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Elias Pettersson doesn’t have a personality problem; hockey has a personality problem

Specifically, if you have personality, it’s a problem.
Elias Pettersson media scrum

The Canucks’ super-rookie, Elias Pettersson, has become known for more than just his electrifying skills on the ice. Now he’s also known for his withering “death stare.”

Questions about the “death stare” came up several times during All-Star Weekend, including a live interview from Scott Oake during the Skills Competition. And now it’s become a topic of conversation in Vancouver, with some questioning whether Pettersson’s “prickly” personality will become a problem.

It all seems rather ridiculous.

Let’s start with the fact that Pettersson’s “death stare” started in response to a ludicrous question about whether he wanted to go back to Sweden after he got concussed by Michael Matheson, after he had already been asked if the hit made him want to stay in Sweden. He seemed to think that was a dumb and insulting question, probably because it was.

Now it seems that the Canucks’ PR team is working with Pettersson to tone down the prickliness.

“It’s been a topic of conversation in the Canucks’ offices and they are working with him,” said Ed Willes on Postmedia’s White Towel podcast. “I’m taking them at their word for this because this could lead to a really embarrassing situation for the organization, like if he does it at the wrong time with the wrong person in front of the wrong TV camera, you might have a mess on your hands.”

Willes’s comments caused a bit of an uproar on social media, particularly with the bye week meaning there were no Canucks games to distract everyone. The way Willes characterized
Pettersson certainly didn’t help.

“It has been underreported this season, he is a prickly dude,” said Willes. “No, he really is, and for a 20 year old to do that, maybe play more than 40 games before you act like you belong in the Hall of Fame.”

Beyond that rather unfair characterization, the story is that the Canucks are specifically working with Pettersson to prevent an “embarrassing situation.” On Friday, Jim Benning confirmed that to be true.

“Now, are there still things he needs to learn? Yeah, there is,” said Benning. “He’s a young kid, still. He’s learning the English language, he works with our PR people to do better, I guess, in the interviews and not do the ‘death stare,’ but I just think that’s part of his intensity and he’s still a young kid learning how to do that stuff and I think he’ll get better at it.”

To be fair, Benning also said that the Canucks don’t feel Pettersson’s personality is an issue. Benning credited his prickliness at times with his intensity, which is part of what makes him who he is.

Here’s the thing: his personality shouldn’t be an issue. It isn’t an issue. It’s ridiculous to make it an issue.

Pettersson is a pretty quiet young man with a dry sense of humour that can catch you off guard at times. But what strikes me the most about his interactions with the media is just how genuine he is.

When you ask Pettersson a question, he genuinely considers what you’re asking and tries to give a thoughtful response. If he can’t think of one, he won’t spout a series of cliches, but will flat-out say, “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure.”

The “prickliness” seems to come from that same genuine place. When he’s frustrated by a question or if he keeps getting asked the same question multiple times, it shows. He gives a genuine response, even if that response is occasionally a “death stare.”

It doesn’t seem too hard to avoid the “death stare” — just avoid asking dumb questions — but it isn’t the worst thing in the world to interview a player that is so genuine with the media. It’s far better to get real, thought out answers to your questions than the same tired cliches that you’ve heard a thousand times before.

Acting like Pettersson’s personality is a PR problem is also odd, because the fans don’t seem to have any issue with it. If anything, Pettersson’s occasional “death stares” or clapbacks against reporters questioning his loyalty to Vancouver endear him even more to the Canucks’ fanbase.

Go ahead and poll Canucks fans: how much do they care if Pettersson is occasionally mildly rude to a reporter? I’m guessing the answer will come close to 0%.

Besides, Pettersson’s personality barely registers compared to some of the big personalities you see in other sports. That’s probably because hockey is one of the blandest sports on earth when it comes to personality. The game itself is thrilling and exciting; the players are frequently utterly boring.

That’s not necessarily the fault of the players themselves: hockey culture squashes individuality and sublimates it to the team. It’s the logo on the front of the sweater, not the name on the back, after all.

Just look at the “hilarious” moments that Elliotte Friedman highlighted as the funniest moments of the All-Star Weekend in his 31 Thoughts column. Brent Burns yelled, “Look at those pipes!” at Steven Stamkos when the latter wore a short-sleeve shirt. The second funniest moment? Connor McDavid revealing that he got two haircuts, because the first haircut didn’t look good.



Did you just bust a gut laughing? No? Weird.

Who are the biggest personalities in the NHL? Burns, with his big beard? PK Subban, who is excited to play hockey for a living and smiles once in a while?

The personalities of the NHL pale in comparison to other sports. Think of the NBA, with players that wear fantastic outfits that put the plain suits of the NHL to shame. Or the NFL, with players unafraid to speak out about important issues. Heck, just think of Marshawn Lynch and realize that a Pettersson “death stare” is nothing compared to, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”

For some hockey fans, the team-first attitude of hockey is part of the appeal — they don’t want big personalities. There’s likely a racial undercurrent to some of those attitudes, but for others it’s just part of hockey culture: don’t make yourself bigger than the team. Off the ice, be a gentleman. Wear a suit. Conform.

Part of the problem is that the fanbase for hockey is getting older. According to a report from 2016, the median age of an NHL fan was 49. The NHL needs to attract new, younger fans, but doesn’t know how to properly market their players, partly because of the hockey culture squashing marketable personalities into they fit into the conformist box.

Pettersson doesn’t have a big personality. He’s not loud, he’s not boisterous, and he doesn’t put himself ahead of his teammates. But he at least has a personality. He’s a genuine person willing to give real answers to the media and to occasionally push back when he doesn’t like a question. That’s marketable.

I’ve never been the recipient of a “death stare” from Pettersson, but I’ve come close. After a media scrum, I asked for “one more question” to get some material for an article I was working on about Alex Edler. Pettersson kindly obliged, even though it had been a longer scrum, and answered my question.

When I went to ask him a follow-up, he looked at me dead in the eyes and said, “That was your one question.”

Then he smiled, chuckled, and answered my follow-up question. It was funny. Legitimately funny. It showed a quick wit and a quiet confidence. It also wasn’t the least bit mean-spirited, but showed his sense of humour.

As Pettersson grows in confidence, Canucks fans likely want to see more of that sense of humour, not less. There’s nothing wrong with the Canucks working with Pettersson to improve his interview skills, but they shouldn’t do anything that would result in him showing less of his personality.