John Tortorella, feigning shock and incredulity. This is why reporters don't like him.

The New York Rangers are tired. They have to be. To get to where they are, the LA Kings have played 13 games and 2 OTs, neither of them long. The Rangers, in contrast, have played 17 games and 4 OTs, including one triple overtime marathon. They’ve played more hockey than any team in the postseason, and hockey, as we all know, is a tiring thing.

It would be the easiest thing in the world for John Tortorella to admit as much. He could just come out and say, “Yes, the playoffs are a war of attrition, and we’ve attrited more than most, and yeah, we’re weary, but we’re going to try to battle through it anyway, the best that we can.” To say such a thing would be no more than an acknowledgment of a plain truth and the simple humanity of his players. It would be honest.

And yet, when asked if the team is tired, Tortorella will not even entertain the suggestion. He treats it like a ridiculous notion hardly worthy of consideration. Tired? Now? With at least six games left to win and perhaps as many as eleven left to play? How could we possibly be tired? His assistant coaches and team leaders follow suit- when presented with this narrative by the media, they emphatically reject it.

In an edition of 30 Thoughts from last week that subsequently vanished from the CBC’s site, the Wise and Perspicacious Elliotte Friedman included the following thought:

15. During the second intermission of Devils/Rangers Game 1, asked New York assistant Mike Sullivan about his team looking tired for the first time. He said, “I disagree with that,” then explained it only seemed that way because they were trapped in their zone a few times. John Tortorella disputed a similar question post-game. This is a fascinating tack, because the Rangers sure looked tired.  But, by refusing to even entertain the suggestion, the coaches don’t want the excuse seeping into the dressing room.

The coaches don’t want the excuse seeping into the dressing room. You know what this means, right? It means that Tortorella understands how culture works.

***

The range of human impulses is vast and varied. We contain multitudes, right? Each of us is capable of legion upon legion of behaviors, actions both good and evil, kind and cruel, perfectly reasonable and batshit crazy. With no structure or shaping, these urges would cover an astounding and often self-contradictory range. We would be chaotic creatures.

Culture is not the only thing that disciplines human impulses, but it is one of the major ones. Unlike law, which disciplines behavior by making rules and punishing the violation of them according to a set code, culture operates in a more nebulous way. Rather than making rules, culture presents preferential options. It creates a system of justifications, rationalizations, and excuses that encourages the expression of certain impulses and discourages the expression of others.

For example, imagine you are a North American male. If you are a North American male, this shouldn’t be too difficult, but if you aren’t a male, just pretend you are for a second. Now, as a North American male, do you wear skirts? No, you probably don’t. This is not because there is anything inherently unmasculine about skirts. Ancient Roman dudes wore skirts. Tanzanian dudes wear skirts. Plenty of cultures have considered skirt-wearing to be a perfectly fine thing for a guy to do. But Western culture does not present skirt-wearing as a favored option for guys. So men who have that impulse repress it, do it rarely or quietly or only in certain safe spaces, like drag bars or Halloween parties or sketch comedy. Conversely, men who don’t have the impulse to ever wear a dress are allowed to be self-righteous and vocal about it, and the great mass of men in the middle who don’t have strong impulses either way follow the louder group. Same thing goes for any number of other gendered behaviors- people fall into the role not because it is their own natural impulse, but because the culture encourages the expression of certain impulses and the repression of others until, eventually, it creates an impression of uniform behavior.

There are any number of other examples. Aggression and affection are human universals, but their expression is highly regulated by culture. Sex is regulated by culture. Drinking is regulated by culture. Actually, now that I think about it, pretty much everything short of running away from angry bears is culturally disciplined through the mechanism of favoring certain impulses. It’s powerful shit.

Cultures aren’t just national, either. There are regional cultures, and institutional cultures, and professional cultures. There is a culture of academics. There is a culture of chefs. There is, I am told, a culture of lawyers.

And there is most definitely a culture of hockey players.

Hockey culture is, in fact, an incredibly powerful professional culture. Players are initiated into it at a very young age and, if they’re good, over time they will come to take over more and more of their life. In the case of Canadian hockey culture, it will pull them away from their families, schools, and other social touchstones. It will, often, limit their educational options and other professional experiences. It will make their advancement contingent upon their ability to behave in conformity with the culture and please those who have authority in it. Any professional culture is going to discipline human impulses to a certain extent, but hockey culture is a particularly intense form of discipline.

Part of that discipline involves the repressing of a lot of otherwise natural human feelings. Feelings and urges that we would indulge they are expected to suppress as a matter of professional duty. They’re expected to ignore pain that would have most of us calling in sick to work for days. They’re expected to stifle the kind of self-doubt we would have agonies over.  Stress?  They’re supposed to choke it down.  Family problems? Not to be contemplated.    Hell, John Tortorella is telling his players that they are not allowed to feel tired.

When I questioned why the Nashville Predators allowed the Radulov/Kostitsyn curfew violation to become such a massive distraction for their team, a number of commenters asserted that I was forgetting the humanity of players, that no one could expect a human being to not be emotionally upset by such a violation of team codes. I would counter that hockey routinely expects players to repress their human feelings and impulses. Hockey has no problem asking players to stoically deny distractions like pain, stress, and fatigue. It has no problem asking players to accept unequal treatment, including massive discrepancies in salary, ice time, role, and franchise status between one player and another. There are plenty of things that happen every year that are legitimate human reasons to be distracted from your game, but in virtually every case, hockey culture, from coaches to media to fans to teammates, gives the same response: get over it and play. Hockey does not tolerate the idea of using human foibles as excuses. This doesn’t mean that human foibles never effect play- of course they do. But for the most part, the culture of the game does everything it can to discourage players from dwelling on such things.

Yet, for some reason, dressing room dramas- off-ice shenanigans, personality conflicts, petty jealousies and bickering- have become the permissable distraction. Radulov and Kostitsyn, according to recent sources, got back to the hotel by 1 AM and weren’t drunk. As distractions go, on its own merits, there was no need for it to be a huge deal. A violation, sure, but one that could easily have been taken care of quietly and internally, with a stern message to the rest of the team that there is no excuse for letting resentment over someone else’s bullshit misbehavior affect your play. But once the Predators management starts talking about it in the self-righteous language of moral betrayal, they give their players cultural permission to feel betrayed. By making a spectacle and feeding it to the media, they indulge the distraction. They inflate it. Some players would have felt angry no matter what, but in legitimizing that anger, the organization encourages other players who might not have cared much either way to feel angry as well, and players who honestly don’t give a shit to keep quiet and go along with the mass sense of outrage. It’s the exact opposite of what Tortorella is trying to do with the fatigue storyline. Rather than trying to keep an excuse out of the room, the Predators made a very clear choice to put it in.

It is comparatively rare that teams do this, and usually only with players they’re hoping to move. But media does it all the time. Reporters who would eviscerate a player as weak who let himself be distracted by stress, fatigue, or personal problems will nevertheless wholly support the idea that player just cannot help being distracted by some other guy’s partying or odd personality. It’s a peculiar sport indeed that suggests that a man can be so much machine as to play on reconstructed knees a thousand miles away from his wife and children and stoically withstand that pain and stress, but just can’t deal with the fact that that one dude over there is a bit of a dick.

I’ve done a lot recently on themes of off-ice misbehavior and how harshly hockey judges it because it is very curious to me that, when coaches are so obviously savvy about managing the kind of distractions they allow into rooms, they are so ready to allow off ice shenanigans,which have far less impact on the team than fatigue or injuries or personal problems or any number of the other emotional and physical distractions they expect players to choke down and battle through, to become massively distracting. Honest questions: how is it that we can ask players- human players, with all the impulses and feelings humans have- to stifle nearly every unproductive emotion except resentment? How is it that we can expect them to be the manliest of men in every cliched, traditional way in every aspect of their game, and yet concede that it’s okay for them to behave like 13-year-old girls when it comes to social conflict? Why do we indulge dressing room drama, rather than treating it with Tortorella-level disdain?

Comments (8)

  1. Great question Ellen. Maybe it’s BECAUSE they have to turn those things off that someone else on the squad not living up to one of the simplest ones becomes a major betrayal. It breeds a lack of trust among teammates where it’s needed.

    • There’s something to this, in that jealousy/resentment is a difficult emotion to control, but dressing room dramas don’t always involve someone doing something definably wrong. You get players, like Phil Kessel, who have broken no rules but get blamed (by media, in this case) for team problems simply because they’re somehow ‘not good in the room’. Or consider Richards, who fell out of favor in Philly not because he’d broken any rules but because he didn’t buy in quite the way the coaches would like. Why did fans consider Richards the problem, rather than the team who created a culture so strident that a good, useful player just couldn’t fit in?

  2. Couldn’t help but think of Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ reading this. Hockey culture is internalized. Want to write more but I’m running out the door for dinner!

  3. Good read, and an interesting discussion on hockey culture.

    When it comes to the Predators thing, I think you’re limiting yourself by looking at it only as “a distraction.”
    As you say, “there is most definitely a culture of hockey players,” and “hockey culture is a particularly intense form of discipline.”

    Why would we be surprised when a violation of those cultural norms results in discipline?

    • I understand the Preds thinking and the quasi-military style of dressing room discipline they subscribe to, I just don’t really agree with it. Yes, hockey has a very strict culture, but it’s gotten considerably looser with time. Back in the Original Six days, teams expected as a matter of course to be able to run their players’ lives and discipline them intensely for any tiny violation of the rules. They could do that then. But now? At the NHL level? These guys are wealthy and comparatively free, and I think a dressing room that expects a more modern definition of professional behavior rather than rigid traditional discipline is more effective. If the standard of behavior you want to maintain ends up alienating talented players from the team, I think it’s legitimate to ask if that standard is necessary.

  4. I think you’re narrowing the definition of “culture” too much. What you’re describing is simple denial.

    Denial is underrated a lot of the time, it has its uses, but only over the short term. The thing about denying certain kinds of stress is that it doesn’t always work. Some stresses get stuck in the back of a person’s head, more distracting than if he just stood up and shouted it out.

    I’m not suggesting that the situation isn’t exactly as you describe it, but it sounds inefficient. Public denial is fine but if it’s the same in private it can be toxic to group chemistry.

    • I’d argue that denial is a major mechanism by which culture works, but it’s only the percentage of people whose impulses are very strongly opposed to the cultural current who experience it as denial. Take the men-in-dresses example: there are a certain percentage of men for whom this clothing convention forces denial and creates a lot of stress. But there are lots who don’t feel that strongly either way and will go relatively easily whichever direction the culture pushes. If they grew up in a skirt-wearing culture, they’d wear them, if they didn’t, they won’t, and that’s that. I think this is true of most people on most issues: they don’t feel strongly enough to experience denial, they’ll just float whichever way is easiest.

      Honestly, I think creating a dressing room culture that expects professional behavior in the room and on the ice but takes little or no interest in behavior off it might actually be less stressful in the long run. It gets rid of a lot of problems that don’t actually need to be problems for most guys.

  5. Good article. I have one small addition: what Torts is doing will work, but only inasmuch as his team permits it. While the Rangers believe that Torts is doing this for the good of the room, protecting their interests, it’s fine. The moment it seems to them that Torts is blind to what they’re going through, then the game’s up.

    Personally, I think that Sean Avery reached that point much earlier than the rest of the team. His on-ice value was already diminshed; add that in and he was a goner. But when other players get there, especially one or two key contributors, then Torts is the one walking. And guys like Torts burn out their welcomes awfully fast… I think you’ve described a major reason why.

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