A friend recently gave me the hockey nickname Wheels McFleury. I’ll explain why in a minute.
It got me thinking about nicknames. A good nickname not only trips off the tongue, and not only conveys a key truth or attribute, it also gives pleasure all by itself. Just saying or hearing it makes you smile.
Professional ice hockey has a rich history of nicknames. Maurice Richard, the powerful, blazing-fast Montreal Canadien forward of the 1940s and ‘50s, was Rocket Richard, or simply The Rocket.
His brother Henri, 15 years younger and three inches shorter, was The Pocket Rocket.
Garnet ‘Ace’ Bailey played forward for the Washington Capitals in the 1970s. Later he became a scout for the L.A. Kings. He was a passenger on one of the planes which slammed into the Twin Towers on 9/11. As a tribute, the Kings named their team mascot after him — Bailey.
A good nickname describes both the appearance and personality of the player.
Kenny ‘The Rat’ Linesman looked like a rodent and caused the same general sensation among opponents which an unexpected rat sighting gives to homeowners. The feeling was described as equal parts dread, revulsion, and hatred.
Then there are nicknames which are so jaw-droppingly brilliant, one must say them several times a day, just to process the enormity of the aesthetic achievement.
The Little Ball of Hate falls into this category. That was the nickname for Pat Verbeek.
Known for his orneriness, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Verbeek had good reason to be ornery. As a young man, his thumb was cut off by corn-planting machine on his family’s farm in Ontario. He and his brother hurried to the hospital, but left the severed digit behind. Fortunately, The Little Ball of Hate’s cool-headed father was able to track down the bloody nub and bring it to the hospital, where it was re-attached during 6-hour surgery. Verbeek went on to score more than 500 goals during his 19-year career and drove opponents crazy with his signature blend of bad temper and nasty stick work.
Just because a player is great, that doesn’t mean his nickname is too. The Great One was a richly deserved sobriquet for all-time scoring leader Wayne Gretzky. But as nicknames go, it was ponderous and humorless. Indeed, when a nickname starts with The, it is fighting an uphill battle, in my opinion.
Case in point: Jersey Shore celebrity Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino.
As a general matter, a nickname ought to be bestowed upon its owner, not self-chosen. This is an underlying problem with monikers such as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Sting, Bono, and J.Lo. They come across as calculating, puffed-up, market-driven.
Which brings me back to Wheels McFleury. This one was laid upon me by my friend John Isbell. It combines several unrelated ideas – my delusion that I am skating fast in our Wednesday night men’s hockey league in Culver City (I like to shout out during warm-ups, ‘I have wheels!’); my habit of stopping at the McDonald’s drive-through for a late-night McFlurry after games; and the French-Canadian surname Fleury, which has been carried by several notable NHL’ers. These include current Pittsburgh Penguins goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, whose own nickname is, simply and softly, Flower.
Wheels McFleury replaces an earlier nickname, Crash, which was given me by a newspaper editor in Florida. He was bemused by my comprehensive (okay, absurdly thorough) coverage of traffic accidents. He listened to my long account of several, non-fatal collisions on a slow news day in the greater Tampa-St. Petersburg area, then dismissed me with a laconic, ‘Thanks, Crash.’
Later I was dubbed Crash again under separate circumstances. A friend in New York City was making light of my enthusiasm in 1996 for the video game Crash Bandicoot. This friend, incidentally, was the aspiring actor Skeet Ulrich, whose own name derived from a childhood nickname. He was Skeeter, as in mosquito, in light of his small stature and his quick, darting play on the Little League field.
Finally, I will leave you with my nicknames for my son, Jesse. I call him Little Bear, or Jesse Bear, or J-Bear. He’s big for a 7-year-old boy. He likes to wrestle. He is somewhat round, like a bear. But if he were a bear, he’d still be a smallish one. Hence, Little Bear.