Why athletes should do better on 'Survivor,' according to the only NHLer to play

In the absence of live sports, Survivor is the next best thing. Several athletes have competed in the past, but they've been largely unsuccessful. The only Canadian and only NHLer to ever play, Tom Laidlaw, gives his insight on why hockey players should be more successful.

11-year veteran Tom Laidlaw also only Canadian to appear on reality show

Brad Marchand, left, and Joe Thornton, right, fall on opposite ends of the spectrum as for which NHLers would do well on 'Survivor,' according to a former hockey player who appeared. (Alexis Allison/CBC Sports Illustration)

In the absence of live sports, Survivor might be the next best thing.

Let's get it out of the way quickly: yes, that show is still on. It's in its 40th season, and for the first time it features a cast made up entirely of former winners. The season finale is tonight.

But in case you've forgotten what Survivor entails since its post-Super Bowl premiere in 2000, here's the gist: 20 castaways are divided into tribes and stranded on an island, where they compete in challenges and vote each other out every few days. Last one standing wins a cash prize — and the title of 'Sole Survivor.'

Several pro athletes have competed before, including ex-Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, five-time MLB all-star Jeff Kent and controversial reliever John Rocker. 

Ethan Zohn, a top player in the United Soccer League's second division, won the game way back in Season 3. Former NFL defensive tackle Brad Culpepper placed second on Survivor: Game Changers in 2016. No one else performed notably well.

As the sports world remains shut down due to coronavirus, the Survivor: Winners at War three-hour finale is set to air on Wednesday. The show offers some of the athletic competition, game theory, mental toughness and unpredictability we're missing from live sports. 

Which begs the question: why aren't athletes better at this game?

NHLers' advantage

Tom Laidlaw, a former NHL defenceman who spent 11 seasons with the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings, is the most recent athlete to give it a whirl.

The Brampton, Ont., native is also the first and only Canadian to appear on the show. He was voted out fifth in 2019's Survivor: Island of the Idols

Laidlaw thinks NHLers are well-equipped to handle the show, pointing out that he felt he played a solid game despite the early exit.

"It's more getting your mind around what you've gotta deal with while you're out there. You're sleeping on the dirt, you're eating rice and coconuts. It's the real deal — there's no cheating," Laidlaw said.

After a tribe switch on Day 12, Laidlaw, then 60, found himself on the wrong side of the numbers and was deemed the most likely of the three remaining from his original tribe to remain loyal to that original alliance. Thus, he was sent packing. 

"People have asked me, 'do they bring you food or whatever?' I lost 27 pounds when I was out there."

And so: which NHLers specifically does Laidlaw think would do well?

"[Joe Thornton is] the type of guy that people are drawn to. They like his personality and yeah, he'd do well. And how about his teammate there too, the defenceman, Burns? He's got that happy-go-lucky personality and just gonna go with the flow. They've both got that surfer board mentality because they're surfing out there in San Jose," Laidlaw said.

Meanwhile, the player Laidlaw said was worst-suited to Survivor might be an obvious choice.

"I don't think Brad Marchand would do that well. He would aggravate people so much he would be voted off."

Adapting mentality

The biggest roadblock Laidlaw sees for NHLers on Survivor is adjusting from a team-first mentality to an individual approach. 

"Once you get to the NHL, people are going to have bad nights or whatever, but you know that everybody is there to win that game. You're all pulling together on the same rope to win the game," Laidlaw said. 

Laidlaw amassed 25 goals and 139 assists over 705 games. He was Wayne Gretzky's teammate for two years in Los Angeles.

Tom Laidlaw, left, shakes Hockey Hall of Famer Glenn Anderson's hand at a New York Ranger alumni event in February. (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Ronald McDonald House)

The 62-year-old grew up on a farm in rural Ontario, waking up early every day to milk the cows. He wanted to bring that ruggedness to Survivor — but with a little NHL edge, too.

"When you get to the NHL, that's what the older guys teach you, you know, it's a playoff game and you're trying to win, there's a guy in front of the net — you break his arm. You try to hurt him. That's the way we played the game back then," Laidlaw said. 

"So I wanted to play the same way. I wanted to play a really respectful game and as honest a game as I could knowing full well that I was going there to win and whatever I had to do to win is what I was going to do."

Evolution of game works against athletes

Over the years, Survivor has evolved from a show that emphasized the basic elements of survival on a stranded island to more of a competition where strategists rule the day, and difficult conditions are merely an obstacle.

Watching his season back, Laidlaw said he was surprised at the amount of strategizing.

"I think the athletes just don't think that way. It's not a natural thing to think like that, whereas these Survivor superfans that have watched it all along, that's just the way Survivor is."

Laidlaw was originally recruited by CBS producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who he calls "a huge hockey fan," to play Amazing Race with a former teammate. When that fell through, Laidlaw wound up on Survivor.

And while his ultimate fate in the game wasn't that different from most athletes who've tried, Laidlaw said there's no doubt whether he'd give it another go.

"There's only been 600 people in the world that have ever played Survivor in 20 years. Here I am out here on the island with all these young kids and everything.

"So yeah, I'd definitely do it again."

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