The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the NHL gets younger, vets note Fortnite, other video games encroaching on team bonding

The next generation of NHLers has embraced video gaming -- Fortnite, for example -- as a way to kill time on the road, leaving some veterans to question its impact on team bonding. (Epic Games)

Playing in the NHL’s Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks typically have three long road trips of at least five games each season, opportunities for players to grab dinner and maybe a drink or two and spend more time together off the ice while away from home. Although players going out a little too much used to be a concern on those trips, the Canucks have started to worry about the opposite. They noticed their younger players staying in their hotel rooms to play video games, specifically Fortnite.

So with eight players born in 1995 or later on this year’s roster, the Canucks created a new rule for themselves: No more video game consoles on the road.

“I think the point was getting young guys out in public and, not that it’s unprofessional to play Fortnite, but going out to dinner and looking nice and going and being a team outside of the hotel,” said Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson, 26. “It’s not telling guys never to play it. It’s just on the road, we get more guys out to dinner together, you know, get that conversational power going and guys just hang out more.”

NHL road trips have always been a time for team bonding, but with the league getting younger, that culture is being challenged by games like Fortnite, unique in its popularity and addictive nature. At the league’s most recent draft combine, scouts asked young players whether they played the game — and how much.

The questions are indicative of a broader concern shared by all professional sports leagues these days that younger athletes are spending too much time on their video game consoles and not enough time resting or studying their playbooks.

While the Canucks consider it more of a strong suggestion to leave the Xbox and PlayStation at home than an all-out ban, they still made waves by becoming the first NHL team to publicly acknowledge that Fortnite had affected its team dynamics to that extent. Players from five other teams interviewed for this story said their club doesn’t have a specific policy, and for some, it’s never even been discussed.

Yet pretty much all agreed that the generational gap in the locker room is widening, and everyone has to adjust.

Are pro athletes playing too much Fortnite? Some teams are worried.

“I sit at some dinners and I laugh because I can’t relate to any of the video games or anything they’re talking — I don’t even know some of the lingo they’re saying — but I’ll quickly research it to kind of have an idea the next day,” said Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno, 31.

“My first four or five years, there were no Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat and that is what the whole world is about nowadays,” said Edmonton Oilers forward Milan Lucic, 30. “My generation is more ‘Call of Duty’ and now everything is Fortnite, but there were still gamers back then. As a whole, I think guys went out together a lot more as far as dinners and all that type of stuff, where nowadays, you see or feel guys [stay] home a little bit more.”

Fortnite first made headlines in the NHL when Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek mentioned on his “31 Thoughts” podcast that a general manager in Canada’s junior hockey leagues was concerned that a top prospect was ruining his career because he was staying up all night playing the game. Marek didn’t reveal the player’s name.

Fortnite, which is played by nearly 80 million people worldwide, pits up to 100 players in a fight-to-the-death struggle for weapons and resources on a shrinking island. Dillon Dube, a 20-year-old rookie with the Calgary Flames, said he played “all summer,” but he stopped once training camp began.

“I just have no desire to,” he said. “I’m usually just too tired when I leave the rink. … Video games are a big impact on kids' lives — it is what we grew up on. I think a lot of older guys are getting into it, too. You know, they make fun of us and they chirp at us, but then they play and they have a ton of fun. And it is a fun game.

“If you are business all the time, that is almost a recipe for a disaster. You need to relax a little bit, so I think for you to do something that isn’t straining your body, you are just sitting there playing video games, I mean your fingers might be a little sore, but it is almost good to get away.”

Count 33-year-old Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin as someone who’s a fan of Fortnite and has no intention of leaving his gaming console at home.

“If somebody going to tell you don’t play video games on the road or at home, I’m not going to listen to it,” Ovechkin said. “I think it’s people’s choice, right? If you watch movie, you watch movie. If you play video games, you play video games. I play games on my phone as well. …

“For me, if I play on the road, I play a couple games. I’m not going to play all night long. I’m not at that age. But sometimes, there’s nothing to do at home and on the road especially. Okay, you go to the restaurant and you stay at the hotel. Okay, you watch TV, watch one movie and then what? So, a video game, you can chat with your friends from all over the place — Russia, U.S., Canada.”

For JuJu Smith-Schuster, video games are a hobby — and maybe a post-NFL career

Ovechkin added that, “If it’s a day off, I think it’s better if you go out.”

But while some see video games as an isolationist activity, gamers consider it to be social, a space where they connect with others from all over the world.

During the Stanley Cup finals last spring, both the Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights traveled with a Nintendo 64 console to play Mario Kart together at the hotel between games. The Toronto Maple Leafs held an NHL 18 tournament in the preseason as a team-building exercise. Gudbranson said some Canucks still bring their Nintendo Switches on long flights with a group of roughly eight playing together.

“I think it’s just another lifestyle choice, where as long as it’s not consuming your life and you’re not taking away from the real reason you’re playing [hockey] — and that’s to win — then I don’t see a problem with it,” Foligno said. “You address it if it needs to be addressed, but I’ve never felt the need to address a video game on our team.”

NHL locker rooms have long had a culture of older players setting certain standards for conduct — teams have dress codes and curfews — and enforcing that requires a certain finesse. On the one hand, players are responsible for their own careers, but on the other, “there are some older guys who try to — I hate using the word ‘policing’ — give younger guys guidance about picking their spots, whether it be video games or going out,” Capitals veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

Checking rooms to make sure players didn’t bring their game consoles with them is a step too far for the Canucks.

“It’s just kind of an unwritten rule,” Vancouver defenseman Troy Stecher said. “Nobody really questioned it and nobody really cared about it, and we just went along with our business. … I didn’t think it was any different than watching a movie in your hotel room. It wasn’t like anyone was missing dinners.”

Samantha Pell contributed to this report.

More on the Capitals and the NHL:

Is the Roxy Flu shot? Infamous NHL dive bar seems to have fallen out of players' favor.

With a new coach and more confidence, Capitals’ Brett Connolly is off to a hot start

Former Capitals forward Alex Chiasson explains his ‘awesome’ friendship with Alex Ovechkin