Steve Carlson interview, Part 3. I’ve saved what I felt was the best for last. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Save desert for last, save your best wine for a special occasion. I thoroughly enjoyed my time speaking with him, but when we started talking about his feelings about the sport in the US and the NHL today, I realized what so many people don’t know: he’s nothing like his on screen persona.
Because I know he spends so much time promoting the game and doing appearances in Canada, I started out asking him as an American, how he felt about the sentiment that hockey doesn‘t belong in some of our non-traditional US and International markets. At first he laughed, then continued.
“The way I look at it is you have so many teams in the US and only a select few in Canada. It’s not our fault. It’s up to the Canadian Government to give these tax breaks. The Government looks its independent owned company it should be self sufficient. Then don’t complain when Tampa or Florida has a team or San Jose or Anaheim. WE give them the breaks. Even at the College route. They do not give scholarships to the Canadian colleges, that’s why many of the Canadian kids come to the US because it’s a free education. And I keep complaining to the people there, why don’t you? Then I reverse my thinking because what they’re doing is giving us all their best college players to filling our arenas. I like the way you’re doing things up there. It’s not only the pro ranks it’s the college ranks. We’re supporting our arenas and giving them a free education.”
Mr. Carlson runs summer hockey schools for both boys and girls from 5 - 14 years old. This summer his school made its way to Wisconsin. The camps are three day, skating only, and no pucks instruction for the unbelievable bargain price of $75 per student. (Oh these non-NY prices make me stutter.) I asked him if he has seen more of an interest in hockey, especially in young girls.
“I have a lot of girls that come to my camps. I believe that if you can’t skate you can’t play the game. Good example of a great skater that makes a career playing in the NHL is Chris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings. He has limited hand skills but he is a key element to the Red Wings on the Penalty kill, the 3rd line, and the checking line. You need to be able to skate. And that’s what I really enforce is skating ability. Because you can’t shoot the puck if you can’t skate. You can’t check someone if you can’t skate it’s all balance. With the girls coming in, involved in US colleges, they’re giving scholarships away and it’s getting this huge response. Then here come the Canadian girls, and the Swedes and the Russians. It’s a great opportunity to be able to get an education AND play the game that you LOVE.”
“There is a difference in kids today from when I was younger and I played the game -- and I still feel this way. If I ask my high school kids that I coach, ‘Do you LIKE playing hockey?’ And they say “Yeah. I LIKE playing.” I tell them, that’s the difference between your thinking and my thinking. I LOVE playing. They just LIKE playing. And I see the difference from the kids in the 70s and 80s to those of the 90s and 2000s, where they “like” playing it. So the problem I have with a lot of the NHL players is they believe that the NHL owes them a career. Instead of our thinking, we didn’t make the million dollar contracts. WE didn’t have that. WE believed that it was a privilege to play because not everyone gets to play this game. It’s a privilege to play; it’s a privilege to be selected and the attitude has changed a lot.”
“There are select players that you can weed out, but the average (high school) player is playing because his mother and father just want them to play. I also believe there is a problem with the youth programs where they play year round. They have to get away from that because hockey is a very physical contact sport. When we were playing, when hockey season ended, then there was baseball season. They don’t give their muscles a chance to rest. I believe there is a problem where these kids are getting seriously injured at a younger age because their muscles and their growth plates are screwed up from playing every day the whole year. They HAVE to give that body a rest. The players now-a-days train year round. We used to use training camp to GET into shape. Now they come to camp in shape or you’re in trouble. There’s all this physical fitness stuff which is great, but you HAVE to give your body a rest.”
In the last 15 - 20 years of charity work the Hanson Brothers have done, they have raised almost 13 million dollars. Not bad for 3 goons from the movies, eh? I asked him what his favorite charity was.
“We do them all. Everything has to do with kids though. We do a lot with Make a Wish, Diabetes; it’s all about kids, because that’s the future. I love kids. I love working them. When I was coaching in Memphis, I made sure my players went to St. Jude’s once a week at least. But I took that one more step because also at St. Jude’s they have the Ronald McDonald house where parents spend months and months, so what I would do is once a week also is have our van go and pick up the parents and take them to a game and give them 2 ½ hours of everything they want. Then after the game, we would take them back to Ronald McDonald house. Because granted, we all feel sorry for the kids. It’s unfortunate that they are going through this pain. But the parents are going through pain also. They feel it just as much as the kids. I wanted to give back to them.”
Mr. Carlson has always been very outspoken about the ‘new’ NHL, so I asked him what the one thing he would change about the NHL is. For some reason, I knew what the first words out of his mouth would be. I was right.
As Mr. Bettman’s personal cheer leader, I couldn’t help but say it, “Damn. I knew you were going to say that.” He chuckled a little and moved on.
“I’ve got many if you want. I’m not going to stick with one anyway. How about this one, I would like to change the rule on how many Europeans or foreigners you can have on your team.”
“They do that to the Americans and Canadians when they go over to Europe to play. When we grow up in the US or Canada, we dream of holding the (Stanley) Cup up. When the Swedes, Finns, Russians or Czechs grow up, they dream of holding the World Cup trophy up. I have a problem in the last five or six years one of the top teams in the NHL talent wise, man for man, talent wise has been Ottawa. Why do they get beat out the first round all the time? They have so many of these players that when they get beat out of the playoffs, they go back and play in the World Cup tournament. They go and play for their country. I believe if you limit 3 Europeans per team to give the Americans and Canadians more opportunity to play because we have the passion and I believe 95% of the North Americans would go through a wall to win that cup.”
“I would like to see Brian Burke as the Commissioner of the National Hockey League. He understands the game. I believe they should let the players decide their instigating fighting should not be punishable. I believe that once a player takes a run at your super star player, that here comes in my day, the Dave Semankos, the Gord Lanes, the Clark Gillies come out there and punish the boy that touched your Brian Trottier or Mike Bossy. Let them score. Trust me, when you see someone like a Dave Semanko (or a laundry list of other names he mentioned that I had no clue who they were) come at you, you’re going to think twice before you do it.”
“I have to say that in the junior ranks and the college ranks I don’t believe in the full face shield because there is no respect there. I watch college hockey and it’s like one high stick after another because there is no worries of cutting someone or damaging someone. Go with the half shield, that’s fine. If you don’t want to wear it, sign the paper that says the league is not responsible for any injury.”
He mentioned Brian Berard’s freak accident injury. It happens.
“Keep your stick down. Keep your stick down. Control your stick. When we played and we cut someone… Here they come! And oh boy! Sorry! Not good enough. Gordie Howe. Mr. Elbow, Mr. Stick. I played with Gordie Howe for a year and a half and he was a master at it. You knew you go in the corner, you tick him off, and you’re coming out bleeding. That’s’ just the way the game was. Getting cut is not an injury. You go get sewn up and come right back.”
And lastly, Carlson would change, “Take diving out of the game. It’s gotten so ridiculous, it’s not even funny. If you hit a guy and him goes down like someone shot him. No. He should get an unsportsmanlike conduct for that. If he can get up and skate around… you do a dive and then you’re on the power play? No. Two minute, unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.”
He still plays and still skates, very well.
“Sometimes when I play, my mind says ‘Oh this is great, but my body says you dumb fool you can’t do it anymore. No brain no pain.”
I told him one of my favorite hockey memories was watching Captain Keith Primeau take stitches to the face in a playoff game, and not even miss a shift. I always felt that was a perfect example of Hockey being the last great Gladiator sport.
I think your brain is just fine Mr. Carlson. You’ve still got it.
Since he is coaching kids, I asked him what he felt about making visors mandatory. I was surprised at the answer. I had seen that he mentioned that to a reporter previously. I thought it was a very interesting point though perhaps not PC.
Here’s where his thinking may not be the norm. I’ve read all the articles on the net about off-season training. Some players never stop. Has it given them an edge to NOT end up on the injured list? Not that I’ve seen. Maybe Mr. Carlson is right about giving the body a rest from this highly physical game. Maybe the year round training is too much for any one…. With the exception of freak-of-nature Chris Chelios.
I have heard this sentiment from other “old time hockey” guys. But considering that even with the expanded number of teams, this is an industry with only a little more than 700 NHL jobs. It IS a privilege to play. And it would be good if everyone (players and fans) remembered that.
And there was the key word that all true hockey fans understand. “Love
.” The LOVE of the game-- the passion for the sport. Mr. Carlson seemed just a little disappointed as he continued.