Claude Giroux admitted to doing something taboo. Something unseemly in today's professional hockey world. Something that many feel tears at the very bonds that hold together the fragile chemistry of teams.
Claude Giroux has ... played Fortnite.
"I started playing a little bit last year. The boys brought Xbox on the road, and I played a couple games," the 30-year-old Philadelphia Flyers forward told ESPN this month.
Just a little bit. Just a taste.
That's how it starts, right?
For the uninitiated, Fortnite is a video game released in 2017 whose "Battle Royale" version -- in which 100 players or so try to survive attacks from one another and a quickly closing toxic storm while using different materials to build protective structures -- has attracted over 125 million users worldwide on a variety of platforms, including mobile devices. It's a game that bursts with personality: The outfits you chose for your avatar and the quirky dances you perform define you as much as your actions, such as where on the massive game map one parachutes into for battle.
For Giroux, it's a junkyard filled with crushed automobiles that lies on the outskirts of the map.
"Straight to the junk. [I'm] sneaky," he said. "I'm not good enough to be in the middle and jump where everybody is, so I have to think outside the box. So I get my guns and sneak up on people. I don't dance. I'm straight business."
For yours truly, it's a small collection of houses in the desert area, which is filled with treasure chests that contain items of both destruction and defense, and plenty of materials ("mats") from which I construct the titular "forts." Sometimes at night.
In full disclosure, I play Fortnite daily and sometimes not even on the toilet. (I warned you it was a full disclosure.) Some games last three minutes. Others last 20 minutes. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I'm killed immediately, in which case I play again in order to feel more satisfied when I'm killed slightly later. The siren song of the game -- ingenuity, exploration, whimsy and violence -- is undeniable. I can see how it might be addictive. I just don't understand why the hockey world has suddenly decided that this particular obsession is one that earns young players such demonization.
The hockey vs. Fortnite thing probably began when my former podcasting partner, Jeff Marek of Sportsnet, mentioned that "a recent first-round draft pick for a very, very prominent NHL team" might not make it to the NHL because of an addiction to the game. (He has not yet been identified.)
"He'll play until all hours of the night and into the morning, and then he'll have no energy the next day. Like, he'll be a write-off. And it is that bad. He has ... this compulsion for playing video games till all hours," Marek said on "31 Thoughts."
Earlier this year in the Ontario Hockey League, a team employee told Rick Westhead of TSN that "some players have been advised to scrub Fortnite references from social media accounts. Some NHL teams consider the video game a major distraction/obsession."
Giroux said he thought this was "pretty aggressive" but sees it happening because the game is "pretty addicting."
Recently, veteran defenseman Michael Del Zotto of the Vancouver Canucks added to the cautionary tale by claiming that his team might consider rules banning Fortnite because it limits the team's bonding time.
With the new age we're in, Fortnite/video games became a big talking point around some vets and younger players. Chatted with Michael Del Zotto on the subject...I do know for a fact this is becoming an issue league wide. pic.twitter.com/jZpP7C7XTY
- Irfaan Gaffar (@sportsnetirf) September 18, 2018
What's truly bizarre about this Fortnite panic is that video games have had their place in life on the road for dozens of years.
The Pittsburgh Penguins used to play "SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs" on the road, starting in 2006. It's one of the ways Sidney Crosby bonded closely with Marc-Andre Fleury. "He wasn't a card player and he liked to play SOCOM; we started off playing SOCOM pretty young," Crosby said in 2010.
Watching a video of those young Penguins competing on SOCOM on a team flight is hilarious. "Stallsy in those bushes!" Crosby calls out, as the camera catches former Penguin Jordan Staal hunched over his PSP until his avatar is killed in the game. They're laughing. They're joking. They're working together.
Which is what you do with these games. In Fortnite. In Call of Duty, which Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov played together remotely last season. And in Mario Kart, which the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights both used for stress relief and, yes, team bonding during their respective runs to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
"We're also focused and dialed in and keeping it loose. It allows you to have fun with it and realize this is a game and this is an opportunity that you only get once in a lifetime," center Jay Beagle told The Washington Post.
Del Zotto said the Canucks play Mario Kart too. But, you know, just on the team charter.
Del Zotto did say that some of the older guys do play Mario Kart on the plane but it ends there. Team building, being together for dinners on the road is important to helping a team become closer and when you're close as a group the chances of winning are higher.
- Irfaan Gaffar (@sportsnetirf) September 18, 2018
Defending the virtues of video games feels like a rerun. In the 1980s, it was finding a cure for Pac-Man Fever. In the 1990s, it was PlayStation and Xbox taking over college dorms. In the 2000s, it was the lurid aspects of Grand Theft Auto. And now, it's Fortnite that's being demonized when it should be praised ... especially for athletes.
Take the Richmond International Soccer Academy's approach. They have a section of their website titled, "How Playing Fortnite: Battle Royale Will Make You a Better Soccer Player." Bullet points include taking advantage of materials, having a tactical plan and not getting complacent after finding success. Rather than framing it as a time-sucking team destroyer, it extolls its potential virtues.
Maybe if the OHL processed Fortnite fanciers like this, it wouldn't treat young players playing video games with the toxicity of, oh, I don't know, spending every waking moment at The Roxy.
Being a young player means being young. Learning what's important. Understanding when to dabble in distractions and when to focus on other aspects of life. Yes, there are times when teams and leagues can nudge them on this. But it also just comes from maturity.
"We've all played video games. I remember Call of Duty was big when I was back playing in [OHL] Windsor, " Adam Henrique, 28, said in a Sportsnet radio interview. "But to see how much [Fortnite] has come in and taken over ... guys talk about it, guys play it, guys do the dances here. You almost can't get away from it. Teams should monitor those things," Henrique said. "But as a player, you have to learn how [not] to get stuck on those things. Next thing you know, you'll be up to 1 or 2 and you have a game the next day. It's learning how to be a professional at the rink and away from the rink."
But for NHL teams, it's a different concern, and I think it comes back to a generational thing. Younger players are bonding through Fortnite. Older players prefer a game they played when they were young -- Mario Kart was first released in 1992; Del Zotto was born in 1990 -- on a plane, then attending team dinners and hitting the bars on the ground. They don't get the Fortnite thing, and they don't want to. They want the young guys to conform to their norms, forgetting that rebellion and video games are birthrights of the young.
So they call on their teams to create some rule or regulation that prevents young players from spending too much free time on a video game, instead of seeing what the heck is so enticing and fulfilling about Fortnite, like the captain of the Flyers did.
"There are too many buttons. I just have to focus on the right one," Giroux said, vowing that despite the demonization, he'll parachute into the junkyard again this season.
"I'll play for sure this year, for sure. Some people for sure overdo it, but a game once in a while won't hurt anybody."
That's up there, to be sure: a boondoggle that saw him cling to a losing hand too far into the poker game and then walk away from the table without a blue chip in his pocket. Dorion said recently on CBC Radio that he wasn't positive that Karlsson would opt out of their rebuild until after July 1, when the franchise defenseman's camp responded to the team's discounted offer with radio silence.
This claim crumbles as if Thanos snapped it out of existence when one recalls that Dorion said he was considering trade options for Karlsson as early as January. Yes, the priority was to sign Karlsson, but the Senators clearly kept their options open, and Dorion only held on to him through August because the price wasn't met.
No, the most embarrassing moment of Pierre Dorion's tenure as Ottawa Senators general manager was the trade for Matt Duchene.
Consider for a moment what this upcoming Senators' season would look like had Dorion not surrendered a first-round draft pick for Duchene. It could be a traditional tank in a post-Karlsson era, in the hopes of landing Jack Hughes or Dylan Cozens or Kaapo Kakko after adding Brady Tkachuk to a not-all-that-bad pool of prospects.
Instead, the Colorado Avalanche will have the chance to add a Jack Hughes or Dylan Cozens or Kaapo Kakko, for they own the Senators' pick. And Duchene, given his previous feelings about participating in rebuilds, is likely gone from Ottawa via trade or free agency. It's entirely possible that the Senators will have traded a lottery pick, a third-rounder, Kyle Turris, Shane Bowers and Andrew Hammond for fewer than two seasons of Duchene. Which also completely eclipses what Dorion received for Karlsson.
Coming one goal away from the Stanley Cup Final in 2017 was, in hindsight, the worst thing that could have happened to the Senators because it led to the Duchene trade, which might go down as the worst miscalculation since the Y2K bug.
So that was the most embarrassing moment of Pierre Dorion's tenure as Ottawa Senators general manager -- until this happened:
I can not stop laughing at Dorion trying to come up with a reason that he's optimistic about the Sens LOLOLOLOL ".....we're a team" pic.twitter.com/4XQNLeeuoY
- Kyle (@PATSandJAYS) September 18, 2018
On national television, when pitched a softball about the thing he's most optimistic about regarding the Senators, he stared into the abyss for what seemed like an epoch. One imagines visions racing through his mind, like those of the Duchene trade, and the Alex Burrows trade (in which he sent forward Jonathan Dahlen, a better prospect than he received for Karlsson, to the Vancouver Canucks for a 36-year-old fourth-liner, whom he would extend and then buy out) and the Craig Anderson contract and Eugene Melnyk having him pick up the check for dinner (one assumes). And then, after that epoch, he spoke:
"We're a team."
But here's the thing: The nadir of his tenure as general manager -- a moment when a question asking for any hook on which to hang hope was answered with what amounted to "well, the NHL hasn't revoked our franchise charter yet" -- might have been the moment when the winds shifted on the Senators for me.
He might have uttered an insane rallying cry:
Pierre Dorion shows up to his next media availability in my new shirt & immediately becomes the most popular GM in the league. pic.twitter.com/ENsQjzPALT
- JD Bunkis (@JDBunkis) September 19, 2018
Look, it won't get any better for Ottawa any time soon. The Senators have a horrible owner. They've made some horrible moves. The arena is still in bumblefrack (but parking is cheaper!). It's reached a point where the pain is so intense for the franchise that it's causing delusions. Dorion recently said that not a single fan was "mad at me" for the Karlsson trade at the team's Fan Fest and that the Senators have "the largest pipeline of talent amongst young players that I've witnessed since the team came to Ottawa in 1992," which just can't be true.
But for whatever reason, this "we're a team" moment made me a little envious of Senators fans. The greatest feeling in the world is recalling how plummeting to rock bottom felt in an eventual moment of glory. It can't realistically get any lower than this for Ottawa, barring relocation. The pain will be palpable, but I've always said that pain is the only true way to appreciate the joy, whenever that arrives.
Dorion is correct: You're a team. A bad one. But not forever.
Jersey Foul Of The Week
The 2018-19 preseason has arrived, which means that Jersey Fouls are filtering through arenas. Like in Vancouver, where a gentleman had a Brock Boeser jersey:
Brockstar?! No Flow?? pic.twitter.com/eV7gtONVB5
- Bik Nizzar (@Bik650) September 21, 2018
It reads "Brockstar." And as Bik Nizzar notes, the gentleman wearing it does not exactly have Brock's follicle flow. But maybe that's why he looks up to him. Who knows.
The 25% Body Fat Solution
"Too many weddings."
That was the assessment from a team official as we stood in the locker room during training camp a few years ago. One of this team's returning players had come back a tad less fit than desired. "Everyone gets married in the summer, so he had something like five weddings to attend," the official said. "Five open bars."
Every preseason, some players show up in less than optimal shape. "It happens," Los Angeles Kings head coach John Stevens said. "I think it happened a lot more in the past. Guys would come to camp and try to skate their way into shape."
Today, teams use techniques like the DEXA scan to determine how much muscle and fat are inside the body. There are hard numbers and hard science that quantify how out of shape a player is during camp. Which is why Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jake Dotchin's release for a "material breach" of his contract was the talk of some NHL locker rooms in the last week, especially after Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet put a number on it: From what he heard, Dotchin was "extremely out of shape," with a body fat content of 25 percent.
"From the traditional sense, over 20 percent is excessive for a guy that's expected to play the game of hockey at the pace it's played," Stevens said, without mentioning Dotchin by name.
Dotchin is far from the first player to show up out of shape and be disciplined for it. Please recall Keith Tkachuk failing a physical with the St. Louis Blues and getting suspended during training camp in 2005. He was 25 pounds overweight. "I wasn't as prepared as I should have been," Tkachuk said.
The NHLPA filed a grievance on Tkachuk's behalf, and Dotchin has a 60-day window to do the same. It would be a shock if he didn't, considering the precedent: Rather than considering a suspension, the Lightning said he breached his contract. Which was, to say the least, convenient for the Lightning. Dotchin was suspended last preseason for an "internal issue," was a healthy scratch at times last season (including the postseason) and was buried on a deep defensive depth chart this season. While he carried only an $812,500 average annual value, he's a restricted free agent next summer.
The cautionary tale here isn't just "don't overdo during the summer." It's also, "if your team's looking to be rid of your contract, don't give it an out."
The 2019 NHL All-Star Game logo managed not to have any Shark iconography for a game in San Jose, which is a neat trick.
Don Fehr on the looming CBA negotiations: "I read that the owners are basically happy with it. But, obviously, the players made significant concessions last time and much bigger concessions the time before. And escrow has not gone away, contrary to what was thought and predicted at the time. There are some really frayed nerves over the Olympics and some other things." Oh boy.
Mark Hunter talks about returning to the OHL after failing to get the Toronto Maple Leafs' GM position.
"U.S. gambling monster lurks under NHL bed" is a really spooky headline on a story about how American teams will have a revenue advantage that Canadian teams (re: Winnipeg) will not through gambling sponsorships. The solution: "I suggest, at this point, in the interests of fair play, Canada's NHL teams should fight back by immediately selling sponsorships to newly legalized marijuana companies," writes Paul Wiecek.
Arguing for NHL regular-season games in China.
Everyone still wants to see the Vegas Golden Knights, who have the hottest ticket in the league again.
Patrick Kane thinks Nick Schmaltz can be a top line player in the NHL. And he better be, since it appears he'll be playing with Kane.
I'm not sure why they're wasting time with a "name the team" tournament for the NHL's Seattle franchise if Sasquatch isn't even in the bracket.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
Katie Strang looks at the field of Nutrigenomics and its potential effect on the NHL ($).
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Check out Emily Kaplan's awesome work on the NHL's obsession with coconut water. (And thanks for her additional reporting on the Fortnite section of this column.)