Finally, NHL hockey is kind of, sort of back.
After weeks of signings and trades, offseason training updates, and fuzzily tweeted photos of rookie scrimmages, today’s the day that full training camps officially open across the league. The 2014-15 season has finally arrived.
As we count down to opening night in less than three weeks, this is a good time to make some new
year’s season’s resolutions. After all, everyone who enjoys this sport, from the brand-new fans to the longtime diehards, could probably stand a little improvement. So let’s take a moment to think about the ways in which we could all become better fans.
You could probably come up with a few self-improvement ideas of your own. But if you could use a nudge, I’ve taken the liberty of making a half-dozen suggestions.
Let’s stop making everything about character
To be clear: Character matters. It matters in all walks of life, and that’s especially true in professional hockey. Some guys work hard, and others are lazy. Some guys are good in the room, and others are poison. Ninety percent of NHL players are so close in talent these days that a little extra effort here or a little bit better team chemistry there could be the difference in deciding a game or two, and those one or two games could decide who makes the playoffs.
But while character matters, it’s not the only thing that matters. And that may come as a surprise if you spend much time consuming what passes for hockey analysis these days. At some point over the last few years, it feels like character went from being one factor out of many to being the most important factor, sometimes even the only one. Every coach explaining away a loss, every columnist breaking down the action, every fan who calls in to the postgame show … these days, everyone drones on and on about character.
And that’s kind of ridiculous, because character isn’t everything. It’s not more important than talent. It’s not more important than systems. It’s not more important than using a player in the right role for his skill set. It’s not even more important than luck (more on that one in a bit).
And yet character — along with related concepts like chemistry, culture, body language, and compete level — has taken over hockey analysis. Teams don’t lose anymore because they have bad players or a flawed game plan. Now, they only lose when they don’t compete hard enough. If everyone had just worked harder, we’re told, everything would have been fine.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is kindergarten thinking: “Everybody can be a winner if they just try their very best.” Well, no, they can’t. Not in the NHL. It’s all well and good to be a hard worker and a good teammate, and players should certainly strive to be both. But some players are just better than others, and sometimes the coach’s X’s and O’s turn out to be a mess, and sometimes you play great and the puck just bounces the wrong way. And at some point we all just stopped talking about that stuff and decided to make it all about personality.
There’s a concept in psychology called the fundamental attribution error, which basically goes like this: When something happens to us, we consider a wide range of reasons, but when it happens to somebody else, we assume that it can only be the result of internal factors. If I cut you off in traffic, it’s because I’ve had a hard day at work and my kids are screaming in the backseat and all of this rain has reduced visibility. If you cut me off, it’s because you’re a jerk.
Once you learn to recognize it, the fundamental attribution error starts showing up everywhere in today’s hockey coverage. A star player who hits a cold streak over the course of a playoff series couldn’t have been shut down by a superior player, or put in the wrong role by his coach, or limited by an injury, or just had a run of plain bad luck over a short span of games. No, he has to have suffered a moral failure. He didn’t compete. He didn’t want it bad enough. He was mentally fragile, he’s not a winner, and he didn’t “just find a way,” whatever that means.
We’ve taken a small but important part of success or failure and made it everything. We’ve turned hockey into a modern morality play, complete with heroes and villains, where the good guy always wins in the end. Because, after all, whoever wins is by definition the good guy, since otherwise they couldn’t have won.
It makes us sound silly, and it’s time to rein it in. “Just do your best and everything will work out fine” is a cute thing to tell a nervous kid on the first day of school. But it’s not a strategy for a professional sports team, and we shouldn’t try to pass it off as intelligent analysis.