“In the playoffs, will beats skill.”

-Kevin Constantine

That, Kevin Constantine, is a very controversial statement. Will, you say? What of hunger? I have heard that hunger beats skill in the playoffs. Clutchness, also. And what of drive, desire, determination? What of toughness? What of hard work? There are those among your fellow coaches who would argue that those, too, beat skill. There are players who would tell you that the beating of skill is all a matter of preparation and visualization. There are statisticians who would tell you that it is entirely a matter of luck and variance. The stuff of playoff victory is a mysterious and controversial substance indeed. It is far more, and sometimes far less, than will.

But the important thing about the playoffs is not so much this question of what beats skill. It’s the fact that something beats skill. The winning of the Cup is not like the winning of the regular season, although the game is much the same in both contexts. The regular season is the domain of talent. The postseason is the domain of… other things.

In fact, the playoffs are deliberately designed so that something beats skill. They’re a ridiculously small sample of hockey. The seven games that comprise a series are less than most cold streaks in the regular season. The four games it takes to be eliminated are fewer than a team might drop to a midwinter flu or a particularly rough period of travel. Sixteen wins over two months? On the scale of normal hockey that’s a dull .500 pace. On the scale of the playoffs, it’s ultimate victory.

Very strange stuff, this playing-off. Forget that it’s standard practice in virtually every team sport. Forget that every hockey season you can remember has ended with this ritual tournament. Think about the logic of it. We go through six months of regular season play, 82 games of everyone meeting everyone according to a neatly manicured schedule, in order to establish a hierarchy of teams from best to worst. Now, this hierarchy isn’t perfect, but it’s okay. Mostly the good teams end up at the top and the bad teams at the bottom and the great mass of meh in the great boring middle. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, by the time the regular season is over, the true talent has had enough time to show itself. We’ve learned who’s the best in the NHL.

If we wanted to, we could easily give the Cup to the most skilled team. We could lengthen the regular season by a couple of months and then award the championship to the team with the best record, which would then reflect even more closely the team with the most talent. That would be more just, wouldn’t it? More reflective of real ability? More honest? And yet, rather than do our best to reward demonstrated, durable skill, we take all that knowledge we’ve gleaned from months of systematic play and we just throw it away. We use it to assign match-ups and determine home ice and then we toss it out the window and into the dumpster with the spent batteries and broken appliances and other useless things. And then we make up something completely different, a brief tournament where the outcomes can be decisively swayed by any number of tiny factors- bad bounces, injuries, hot rookies, cold veterans, botched calls, random variation, the hockey gods rolling dice. And it is that unpredictable little tournament, which might be won by almost anyone on the basis of nearly anything, that we use to award the greatest prize we have to give.

It’s as though we identify the most skilled only so that we know who to root against.

You know what I think?

I think we want to see skill lose.

I know, I know, it seems contradictory to the whole notion of sports. Faster, higher, stronger, etc etc. On this one thing, the sociology and the marketing of sport agree: the entertainment value of competition is seeing the best athletes achieving the best things. It’s about setting records and then breaking them, about pushing the boundaries of the possible ever further and further into the territory of the impossible. Sports are where we take people so remarkably gifted they’re barely even identifiable as human and transform them into demigods for the worshiping. It’s where we’re supposed to venerate skill.

But as much as we do admire these latter day heroes, sometimes- somewhere deep down beneath the awe and the fascination and the love- we resent them a little bit too. The most truly talented athletes and the best teams are almost annoyingly good, with their wealth and their fame and their stadia of swooning fans, all those God-given gifts and the victories flocking around them like pigeons around the elderly. It’s too much. It’s unfair in a way that’s eerily reflective of the most painful ways that life can be unfair: some guys have all the luck.

Most of us are not elite in any way, shape, or form. We are not the fifty-goal-scorers of anything. We work hard and do our best, and usually we get by pretty well, and sometimes we even get by quite well, but nevertheless, most of life is blocking shots and mucking in corners. Doesn’t matter what the job is or the role. Whether as teachers or welders, waiters or soldiers, moms or friends, we are pretty much never the best. In the long living of life, in everything we do, we mostly average out to average. Ordinary.

No player in the NHL is ordinary by the standards of normal people, of course, but by the standards of their profession, most of them are. The League is overwhelmingly comprised of guys who are the NHL equivalent of an average person. Guys who come to the rink day after day and do the job, everything they’re supposed to do, the workouts and the practices and the pressers, and never become stars. Guys who dream, when they dream, not of winning the Art Ross but of getting another contract next year. Guys for whom the work of hockey isn’t fantastical dekes and laser shots but dull thumps against the boards and not losing their man in the D-zone. Good, but average, players.

But every one of them has the capacity for something incredible. Somewhere, mixed in to all that average, there are a few flecks of brilliance- great shots he might shoot, perfect passes he might pass, a great play he might set in motion. Those moments of greatness come in the regular season and a guy gets a hug from his teammates and a smile from the coach and maybe a third star if he’s lucky, but then they fade away into the background, drowned out by the highlight reels and the scoring races, the more consistent greatness of the stars.

But in the playoffs? In the playoffs the very best effort of an ordinary man can become legend, the sort of thing that makes him a hero in his hometown and a saint in his adopted city. The sort of thing that kids will reenact in street hockey and the local press will show clips of in retrospective montages and when he is old and weak and pays with his credit card in a restaurant the waitress will look at the name and double-take a little, jaw dropped slightly, saying, hey, you’re…! The sort of thing his children will get free beers for twenty years down the road, should they happen into certain more fanatical bars.

This is why we have the playoffs, a long series of object lessons in all the somethings that can beat skill. We watch, night after night, looking not just for expressions of talent but for all the other stuff, the moments of serendipity, the extraordinary seconds of tenacity and desperation and need that would mean nothing on the long scale of the season but could be the whole of everything in the postseason. We watch to see average players get rewarded for all the tremendous work they’ve put in over long decades just to become average in the NHL. We watch for the chances that might make some small, simple, solid little play by some small, simple, solid little player into a heart-stopping miracle. We watch because that’s us, and that’s what we hope for ourselves, that someday, maybe, if the stars align, if we’re ready, we could summon up one great play from the depths of our averageness that might break life wide open.

We watch for overtime in game seven and that one eccentric bounce that puts the puck perfectly on the tape of the most unlikely stick on the ice, and for that half-second of tension when we hold our breath on the farthest edge of hope and wait, to see if an ordinary player can explode into legend.

If the stars align. If he’s ready.


Comments (12)

  1. I think the Score should have an Ellen Etchingham/Don Cherry Parody back-and-forth column. That would be the best thing in the history of things.

  2. Wow. Amazing piece. Bravo for putting our feelings into words.

  3. Whose decision was it to put a picture of Fernando Pisani vs Cam Ward from 2006 SCF with the caption “Will beats skill?” L. O. L.

    • That Fernando Pisani goal is the epitome of what he’s trying to say! Pisani is by NO means a star, hell he’s barely a third liner, but he scored what could’ve been the most crucial and important goal the Oilers had seen in years if they had won the stanley cup. Now of course that didn’t happen, But Pisani is not a superstar, he isn’t Ales Hemsky or Chris Pronger scoring the goal, He’s the third line penalty killer who’s out there to provide energy and kill a penalty, He managed to pick off the puck and score a gorgeous short handed goal in Overtime nonetheless and WILLED his team into game 7. That is why the Fernando Pisani picture was shown, Think before you comment.

      • A shitty #8 seed lost to a team from Raleigh NC. Never mind you just called Ales Hemsky a superstar while pose a “coulda shoulda” argument. Also, the author’s a woman so who needs to think before they comment? LOL

        • As soon as I had finished reading the article, I thought that the picture above was the perfect one anyone could choose, the epitome of the subject at hand. As the other commenter pointed out, Pisani was a third liner, PKer and energy guy. Yet he was the Oilers goal scoring leader throughout the playoffs that year, scoring 14 when the next in line only scored 7 (Horcoff and Smyth each). Carolinas leading scorer, Brindamour, only had 12. Add in the fact that 5 of those were game winners. Huge goals.

          And that is exactly what Ellen is talking about in this article. Its not about what team wins or loses. Its about how the regular Joes, 3rd and 4th liners, can do some amazing things during the playoffs and Pisani did just that.

  4. The sort of thing his children will get free beers for twenty years down the road, should they happen into certain more fanatical bars.

    Sounds a little like your boss, anywhere in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. :)

    Good essay.

  5. And yet the better team from the regular season (i.e. more skilled) usually wins. See your colleague’s recent blog post: http://blogs.thescore.com/nhl/2011/04/02/the-presidents-trophy-curse-2/

    • Yep. But the point still stands: if we really want the objectively superior to get the prize, why have a postseason at all?

      • I don’t think the point of playoffs is to get what we want. It’s to make it harder, to challenge the best teams, but I don’t know that it’s to the point of wanting good teams to lose. Anyway, there sure is some intense psycho-drama going on these playoff times…

  6. Ellen Etchingham: the 50-goal scorer of hockey writing

  7. This puts into words very well what I think even sport leagues say when they talk about a change in playoff format (baseball is going to add another wild card team to their postseason, and I believe a one-game playoff to determine who advances instead of a series). In a sport where a different pitcher starts every five games, and even in the playoffs teams go down to a three-man rotation, a single game is useless for deciding which team is better. Heck, even a full seven-game series leaves a lot of room for weird things to happen.

    Everyone knows this, and yet the justification I have heard most often is “it will be exciting.” Not fairer, not better for determining the best team, but more exciting. Without saying so I think they are looking to increase interesting storylines and are hopeful that a comparative nobody will channel greatness for a game or three and do something extraordinary and memorable.

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