Monday, April 07, 2014
What I can do without during the Stanley Cup tournament are the awful narratives that pop up. Its the worst.
Now I'm a guy who loves a good story. I enjoy telling stories and I appreciate a good tale well told, its one of the few things that irritates me about my kids. They're bright and funny and they're the worst at telling stories. Its painful. Its just their age, I know they will get better at it. If they don't then I will have to disown them. NOT IN MY HOUSE!
While I love a good story however I also want it to be accurate. Sure maybe you put in a little flourish here and there, a little exaggeration to spice things up, but the meat of it has to be true. If its not then its just bullshit.
Sports lends itself to story telling of course. Hey if you have been around this blog for a while you know that I often talk about my beer league club or about the boy's adventures on the ice. The last post I wrote was about this very thing. There is a beginning and an ending and there are twists and turns to the plot and colourful characters and it basically writes itself.
The problem with sports story telling though is, well its like this. There's a lot of bullshit mixed in with the natural story of who won and who lost and how they got there. I'm not old enough to know when it began but I know that at least it goes back to 1972. I know this because, like you, I was brought up on the mythology of that Series with the Soviets. A few years ago I looked at the Series in depth, watched every game, every shift, recorded what went on and discovered that actually the accepted truth was not supported by the facts. It was not a case of plucky Canadian heart and try winning the day but rather Canada being a far superior team that should have probably won six or seven of the games. They outplayed their opponents right from the beginning, even in game one where their conditioning was supposedly a huge factor. The Soviets were this year's Leafs forty years before their time. Badly outshot, badly outplayed, relying on excellent goaltending and a quick strike offence, mostly on the powerplay. If the two teams played a hundred times Canada probably wins seventy five or eighty of the games, if not more, especially if they run with Tony Esposito in net.
But narrative, right? Especially when there was a patriotic drum to beat and an opportunity to demonstrate our superior 'character'.
I don't recall the seventies or eighties when it comes to hockey story telling other than there were three very good hockey clubs that won thirteen of fifteen Stanley Cups. The seventies Habs, the Islanders, the Oilers. There was no need to tell a story because the story was a simple one. Three teams too good for the league they were playing in.
At some point though things turned. It was due to parity in the league. It was due to the World Juniors giving us an annual us vs them event. It was due to Don Cherry.
At some point hockey became about character.
This narrative has been pushed by the networks and their commentators who were nearly all fourth liners or backup goalies. Star players in hockey don't need the money, generally, so they gravitate to the golf course or to jobs with their clubs as ambassadors. Some go into management, usually starting with an assistant to the GM's title, often in a situation where the club likes having them around to remind fans of better times.
But the plugs? Well they stay in the game by starting as scouts or maybe assistant coaches deep in the minors or, because they are generally 'great guys' (they have to be great guys because if you're a borderline guy you can't afford to not be great on the room), they end up in media.
And for plugs, guys like PJ Stock and Louie Debrusk and Don Cherry, well for them they are now going to push character and the grinder and the plugger because THAT IS WHAT THEY WERE.
And so you get tales like we did a few years back where Shawn Thornton got an avalanche of credit for the Bruins Cup win. Shawn Thornton.
Now part of this too is that the plugger appeals to a lot of fans. Never in a million years could your beer league couch potato do what Kadri or Ales Hemsky do, not a chance. But he could back check hard and work his ass off in the corners and go to the net and stick up for his teammates. Anyone can do that of course because its monkey work. I can do that! So for Joe Fan, well he can identify with Colton Orr a lot easier than he can with Nazem Kadri. Its human nature really and so you have a willing audience in a lot of respects.
The problem is that in the media we have guys, some ex jocks, some not, who are either not very smart or they are lazy or, to be fair, they believe in this story line because its how they were taught to understand the game. Generally these are the guys who respond to criticism with 'you never played the game' or my favourite ' you don't understand the game, just watch the game and you would see'.
(I always find this amusing because guys like Tyler Dellow and Vic Ferrari are amongst the most astute observers of the game that I know. They watch the games and they watch them over and over again and notice the little things that make a difference. Anyhow, I digress.)
Anyhow these writers and broadcasters look for stories to tell and generally the simpler the better. And so you get Jason Strudwick proclaiming last night that the Oilers were winning against the Ducks because they had three fights and were emotionally engaged.
This is a common story and I have never understood it. Two guys fight. One team gets momentum from it and proceeds to win. But why them? Why doesn't the other team get momentum? Their guy fought too after all. Sometimes the team gets momentum because their guy won. Sometimes they get it because he hung in there against a bigger guy. Sometimes they get it because their guy got pummeled. Seriously. Remember a few years back, I think it was Prust was a Ranger and got destroyed by a Senator in a fight and the Rangers to a man said that was a game changer. Is it true because they believed it? I don't know, I never played the game. But sign me up and we'll solve three problems. I will then have played so I can talk about hockey (this entire blog and every discussion I ever had about the sport is meaningless due to not having played, right?), I will make a shitload of money (league minimum is ok!) so I can pay off my mortgage and buy you a dozen beer and also whichever team I play for will go 98 and oh, all the way to the Cup baby, because I will guarantee you momentum every night by absolutely getting killed by the other team's biggest goon.
Now don't get me wrong, I like Strudwick, I do but by my eye, when I was watching the game, my impression was that the Oilers won because Hiller was terrible and Fasth was very good.
And I guess the question I also had was what if the Ducks had come back? Would it have been because the Oilers became less emotionally engaged. Are they like I was in my early twenties, all hot and heavy for some girl I saw at a party, having a great couple of months of lusty boning until I became bored and more and more emotionally detached until it all crashed in ruins? Wait a second, the Oilers are mostly in their early twenties!! Maybe I should have had a buddy hanging out with me on dates to start fights so I would have stayed emotionally engaged! Maybe I would have been more successful at love!!
But really, what if the Ducks came back and tied it. And then gone ahead. Does Hendricks fight someone else and the Oilers bounce back? Is it really a question of a character win? If Perry scores another goal or two, if Getzlaf doesn't hit the post is it because the Oilers are bad people? Or is it because the Ducks are a far better team?
But that's how it works. Three weeks ago or thereabouts the Leafs were home and cooled, third in the conference, the local media crowing about how the naysayers were wrong and now they are dead in the water, out of the playoffs, and suddenly its a character question. The team doesn't have it.
Its an easy answer and a ridiculous one of course. So three weeks ago they had character and now suddenly its gone! Where did it go? Did it melt with the snow? They had enough character last year to make the playoffs and push the Bruins to seven (although that character disappeared with eleven minutes to go in that game, damn!) and strangely enough people forget that Joffrey Lupul had a great chance to end it in overtime. He missed, just as Datsyuk missed a glorious chance in the slot in G7 against Chicago, Stallberg getting his stick enough of his shot from the slot was a weak one. Bergeron scored and that was that. But if Lupul scores then suddenly the team oozes character, is that how it works?
Of course the Leafs did the right thing and dumped Grabovski and MacArthur over the summer because they were the problem or part of it I guess and they brought in the wonder twins from Mimico to solve the character issue. And it seemed to have worked ... until just recently.
Or maybe. Maybe there is something to Randy Carlyle's system that does not lend itself to success unless you have two Hall of Fame defencemen and Beauchemin in the 3 slot as well as four lines of very good forwards and excellent goaltending. Maybe the reliance on a hot power play and out of this world goaltending while allowing the other team to outshoot you massively game after game because you never have the puck (partially because you dumped two skill guys and won't play other skill guys) is not a recipe for winning, especially when your goaltending no longer performs at Hasek like levels and your few remaining skill players go cold or don't score enough because the rest of your lineup is no longer good enough to chip in offensively.
But its easier to say that the team has no character than to try and figure out what is going on. Its one sentence versus paragraphs of investigation and explanation.
I've been going on and on here and I am just going to finish up with this. Despite what Don Cherry says all hockey players are not good guys. Some are. Some are not. They are like any collection of guys you will find except they are elite athletes who play hockey very well. Because of this the majority probably have a bit of a sense of entitlement, which I would expect. And a few are pretty sociopathic when it comes to pursuing their goals. You'd have to be. There are billions of people on this planet. 690 of them play in the NHL.
All that said they have all worked their asses off to get where they are. All of them. The endless drills, the tedious hours in the gym, the rehab when necessary. Its like toughness. The softest hockey player in the league is a hundred times tougher than your regular citizen. They play through pain that would leave you or I bedridden and their job involves fighting for space with enormous armed angry men, all on ice. Think about that. Oiler fans used to go on about Tom Gilbert being soft, a guy who blocked more shots than most defencemen in the league in his time in Edmonton, all the while getting pounded into the boards, sticked, elbowed, often while playing injured. Yeah, he's soft. Don't pull a muscle cracking open that Coors Light fatty.
Are there players who are tougher than others? Sure. Jason Smith and Ethan Moreau and Matt Hendricks are three that come to mind right away but this idea that players lack character or toughness is a hilarious one.
The falsest of all accusations stinks the most however and that is what people like Cherry and Mark Spector and others put forward about European players. Now think about this for a minute. These are people who whine about players who won't talk to them or about donuts getting yanked from press boxes or about games being boring and they claim that European players lack character. (My favourite remains Spector assassinating Ales Hemsky's character last spring, following that up with a column where he whined that Hemsky wouldn't talk to him. Better yet a few days after that it was revealed that Hemsky had played for a month with a broken foot as he tried to help his team get into the playoffs. I mean what a piece of garbage this Spector guy is.)
So now who lacks character? The guy who confesses to a conflict of interest essentially (this guy doesn't talk to me so he is a bad person) and also does not investigate whether or not the player in question was hurt (nice journalism!) or the guy who came to a strange country as a teenager, unable to speak the language, in order to pursue his dream. Pictured above is Michal Rozsival. At the age of 17 (!) he moved to Swift Current to play junior hockey.
Seventeen. Mark Spector wouldn't want him on his team though. (More on that later.)
What do you think?
Its plain xenophobia is what it is of course. When Kovalchuk played the 2012 finals with a wrecked back CBC roasted him every chance they got. He didn't care about the Cup!!! Never mind that he had been lights out the first three rounds, suddenly he didn't care. And then with a minute left in the last game Hughson ripped him one last time and Healy piped up 'well he's been playing badly hurt' like this was a revelation and what does Hughson do? He sniffs that he shouldn't be playing then.
A double standard. Marian Hossa plays through an injury so severe that he cannot feel one foot and Tony Amonte, who couldn't hold Hossa's jock if you taped it to his hand, talks about Hossa not being tough enough. Europeans don't CARE ABOUT THE CUP, don't you know.
Why we're even having this conversation these days I don't even know. To me if you have common sense you know the whole myth is garbage. Look at the history of the game over the last twenty years. Pick any year. 1998 - three of the top five scorers were Europeans. In 2009 four of the top five were Europeans. Europeans have lead their teams to Cups and won the Conn Smythe trophy. Last season Spector (there he is again!) said that you could not win with Europeans or skill guys in your support roles.
Chicago's bottom six forwards in the playoffs - Saad, Shaw, Stallberg, Kruger, Bolland, Frolik.
Chicago's bottom four defencemen - Hjalmarsson, Oduya, Rozsival, Leddy
Good thing nobody told them!!!!
Anyhow if you managed to stick around this long, thank you, a bit long winded I know. My final thought is this. The hilarious thing about the this whole narrative idea is that you get the people generally going on about character and pride, guys like Simmons and Spector, are the guys who go on and on about 'WATCHING THE GAME' the most. Bring up Corsi and JUST WATCH THE GAME they say.
I'm not a huge stats guy, mostly because I have slight ADD (look, a bird!) but like most thinking people I think they help tell part of the story and when properly applied they add important information. That said I find it hilarious that the biggest proponents of 'just watching the game' are also the biggest proponents of things that you cannot see, character and clutchiness and whatnot.
I believe in Corsi and Fenwick taken in context. I also recognize that Joffrey Lupul is usually going to bail out rather than get smoked to make a play while someone like Hossa is not, mostly because the guy who hits Hossa is probably just going to fall over, but also because Hossa is tougher than Lupul (who is a million times tougher than you or I) and a lot better hockey player.
Just don't try and tell me that a team's fortunes can be explained through character or lack thereof because these arguments are only so much voodoo. You find 'advanced' stats hard (hint, its shot attempts basically, they are not that advanced), tell me how a team has loads of character and try one month and then weeks later they do not. Tell me how a team has heart and knows how to win one round and then do not one round later?
You want to talk about hocus pocus bullshit.
You want to talk to me about intangibles and character?
Just watch the fucking game and spare me the fairy tales.
Posted by Black Dog at 9:18 PM