’s contribution to hockey outside of international play in the last 20 years has been almost unnoticeable.” Or: “Instead of the influx of Europeans balancing the NHL’s style of play to represent the world game, imports are expected to play the Canadian way from the very beginning to have any hope of making it as a professional in North America”.
    You can clearly tell from the development of hockey over the past two decades that the NHL has moved miles away from aspects of the traditional North American style (water-skiing behind guys, pinning guys without the puck on the boards) towards aspects of a more European-Russian style (no hooking, no holding, keep the speed up, talking about banning all head-shots, etc.). Maybe this is because of the European influx, maybe it’s because North American teams looked terrible against European teams for a few years there, maybe because players complained, who knows, but either way, it’s hard to believe that European contributions to hockey in the last 20 years have been “almost unnoticeable”.
    Furthermore, I don’t think asking guys like Afinoganov or Filatov to play a “Canadian style” (which imo should more accurately be called a “North American style” since half the players and 24 of the 30 teams in the NHL are not Canadian) is some tyrannical force of cultural hegemony, I think it’s the result of coaches, owners, and players wanting to win. The ice is small, the guys are bigger, the pace is faster, and if you want to dangle around without backchecking, there’s the door. Filatov scores a lot in the KHL. In the NHL he doesn’t backcheck and he doesn’t put up points even when he’s on the scoring lines. It’s not because no one is letting him play his game, it’s because his game, as it is now, doesn’t work as well in North America and if he wants to play, he needs to help the team win. You could certainly make the argument, as many have, that PK Subban was benched because he kept making awful turnovers at crucial parts of the game. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but I’m sure we can agree that any player, Canadian, European, or American, will get benched in the NHL for making high-risk plays when smarter ones are available. I would imagine a Russian coach would feel the same way about an American player trying to play a North American style game in the KHL. You seem to be arguing that guys are benched for deking at the blueline because of some cultural opinion (because of your conflation of “playing style” and “cultural attitude”), but guys like Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, etc., etc., etc., do it all the time. They are smart/good enough to know when to do it, or to at least make up for it. Ovechkin is a turn-over machine and makes some of the dumbest plays I have ever seen, but he plays as many minutes as he damn well pleases because his coach knows he helps them win games. A skilled, quick European/Russia style of player has far more success in the NHL now than he did 20 years ago.
    This I don’t understand at all – “hockey in Canada has come to represent its people in a most unflattering manner. Conservative, respectful, focused and modest are four qualities that, without context, are almost universally seen as positive characteristics.” The segue into the comment about Bure and Subban being outgoing and playful is confusing… If those four things are positive characteristics independent of context, why is that unflattering? If by independent of context you mean that they’re actually bad qualities in terms of sports, I strongly disagree (and so does this bucket of Stanley Cup rings and gold medals from Stevey Y, Wayner, Mario, Sid, and Burnaby Joe). You don’t have to play like Joe Sakic out there (as Alex Burrows constantly demonstrates), but I don’t think any Canadians are embarrassed about how Joe, Wayne, and Mario represented Canada. I apologize in advance if I’ve totally misunderstood this comment, because I feel like I’m not really grasping your point and I might be responding to something you didn’t actually mean.
    This – “Men like Brendan Shanahan — one of the few talented enough to make it as a hockey player and a socially skilled human being — are few and far between.” seems awfully cruel, not to mention wrong. It’s a mistake to assume that hockey players are all meat-heads, or that if a guy plays a sport without being flashy/cocky/whatever it means he’s socially unskilled. I haven’t me a ton of pros, but I’ve met some NHL and AHL guys and I don’t find them to be any less “socially skilled” than the average bear. In fact I would say they are more socially skilled, presumably because they are used to travelling a lot and having to talk to fans/media all the time (and because they get paid to play hockey and generally have a pretty positive attitude about that whole deal :) I challenge you to hang out with hockey players and not immediately like almost all of them.

    I’ll make one more point and then end this comically long early morning rant that everyone stopped reading two or three paragraphs ago. From what I’ve personally heard, read, and seen, there is no sign of significant anger or protest in Canada about the Omark move. I live in Vancouver, read Puck Daddy, Dobberhockey, the Hockey News, and a couple other blogs here and there. I’m sure I could go to google and find an article from a Canadian journalist saying it was disrespectful, but I could find 20 saying everyone needs to lighten up. Don Cherry, the captain of traditionalist North American hockey culture, didn’t have a problem with the move on Coach’s Corner. My hockey friends and I are all kinda confused about why it’s being talked about still. A lot of people seem to think PK Subban should be allowed to yap all he want (not me, but people seem split on it). My point being, I don’t think things are anywhere near as bad as you make it sound.

    Sorry for the stupidly long comment, I’m embarrassed to say that I actually spent a long time trying to shorten it… I really do agree with your basic point that a lot of hockey fans need to lighten up about celebrations, but I don’t think this is preventing the influence of European culture, making Canadians look bad, or evidence of a stifling Canadian or North American hockey culture that refuses to allow anyone else to play unless they agree to follow a code of conduct. I think you’re using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut here. Rant over.

  11. crushasaurus says:

    Neil – First of all, entirely impressed with the length of the rant. Props.

    1. “You can clearly tell from the development of hockey over the past two decades that the NHL has moved miles away from aspects of the traditional North American style (water-skiing behind guys, pinning guys without the puck on the boards) towards aspects of a more European-Russian style (no hooking, no holding, keep the speed up, talking about banning all head-shots, etc.).”

    These developments have been artificially introduced via rule change. This piece has absolutely nothing to do with rule changes, or how the game is faster nowadays. It’s to do with attitudes and values of those in the game of hockey, and how the men who hold power and respect in the NHL are like my 86 year old grandmother, who will refuse to eat anything other than steak and chips for dinner every evening. The mere idea of changing their mindset slightly to accommodate most welcome visitors puts them up in arms, and it’s frankly fucking ridiculous.

    2. “The segue into the comment about Bure and Subban being outgoing and playful is confusing… If those four things are positive characteristics independent of context, why is that unflattering? If by independent of context you mean that they’re actually bad qualities in terms of sports, I strongly disagree (and so does this bucket of Stanley Cup rings and gold medals from Stevey Y, Wayner, Mario, Sid, and Burnaby Joe).”

    It was actually the professionalism and dedication that these men have that turned me to hockey full time, however the point I was making is that people with these characteristics when put into certain situations can come across as stuffy and boring, and this is the case with hockey at the moment. With so many skilful players in the league we have the opportunity to put a more entertaining and more exciting product out there that doesn’t look like two trap systems going to war and doesn’t sound like “well, we just gotta get pucks deep”.

    I shudder to think how many cheeky, joyful youngsters came into professional hockey at the ages of 18-21, only to have the cheek and joy sucked out of them by other men who had the same done to them.

    3. There has been outcry about the Lightning’s complaints, I’m not saying that the millions and millions of Canada’s residents all want hockey to stay the way it was in the 80s, God no. I’m sure the vast majority of hockey fans love this sort of thing. But I wasn’t talking about hockey fans, I was talking about coaches, GMs and players — guys who have been in the system for a while.

    This post wasn’t about fans, rule change or Canada as a country being a bunch of uptight pricks. It was about the culture of hockey in the locker room, not in the press box or the stands.

    I really appreciate the long comment though, it’s nice to know someone’s picking apart my stuff. It’s the only way I’m gonna learn and get better.

    To everyone else, thank you very, very much for the kind words. There’s a possibility I might be curating this blog over Christmas, so as you read more and more of my stuff, you will grow to hate me more and more. Like Ryan Lambert, or Dosdoevsky.

  12. jonny canuck says:

    First things first, ENOUGH WITH THE PANSY CRITICISM OF DON CHERRY! It’s as cliche as traditionalist hockey people. You’re writing about someone having style and fun and being themselves. That’s fricking Don Cherry to a tee. And yet you browbeat him for not being like everyone else and for having an original opinion. I don’t agree with everything he says but it’s amazing how often “progressive” hockey journalists use him as a catch all for all things wrong with hockey. It’s pathetic, either formulate a genuine article about him with solid references, or stop throwing him in stories just for the sake of kicking at the “establishment” you think he is. \

    Secondly how the crap did this story turn into a commentary on ethnicity, that was pathetic. The hockey culture is more about coaches being afraid to lose combined with a head office (Bettman, et. al) continually going after anyone with some style.

    If you want a commentary on culture look at the Canadian Football League touchdown celebrations compared to NFL one’s.

    And while on that if you think the other leagues are so into originality look at the way NFL players are disciplined when they celebrate.

    I agree that sports leagues need to understand that first and foremost they are a source of entertainment but reducing the problem to a Canadian thing was lazy, uninventive and offensive to me as a Canadian hockey player and fan.

  13. jtbourne says:

    Therrrrre’s the incendiary reply this polite blog can have fun with, but rarely gets. C’mon friends….thoughts? My buddy Neil?

  14. andy says:

    3 things for mr. canuck – 1. don cherry’s opinions are not original. they echo the close-minded stereotyping that pervades hockey culture. 2. when has gary bettman (or anyone in the league office) gone after anyone with ‘style’? 3. nobody said anything about ethnicity. canadians are not an ethnic group, they are a nationality.

  15. Neil says:

    Jonny Canuck – I love Don Cherry and personally agree with him far more often than I disagree with him (regarding hockey. Politics, not so much). Cherry didn’t have a problem with Omark’s spin but he’s been very outspoken about Ovechkin’s behaviour, as well as Subban’s. I’ll respectfully disgree with you regarding the need to provide “solid references” any time I write about him (I noticed you didn’t use any in your post either, which is ok with me). Your comment about ethnicity is a bit weird; as Andy said, Canadians aren’t an ethnic group. But I agree with you that this article uses the word “Canadian” in a lot of places where “North American” would have been more appropriate.

    Crush – Thanks for the reply! I think we’re gonna have to agree to disagree on a couple things but I appreciate the clarifications. It’s kind of a weird thing living in Vancouver and listening to all the talk about making the league more exciting and attractive to fans, because Canucks games sell out every night, it costs a couple hundred bucks to sit near the ice, schools encourage kids to wear their jereseys on game day, the games are outstanding to watch live, pubs are all full for every game, the city goes bonkers during playoffs, etc. I really like the rule changes re: hooking/holding and the speed is a good thing, but I don’t like the idea that the GMs and the league need to be anxiously looking at ways to make the game more exciting for people who don’t appreciate hockey. If the consequence of this attitude is a 23-26 team league rather than a 30-35 team league, then so be it. I don’t blame owners for wanting to get rich and obviously it’s a business, but the value of hockey can’t be reduced entirely to money and total numbers of fans. People who think hockey is “stuffy and boring” presumably don’t appreciate hockey’s dangles, big hits, snipes, robberies, stretch passes, and rivalries, which is fine. They could make the NFL more exciting by putting trampolines in the turf near the endzone, that doesn’t mean they should do it (although we all loved Slamball). They could make athletes do commercials between plays and make way more money. They definitely shouldn’t.
    Your comment in #1 makes me think you’re still conflating hockey culture and playing style more than you realize. I can appreciate that you’re trying to focus on hockey culture and not style of play, but then you talk about two trap systems going to war and getting the puck deep instead of doing more exciting things. In one place you say you’re not focusing on style of play but then in another place you use style of play as an example of what you’re talking about. As I said before, good coaches teach certain styles because they think they work, and coaches who refuse to leave obsolete systems behind (like Hitchcock) lose games, and eventually, their jobs as well. If Boudreau wins more by letting OV do what he wants, he’s gonna let OV do what he wants.

    While I think it’s important to keep in mind that rule changes and hockey culture are not the same thing, I think it’s also true that rule changes reflect changes in hockey culture. I think the claim that “the men who hold power and respect in the NHL” (I’m assuming you mean league higher-ups and team owners?) are unwilling to change their “attitudes and values” to accommodate fans is contradicted by the introduction of the shoot-out and the overtime loss point (which puts bad teams closer to playoff contention than they should be). The decision to make a rule change is a reflection of hockey culture, particularly the hockey culture of “the men with the power and respect refuse to accommodate fans”. Changing the game to be faster was “artificial”, yes, but every rule in hockey is artificial: it’s a sport made up by humans. Every rule change is the result of people in a room agreeing to do it. Rule changes reflect hockey culture, and although playing style does to an extent as well, I personally think playing style is mostly the result of trying to win (which is partly why the East plays dump-and-chase while the West plays end-to-end: you can get away with it in the East but you get outgunned when you try it in the West). My point being, hockey culture is not the same as playing style, and rule changes have more to do with hockey culture than you are suggesting.
    +10 for the Lambert comment. Can’t say I’m a fan. :)

  16. Neil says:

    oops…. “the men with the power and respect” *who* refuse to accommodate fans

  17. Me says:

    Neil said: “They could make the NFL more exciting by putting trampolines in the turf near the endzone, that doesn’t mean they should do it (although we all loved Slamball).”

    If we’re going to play that game… IMO, they could make the NFL more exciting by playing it on a sheet of ice and making the players wear skates. Same with baseball and basketball in my opinion.

  18. crushasaurus says:

    I’d just like to point out that the Lambert joke was a throwaway comment, I actually love reading his columns. He must wear a troll face for at least 18 hours a day.

  19. crushasaurus says:

    Oh, and finally, if anyone wants to discuss this piece or hockey in general with me, crushasauruschat@gmail.com will probably get you a less flamey, more detailed response.

  20. jtbourne says:

    This comment section is AMAZING. My apologies on not being better involved.

  21. Neil says:

    Hmmmm well ok but I’m afraid I’ll have to take those 10 points back. :)

  22. Sandwiches1123 says:

    Crushasaurus: Congratulations on getting to caretake JB’s blog over the holiday season. This is an awesome opportunity to get your name out there. I know I ready your regular blog but this will definitely help with expanding the audience.

    I think you could have also mentioned another odd exception: Pavel Datsyuk. He is almost a hybrid of that creative and fun game that Europeans are coming to enjoy and the Canadian system of Crosbyisms where fun and emotion have no part of the game.

    Datsyuk is one of my favourite players because he’s a defensive-forward who has a magical touch/gift. I remember last year when, during a shootout, he paid homage to Omark’s S.E.L. shootout move where he came in from the wing, cut across the front of the net, and then flipped the puck over the sprawling goaltender.

    Canadians have lost that creative bug when it comes to hockey. Great’s like Lemieux and Gretzky were able to try out new moves and showcase their talent but since then, our system of hockey is just that: a system.

    One of the comments from this blog talked about the potential of fun, creativity, and emotion coming back with guys like Eberle and Hall. I can understand the Eberle reference because he’s fun to watch but he’s not all that creative. He just handles pressure well and is able to perform under that pressure. Hall, in the meantime, is just another Crosby prototype: not really emotional (kinda dumb looking actually) in post-game interviews; he works hard to get into position; and he has an innate ability to score. Again, not a bunch of creativity in my opinion.

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