On the days he feels like surprising fellow Washington Capitals, forward Eric Fehr strolls through the locker room and greets teammates by their first names. He drops his voice low and adopts a formal tone, like a bellhop opening the door. “Good morning, Jason,” he tells forward Jason Chimera. “Good morning, Nicklas,” he tells forward Nicklas Backstrom. Then, as the shocked faces snap around, Fehr laughs, because this is the National Hockey League. First names have little use here.
“They don’t expect it,” Fehr said. “They almost forget they have a first name.”
In this way, the Capitals’ clubhouse functions like many in professional sports. Players become known by nicknames, their nicknames morph into alternate nicknames, real names get reserved for relatives and anyone can join the fun. Asked for the attributes of the best monikers, players tabbed spontaneity, creativity and humor. Relevancy is a guideline, but not required.
Forward Troy Brouwer may be the team’s staunchest advocate for nickname reform. He hates the blandness in the common ones, like when “ie” or “sie” or “er” or “o” or “dog” get tacked onto surnames, creating the ho-hum options like Greenie (defenseman Mike Green), Fehrsie (Fehr), Chimmer (Chimera), Wardo (Joel Ward) or Pete Dog (goaltender Justin Peters).
“That’s boring,” Brouwer said. “That’s not creative. I know everyone has those names and they’re the easy ways out.”
The best ones, Brouwer said, fell into several categories. Dopplegangers always perform well. Defenseman Jack Hillen has been called both Inspector Gadget, after the cartoon character, and George, as he resembled ex-GM George McPhee. Defenseman Nate Schmidt, perhaps the most creatively named player, is known as Jeff Daniels, after the actor, and Lloyd Christmas, Jim Carrey’s character from “Dumb and Dumber.”
But they can also be rooted in habits, like Green, called Walter Water because he drinks a lot of water, and Ward, known as Big Cheese because, as Brouwer said, “He’s just the Big Cheese. Cuts the cheese a lot.”
They can originate from sources since forgotten — Michael Latta couldn’t remember why teammates call him Steam, or Steamboat — or misinterpreted, like when Coach Barry Trotz thought players knew forward Tom Wilson as Whip because he’s “a young whippersnapper.” Actually, Fehr just remembered someone back home nicknamed Willie the Whip, who reminded him of the 20-year-old.
Nicknames can be whittled down out of convenience, like with rookie Andre Burakovsky, called Burt because it’s shorter than his other nicknames, Burka or Barracuda. They can weave together real names with defining traits, like defenseman Matt Niskanen’s affinity for slap shots (Niskannon), or Green’s purchase of a sports car (Lambogreenie).
They can appear from “out of left field,” said Fehr, who goes by Frank or Frankenstein or Franklin or Frank the Tank. Last season, for example, forward Jay Beagle called defenseman Dmitry Orlov “Snarl.” Now, whenever Orlov enters a room, teammates announce his arrival with a droning, unified call of the name.
“They’re so difficult to change,” Brouwer said. “You start calling someone something, then it’s so difficult if you’re just in the middle of a conversation to try to think of their name, to try to change it. Then when it doesn’t catch on you just look stupid. You just look dumb.”
Such suggestions, often too eager and not organic enough, can die an early death. Last season, Brouwer tried calling Orlov, “Boris,” from the movie “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” This season, defenseman Karl Alzner tried to solve Washington’s problem of having the only two active NHL players named Brooks. Because the defenseman’s initials are “B.O.,” Alzner offered “Stink,” for Brooks Orpik.
Neither Boris nor Stink stuck.
“You keep throwing them out there,” Alzner said. “Just throw whatever at the wall and see what sticks.”
More confusion arose this fall when the Capitals signed rookie Liam O’Brien to an entry-level contract. During games, Trotz often uses nicknames to grab attention and bark orders. But as he soon learned, calling O’Brien “O.B.” sounded too similar to Ovi (Alex Ovechkin), Orpie (Orpik) and even Beast (goaltender Braden Holtby, also known as Holtbeast).
“I end up looking a lot of the time when no one’s called my name,” Holtby said.
Still others remain a secret, protected by the sacredness of the inside joke — at least until a reporter asked. Approached after Tuesday’s practice about his old minor-league nickname, Holtby sounded resigned but told the story anyway.
It was the best moniker Holtby ever received, he said, and it began when Holtby played for Hershey. Before long, word spread so fast that Holtby started answering to the name. And by the end of the year, even the Bears coaches knew him as “Ellen,” because someone realized Holtby’s hair resembled the famous cut of Ellen DeGeneres.