Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The 12 NHL stars who are hardest to hate

One of the common knocks against hockey fans is that we seem to be wired to go negative, always thinking the worst of everyone who takes to the ice. And there’s some truth to that. After all, if you name a star player in today’s NHL, you’ll probably find legions of fans who’ve decided that they just don’t like him.

When Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson went head-to-head for the Norris Trophy, it wasn’t enough for fans to prefer one guy over the other – they had to decide that the other guy was a bum. Alex Ovechkin has a ton of fans, but also plenty who see him as an unrepentant hot dog who can’t come through when it counts. Carey Price is a year removed from a Hart trophy, but he’s a Hab and nobody who plays for Toronto or Montreal will ever be universally liked. And let’s not even get started on P.K. Subban.

Remember, there’s a difference between merely being popular and not being hated. Sidney Crosby is almost certainly the NHL’s most popular player, but for some reason, lots of fans have painted him as a boring whiner who’s been overexposed by the league. If we can’t get behind Crosby, then who do we like?

Well, there still seem to be at least a handful of exceptions to the rule. So today, let’s take a look at the rare players who have managed to pull it off. Here are twelve NHL stars who’ve proven to be the toughest to hate.

Jaromir Jagr, Florida Panthers

Why we like him: We might as well start with the easy one. In the years since his return to the NHL, Jagr has morphed into one of the league's most beloved players. That's largely thanks to his age – it would just feel wrong to hate a guy who's still going strong at 44 – and the near-legendary work ethic that goes with it. But he's also revealed a fun side, cracking jokes on social media and showing off that rarest of NHL possessions: an actual personality.

Mix in his apparent commitment to play for every team in the league before he retires, and it's become just about impossible to dislike Jagr.

Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: I'm not sure I can come up with a great reason to hate the current-day version of Jagr. But can we at least acknowledge that it's a little weird that we wound up here, given how divisive Jagr was earlier in his career?

When he first broke into the league on an already-stacked Penguins' team, he quickly became the poster child for the flashy European star that so many North American fans had trouble with, all fancy moves and flowing hockey hair. By the time he was doing his own trademark celebration, lots of fans (and at least a few players) had had enough of him. And that was before he bailed on the Penguins, bombed for the Capitals, and bolted for the KHL.

Mix in his weird return in 2011, in which he infuriated Pittsburgh fans by feinting at a homecoming and then scorning them for their fiercest rivals (which a small handful still haven’t forgiven him for), and it wasn't that long ago that Jagr would have ranked high on any list of the most-disliked players. But we all mellow with age, apparently, and now he's become basically untouchable. That's been a pretty cool evolution to watch, but it would have been downright bizarre to suggest it a decade or two ago.

Jarome Iginla, Colorado Avalanche

Why we like him: He's the other obvious choice for this list. While he doesn't quite have Jagr's longevity (yet), Iginla is firmly ensconced in the "beloved veteran" pantheon at age 39. He's a surefire Hall-of-Famer who's done everything short of win the Stanley Cup – and even that lone gap on his resume comes with an asterisk. He's scored 600 goals, won two Olympic gold medals, and he had the loyalty to stick with one team way longer than he probably should have. You can't really ask for more.

Why it might be OK to hate him just a little: As one of the last of the true power forwards, there's a good chance that at some point he's flattened somebody on your favourite team with a shoulder or a fist. But even that's tough to get too worked up over, given that he was probably smiling when he did it.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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