Kotkaniemi is a tongue twis­ter for TV

Habs cen­tre racks up points while sea­soned pro­fes­sion­als strug­gle to get his name right

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JACK TODD jack­[email protected]­hoo.com twit­ter.com/jack­todd46

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To my 13-year-old son, the sports I watch are such for­eign ter­ri­tory that he asked re­cently whether a bat­ter was sup­posed to round the bases clock­wise or counter-clock­wise — or did he maybe have a choice? Ob­vi­ously, I have failed as a par­ent. But now and then, when he isn’t wrapped up in such ab­sorb­ing pas­times as duct-tap­ing a pil­low to his head, he will glance up at the screen and ask a random ques­tion that makes me think. Dur­ing the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens’ game against the Colorado Avalanche, it was a seem­ingly ob­vi­ous in­quiry: “How do the an­nounc­ers know how to tell you all that stuff, like who has the puck?” My son stum­bled on an is­sue that I have been pon­der­ing of late: Hockey names, es­pe­cially Fin­nish names (specif­i­cally Jes­peri Kotkaniemi) and the prob­lems they pose. Su­per­fi­cially, the an­swer to my son’s ques­tion is ob­vi­ous: An­nounc­ers look at the num­bers and the names on the back. But in a high-speed game like hockey, those num­bers have to be ab­sorbed into some­thing like mus­cle mem­ory, be­cause there isn’t time to con­sult a ros­ter sheet be­tween passes dur­ing a three-on-two break. That most play-by-play peo­ple do it, and do it well, is a trib­ute to their pro­fes­sion­al­ism. If you think it’s easy, try muting the sound and do­ing the broad­cast your­self. It’s con­sid­er­ably harder than it seems when you lis­ten to a skilled pro do it. My first ex­pe­ri­ence of broad­cast sports wasn’t with tele­vi­sion: It was ra­dio, the Fri­day Night Fights brought to you by Gil­lette. Call­ing box­ing on ra­dio re­quired a level of vo­cal agility com­pa­ra­ble to an auc­tion­eer try­ing to slip a spavined horse past a buyer with his rapid-fire pat­ter. “Car­men Basilio with a rightleft com­bi­na­tion to the head and a right to the body, Gene Fullmer coun­ters with a straight left and a right hook and Basilio throws three left jabs be­fore …” And those were the slow fight­ers. Sugar Ray Robin­son, with a sin­gle com­bi­na­tion, could leave you with your tongue tied around your ton­sils. It all be­came much eas­ier with the ad­vent of tele­vi­sion. The pic­ture told the story and all you had to do was to give enough to clar­ify what was hap­pen­ing. In tele­vi­sion, less is more — a fact that has sadly been lost on gen­er­a­tions of broad­cast­ers. Still, you have to get it right, es­pe­cially when it comes to names. For years, we lis­tened to an­glo broad­cast­ers rhyme Guy Lafleur’s name with “sewer.” “Steve Shutt gets it back to Laflewer.” Some­one pointed out last week that the great hockey gen­tle­man Bob Cole deals with the names is­sue by mem­o­riz­ing four names on each team and re­fer­ring to the rest as “the right wing” or “the de­fence­man.” Throw a Scrab­ble board like “Jes­peri Kotkaniemi” at Cole and it’s like watch­ing John Kruk try to hit Randy John­son at the Al­lS­tar game: the best he can do is bail. It’s all right: Cole has earned the right to man­gle the oc­ca­sional moniker and we’re will­ing to grant that Fin­nish can be a tongue-thick­en­ing thicket. Dur­ing the first round of the 1998 NHL play­offs, a bunch of us ac­com­pa­nied some of the Pitts­burgh broad­cast peo­ple to an ex­cel­lent mom-and-pop Ital­ian restau­rant, where a Pitts­burgh play-by-play man kept us in stitches by mock­ing his own stum­bling at­tempts to call Fin­land’s games at the Nagano Olympics: “Num­mi­nen … over to Ni­in­i­maa, down to Rin­ta­nen who gets it back to Pel­to­nen and here’s Le­hti­nen find­ing Ni­in­i­maa it’s back to Num­mi­nen for the shot from the point …” Say that three times quickly with a mouth­ful of mar­bles and you’re ready for the big time. That said, I’m a lit­tle mys­ti­fied as to why Kotkaniemi’s five-syl­la­ble mouth­ful has be­come such a stum­bling block. As with spell­ing it, Kotkaniemi is a name you can master after a few tries. It’s surely eas­ier than Branko Radi­vo­je­vic, Ja­son Ba­cashihua or Num­mi­nen to Ni­in­i­maa. But with Kotkaniemi, even the play-by-play guys strug­gle a bit when the play speeds up. Get­ting ready to take a face­off, he’s still Kotkaniemi. Bring on a scram­ble in front, when the puck is bounc­ing around like stock prices re­act­ing to Pres­i­dent Id­iot’s Twit­ter re­marks and even vet­eran play-by-play guys tend to drop a syl­la­ble or two and turn it into “Kokkanamie” or “Kot­namey” in their rush to de­scribe what’s go­ing on. It’s awk­ward, but it isn’t of­fen­sive. It’s a very dif­fer­ent mat­ter when our na­tional buf­foon, Don Cherie, ex­changes smirks with side­kick Prince Smarm­ing be­fore of­fer­ing up his lat­est butch­ery of Kotkaniemi’s name: “Cocka­mamie,” “Koote­namie,” “Cock­lenomie” or “Katzen­jam­mer.” Cherry is do­ing it de­lib­er­ately, an­other ugly lit­tle wart on his long his­tory of xeno­pho­bia. Here we are nearly two decades into the 21st cen­tury and the man whose bestby date ex­pired in the last mil­len­nium is still croak­ing his in­creas­ingly un­fo­cused inani­ties. Cherry, mer­ci­fully, is a relic of a time when the game was en­tirely Cana­dian and prej­u­dice as com­mon as stitches. Kotkaniemi, who picked up his fifth goal Satur­day, is a child of the 21st cen­tury, born July 6, 2000. He’ll be play­ing the game for a cou­ple of decades at least, long after Cherry has mer­ci­fully packed it in. Maybe it’s time we all learned to say the name. Jes­peri, by the way, be­gins with “Yes!”

Jes­peri Kotkaniemi faces off against Matt Calvert of the Colorado Avalanche at the Bell Cen­tre on Satur­day. The Fin­nish cen­tre will be play­ing the game for decades after TV per­son­al­i­ties like Don Cherry quit fum­bling his name. MI­NAS PANAGIOTAKIS/GETTY IMAGES

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