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On Valeri Nichushkin, Lindy Ruff, Media Ethics & The Art of Interperting Player Behavior

So, before I even get started on this mess I want to acknowledge that by writing about this situation I’m playing directly into and even somewhat supporting the exact thing that I’ll be ranting about below. With that being said…

Valeri Nichushkin. Drafted No. 10 overall in the 2013 NHL Draft and a player many considered at the time to at the very least to be a top five talent. His drop to the Dallas Stars has been well documented — his unfortunate experience with the media at the scouting combine along with the assertion that any team that drafted him would have to play him in the NHL, or he would high-tail it back to KHL because he’s just another selfish Russian player and only cares about the big bucks. Or whatever.

The reality, as we’ve come to find out, has been much different than what we were sold after he was drafted. Nichushkin’s need to play in the NHL was tied to the contract he had signed with Dynamo of the KHL, and the agreement certainly makes sense — if Dynamo is going to be okay with Nichushkin playing in North America rather than in Russia, it should be at the NHL level rather than in the minors. Otherwise, he might as well get the developmental experience in the KHL which, despite several issues fully on display in the Olympics remains a much better league overall than the AHL.

Nichushkin has also thrown himself head-on into adjusting to North America, a new culture and a new language. He immediately moved to Dallas after the draft and joined a host family that spoke zero Russian whatsoever, and immediately gained a reputation as a hard working young player with a great work ethic and almost limitless skill and talent.

As expected, however, Nichushkin has had his ups and downs. He’s been bounced around up and down the lineup throughout the season, based almost entirely on his level of play at the time, and has even earned a few healthy scratches along the way. He struggled a bit coming out of the Olympics and was demoted once more, but has been entrenched on the top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for the past six games — during which the Stars are 5-1-0 and have regained control of their playoff destiny.

It could also be argued that Nichushkin is now playing some of his best hockey of the season. While the actual production might not be where we’d like it to be, he’s working hard up and down the ice and along the boards and it’s clear he’s made it a point to be more assertive physically — compared to early in the season where he was being constantly knocked off the puck.

So, it came as a bit of a shock and surprise when just a few hours before last night’s contest against the Washington Capitals, an article was published and promoted — it was sent directly to myself and the Defending Big D twitter account — that not only asserted Nichushkin had been unhappy with his “handling” this season but was specifically upset with Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff.

The article also alleged that Nichushkin had previously stated he could be on the verge of demanding a trade.

Now, I don’t pretend that I know everything there is to know about being a member of the sports media — in fact, I still hesitate to think or call myself a “media person.” But over the years I’ve picked up on the do’s and don’t’s of how to approach players and how to cover them and more importantly — how to present what is supposed to be facts with as little bias or slant as possible.

One thing that drives me absolutely crazy and up the wall, and what is most certainly the thing that upsets players the most, is when they are mis-quoted or taken out of context or worse yet — their words are interpreted the wrong way by those asking the questions. A reporter could get six minutes of a conversation with a player but only use four sentences, and use the rest of the article to slant those statements however they’d like.

When reading this article it becomes very clear that the author already had an agenda in mind — before he wrote it, before he asked Nichushkin or Ruff any questions — and the article itself comes across as one of the more biased articles towards a “controversy” I’ve seen in quite some time.

Written by David Kerans of Voice of Russia, the entire article is based on the premise that Nichushkin is unhappy in Dallas and with Lindy Ruff and things could be very rocky moving forward. Here’s the funny thing though — nowhere in this article does any quote or actually verifiable fact backup this claim.

After chronicling Nichushkin’s struggles in January and then in the Olympics, the article then turns it’s attention to a so-called “fiasco” in Philadelphia. The Stars lost a hard-fought game that night, 4-2, and it was the fourth-straight loss for the Stars and threatened to drop them out of the playoff race. Nichushkin had a very poor night and was effectively benched in the third period, and played just over eight minutes total in the game.

According to Kerans, he apparently witnessed this exchange:

A reporter from a Russian outlet asked to see Nichushkin, simply to ask a few general questions. To the question of whether the disappointment of the Sochi Olympics had been affecting his play, Nichushkin decided to steer the conversation elsewhere and to open up. Speaking calmly and deliberately, he teed off on coach Ruff, and added that because Ruff had signed a contract for 4-5 more years, he wanted to demand a trade.

So here’s the thing. There are no quotes in the article to back up what Nichushkin actually said. There’s no link to this Soviet Sport interview or article given and despite my best search attempts, I can’t find anything of the sort that backs this up. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or this didn’t happen — or that a frustrated young 18-year old rookie might spout off after being benched in a very tough loss — but this is a very serious situation if true. And I’ve have to believe, in this day and age, that if Nichushkin had mentioned wanting to be traded I would have heard about it within about 15 minutes on Twitter.

I have plenty of Russian followers who keep up with the news there, who are always alerting me to articles of note — and nothing ever came up of this sort. Once again, I’m not claiming this never happened — but I can’t find evidence of it.

So, a few weeks later Kerans found himself in D.C. on Tuesday along with the Stars and once again reached out to speak with the young Nichushkin.

Here’s the transcript that Kerans provided of his discussion with Nichushkin (conveniently with actual audio). After talking about how Ruff had worked one-on-one with the rookie during that practice, Kerans decided to ask about the interview in Philadelphia. Nichushkin apparently had no clue what he was talking about.

Kerans: Last question: in a conversation with Soviet Sport you spoke out rather sharply about your coach. Have you re-thought all of that? Is it possible to work with him?

Nichushkin: {tensing up further} With whom?

Kerans: I mean that conversation you had recently with Soviet Sport, in Philadelphia.

Nichushkin: And what did I say there?

Kerans: You said things were not ideal here. {well, that is putting it quite mildly, as we both knew}

Nichushkin: What?

Kerans: That it was not ideal with this coach.

Nichushkin: Everything’s fine.

Kerans: Okay. That’s all.

So, here’s what really, really sets me off about this entire thing. Kerans has chosen to interject his own interpretations of Nichushkin’s attitude and mannerisms into this article. If there’s a really quick way to change the context of what a player is saying, it’s this — and it’s entirely unprofessional and in my mind, entirely unethical as well.

In fact, the entire interview screamed to me that this was a player who didn’t want to talk about himself or bring any attention to himself during a time when the team is fighting for a playoff spot and actually playing very, very well. So good for Nichushkin on that.

Kerans then turned to coach Ruff to get his take on Nichushkin and whether the young player has expressed too much frustration at times this season. Here’s what the Stars coach had to say:

No, no. You know he’s had his moments, like any young player. But his attitude, and his approach to the game have been tremendous here of late. He’s worked real hard. And it doesn’t always go your way in this league. Veteran players face that. And as a young player, he’s faced it. But I think he’s handling some of the ups and downs better now than he was at the start of the year. And I think that’s part of getting to know the league. That’s part of getting to know the coach, part of getting to know that here we have matchups sometimes, and like to get matchups. So, all that is a learning experience for Val.

So, despite an article asserting over and over again that player and coach were at odds and Nichushkin was ready to hit the eject button on his time in Dallas — neither of them would actually back that up, and Nichushkin seemed to not have a clue what he was talking about.

Now, here’s the thing. Is it possible that a young Russian player would express some directed frustration towards his coach when faced with a media person that speaks his language, after such a tough game as he had in Philly? Of course. Hell, I would have been surprised if Nichushkin went this whole season without some sort of issue like this. It’s a long season, he’s a rookie and he’s adjusting to so many things at once and he’s struggled significantly at times.

Lindy Ruff also has a reputation for not handling young Russian players very well, most recently with Mikhail Grigorenko in his final season coaching the Sabres. While there was concern of that sort about how he would handle Nichushkin, I haven’t seen anything close to what I would consider Ruff being “too hard” on him.

In fact, there’s been times where I thought Ruff was being too easy on him and should have moved him down the roster or even scratched him a few times during those struggles in January and after the break. Ruff has also been fairly consistent over the course of the season in how he’s moved players up and down the roster and on and off that top line — when Erik Cole was playing out of his mind, he was moved up. When Alex Chiasson came out of the Olympic break with his hair on fire, he got the chance to play on the top line.

Just because of his draft status and his talent, doesn’t mean Nichushkin should be immune to the consequences of poor play. Apparently Ruff’s approach works, as well — Nichushkin is playing increasingly better and more confident and that resurgence started the first game after his benching against Philadelphia.

The thing with the Olympics and Team Russia is also interesting; it’s framed in the article, with quotes from the coach, that Nichushkin’s inclusion was a mistake and he played poorly. For most of us that followed the Olympics closely and watched how Team Russia struggled so much with their team game, it could be argued that the coach’s refusal to play Nichushkin — who I actually thought played very well in limited minutes — and his handling of the NHL players on the bench is what really doomed them. So, I’m not too worried about what that particular coach had to say.

Valeri Nichushkin has loads of talent, he’s an exciting player and he’s going to be very good in the NHL for a very long time. He’s also played an incredible amount of hockey over the past calendar year and I’ve been told the team wants him to go back home, take some time off from hockey, and just rest and recuperate whenever this season is finished.

Sometimes, where there is smoke there is fire and there is likely some truth behind the frustration that Nichushkin might have shown in Philadelphia. But this is another example of an article that, unfortunately, could have very negative consequences on how his time with Dallas is viewed both here and elsewhere — and none of it actually makes much sense.