I've met hundreds of hockey players over the years, so many that the early ones are starting to blur together. That's the downside, but the upside is that I can echo the longstanding wisdom that they are a pleasure to be around, and are what keeps me doing what I do. Here are some observations on personality and what it takes to make it.
1. Hockey players are nice people. I spend a fair amount of time near visitors locker rooms, trying to find a particular player. I often ask the equipment manager or a teammate to tell the guy I'm looking for him. Not only do they tell him, the often will follow back up with me on his status and estimated time. Thanks, man. The best for me was when I was in another city and mistook one player for another (easy to do given circumstance). The guy practically apologized for not being the one I was looking for. He finally got his first NHL contract this summer -- glad to see that happen to such a nice guy. And the nicest in the bunch are without fail the tough guys. When you think about it, it makes sense -- only those who channel that belligerent energy in a team-oriented way, on and off the ice, are going to move up the ranks.
2. Hockey players are smart people. It's a rough sport, but hockey is not about brute strength (like football) or being freakishly tall (like basketball). It's about skill and teamwork. I've only met two players who I would label "dumb jocks," and the fact that I remember them for that underlines how rare they are. Players in other sports get in trouble for dumb things. I don't think hockey players are angels, but they are usually smart enough to do the cost/benefit analysis on that potentially dumb thing and decide against it. One time a player who many probably would look at and assume he was dumb got preemptively defensive with me about it, stating that he wasn't dumb. I assured him that I never thought any such thing.
3. Most down to earth? On a whole, defensemen and guys from Saskatchewan. Defensemen don't get much glory, so they have the easiest time keeping their heads on straight. And Saskatchewan? Per capita, they've produced the most NHLrs of any Canadian province. Most of them could probably kick your ass too, starting with Gordie Howe. The culture must be just right there.
4. Good goalies have a swagger to them. All of them. They need it to do that job, which has so much pressure. If you meet a goalie who doesn't seem to have a swagger, either you don't know him well enough yet, he's in a bad spell, or he's not a very good goalie. I've noticed this same phenomenon with reporters to a lesser extent, because if you folded up the tents when people criticized you, you would last about three days. I get concerned when I meet a goalie and see no swagger.
5. Desire goes farther than talent. You need both, but the most important is desire. I've seen very talented players flounder in the minors because they just don't care to apply themselves. Likewise, there are tons of heart and soul players in the NHL who are there simply because they are willing to go through walls.