He deserves it. Let's get that out of the way up front.
Sergei Gonchar has earned the animosity of Ottawa Senators fans. That much is clear, because he has earned it not with incompetence, but with perhaps the most egregious insult a multimillionaire playing a game can offer those who pay his salary: indifference.
Perhaps no single play is a better microcosm of his season so far than this one, against Detroit:
Gonchar was the one on the bottom of your screen, not doing anything as Todd Bertuzzi blew right by him.
Not an isolated incident, Gonchar has repeatedly displayed a low level of intensity in situations where just a little effort would prevent a scoring chance for the opposition, and this has earned him a loud booing from Senators fans in last night's home opener. And here I thought Alfie would be the only Sens player to get booed in his own building.
Just as I was surprised at the booing of Filip Kuba on fan appreciation night last season, I was surprised that Gonchar was booed, loudly and often, during play in the game. I couldn't help but think of the words of Robin Lehner, who suffered a pretty intense booing at the hands of home fans in Binghamton last year:
"I hated it. I didn't like it at all. The way it [his season] started wasn't ideal. I really didn't like it there. I was miserable playing there."
So, if Gonchar deserves to be booed, why is there any question of whether or not we as fans should do it?
Lehner's words resonated with me because in his case, he hadn't necessarily done anything to deserve fan animosity -- he simply was replacing a fan favorite, and any mistake he made was going to get magnified because of that. It didn't help that he reacted angrily, calling the fans "stupid."
Does Gonchar know he needs to play with more intensity and give a better effort? Almost certainly. This is not a rookie player we're talking about here. Gonchar is almost certain to be inducted into the Hall of Fame upon his retirement. He understands the game of hockey. As someone who has lifted the Stanley Cup, he also knows what it takes to win.
If that weren't enough, the coaching staff has almost certainly spoken with him as well. We know that head coach Paul MacLean does not have a problem with telling his players what he expects them to do, and what they need to work on. We also know -- thanks to the benching of Bobby Butler and Nikita Filatov -- that MacLean isn't shy about disciplining players who aren't meeting his expectations.
So what do we gain as fans by booing one of our own players? He already knows he's doing poorly. It's not as if he needs to be reminded of it in his home rink. There's no doubt he already knows he's struggling. Trying to make him feel bad about it probably won't encourage him to change -- booing didn't work with Alex Kovalev, a former teammate who frequently displayed the effort level of a corpse.
And there can be no doubt that the Ottawa Senators need Sergei Gonchar to change. Both of the team's immediate and long-term success depend on his play improving. He represents a player just four years removed from a Norris Trophy nomination as an offensive defenseman, and is serving as a mentor for Ottawa's future at that position: Erik Karlsson and David Rundblad. Should fans add to his misery so he is a less effective mentor for the future? Sure, he may still be a professional and try to teach them, but we all know the difference between a teacher who is going through the motions and one who is having fun.
Does the booing make a difference to a player? Do they just tune it out because they're getting paid millions of dollars? Once again, Robin Lehner:
"If players feel better in their own arena, they're going to play better. If fans don't make them feel good, it's going to be hard."
So there we have it, straight from the horse's mouth. Fans may feel better expressing their displeasure towards Gonchar, but it's possible that the animosity will only feed further disinterest. In psychology, this is known as learned helplessness - when exposed to adverse stimulus from which we cannot escape, we simply give up and accept that the adversity can't be avoided. Later, when the opportunity to escape is provided, no attempts are made. We have given up completely.
Am I saying that Gonchar will simply roll over and give up because fans are displeased with him? No, of course not. At least, nothing so extreme as the description above. Am I saying that he doesn't deserve to get booed? Again, no. It's obvious that Gonchar's level of engagement is unacceptable.
But when we consider that it's in everyone's best interests for his play to improve, and booing him in no way contributes to that improvement, we must also consider that when we jeer our own players in our own arena, we're cutting off our nose to spite our face. From that point of view, it seems clear that when we boo Sergei Gonchar, we're acting directly counter to our desires for him.
Something to think about the next time we want to criticize our players' mistakes vocally.
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