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.