Ilya Bryzgalov Sideshow Starts Again: Is Minnesota Wild Goalie a Distraction?

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Ilya Bryzgalov Sideshow Starts Again: Is Minnesota Wild Goalie a Distraction?
Jonathan Kozub/Getty Images

Ilya Bryzgalov has a long and not-so-friendly history with certain segments of the NHL media, and on Wednesday afternoon another chapter was added to that story.

Mike Chambers of the Denver Post was displeased with the Minnesota Wild goaltender’s response to a request for a brief interview, and made those feelings evident in a brief blog post about the encounter on that newspaper’s website:

Bryzgalov was unprofessional to me and others in the room and he’s rumored to be a jerk to pretty much any media person he talks to. That’s acceptable behavior in other pro sports, but not hockey.

So what happened? Chambers relates the experience (in part) this way:

He asked that I wait to interview him until he took off all his equipment, which was fair. But then he began looking at me, presumably waiting for a question, without taking off his pads, and then said (jokingly, I’m sure) that he wouldn’t talk until after the series. OK, now we’re playing games. My only question was about facing off against his Russian countryman, Semyon Varlamov, who is up for the Hart (MVP) and Vezina (best goalie) trophies.

Martti Kainulainen

Bryzgalov further had the temerity to ask Chambers if he would ask the same question of two Canadian goalies, which the Post reporter described as “playing more games.” Finally, he downplayed the matchup, saying he plays against the opposing team, not one player on it.

That Bryzgalov can be prickly with the media is well known, and it’s something I have had some firsthand experience with.

When Bryzgalov started his return to the NHL this year with a conditioning stint in Oklahoma City, I had the opportunity to interview him. After his first game back, a 5-4 loss in which the AHL Barons defence was terrible and Bryzgalov’s goaltending at least as bad, the small group of assembled media waited in vain (the Barons use a mix zone, where requested players are made available to media) for the ‘tender to talk about the experience. After a significant delay, word came that he wasn’t going to appear, despite the fact that he was the one guy everyone wanted to talk to.

Andy Devlin/Getty Images

It was a hassle, and presumably disappointing for the readers who would have liked to get a read on where his conditioning was at after several months off and what his thoughts on his new team were.

But he showed up the next day, and after some initial wariness gave his take on the whole situation. We all lived through it.

Should he have come out and faced the music (such as it was)? Probably. It would have been a courtesy to the gathered reporters, and it would have been a nice nod to the fans that pay money to see grown men play hockey. At the end of the day, though, those fans care a lot more whether Bryzgalov stops pucks than whether he plays ball with the press, and the same goes for the people in hockey operations who decide which players get contracts.

Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

And on that front the other man quoted in Chambers’ post, Wild head coach Mike Yeo, was crystal clear. While Chambers made a point of connecting Bryzgalov’s buyout in Philadelphia to the goalie’s personality, Yeo indicated it hadn’t been a problem for Minnesota:

He’s come in here with a different personality, no question, but he’s shown his teammates that he’s committed to them. It’s not like there’s been ever a situation or an instance where’s he’s been a distraction or tried to do anything other than fit into this group. You don’t have to have 22-25 guys who are all the same and I think it’s real important that everybody’s unique, everybody brings their own piece of the puzzle but everybody is trying to do the same thing, and accomplish the same thing.

Wild forward Zach Parise was more effusive in conversation with the Star Tribune's Michael Russo:

The fun that he’s brought, the attitude he’s brought, has been great. You really want to win for him. You see how excited he got after the shootout win [over Boston that clinched the West’s top wild-card spot] and how excited he is when we win, you really want to play well in front of him.

Not only does the team not have a problem with Bryzgalov's personality, but I have to admit to some puzzlement as to why select members of the media do.

The fact of the matter is that most post-game interviews with players are tedious. It’s the nature of the beast; a lot of what happens in a hockey game is similar to what happened in the game yesterday or the one last week. It’s hard to get a 500-game veteran to find new ways of describing what happened in a win or a loss or on a goal; he’s been in those situations before. It’s as hard to get a rookie to say something unique, because all the players before him have been asked all the same questions. Add in that most players are seemingly terrified of their comments being used as bulletin-board fodder or, worse, saying something that offends hockey’s orthodoxy and the same well-worn cliches tend to get a lot of use.

Len Redkoles/Getty Images

That’s what makes Bryzgalov so special. For good and for ill he’s a fresh personality in a game that can use it. He seems to have become more cautious since HBO exposed that unique outlook to the hockey world, but even in describing the mundane he can put a fresh spin on things. NBC play-by-play man "Doc" Emrick put it this way to Russo:

He’s the only athlete I know in 41 years that quotes Grigori Rasputin.

I know I’d rather talk to an adversarial Bryzgalov than many other players. Even in the experience Chambers relates, the challenge on whether he would have asked that question of two Canadian goalies shows someone who is willing to turn the whole process on its head, to react instinctively in a new way (as opposed to "well, he’s a good goalie and I have a lot of respect for him").

It might have, for instance, been interesting to see Bryzgalov’s reaction to a response asking whether he thinks Russian and Canadian players are treated differently by the North American media. An honest answer on that topic—one that doesn’t get a lot of coverage in a media often reluctant to consider its own weaknesses—could have been instructive.

But regardless, even if Bryzgalov was just being a jerk, so what? The media (myself included) can be harshly critical of players, and the expectation is that they stand up under it. It’s not too much to ask that the media be willing to take the tiniest bit of teasing in return.

Yeo seems comfortable that Bryzgalov isn’t a distraction to his club, and that’s what matters for both the goaltender and the franchise. But if he’s a bit of a distraction for the media as a class, there’s no harm in that; if anything, it makes me hope the Wild stick around the postseason for a while just to see what will happen next.   

For more by Jonathan Willis, follow him on Twitter.

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