By Katie Strang
Nov 7, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
The 2019-20 Harvard men’s hockey squad is a tight one, so it’s not unusual to see a large group of players gathered together for lunch at the Eliot House dining hall during the course of a normal weekday on campus.
Once they start chatting, riffing off each other about practice, school, whatever, that’s when they sense people begin to stare. Sometimes it’s students sitting at the same table who suddenly jerk their heads in the players’ direction. The reactions range from befuddled to petrified.
It’s because often those who are within eavesdropping distance have absolutely no clue what they’re saying.
“People look at us like we’re from a different planet,” said Jack Donato, a junior forward from Scituate, Mass.
Most times, the group doesn’t even realize they have reverted into their own team-specific coded language. When they try to synthesize what certain words mean and translate those terms for an interloper, it can get dicey.
Describing what they mean when they call a player a “bot” — someone who goes through the motions similar to a computer-generated robot from the video games they play — or referring to just about anything as “dust” — a drag, a bummer, something you’re dreading.
Sometimes, it’s easier just to put it in the form of a sentence for the uninitiated:
Man, that eight-hour bus ride from Clarkson is gonna be such a dust.
This need to explain and contextualize is not uncommon for hockey players of any ilk. Defenseman Mike Green had to break down for his wife that “the show,” meant “the NHL.” One AHL coach had to be educated that his players no longer warm up before a game, they “activate.” Ducks forward Adam Henrique said he’s often learning new lingo from his linemate, 22-year-old Troy Terry.
Whether it’s the more time-honored slang terms like apple (assist), celly (post-goal celebration), sauce (aerial pass), gino (goal) and bender (weak skater whose ankles “bend” in), or new iterations, such as the aforementioned “dust” and “bot,” a “non” (a non-factor, a non-entity), and a “sweat” (a player who tries hard), hockey seems to be a Mecca for this sort of super-specific vocabulary among players and fans alike. It’s one of the more endearing quirks of the hockey world, a language that reveals a sort of subculture that is zealous, passionate and a bit underground.
The vernacular is simply the password to get through the door.
Former Princeton standout Ryan Kuffner, currently playing for the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, said his team used to watch TSN’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole show every morning, which influenced their exposure to the sport’s unique verbiage. Other media members have also shaped the landscape with their linguistic stylings, like ESPN’s John Buccigross (“twisted wrister,” “Bar Down, Hands Up, Mama Cries”) and pop culture has played a role too, particularly Canadian sitcoms like CBC’s Mr. D and Letterkenny, which now airs on Hulu.
Those shows often provided caricatures of the way hockey players speak; in reality, Kuffner said, it’s more subdued. But he acknowledged that every team he’s played on has eventually developed its own nomenclature.
“Whoever the talkative guys are (inside the dressing room), that’s how it starts to build,” Kuffner said.
John King parlayed his own grasp of the hockey parlance to become a local legend in his home state of Minnesota, and among dedicated hockey fans everywhere, for his annual video on the greatest hockey hair of the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament.
It’s not just his hysterical nicknames (“Malted Milk Ball,” “Rapuckzel,” “Peroxide Jesus”) or the crafty commentary he provides on each player’s “salad” (“Two minutes for embellishment,” he notes for one player’s luscious locks. “He was endiving.”), it’s also his low-rent production and deadpan delivery.
“The thing that always cracks me up is people think it’s a shtick. They’re like, ‘I love how you talk all slow with that goofy accent,’” King wrote in an email. “And then they meet me, and I talk all slow with a goofy accent. I’m always like, ‘yep, that’s just how I talk.’”
Like the leaves turning in autumn or the tulips coming up each spring, you know that hockey tourney season was drawing near once you start hearing compliments like “that’s a strong salad,” or “killer kale, boys.”
“I’m not sure when it went all leafy green,” King wrote in the email. “Maybe we needed more roughage in our diets. But generally, hair was considered your ‘salad.’ So obviously anyone with hockey hair had ‘strong salad.’ And things got weirder from there. A lot weirder.”
Hockey is like any other sport in that certain jargon — point, slot, crease — has endured to effectively communicate and collaborate by those who play the game, and to those who watch it. That is not dissimilar from other workgroups — from restaurants and opera houses to corporate offices. All of those places have their own language idiosyncrasies.
But slang is different from jargon and it comes from a different etymological source.
“It indirectly allows someone to express their membership in the group,” said Robert Kennedy, a professor of linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara who teaches a course on the linguistics of sports. “If you know the word to use, you are signaling an indirect demonstration of knowledge.”
That also may help explain why slang seems to be much more prevalent at the younger levels of hockey, particularly in college and junior hockey. Think about it: for many players, this is their first time living away from home, and their teammates are their lifeline. They depend on this kinship and sense of community.
Not to mention that among those who billet in the same household or live together in the dorms, these young players are spending an inordinate amount of time together.
“It’s almost like a universal language,” said Jack Badini, a junior forward from Greenwich, Conn., who rooms with Donato at Harvard.
Badini described the bond among teammates he’s had on two junior teams and now at Harvard: “You’re with each other 24-7 and the season is so long. It kind of becomes a brotherhood.”
It would be an oversight not to mention, however, that for all of the positive, community-building and bond-strengthening elements that this inside hockey lingo has, there is also a more nefarious bent to some of its usage.
All it takes is a cursory stroll through any online junior hockey bible of slang to find that there are an abundance of terms that are sexist, misogynist, crude and derogatory in nature. There’s also a tendency toward isolationism and “othering” in some of this language.
And not just among players. The media itself can be the biggest culprit.
A thought exercise: How many times have you heard or read the term “enigmatic Russian?” Now, how many times have you heard a player from Red Deer, Alberta, described the same way? Now, do the same with “mercurial.”
A recent Lexis-Nexis search found that the phrase “enigmatic Russian” was used 223 times in newspaper articles since 2008. During that same span, the phrase “enigmatic Canadian” was deployed just 56 times, and never in a sports context.
“To be honest, it is kind of a prejudice. It’s, in a sense you can’t call it racist but it’s the same mentality,” said Kennedy, who grew up a hockey fan in Ottawa. “It’s sort of an Us versus Them thing, and it probably converges with a particular type of ideology of hockey.”
Language is one way a group can define itself and differentiate itself from other sports, to confer a sense of intimacy and ownership.
Sometimes the hockey community balks at any suggestion that it is a niche sport, and other times this seems to be a designation it embraces. With language, it often seems to be the latter.
When it’s weaponized as a way to insulate the game, it’s noxious. When it’s used to draw people in and to serve as a welcome mat for the casual fan or athlete, it can be among the more endearing elements of the game.
Badini finds it to be the latter, and particularly helpful on game days. Tossing around inside jokes, a little bit of slang keeps the mood light and mitigates some nerves. And even though some of the language is team-specific, it’s a tie that binds among anyone who has played the game at any level, he feels.
“Most hockey players have some sort of bond,” Badini said. “The game has a way of bringing the players and people together.”