Reputation, stigma and lessons from the NHL playoffs

The National Hockey League is in the midst of its playoffs, and the writer has been focused on the Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins series (disclosure: I am a Flyers fan).

Game 3 of the series, an 8-4 win for the Flyers, was marred by dangerous hits and fighting throughout the game, particularly near the end, when this hit by James Neal on Sean Couturier touched off this ongoing brawl late in the third period.

It was an ugly scene, and not entirely unexpected when fans take into account the fact that these teams really don’t like each other — to the point where they’re using those exact words.

And a writer from a Pittsburgh newspaper weighed in with this lamentation.

“Maybe the Earth shifted on its axis and what was west is now east and vice versa. At least in Pennsylvania.

How else to explain what has happened in an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series between the supposed big, bad, bloodthirsty, dirty Philadelphia Flyers and the perceived composed, well-oiled, skilled, favored Penguins?”

At first glance, this looked to me like the classic back-handed, self-righteous comment: “Oh no, we’re like THEM now!”

But the columnist is grounded in reality, as his uses of the words “supposed” and “perceived” are a wake-up call to those who base their worldview on reputations and stigma.

The Philadelphia Flyers do have a history of being a rough-and-tumble team, as the franchise’s two Stanley Cup winners in the mid-1970s were known as the “Broad Street Bullies.” That reputation has resurfaced in recent years — the team led the league in penalty minutes this season.

The Penguins’ recent reputation is, as the columnist described, a slick, skilled team that has the league’s most marketed star, Sidney Crosby (conspiracy theory alert), and a recent Stanley Cup to its credit.

Now, at least during the past week that this series has been going on, the reputations don’t matter. One team is playing disciplined hockey — it’s not the one you’d expect. The other team is playing dirty hockey and acting quite petulantly — it’s not the one you’d expect.

And that’s the point where the most ardent fans of both teams (more so some of the Penguins fans, just do a Web search for Penguins message boards) are giving themselves headaches — particularly those who base their views on past reputations. They just can’t fathom that things aren’t going the way they were “supposed” to go. Surely things will revert back to their original role … right?

Maybe, but for now they have to deal with how it is.

This really isn’t about hockey. It’s about people who choose to be outspoken about the bad reputation (real or imagined) of a person, a team, a state, an institution, etc. In that person’s mind, the entity will always have a certain stigma to it.

Should the entity act contrary to what that stigma is, the person who views it that way will be understandably shocked.

But after the initial shock, what do you do? I’ve seen differing reactions …

• Accept the entity is acting in a good way, and open one’s mind that the bad stigma may not be deserved

• Accept the entity is acting in a good way, but due to past reputation of entity, person believes there are nefarious ulterior motives involved, masked by benevolent actions

• Become completely flabbergasted inside, because this entity can never do anything good. In fact, the person subconsciously wants the entity to live up to its bad reputation, so his/her view will be correct

It’s that third one that stands out. It is the mark of a bitter person, who cannot accept that a target of their hatred is doing things that warrant the opposite of hate.

I hope I never do this. Go Flyers.


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