A couple weeks ago, I noticed that people inside the Capitals organization were referring to Joel Ward as “Big Cheese,” or sometimes just “Cheese.” This was interesting to me, as two of my life specialties are sports nicknames and cheese. Initial efforts to track the origins of this name, though, were unsuccessful.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Jason Chimera said.
“I have no idea,” Jack Hillen said.
“I don’t know why we call him the Big Cheese; we just do,” Karl Alzner said.
“Joel is the Big Cheese because he’s the big cheese,” Troy Brouwer explained. “Look at him. He’s the Big Cheese.”
So finally, I just went to Ward and asked for an assist.
“Just the big guy on campus, you know?” the forward told me. “The Big Cheese, it’s like the king on the throne. I mean, the Cheese kind of holds everything together in here, you know?”
I pointed out that cheese is not commonly thought of as a binding agent.
“Have you ever melted it?” John Carlson pointed out.
“He’s a big guy, and everyone loves him,” Carlson also said of his dressing room neighbor. “He’s the glue.”
But where did the name come from?
“Last year when I got here, I think I maybe gave it to myself, maybe said it one or two times,” Ward said. “And then it kind of just became something.”
So that was that for the Big Cheese, and fair enough. But it turned out there were other nicknames that were new to me. Like the one for John Erskine, who is widely known as “Heavy.”
“Because he’s a heavyweight,” Carlson said.
“Because he tosses bodies around,” Ward added.
“Because he kills people,” Carlson expounded.
And so what would they say if they passed Erskine in a hallway?
“Hey, what’s up Heavy?” Carlson offered.
“I’d say ERRRRRRRRRRRRSK,” Ward said, in a low guttural grunt, explaining that the tone needed to sound “like a bear. Like a Heavy bear.”
“Like a grandpa bear,” Carlson added.
Then there’s Hillen. Or “George Jr.,” as he’s known.
“It was one day when we were in Buffalo, and we finished pregame skate,” Alzner explained. “I came out of the changing room and he was already showered and in his suit, and he was just sitting there. His suit looked like what George [McPhee] wears, his hair was combed over the same way, they kind of have the same face structure, and I thought it was George. And so I literally said, Oh, George is here, then I took a double look, and I was like Oooh, that’s Hills. And so Chimmer caught on, he said it to everybody, and then the coaches got it. Everyone knows it.”
That might not even be the best nickname on the blue line, though. Because don’t forget about Steve Oleksy.
“We call him ‘Norris,’ for Norris Trophy,” Alzner said. “When he came in, his first three or four games, he had like four or five points, he was playing 23 or 24 minutes a game. So we started calling him Norris.”
There are other nicknames with more limited usage. Brouwer calls Mike Green “Colonel,” because “last year he had a goatee like Colonel Sanders.” A few people once called Erskine “Louis Vuitton John” after he wore Louis Vuitton shoes and a belt, though he didn’t much like that. “Imma Be” has been used to refer to Braden Holtby. “Inspector Gadget” has been used for Hillen.
“Perry, we call him Little Rat or Puppy,” Alzner said of Mathieu Perreault. “LeBron James, Kobe, those are the Big Dogs, right? That’s what you call them. And Perry, we always said that he wanted to be a Big Dog but he wasn’t, so we called him a Little Dog, and that kind of evolved to Puppy.”
And then there’s Wagon, the Matt Hendricks term for a grinder.
“What’s his first name?” Ward asked. “I don’t even know what it is. Just Wagon, Wagon Hendricks.”
“He started calling everybody else Wagon, so everybody just started calling him Wagon,” Brouwer said.
“Everyone who had a five in their number he originally called a Wagon,” Alzner said. “Now he calls everyone a Wagon, and everyone calls him Wagon. The Wag, Wagon, whatever you can come up with.”
And yes, somewhere in here Carlson asked me what I thought the world’s greatest cheese was, and I gave my stock answer, which is Parmigiano-Reggiano. Then I asked for his opinion.
“I think Ward-o is,” he said.