Saturday, July 27, 2013

Through The Looking Glass

I've talked about this before here and there, as a matter of fact I have seen it here on this blog many times, the strange cat that is the hockey fan. When you are the fan of a hockey team you are a member of a community but like your family or your fellow Canadians or Americans or wherever you hail from you don't choose the other members of your community. Of course you can, to a point, but to insulate yourself from the madness out there (or what you consider madness) you'd have to avoid going to games, avoid watching your team in bars or other public places and basically stay off the internet. As an Oilers' fan I share a lot in common with the folks who were in this corner of the internet back in spring of 2006. There weren't many of us and while we didn't always agree the discussion was generally lively and we could tell you a few things that were true, that luck played a big part in the win over the Wings and after that the Oilers were full value, that Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth and Radek Dvorak and Fernando Pisani (and on and on) were tremendous hockey players even when the counting stats weren't sexy and that that lovely team only needed some goaltending and then they were going to be a serious threat.

 The thing is there are more than forty or fifty Oilers' fans and so you find people over the years who believed in everything that Lowe and Tambellini ever did, who thought that the Oilers were a playoff team every fall (man the number of times I was told I was a negative guy who hated the team), who thought that the club would be better if they sent Horcoff and Hemsky and Penner and Gilbert and any player with a modicum of experience straight to the minors and replaced them with Rob Schremp and Colton Teubert (or as Terry Jones once suggested, replace the entire D with any six kids from the WJCs) and okay you get the picture.

 And I realized slowly because I am a slow learner that I have more in common with a dirty Flames' fan like Matt Fenwick than with probably a really big number of Oilers' fans.

 But ... but, its not just OIler fans but all hockey fans who can tend to be ... well ... dumb.

 Don't get me wrong now, I tweeted this and there were some who were taken aback. Obviously not all hockey fans are dumb, lets just say that hockey has more dumb fans than other sports and the dummies are dumber. There's a lot of dumb going on out there. So dumb they spell dumb without the 'b'. Dum.

 In no other sport do you get what I referred to above where a lot of fans feel, without a doubt, that the club would be better without its best players. After the Bruins lost to Chicago there were many BRUINS' fans who thought that the best thing for Boston to do was to trade their best player, Zdeno Chara.

 Never mind that Chara is one of the best defencemen in the NHL. Never mind that he had played massive minutes through the entire playoff run against the very best their opponents had to offer. Kessel. Nash. Crosby. Malkin. Toews. Hossa. Kane. All this while the Bruins' forwards corps was depleted by injuries and his fellow blueliners were found wanting. And so Chara did his job game after game until both he and Seidenberg wore down and were beaten.

 And for this superhuman effort that fell short? Vitriol and calls for his head.

 Trade the bum. Because a Bruins' club without Chara, with Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk in the top pair would be ... well they would be out in the first round is what they would be.

 I'm not talking advanced stats here, I am talking common sense and watch the game.

 And yet some Pens' fans think trading Crosby and or Malkin would be a good idea. In Toronto its Kessel and Phaneuf in the crosshairs.

 The team's best forward and defenceman.

 Who would score Kessel's goals? Who would pull down Phaneuf's minutes?

 I'm not talking random crazy anonymous commenters here. I am talking about guys I work with, guys I play hockey with. They believe dumping Grabovski was good, that Phaneuf is the problem, that Kessel is the problem, that Sundin was the problem.

 Don't get me wrong, Phaneuf has never been as good as his hype and in many ways he reminds me of Bryan McCabe, another high risk high reward guy, a guy with the penchant for the glaring error, a guy who was cast as a number one when maybe he would have best fit as a number two.

 But here is the thing. Move out Phaneuf and your top pair is Gunnarsson and Franson (if he doesn't get traded) and then your second pair is Gardiner and Ranger although if Franson gets moved then I guess its Gardiner and Gunnarsson in your top pair and you second pair is  .... crap.

 Good players don't grow on trees. The Edmonton Oilers are proof of this, spending years moving out good players without replacing them and then having season after season go down the toilet. Anyone watching MacTavish try and fill a roster full of holes this summer can see this. And so as the Leafs dumped a perfectly good centre in Grabovski (17th in goals by a centre over the past three years even with his year just past) and replaced him with a guy who couldn't produce offence getting easy minutes/zone starts with Patrick KANE and Patrick SHARP and who had his lunch eaten by Michael Handzus.

 But fans think these types of moves are good moves because of ... intangibles? Because some media guys say so? Because there are thirty GMs and one of them is your GM and thus its a good move because he knows best?

 All true.

 Lets take the case of Ales Hemsky who until the arrival of Taylor Hall was the best Oiler, at times the only good Oiler player, a guy who produced almost a point per game for a garbage team, all while being pounded by the opposition game in and game out while being the only guy they had to key on to stop.

 For years fans have been calling for Hemsky's head. He's first off the ice at practice. He's lazy. He's soft. He's not a winner. These are the narratives. Mark Spector tells us so.

 And yet what do we know about Ales Hemsky? If you watch him go to the net and into the corners with Robyn Regher and cut across the middle you know he is not soft. He played for weeks on a broken foot in order to try and get the Oilers to the playoffs. When the deadline neared in 2012 teammate after teammate spoke up to the media about the need to extend him.

 So who knows better, Mark Spector? The guy in the blog comment thread? The talk radio caller? Or Taylor Hall, Shawn Horcoff and Tom Gilbert who all spoke up about the NEED to keep him in the fold.

 Think about that.

 Has he won? Well in 2006 he was a huge part of that beauty club. Since then he has not won because his team has been mismanaged and are garbage. So no he hasn't won because hockey isn't tennis or golf. Its a team sport, a sport where one of the best two way players in the game, Jonathan Toews, can go weeks without scoring.


 So as I meander around here lets get back to the beginning and lets use Chara as our example.

 Since Chara's arrival the Bruins have gone from being a middle of the road club to one of the elite NHL franchises. Only Chicago, with two Cups, has had more success. The Bruins, like Detroit and Pittsburgh, have won a Cup and had an opportunity to win another. Pretty heady company and the future hall of famer Zdeno Chara is a big reason why.

And still, two years after a Cup win, fans are calling for him to get dumped.


 Here are some theories.

 Media. Hockey media are notoriously terrible. Not all of them of course but watch Hockey Night in Canada. Its almost unbearable once you get by Friedman, MacLean and the production values. They seize on the most ridculous narratives and run with them and the cult of the plug is propagated by its high priest Don Cherry and his acolytes Stock, Healy, Weekes et al. Star players fail and lose their clubs' championships, the muckers and grinders win the Cup. Remember the ridiculous narrative about Shawn Thornton in 2011 and how he turned the tide for the Bruins. Never mind Tim Thomas and Chara and Bergeron and a deep and skilled lineup and the injury to Hamhuis that hobbled the Canucks. It was Shawn Thornton who, what, hit somebody? Fought somebody? I can't remember because it mattered so little.

 Cheap shitty narrative.

 And these ideas permeate hockey thinking. Mark Spector (such an easy target, sorry) claimed that what the Oilers needed to do earlier this year was put Ben Eager in the top six. Of course Spector is only echoing what Cherry used to say every Saturday night, that Tie Domi, expert self promoter though not much of a hockey player, should be playing alongside Mats Sundin. Leaf fans loved Tie Domi. Mats Sundin not so much. Not a winner.

 Some weeks later Eager was waived through the league.

 Spector also claimed that the Oilers had to dump their Euros, especially those in their supporting cast (read Paajarvi first of all), his theory being that no team could win with such a makeup.

 After Brian Bickell scored to tie game six for Chicago Joel Quennevlle sent his fourth line over the boards to protect the tie and get the game to overtime. On that line - a Swede, Marcus Kruger and a Czech, Michael Frolik. On the blue in support, Chicago's second pair, Oduya and Hjalmarsson. (Also in Chicago's bottom six forwards, another Swede, Stallberg. In their bottom pairing on D, Roscival, another Czech.)

 Seventeen seconds later Chicago scored to take the lead. After Boston's timeout Quenneville sent out the same five man unit to protect the Stanley Cup. When they came off with seconds left two more Europeans, Marian Hossa and Michael Handzus, were sent out with Jonathan Toews to finish the Bruins off.

 So apparently Spector is wrong? And what about that old saw about Europeans and the Cup. You know where they don't care about it and all that.

 Cheap shitty narrative.

 Fact: skilled players on your fourth line > facepunchers. While Frolik and Kruger and Bolland were trusted with the Stanley Cup, literally sent out against Lucic and Krejci and Horton with EVERYTHING ON THE LINE, in the second game of a back to back where Toronto had a chance to advance to the second round, Colton Orr was stapled to the bench while his teammates flagged. Would an actual hockey player have made a difference? Maybe not. But common sense says yes, having a guy that the coach could have sent over the boards would have been a good thing.

 So for starters you have that. Hockey fans are told over and over again, by a panel of mostly former plugs (Cherry a career AHLer, Weekes and Healy backup goalies, PJ Stock a plug's plug) that plugs are great and skill is soft and never mind the Europeans. Ilya Kovalchuk was reamed in 2012 despite playing through a serious back injury. He had filled the net the first three rounds but was ineffective and suddenly, four wins from the Cup, the narrative stated that he didn't care.

 Critical thought folks. Critical thought.

 Its not a strong suit in modern society so to expect it in sport may be asking a little much. People generally defer to authority, its in our general nature. People defer to the government, trusting that they are doing right by us. People trust the corporations who steal from us and the unions that steal from us and the media who have their own agenda. As Dave Nonis has blundered time and again this summer his supporters' most common refrain is 'he knows what he is doing, there are only thirty GMs and he is one and what do you know anyhow'.

 This ignores the fact that holding a position does not necessarily mean you are good at that position. Mike Milbury. Doug MacLean. John Ferguson Jr. Steve Tambellini. They all say hello.

 The best general in World War I, bar none, was a real estate agent from Victoria, Arthur Currie.

 I'm not saying I could do the job of a GM, I couldn't, but the idea that a GM is infallible because he is a GM is so obviously ridiculous its not even worth addressing, similar to the idea that one cannot criticize a GM's move because one isn't a GM. That logic leads to this - you could not criticize a band unless you were professional musician, a book unless you were a published author, a business unless you were a businessman and so on.

 Dumb. Really really dumb. But people believe this and this line of thinking, again, permeates hockey. Tie Domi used to say 'you never played the game' when he was questioned or criticized.

 Hockey is a conservative world, in many ways its a backwards world. The kid who had the shit kicked out of him for snowing a goalie this spring and people saying he had it coming. The idea that a goon who can't play the game and dances with the other team's dancing bear is an integral part of the team when for the first century or so of the game there was no such role. The fact that fans think a guy like Colton Orr and his 'intangibles' matter and that the team would be better without Phaneuf (bad in the room).

 I lived in Clearwater Florida for over three years when a very talented Bucs team looked to win their first Super Bowl. They would win it a couple of years after we left but when we were there they always fell short. The city was football crazy and there was anger and frustration but this was directed at the quarterback Trent Dilfer (ironically he would win the Super Bowl with Baltimore) and the coach Tony Dungy (he would also win a Super Bowl in Indy). It was not directed at Warren Sapp and Derek Brooks and Ronde Barber and John Lynch and the many high profile stars on the team. It was not directed at the best players.

 When I lived in Toronto in the eighties and early nineties the Blue Jays were a team on the cusp. They collapsed in 1985 and in 1987 and for years they teased the fanbase. Why did they fall short? Their pitching was not good enough and their offence was not deep enough and their defence, especially in the outfield, could be shoddy.

 People were disappointed and angry but as a fan from those days (and a young man at that, a little more prone to, lets say, hyperbole and exuberance, as young men tend to be) I can say that there were no calls for George Bell to get run out of town or Dave Stieb or any number of quality players. They may have been flawed but they helped the team win.

 Somehow hockey fans though subscribe to this idea that in many cases it is the best player who is the problem when the team fails. It isn't a lack of depth or quality on the club or that they were outplayed or that they were just plain unlucky.

 No, its on Zdeno Chara's head that Boston lost and on Crosby's that the Pens failed and on Phaneuf that the Leafs' failures rest.

 Strange that.


Calgarysux said...

Good blog.

I have no problem with Hemsky as a player, but IMO he should be traded for different reasons.

Clearly the Oilers are making the 3rd line into a traditional tough minutes/checking line, otherwise why did they go so aggressively after Boyd Gordon?

If this is the case, Hemsky doesn't belong. If your GM insists on having 2 scoring RWers and 2 plugger RWers, yet your team has 3 scoring RWers and 1 plugging RWer, then 1 guy is the odd man out.

You'd have to be a special kind of stupid to trade Jordan Eberle or Nail Yakupov, so the obvious choice to trade is Hemsky.

Like I say, I have no problem with Hemsky as a player, he's just the most expendable of all our top RWers. If he stays on the Oilers next year, we'll be wasting his talents and his roster spot, to both his and the team's detriment.

Roke said...

Great post.

The volatility of fan opinion on players is something that's interesting to me though I'm venturing off the grit path of your post. It's pretty remarkable:

In Montreal David Desharnais was anointed the team's first-line centre during the 2011-12 season. Never mind that he played fairly sheltered minutes, was carried by two excellent wingers in Pacioretty and Cole along with PK Subban (Desharnais WOWY with Subban that season was amusing), and had a lot go right in the percentages. He put up points thus was the #1 centre, trade that bum Plekanec.

This off-season he's been the useless guy everyone wants to dump. A new contract, lower PP production (his even-strength production was level), and an on-ice sv% of .875 has him labelled as a defensively terrible centre you can't win with. "Galchenyuk can step up" they say, even though Galchenyuk got his face bashed in when he played centre last season.

The thing is from the games I've watched and, especially, looking at the stat-sheet he looks like he's still the passable 2nd-line/ very good 3rd-line centre he was the season before. The only thing that changed was the expectations and a few things mostly outside the player's control.

Black Dog said...

Great stuff Roke, perfect example.

Calgarysux yeah I have no issue with moving a guy as long as you get a good return. Someone on Twitter yesterday said he would even consider moving Crosby due to concerns about his injuries, thinking he's a bad bet that way. Not sure I agree with him but at least the argument is a reasoned one not 'he's a loser, he has to go'

SkinnyFish said...

Bad players can never disappoint.

Woodguy said...

Good stuff Pat.

Been wanting to write this one for a while, but it wouldn't have been this good.

Like I riffed on twitter, I think a lot of this thinking has to do with "that fan"'s frustration with their own lives.

I'd wager that those fans are generally unhappy with their lot in life and identify with the "plug" as "one of us who made it"

I'm sure many of those fans think they could have made the NHL except for the trick knee and bastard coach.

They view the talented player as "lucky" to have the skill and think that "they don't have to work as hard" to achieve, so there is resentment.

The common theme is that the "hard workers" deserve support and couldn't possibly be the problem, whereas the if the talented player doesn't will the team to win on their own, then they are awful.

It doesn't matter that the hard worker gets out shot and out scored. They did their job by working hard.

The talented player out shoots and out scores, but if they cannot overcome the deficit created by the "hard worker" they are bums.

I'm seriously over-generalizing here, but I think the theme is on point.

The funny part comes when a hard working talented player, like Chara, gets the treatment.

That's when it delves into the realm of "dum"

I remember being 12 when the Oilers won the first cup.

Even then there was a segment of my friends, older and younger who thought "Gretzky was a pussy" because he didn't hit and fight and wouldn't miss a chance to shit talk him.


I'm serious.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Bar Qu said...

Part of the problem stems from what you pointed out too- hockey is a team game and a star player is less likely to stand out in hockey than in any other sport (especially in defensive roles that don't create numbers to count).

So when you see empty spaces beside a star's counting stats, a fan starts to wonder what he is doing, because he isn't running around hitting guys like the plug is doing every shift. You can see hits, you can't see moving the puck up the ice and winning board battles with positioning. And the majority of us fans aren't so educated in the game that we can see these little things.

We are visual and we are dumb because we can't see anything beyond the big play. Plugs can deliver those with little impact on the game (b/c when you are hitting a guy you don't have the puck) but skill players impact the game in a much less obvious way, especially when they don't put the puck in the net or get an assist for breaking up a D zone sortie and sending it up ice for someone else to score.

Good post, thanks for putting it out there.

Woodguy said...

We are visual and we are dumb because we can't see anything beyond the big play. Plugs can deliver those with little impact on the game (b/c when you are hitting a guy you don't have the puck) but skill players impact the game in a much less obvious way, especially when they don't put the puck in the net or get an assist for breaking up a D zone sortie and sending it up ice for someone else to score.

That's really astute Bar Qu.

I was talking to Gregor and someone else the other day (separately) about Grebs.

They both remember the bad (giveaways) because its an event that sticks out and you can remember it.

Its much tougher to remember the good because good positioning and a good stick, getting the puck and making a good first pass can go almost unnoticed in a game, and yet its a crucial play.

A crucial play that was damn near non-existent on the Oilers last year and why I have much high hopes this year.

Dmen who can get the puck to the top 2 lines in all 3 pairings will do wonders for this team.

Jordan said...

Very solid post Pat. I find it both very entertaining, and very frustrating that so many people are unable to differentiate between the feelings they have when "their team" fails to reach the promised land and the feelings they have about players on the team.

If anyone out there reading this is a sociology researcher, I expect there would be some really interesting results comparing the emotional intelligence scores of people based on their preferred sports fandom.

If nothing else, it might have serious implications for how to advertise effectively to a give population segment, which might provide financial value and assist in providing start-up for the research.

MaxPower417 said...

Awesome, spot on rant.