Alan Hangsleben is not speaking to The Washington Post. Since Hangsleben is a third-line wing for the Washington Capitals, with a season total of four goals, this does not pose a hardship to coverage of the team, although Hangsleben is a witty, intelligent college graduate with a keen insight into hockey and/or life in general.
What is distressing are the circumstances of Hangsleben's self-imposed silence, because they typify the stultifying aura that pervades this struggling team. Just as the players are fearful of making a mistake on the ice, and therefore often react too slowly to do anything, so are they afraid of committing a slip of the tongue, in case it might be held against them.
Hangsleben, bounced from left wing to right wing to defense all season, was asked which position he preferred and replied, unequivocally, "Defense." Then, asked about the problems of frequent switching, he cited one instance in which he was told at game time by Coach Gary Green that he would be on defense, after several weeks on the wing. He had asked Green for a little more notice in the future, to study opposing forwards and to psych himself up.
That seems innocent enough stuff, but when it was published, Hangsleben suddenly found himself in hot water, with General Manager Max McNab chastising him for negative thinking.
"I'm not talking to you any more," Hangsleben said. "When the general manager comes in here (the locker room) and gives you a dressing down, that's it."
Hangsleben is by no means the first player, or camp follower, to feel McNab's wrath for quotes that might be received as anything less than 100 percent positive. In fact, it seems to be management's attitude that a signed contract also constitutes a waiver of First Amendment rights.
"It seems as though they read everything in the papers and even read between the lines, trying to find something they can get you for," a veteran Capital said the other day, discussing the Hangsleben incident.
Perhaps the most palpable display of censorship was encountered by radio broadcaster Ron Webster a few years back.
Weber committed the unpardonable sin of uttering the following, during a dull moment in a dull game during a dull season: "They say statistics are for losers and the Capitals have been losing, so here are some statistics."
McNab heard the remark and angrily confronted Weber. The immediate result was ostracism of Weber by the team, although McNab insists that he had no part in that decision. After a lengthy flight to Vancouver, during which no player would speak to him, Weber began to receive apologetic but stealthy visitors, Eventually, sanity was restored, with apologies offered to a man whose loyalty to the Capitals should not even have been doubted by a Joe McCarthy type.
"That was a personal rhubarb, the only time we've ever had words," McNab said. "In retrospect, I don't say I handled it very well. It's like a referee's decision: you should wait until you review the tapes to complain and in that case I should have reviewed the tapes. But I'm appalled that anyone would think I told the players not to talk to Ron. That was totally and absolutely wrong.
"We have a policy decision of great magnitude here that we don't tell people what to say to anyone. Our policy is an open line to the media. Some of the players are very touchy and we have pointed out their responsibility to the media.
"Of course, we don't want them talking about playing time or who they're playing with. When a player isn't going right, it's very easy for him to say things that are self-defeating. I try to keep problems like that off the coach's back. I don't think that's unique as far as hockey or sports in general. On other clubs, I've known a general manager to cut off all discussion. I'd never consider that approach.
"In Hank's case, it was jut a common-sense discussion. I reminded him about positive thinking and of the need to respect a coach's decision."
Nobody expects McNab to condone undercutting of his coach by the players. That would not be tolerated in any business. On the other hand, he should not review every banal quote in that context. Whether he thinks that is the case or not, too many players feel that he does.
McNab and his players are under considerable pressure to produce a winner in a city that has waited too long for one. Censorship, whether actual or implied or inferred, will not contribute to reaching that goal. Instead, what this team could use is an overall loosening of tension, both on the ice and off.