Lacing Up is a weekly column taken from an email conversation between Ashley Gallant and CJ. “Stoosh” Jiuliante. Stoosh is a former Faceoff Factor staff writer and a long-time hockey fan.

Please note that ‘Lacing Up’ will now appear on Sunday evenings.

Stoosh: It’s been a widely-held perception among fans and media types that hockey players are among the most approachable and least selfish of all professional athletes. Even in this era of multi-million dollar contracts, most hockey players are more than happy to sign autographs for fans, talk to fans in public or accomodate members of the media for interviews. This isn’t to say that other professional athletes are difficult to deal with; you just always seem to hear that most hockey players are good guys. What can this be attributed to?

Ash: I bet the exception has a name, eh? Maybe something along the lines of Sean Avery?

Anyways, back to the question. My brother and I have actually discussed this quite a bit. I believe that, in general, your ‘non-star’ players are genuine nice guys willing to interact with everyone. It tends to be your ‘star’ players who get the inflated egos. Or maybe that’s just my perception based on selective media coverage.

In any case, I think that if you consider the star players in each of the four major sports in North America, you could identify at least a handful of baseball, basketball, and football players who have a bit of an attitude towards fans and the media. On the other hand (exception aside) I find it harder to identify hockey players with that attitude.

I think one of the reasons why most hockey players are ‘good guys’ is due to the perception of hockey in the United States. It is not very popular when you compare it to football, baseball and basketball, so hockey players have to deal with less attention.

Try comparing the high school/college experiences of a Zach Parise to a Peyton Manning. A football player grows up playing in front of thousands of people every week and gets considerable more attention in comparison to a hockey player in the States. When they get to college, the football player is essentially playing professional football in terms of national attention. The star collegiate hockey player is only recognized by a few pockets of fans in the entire nation.

Sure, there are plenty of football players who are good guys – and, for the record, I would consider Peyton Manning to be among them. However, if you have THAT much attention placed on your shoulders at such a young age, and if everyone is acting like you are the best thing since sliced bread, you are much more likely to develop a cocky attitude.

Now, let me talk about Canadian hockey players because there’s a different climate here in Canada. Hockey is, by far, the most popular sport up here and we shower our talent with heaps of attention at a young age. Think of John Tavares, who has been in the national spotlight for three or four years now.

Now, the star hockey player in Canada is likely in a similar situation as a star football player in the United States. Thousands of fans at games, people screaming their names, autographs, magazine and television interviews…you name it. I think the difference is the collective attitude of the community. I could be completely wrong here, but I get the impression that ‘attitude problems’ of star athletes can be tolerated in the States. Here, we are quick to knock them off their pedestal if they should climb up on one. However I will say this: if the family and friends allow that kind of behaviour, it is likely that an athlete will continue to be that way, regardless of nationality.

Stoosh: Avery is another discussion for another day. I’d get into it, but I just ate lunch and I don’t feel like throwing up. He has that effect on some fans.

There are always going to be exceptions to this perception that hockey players are good guys. Tom Barrasso, for instance, has a widely-held reputation here as an egomaniacal jerk, especially to the media. I’m not sure there’s one media member in Pittsburgh that dealt with him who will tell you otherwise. And the aforementioned Sean Avery comes to mind as well, although I’ve heard he’s always been very accomodating to fans.

You bring up good points that a lot of this perception may be relative to the attention the sport gets. Hockey takes a decided back seat to football, basketball, baseball and – depending on what area of the country you’re in – college football and NASCAR (if NASCAR isn’t as big in the southern United States as hockey is in Canada, it’s close).

Here in the states, there are occasions where you hear about some 14-year old or high-school aged phenom and the media creates a monster out of it. This is especially the case in football and basketball, where college fans scrutinize recruiting of high-school aged kids to ridiculous levels at times. Hockey, though, flies under the radar. I’m not even sure most American fans knew who Sidney Crosby was until he was drafted by the Pens.

And while many American hockey fans seem to operate under the assumption that most hockey prospects operate in relative obscurity, I’m not so sure those players would agree. Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros and Wayne Gretzky were household names in Canada before their 14th birthdays. Junior hockey garners as much attention in Canada as college basketball and football get here in the States; most of these kids may not be household names, but they’re certainly identifiable by most Canadian hockey fans.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that hockey players are brought up differently through their sport, and perhaps this keeps many of them humbled. Football and basketball players realize at an early developmental age that there is a different set of rules that exists for them. Second, third and fourth chances – even at the high school levels – are prevalent for these athletes. Many of these kids have all sorts of people in their ear – some, unfortunately, guided by their own selfish motives – and too many of these people end up being nothing but hangers-on.

You mentioned that it may have a lot to do with the levels to which certain behaviors are tolerated by the sports-following communities and I think that’s 100% accurate. I can recall an instance growing up at the high school level where a football coach who had asked his players to refrain from any social activities the week before a matchup. He subsequently caught several of his starters at a party and suspended them for the game. Without those players in the lineup, the team lost that weekend to their rival. The coach – who you think would’ve been applauded for forcing his players to be held to a higher standard – found himself before the school board fighting for his job because people were upset that the suspensions may have cost the team the game. What kind of message does that send to the athletes?

Ash: Yes, I do imagine that NASCAR is just as much a religion in the South as hockey is up North…although I know quite a few Canucks who make an annual pilgrimage to North Carolina to see cars go around in circles.

As for your story about the high school football teacher, I was appalled to read that he was left fighting for his job. If our society is going to place athletes on pedestals and call them our heroes, then shouldn’t they be held to a higher standard? We should expect them to have qualities that make them worthy of that kind of attention. It is a real shame when parents and school officials only consider the ‘game’, and allow these student athletes to get away with stunts that are deemed unacceptable behaviour for anybody else. That’s not to say that attending a party is necessarily bad, but disrespecting your coach should not be tolerated.