The Kings’ Peace

Although we are not so committed to keeping it holy as we once were, most of us in the Judeo-Christian West are familiar with the Sabbath day. Sunday, yeah? When the Lord rested after the creation of the world, and, for century upon century, we rested from the creation of potatoes or tables or armor or castles or whatever other things people made back when God was the only legitimate reason for chilling out. Although the level of religiosity in the West has receded dramatically, we still retain a customary deference for Sunday. It’s always the laziest day of the week.

However, we have entirely forgotten the concept of the Sabbath year. According to the law of ancient Israel, it was not only every seventh day that belonged to God, but also every seventh year. These years, called shmita in Hebrew, were primarily defined by a prohibition on agricultural labor: fields were expected to lie fallow, the deliberate cultivation of plants was forbidden, and whatever edible growth sprang up naturally was considered God’s produce, owned by no one, free to the entire community equally.

Shmita was also the time of forgiveness. The word means ‘release’- from obligations, from enmities, from wrongs. All debts were erased. All slaves were freed. And after seven cycles of seven years were completed, during fiftieth year- called the Jubilee in English, yovel in Hebrew- all ancestral lands would revert to the original families, and all wandering individuals would be welcomed back by their clans. In other words, all the things that alienated members of the community from one another- the wars that made some masters and others servants, the financial transactions that made some rich and others poor, the family squabbles that drove siblings and children away- were tossed out the window. The cycle of shmita and yovel years was, essentially, a cycle of divinely-mandated getting over shit.

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Sometimes it is good to entertain an idea. In the course of arguing and debating points, it is easy for us to fall into looking at things as black and white, yes or no, absolutely right or utterly wrong, and in that process we forget that one can easily consider a notion without entirely subscribing to it. You can think about something without marrying it, giving it your name and waking up next to it every morning forever. Some ideas are better thought of as bros, or coworkers, or fuckbuddies- able to enrich your life every now and then, but not til death do you part.

Ideas about the model of a Cup-winning team are this sort of idea. Many dozens of teams have won the Cup on the strength of many dozens of different tactics. All of them have some sort of value, but none of them are law. For example, if the lesson one takes from the Bruins is that you must use physical intimidation to win, you would be wrong. But the lesson good players who can spike their game with physical intimidation can help you win is extremely useful. Similarly, the Chicago model is not you have to tank for picks in the modern NHL, it’s you can manage a quick rebuild on youth if you draft high. Looking to Stanley Cup winners for strict rules about winning is a fool’s errand that will have a manager chasing a flurry self-contradictory and often impossible strategies. Look to them for suggestions about winning, though, and they provide a wealth of useful ideas. Not the kind of ideas you want to buy a house with. Just the sort you should drunk-dial every now and again.

So here’s an idea about winning, courtesy of the victorious LA Kings and the ancient Israelites: Get over shit.  Forgive.

Hockey culture is not big on getting over shit. It is not a culture of forgiveness. Like the God of the Old Testament, the hockey gods tend to be of the avenging variety. They’re easily affronted and prone to cruel reprisals. Their devotees are big on strict codes and fast rules. Hockey people, players and coaches, GMs and fans alike, are prone to laying down the law, judging violations harshly, and holding grudges. Everyone in this game loves a high standard, an unvarying principle, and a stiff punishment.

Such moral absolutism isn’t wrong, and may often be necessary. Hockey, as I am always saying, is a game that cannot be played without intense discipline. It demands players who can conform the regulations of their teams and the League consistently and scrupulously, and that sense of discipline which runs so deep among those who play rubs off on those who watch. Fans have a tendency to admire those who conform rigorously to expectations and a corresponding suspicion of violators. When a man plays the way we like for an entire career, we will beatify him (St. Wendel, patron saint of grit), but when he doesn’t, even only once or twice, we can hold onto the resentment for a lifetime.

Maybe most of the time that rigidity is a good thing. Maybe most of the time it generates great hockey. But sometimes we- and by we I mean all hockey people, in every role- take it too far.  We allow a relatively minor flaw or singular transgression to damn a whole career.

The Kings won, in part, by getting over shit. By getting over Richard’s battles with the Philly media and Carter’s partying ways, by getting over Penner’s chubbiness and Kopitar’s Slovenianness, by getting over William’s fragile knees and Mitchell’s fragile brain. They won, in part, by their willingness to take chances on guys other teams had written off as being too much of a risk, that other fan bases had run out of town. Guys who had ended up, one way or another, on the wrong side of somebody’s strict rules. They were able to look past the kind of ‘question marks’ that the rest of the hockey world broods over too long and too hard. In a game where teams are always trying to win through brutal play and devious management, they won, in part, through something as simple, gentle, and frankly candy-ass as forgiveness.

In this summer of the Kings’ peace, it might be worth remembering that single characteristics are not destiny. A player may have a weird/bad/difficult personality and still have everything it takes to win. A player may have an ugly injury in his past and still have half a dozen terrific seasons ahead. Not everyone who ever had a battle with a coach is uncoachable. Not everyone who ever had a bad concussion is unworthy of a two-year deal. Not everyone who looks slow is useless. Whatever your hard rules are, wherever your bright lines are drawn, know this: there is some good and useful player, somewhere, on the wrong side of them. This doesn’t mean giving up rules and policies entirely, it doesn’t mean never giving any consideration to issues of character, work ethic, or injury history. But it suggests that whenever we find ourselves writing off a guy because of suspicion or emotion, we should take a deep breath, a step back, and reconsider. Don’t forgive everyone for everything.  Just maintain the capacity to forgive some players for some things.

CBA years are already like Sabbath years for hockey. Each CBA begins a new cycle.  In evaluating teams and players, it is customary to count ‘since the lockout’ as the most relevant era. When the NHL and the Players’ Association sit down at that big conference table, among the things they’ll be arguing about are the terms of debt between teams and the terms of indentured servitude for players. And there is a decent chance the NHL will end up letting it’s rinks lie fallow for the coming season. So while you’re brooding over your team in the long hot months, while you’re looking over those long lists of possible draft picks and UFAs and guys with issues who might be on the trading block, take a moment to entertain the idea of the Kings’ model, and ask yourself not just who is already perfect, but who is deserving of a second chance.