I know a lot of people don’t like stats blogs. They’re turned off by the charts and the sometimes arcane comment thread debates over mathematical modeling issues. They try to read it, and then somewhere in the middle their eyes glaze over and they wander away thinking, how come these number guys never talk about the soul of hockey?

Here’s the thing: they do. They do all the time. Stats blogs are full of narratives and philosopizing and cultural analysis and amateur psychology. It’s just always in either the introduction or the conclusion. Read a blog post about some bit of statistical reasoning, and 90% of it will be tightly-argued, evidence-based, chart-heavy discussion of some particular detail of the game, and then suddenly the conclusion will take an abrupt left-turn into a massive philosophical generalization about the nature of hockey. Honestly, sometimes I think advanced statisticians could solve their entire PR problem if they just chopped off their concluding paragraphs and made them into separate posts.

For example, last Wednesday, the sometimes brilliant and often combative Tyler Dellow posted a piece that was nominally about the Rangers’ playoff shot-blocking. As in, that’s what the tightly-argued, evidence-based, data-rich part was about. However, wrapped around this statsy part was a whole other argument, comparing soccer and hockey and questioning why there isn’t much “room for the idea that aesthetics matter” in hockey. That’s an important question, rarely asked and even more rarely answered, and worthy of a post in its own right. Like, for example, this one.

It isn’t entirely true that hockey lacks for conversation about aesthetics, although (for reasons to be discussed about three paragraphs down) it doesn’t often use words like aesthetics, or worse yet, beauty. Hockey’s code words for beautiful are things like exciting, fast, open. People calling for more aesthetically pleasing hockey speak of wanting to see space created and chances exchanged. They talk about wanting to push offense and limit defense. Although hockey conversation is not nearly so comfortable with likening the game to art as soccer conversation is, there is most certainly a clear idea of what beautiful hockey should look like, and plenty of people lamenting its absence or longing for its return.

***

One of the tragedies of hockey is that hockey fans have always wanted it to be beautiful and it has always refused. The dead puck era that predated the lockout was only the most recent in a series of painful deadenings of the game that go all the way back to the 20s, when the NHL first started tinkering by introducing its first set of “anti-defense” rules. Since then, the history of hockey has been a cycle of new rules created to foil defense, followed by bursts of offensive flair, followed by the development of new defensive strategies (or the revivification of old ones), followed by yet another set of rule tweaks. My research on the issue has barely begun and I’ve already found movements to speed up the game and free offensive creativity in the late 20s, the late 40s, the mid-50s and mid-60s. The methods are different- Add lines! Remove lines! Call more penalties! Call fewer penalties! New rules!- but the aim is the same: to make the game faster, higher scoring, more spacious, to give offense room to breathe.  And it always works, for a while, until some ingenious coach comes along with a new form of trapping or clobbering.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

Fast, fun, exciting, creative hockey is the game’s dream, but tight, physical, defensive hockey is its nature. Without constant adjustment, hockey’s inertia- the natural strategizing and competing of coaches for advantages- pulls towards defense. The Eighties were the only long stretch of NHL hockey history when defense was notably slow to catch up to offensive progress. That kind of hockey has never been the norm before or since. It could be that it never will be, on the small ice, with so much contact.

***

It is not only tactics and strategy that pull hockey towards defense. It’s also the values the sport has developed on this continent. We all know that this is a two-spirited game, one half of it graceful, elegant, and stylish, the other rough, brutal, and simple. It pulls towards both the loveliness of figure skating and the violence of blood sport, and that tension has never been easy to reconcile. But while Canadian hockey desires long for an exciting game, Canadian hockey values pull the other way. The skills and qualities that fans, coaches, and pundits express the most affection for are not skill, grace and the ability to make extraordinary plays. They’re toughness, grit, hustle, and truculence. NHL hockey idolizes those who hit, fight, block, backcheck, muck, grind, and otherwise engage in the sort of behaviors that slow the game, take away space, and punish offensive creativity. Every time you see a huge open ice hit against a puck carrier in the process of trying to make a fancy play, you see beautiful hockey dying. Every time you see three guys dive heartfully across a shooting lane, you see offense being limited. And when they pull up the replays at the intermission, it’s not the guy who got leveled trying to make space for himself who’ll be praised, it’s not the shooter trying to manuever clear of the blockers. The hero of these plays is never the player who tried to do something beautiful. It’s the player who stopped the beautiful thing from happening. Hockey is a sport where the creative geniuses are supposed to be humble and effacing about their abilities, while grinders get to be self-righteous about their style of play. It’s been that way since your grandfather was a boy.

***

Parity, too, mitigates against aesthetic values, or the value of anything other than winning. One of the consequences of a high-parity league is that it’s very hard to stay at the top but still possible to fall to the bottom. Even if we, for the moment, assume a level of near-perfect parity that we have not yet realized, the chances of winning are still not 1/30 for everyone. They’re not 1/30 for the Leafs, or the Islanders, or the Oilers. They’re not 1/30 for the teams that are actually bad. To be one of the teams with the 1/20, or 1/16 chance of winning, you have to have both talent and a Machiavellian will to pursue small advantages. In a low-parity league, and especially in a club system, with tons of teams and the top positions more or less locked down by inherited privilege, the teams that have no hope of making the top need other values to keep them going, creating space for aesthetic values. In a high-parity league like the NHL, where the willingness to collapse into a defensive shell from time to time can easily be the difference between a good team and a Cup team, it’s harder to stand on principle.

***

As much as fans do long for more exciting, more beautiful hockey, would they have patience for it if it meant losing? This is the thing about values in sport, be they culture, ethics, or aesthetics: as much as people say they care about the value more than winning, usually the subtext is that on some level, they believe that that value will eventually lead to winning. Many of the Predators fans who defended their dressing room culture to me did so on the grounds that, although it may conflict with winning in the short term, they believe that over the long-term it is necessary for winning. Similarly, a lot of hockey fans who call for their team to play a more open style do so not only because they believe it will be more entertaining, but because they believe they have players who will perform better that way. They believe they can win with it. But if it doesn’t win? If it fails abjectly for season after season running into decades? If it makes the team not better but worse? Constant losing, no matter what the values behind it, is extraordinarily painful. I doubt any fan base in the sport has enough love for wide-open hockey to be happy that their team gets killed playing it.

***

Perhaps hockey cannot be beautiful without being successful. Perhaps in soccer, with all that lovely open grass to play across, it is possible to play an extraordinarily pretty game without winning. But hockey is played on a tiny rink at a frenetic pace. In order for fast, exciting, offensive hockey to be fast, exciting, offensive hockey, it needs to succeed. It needs to be able to build up speed and create chances. I hate to resort to cliché, but it needs to be able to set the tone. But an offensive team cannot just choose to set the tone no matter what its opponents do. An ideological commitment isn’t enough. A team trying to play wide-open hockey against tight defensive opposition will just see its plays broken up in the neutral zone while still half-formed, its pretty shots bouncing ineffectually off a forest of bodies in the slot. Without a massive talent differential in favor of the firewagon team, and sometimes even with such a massive differential, it is just too easy for slow, defensive hockey to drag the game down to its level. Beautiful hockey has to be either the result of the skill of the team or the structure of the league. It cannot simply be willed into existence by a single GM and his ideological commitments.

***

Despite all the strategic and cultural weight against it, beautiful hockey hasn’t disappeared from the world. Some of the storylines of these playoffs- the Capitals’ sad and apparently voluntary collapse into dullness, the tedious Rangers’ shot-blocking that prompted Dellow’s article- fit very neatly with the media fondness for grinding physicality over elegant creativity, but those two teams do not define the fullness of North American hockey. There are a few teams that consistently play stylishly, Detroit for example, but they do it because they have the skill to do it and win. Most teams are purely opportunistic. When they’ve got good talent on the roster and the wind at their backs, they’ll play more aggressively, more openly, and more beautifully. When they’re weak, be it a weak season or a weak moment, they’ll fall back on defensive tactics. The Rangers strategy is, at least in part, a symptom of their other problems, notably fatigue (whatever Tortorella may say) and an offensive cold streak. They’re resorting to such play because they have to, because they’ve come too far, because giving up in the postseason isn’t an option. The Canadiens did the same thing in 2010, on the strength of their hot goalie, and it got them to the Conference Final as well. It’s not so much an ideological commitment to dull hockey as a recognition that they don’t have the players, the energy, or the mojo to play exciting hockey at this moment, against these opponents. It is one thing to ask a team to value aesthetics. It’s quite another to ask them to go gently onto those green golf courses. The former a hockey team will do, when they have the players and the percentages for it. The latter, they won’t, and who can blame them for that?

***

Structurally, right now, I don’t think it’s possible for a North American hockey team to make the kind of ideological commitment Dellow admires soccer managers for making. There’s too much culture and custom lined up against it, it’s not clear if it’s even possible to play beautiful, losing hockey, and there isn’t a powerful movement of fans concentrated in any one city that unambiguously favors aesthetic hockey over tough hockey.

Soccer’s conversation about aesthetic values is not just a matter of choice. It has a history. Their game has been broadly, loudly, and inescapably international for decades, and that international character has brought with it a plethora of contending cultural values. It’s created an atmosphere where no value or ideology can be unquestionably dominant, and where people often hold on to deep attachment to play styles both for their own sake and as an element of personal and social identity. Although North American hockey is played by people from several different cultures, its media, management, and coaching positions are all filled by people who follow the Canadian customs. The attitude towards hockey values from other cultures ranges all the way from blissful ignorance to open contempt. It’s an extraordinarily homogenous world, and its possibilities correspondingly limited.

NHL hockey could be a more beautiful game. That could happen. But it will require far more than simply someone stepping up and saying ‘I’m going to make my team play beautiful’. There needs to be a cultural framework for fans to support that. There needs to be a team that can make ‘beautiful’ work as a style, win or lose. And there may well need to be significant structural changes- bigger ice, more restrictions on contact, maybe even roster limits. A lot of transformations, many of which are possible, none of which will happen quickly or easily.

If we want beauty in hockey, we either must commit to such transformations, or just train ourselves to appreciate the aesthetics of good gap control.

Comments (22)

  1. While this comment has neither depth nor beauty, it has plenty of simplicity-

    Well done!

  2. Excellent post.

  3. If the game can get to where you think it should be, i’d be happy to follow, but there’s a part of me that enjoys many of the things that supposedly make hockey an ugly sport. I absolutely love watching crisp passing, smooth skating, and creative offense, but i’m just as wowed by determination, hustle, and the toughness required to do some of the dirty work required to keep a play alive. While i don’t necessarily love watching 100 blocked shots a game, do love many blocked shots on an individual basis. That last ditch, self sacrificing dive, made just in the nick of time to save a potential goal in the waning minutes of the game.

    There are certainly leagues in existence that exhibit the type of beautiful aesthetic being discussed, but hardly anybody watches them. Clearly they do not hold a candle to the NHL in terms of talent, but if what people craved the most was to watch a beautiful game, they certainly have that avenue of redress.

    I think what makes the game great is that there is both beauty and brutality wrapped into one. I wouldn’t be upset with more beauty, but i would be upset if we lost the brutality entirely.

    • I agree. This post isn’t very deeply about what I personally want, more just exploring an issue for the sake of exploration. My own feeling is that Canadian hockey does have a tendency to pull a bit too hard in favor of the brutality, especially on the media side. I would like to see more appreciation of raw skill and style, without the light slagging such things often get for being associated with softness and selfishness. It seems like skill guys are always under pressure to prove that they can live up to grinder-values, which they shouldn’t always have to.

      That said, I do find a lot of beauty in even defensive hockey, more so than I’ve ever been able to find in any brand of soccer. And I (guiltily, sometimes) love the violence.

      • I do agree with you that the skill guys often take a lot of shit for being “soft”, whether they actually are or aren’t. But i don’t think that’s really an issue inherent to hockey as it is an issue with men and insecurity in general. Tough guys (read guys with less skill) will often try to find ways to knock down those above them in whatever avenues they have accessible to them. When a guy is known for his skill and less for his physical play, it’s an opportunity to label him as soft. It’s blue collar vs. white collar. Working class guys stick together.

        • True, but why must the hockey media participate in the same system of judgement? There were a few great examples of it in Tyler’s piece, which seem to me to be quite representative.

          • I think the media is just as much a part of the culture as the guys playing the sport. I think it was your article that discussed the people that either love something, hate something, or don’t care enough to go against the grain of cultural expectations. I mean, really, how few people in media are there that care enough to stand up and defend the softies or put down the trench guys. And why would they even want to? Class warfare makes for great sensationalism.

            This is a really great topic you’ve brought up.

          • The other thing i forgot to add about the media, is that they have the distinct advantage of being christened as “objective” and “unbiased”. They’re indebted into the same cultural pulls as the rest of us. When they call guys out for being soft, it’s journalism.

  4. There is nothing more beautiful than a tape-to-tape saucer pass…

    I remember watching a NCAA DIII team in Green Bay (St. Norbert’s College, actually one of the best DIII teams at the time) work the saucer pass ad nauseum, to the point where it was pervasive in the game itself. Yeah, they were a bunch of 23-27 year old Canadians who would never make it, but man it was a wonderful thing to watch.

  5. When are you going to write a book? And where can I buy it? :-)

  6. As a kid I remember watching particular international teams and feeling like I could see different aesthetics.
    The Swedes had their own way of skating, passing etc.
    The Finns always seemed to be a grittier, smaller version of the Swedes.
    The Russians had a level of skill that I felt no one could touch.
    The closest thing I can think of to the “beautiful” hockey that you’re talking about here is the 1972 summit series Russian team (I wasn’t even close to alive then, god love DVD releases and you tube).
    The team always seemed to play as a 5 man unit, and the entire time they were weaving, passing controlling play. It was the closest thing to soccer that I have seen a 5 man unit of hockey players perform.
    The mid 90s Detroit Russian 5 was the closest thing the NHL has seen in my own humble, uneducated opinion.

    As always Ellen… Great Job!

  7. Another great post. I always appreciate that Ellen brings cultural studies to the hockey discussion–math does the micro quite well but often at expense of the macro that culture reveals. I would note also that this post works really well at bringing in the larger theory that we see in glimpses from post to post. It gives us a better look at Ellen’s grand narrative, if you will.

    Taking a page from Tyler’s book, I wanted to comment on aesthetics in the other sport that I follow closely, tennis. Tennis is an individual sport, so style is a lot easier to identify and work on doing consistently, but there is still a gap between what people find as beautiful and what usually wins (this, I believe, is why Roger Federer’s popularity among tennis fans is at a level almost unheard of in most sports, because he manages to play beautifully and actually win.. or at least he used to win).

    The best example of this is a player like Gael Monfils of France. Monfils is always a fan favourite because he cares about style to the point where it appears he’d rather look good while playing tennis than win the match. At any given time in a match you might witness Monfils: do a 360 to hit a smash, leaping 4 feet in the air in the process; hit a ball with his racquet between his legs; run from the back edge of the court to get a seemingly unretrievable ball, then run diagonally to the opposite corner towards the net, slide (on concrete) ten feet and then flick the ball over the net at a ridiculous angle. The end result might be that he’d lose the point, but the crowd would go wild with applause. Monfils is undeniably exciting to watch, but all his flair is often at the expense of making the right decision on the simplest of shots. The result is that he almost never wins anything. He’s fun to watch as entertainment, but heaven forbid he was your favourite player. This is why, despite the fact that this game is so aesthetically appealing, he remains mostly a sideshow.

    Compare him to a player that has been enormously successful, Rafael Nadal. Nadal’s style isn’t exactly boring–he hits his fair share of remarkable shots and the arc he puts on the ball has a certain beauty all of its own–but his game is built fundamentally on defence, on getting the ball back over the net one more time and being aggressive only when the odds are in his favour. His game has been described as grinding and brutal, but rarely beautiful. His hockey equivalent might be the New Jersey Devils from the dead puck era, in that his dominance is in how difficult it is to beat him, rather than how he overwhelms you with offence.

    All of this to say that beauty is often valued more in terms of curiosity, a work of art to admire momentarily and move on from, whereas what might best be described as “working hard” is ultimately seen to be of greater value–especially in nations like ours where the Anglo-Saxon roots are still showing.

  8. Great post…you write beautifully! I love all of those little moments of beauty in the middle of the sweat, blood and grit of a hockey game. They seem so unexpected and graceful, but they are why I prefer to watch rather than just listen to hockey.

    I’m very intrigued by the last three words of your post. Can someone point me in the direction of something that will explain “gap control”? I’ve heard coaches talk about “not controlling our gaps”. I asked my husband about it – he tried to make some sh** up because apparently he has no idea either. :-)

  9. As I consider the reality is that it is impossible to have the 10 seconds of a glorious highlite hockey without the preceeding two minutes of interminable system-hockey.

    However, to my eyes, this season has raised the bar of system-hockey to absurd levels for the obvious reason that, as whathisname from the Capitals sort of said, “you can always negate the other guy’s skill” which is the reason why Ovie (to my mind, when HIS mind is right he’s the most dynamic hockey player in the world) get’s sat for long stretches in the 3rd periods and overtime. This gave us that atrocious Flyers-Lightning fiasco. System-hockey is the prevention of opportunity for the opponent rather than looking to offensive creation.

    The problem is, you can’t coach a self-pass spin-o-rama against the boards twisting Hamrlik into a pretzel and while on your butt flip the puck short-side after he takes you down from behind. You CAN coach a left-wing lock.

  10. The main reason that I watch the WJHC is that the Russians at that level appear to be committed to beautiful hockey. Seemingly to the point that it seems more important than winning. They’re not entirely consistent, but they’re Juniors, so it seems difficult to expect consistency.

  11. I may be biased – OK so I have a blog (ItsNotPartoftheGame) dedicated to eliminating fighting from hockey so I am definately biased – but I think getting rid of fighitng would make the game a lot less ugly. One of my posts was a study that showed, using stats from the past 12 years, that teams who fight the most also earn more non-fighting PIMs. That means the enforcers are doling out the cheap shots. Get rid of fighting and enforcers will be replaced by the next available player with skill and toughness.

    As I posted on Tyler’s blog, in the late 70′s I was a Montreal fan simply because they played an exciting style of hockey that contrasted with the physical intimidation that the Flyers brought to the sport. The Habs put an end to the back-to-back Cups by the Flyers and then added a couple more before the decade ended. While other teams started to add 4th liners who could meet, and beat, the Flyers tough guys, Montreal continued to play a beautiful game. Unfortunately as the 80′s began the Habs succombed to the enforcer trend.

  12. I think that sacrifice on defense is beautiful. I think that watching a team grind and will itself to victory (or even fail at this) is what makes hockey exciting. I love a beautiful saucer pass and tic tac toe passing or a perfect wrist shot, it is truly wonderful to experience such grace on ice. However, the 80′s and the Flyers/Penguins were not beautiful, they were lacking in completeness. Defense can be beautiful too. Sometimes it can be droll, but so can watching a team score at will against a helpless defense. Growing up playing the game, I appreciate the little parts of the game that aren’t “beautiful” as well, because some of my fondest memories on the ice are me making a huge defensive stop or blocking a shot that turned into an opportunity for my team the other way. I don’t think that beautiful equates to “Barcelona” style hockey, and I think overvaluing offense is a curse in itself. My opinions are my own, but I can say that this years playoffs have featured some very dedicated defensive teams, and they have been thrilling.

    The NHL owes a lot to its fans, but it doesn’t owe us everything.

    You are a fantastic writer

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