Any time you find yourself judging a player's personality from a postgame clip, remember that this is what it looks like from his point of view.

The playoffs are the best time of the hockey season for storytelling. Regular season hockey is an utter mess. Thirty teams running back and forth across the continent, skittering up and down the standings, getting hurt and getting healthy and getting hurt again, firing coaches and swapping players all around- it’s madness. There’s a lot of action, sure, but its tough for narrative and especially tough for grand narrative. All the bustle makes it difficult to tell the significant from the trivial, and everyone’s attention is fractured and fragmented, like a puppy thrown into an empty swimming pool full of squirrels. But in the postseason the stories virtually write themselves: the stretches of relevant games are short, the decisive moments are obvious, and the persons of interest stand out clearly. Regular season hockey needs some careful emplotting to make narrative sense, but the postseason is real life made into a plot.

Personally, I’m a big fan of narrative. Not only are stories fun, they’re also a fantastically efficient way for the human mind to sort and recall information. In fact, I’d say that narrative-construction is the essence of all learning and the foundation of our ability to understand the world around us. But… BUT… that does not mean that all narratives are equally good. Like anything else, there are good stories and there are bad stories, and (here I confine myself to stories told about real people and real events, not pure fiction) the difference between the two is not just how interesting they are. Good narratives are thought-provoking and evidence-based. Bad narratives are thought-killing and evidence-indifferent. And sadly, despite all their potential to draw up deep, complex, fascinating hockey stories, the playoffs are often swamped in terrible, terrible narratives.

The worst hockey narratives are usually narratives of personality. Narratives of personality are those hockey stories that put forth some individual character trait as the proximate cause of winning and losing. Now, undoubtedly character traits sometimes play some role in the outcome of games, but narratives of personality often happily ignore all the amoral skill, random variance, and raw luck that drive hockey outcomes in favor of pinning results on how somebody or another felt. They’re reductionist, but more than that, in a hundred years of hockey history, they’ve also become lazy. Rather than making people think about the game in an original, creative, individual way, they serve up pat, generic, warmed-over explanations. They’ve become cookie-cutter stories we impose on reality rather than authentic lessons we draw from reality. They’re lazy.

So, without further ado, I present my candidates for the top-five worst narratives of personality in hockey. When you hear these, kittens, reach for your gun. No, wait, not your gun, that would be overdoing it. Your skepticism. Reach for your skepticism.

  1. The Glorious LeaderEver since Messier took his glowering, blustering, swaggering personality and called it ‘leadership’, folk have been judging captains inadequate for failing to play up to the role. Every time a ‘C’ is up for grabs, there’s a flurry of articles about whether this guy or that guy has the necessary ‘leadership’ to wear the hallowed letter, and every player who wears a ‘C’ on a struggling team suffers a steady stream of insults to his manliness, maturity, resolve, and charisma.

    Why you shouldn’t buy it: Yes, leadership is a real thing, but on the list of things that make a hockey team successful, it’s way, way down near the bottom, somewhere in between supportive WAGS and a good pre-game soccer circle. The most a good leader can do is make the good times a hair better and the bad times marginally less excruciating, but even the leadingest leader who ever led cannot make a mediocre team great.  Yet that is what narratives about leadership routinely expect a captain to do. There’s nothing inherently wrong with praising a player for his extraordinary leadership, even if it’s a little bit made up, but too often contemporary leadership stories turn into negative screeds that scapegoat a talented player for what amounts to not having the magic power to make his teammates better through sheer force of charisma. Hockey’s notion of leadership has turned into a reified caricature that columnists use like a club to beat players with.

    How it could be better: Leadership isn’t a superpower that makes winning. Stop expecting players who wear the ‘C’ to engage in theatrical displays of Steely Resolve and Inspirational Speechifying. Leadership and mentoring in hockey can come from all sorts of different players with all sorts of different team roles in all sorts of forms. Sure, sometimes it’s blustery, but often it can be easygoing, quiet, funny, edgy. So go ahead and appreciate it where you find it, but don’t get all panicky and indignant if you can’t see it. Most of the time, the problem isn’t what the players are doing, it’s what the fans are looking for.

  2. The Enigmatic Russian What’s with that guy, anyway? He shows flashes of brilliance but then disappears for games at a time. If only he tried harder he’d be great, right? If only the coach could figure out how to motivate him? If only he wasn’t such a cypher, why, our second line would be a first line!

    Why you shouldn’t buy it: News flash: people from different cultures who speak different languages can be difficult to understand. Unlike Swedes and Finns, Russian players tend to struggle more with learning English and expressing themselves in Canadian hockey idioms and cliches. Consequently, especially early in their careers, they sound funny, and understandably, some of them would rather keep quiet than sound funny on TV. Canadian players who are streaky or struggling know how to talk to the cameras in a way that the viewers at home can sympathize with, and hence no matter what they do, we don’t find them mysterious. That Russian on your team who shows flashes of inconsistent talent ? He’s not ‘uncoachable’. It’s not that he ‘doesn’t want to score’. He’s just not that good. Live with it.

    How it could be better: Given how long there have been Russian players in the NHL, North Americans still know basically nothing about post-Soviet Russian hockey culture. We don’t know how Russians talk about hockey in Russian, the things they value, the cultural cliches through which they express their notions of leadership and work ethic. We know exactly how a ‘Good Canadian Boy’ is supposed to act, but we’ve got pretty much no idea how a ‘Good Russian Boy’ would behave, so we judge them according to our cultural standards and, naturally, find them lacking. The cliché of the enigmatic Russian doesn’t say anything about Russians, it says that North Americans still don’t know enough about the rest of the hockey world. Time to get on that.

  3. Maybe He Has...This is the most modern of the narratives of personality, and it reflects a general trend of neurological thinking and amateur diagnosis in the culture as a whole. People looooove to look at celebrities through the lens of the DSM IV, attributing to them a whole range of personality disorders and mental illnesses. In hockey, this has become exponentially more common in recent years, and now we see fans and journalists suggesting, speculating, or implying that players have everything from Asperger’s to radiation-induced mental deficiencies (yes, I have seen that; no, I’m not going to link to it).

    Why you shouldn’t buy it: These things are serious problems, and making up stories about who might suffer from them without MASSIVE evidence is seriously disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to healthy players who get their perfectly natural personalities reduced to symptoms of some fictive disorder, and it’s disrespectful to the players who might be struggling with these problems and still appear completely okay. It’s can be tough for even the close friends and family to see when a person is suffering from depression or CTE or drug addiction, so it’s wildly hubristic to think that you could tell from a few clips. Bottom line: if you’re not any kind of doctor, don’t try to diagnose strangers through a TV screen. In fact, even if you ARE a doctor, don’t try to diagnose strangers through a TV screen.

    How it could be better: There are plenty of ex-hockey players who have struggled with mental illness and addiction, and who- now that their careers are no longer on the line- are happy and even eager to tell their stories to any open ear. You want to talk about struggles with concussion symptoms? With alcoholism? With depression? Find a guy who wants to tell his story and listen good.

  4. The Big Bad Bruins (or Flyers, or whoever, but usually Bruins)That team, man, they’re intimidating. Other teams are scared of them. They win games because smaller players are afraid of their crushing hits and eager fists.

    Why you shouldn’t buy it: Okay, yeah, sure, Milan Lucic is a scary dude, and Angry Chara is the stuff of nightmares, but NHL players don’t get to be NHL players if they’re easily scared into shitty play by big, thwacky guys. In fact, smaller players have to work twice as hard as big ones to make the Show- scouts don’t get all hockey-tumescent over 5’8” the way they do over 6’4”- and a lot of that work is being able to take hits or evade hits without sacrificing effectiveness. Intimidation is undoubtedly one part of the hockey tactics toolbox, but it’s not the secret to winning, and there are lots of aggressive teams and aggressive players who’ve bigged and thwacked their way to the bottom of the standings. Saying that the big, bad team won because they’re big and bad is such a cliché that when I hear it I have serious doubts whether the speaker even watched the game.

    How it could be better: You think that game was won on force of intimidation? Show your work. This isn’t 1964 anymore, we’re not seeing games on blurry black and white screens once and never again. There is a whole internet out there full of high-definition game footage. Intimidation isn’t invisible- if the losing team was holding back or giving up on plays, there should be video evidence. After all, you saw it, didn’t you? So show the world what you’re talking about. Prove it.

  5. The Cancer in the Room A team goes through an inexplicable slump, and it starts to boil up from some indefinable sludge of gossip and innuendo, whispers that turn into rants- it’s all that guy. He’s the problem. He parties too much. Too egotistical. Not friendly. Not a team player. He’s the one dragging us down. He’s the one we need to get rid of.

    Why you shouldn’t buy it: Firstly, group dynamics are complex and almost never so simple as one person bringing trouble to an otherwise harmonious community, so the very notion that one player could ruin a team should draw automatic skepticism. But the problem is far more than just irrationality. Making up stories about people you do not know and situations you have no direct experience of is flat-out wrong. It’s unethical. You are not in the room. The reporters, except for the token media scrum, are not in the room. The room is the private backspace for players, and nobody who isn’t there has any grounds to speak to its relationships. Teams keep The Room private for a reason, which is to give the group time and space to work out its various interpersonal conflicts without the glare of the spotlights adding extra stress, villainizing guys for the horrible sin of being awkward or unpopular. That’s a damn good reason for setting boundaries and a damn good reason for respecting them. Also, the Cancer in the Room is usually a lame excuse used to justify a trade that can’t be justified on hockey grounds, and that shit shouldn’t fly.

    How it could be better: It can’t be. It’s bullshit, and worse than that, it’s destructive bullshit that does nothing but harm to the very players we supposedly want to succeed. Yeah, I know, gossip is fun, but in this case, don’t. Just don’t.

I’m not denying that personality and character can have an impact on hockey games. I’m not denying that the famous intangibles describe real human qualities that can and do make a difference. And I understand why we’re so drawn to these kind of narratives. It’s comforting to believe that human choices rather than genetic blessings, good business sense, or dumb luck drive the outcome of games and seasons. It fits our desire for cosmic justice to believe that people win because they are good and lose because they are flawed. But hockey is far more complicated than that, and complicated in ways that are much harder to think about: probability, economics, culture, strategy. Our narratives of personality have become so generic and simplistic that they no longer do justice to the richness of the game. These stories are often wrong and pretty much always boring. They need to be challenged and reinvented.

Or just taken out back behind the shed and put down.

Comments (13)

  1. “Okay, yeah, sure, Milan Lucic is a scary dude, and Angry Chara is the stuff of nightmares, but NHL players don’t get to be NHL players if they’re easily scared into shitty play by big, thwacky guys. ”

    Anyone who believes fighting is necessary in hockey for its alleged “deterrence” factor should just read No 4 of this post. Well said.

  2. Thanks. Great post! This is something Don Cherry should read but probably can’t. Nice to hear some rational thought in a sport that is lousy with “experts” and “analysts” who are primarily high school dropouts with post-concussion symptoms.

  3. Excellent story.

  4. Ellen,

    All I can say is brilliant. I love your writing because it is scholarly but you hockey knowledge and personal voice shines through. You are so right that hockey is much more complex than the “easy” stories we gravitate towards (and that those stories can be unethical and cause hurt to individuals).

    Thanks for a great read,
    Lynsey

  5. This is an outstanding piece! The fact that it’s not bleedingly obvious to fans that two dudes getting into a hockey fight after a hit, or post-whistle scrums, do NOTHING is a sad commentary. Same deal with “leadership” — always curious what fans think is supposed to happen.

  6. “but even the leadingest leader who ever led cannot make a mediocre team great”
    How about George Washington? Robert E Lee? I agree it’s an overdone narrative, and maybe my analogy is more suitable to coaching, but a great leader can inspire people to be better than they would be otherwise. Even if it’s only 5% better, that adds up over time across a whole roster.

    • Well, for George, the great leadership tag gets applied after the leader is successful…and I don’t know if he should get credit for “inspiring” the troops, or for being a strong tactician.

    • I would concede that leadership, insofar as it represents the ability to organize people and focus them towards a common end, can certainly make a difference in certain short-term situations. My problems with the standard narratives of leadership are:

      A) it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Different groups of people have different dynamics and personalities, and the kind of person who might rise to the front of one group isn’t necessarily the right person for another. Leadership isn’t an abstraction; it’s not a characteristic that intrinsically resides in certain players. It’s a contextual role. So just because somebody doesn’t fit the cliche of a leader doesn’t mean he’s not leading, and conversely, someone who says and does all the leaderly-looking things might have no pull whatsoever in the room.

      B) A leader is never going to be the difference between a bad team and a good team. Yes, he can help, and yes, it is nice to have, but it’s fundamentally wrong to blame ‘leadership’ for radical swings in either success or failure. A lot of times the guys who get called great leaders in the press are just guys on hot teams who know how to say the right things in an interview.

    • I thought Ellen’s point was dead on. This is why the “Mark Messier is the Greatest Hockey Leader Ever” narrative conveniently omits his disastrous 3-year stint with the Canucks. Even on a team with superstars Pavel Bure and Alex Mogilny, Messier was not able to motivate the team to be better than the overall crappy team that it was.

  7. More hockey writing should include the word tumescent. These narratives are so tired, but don’t expect the old school to drop the morality of sports in favor of randomness and chaos theory anytime soon.

    • Personally, I think best sports narratives involve both human agency and randomness, because that’s sort of what it’s all about, isn’t it? People struggling against each other, sure, but also against their own limitations and the various twistings and turnings of fate? There’s space for both rationality and emotion in life; likewise, there’s space for both in hockey. The trick is figuring out how to accurately represent the balance between the two. Like any difficult grey area, I think sometimes people tend to try to avoid it by going for either the black or the white answer.

  8. These narratives, like many cliches and stereotypes, exist for a reason. Often they’re built on what is actually happening, but in many cases, i.e. “The Cancer in the Room,” we will never know exactly what is going on. Doesn’t mean they should be dismissed outright, because I don’t see anything better coming in to replace them.

  9. hockey-tumescent? best.phrase.ever.

    oh, and great article to boot.

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