Free agency 2012 hasn’t been much of a frenzy. Minnesota’s been hoarding and Nashville’s been pillaged, but most franchises have been quiet and many players remain unsigned. Among these, the most prominent is Alex Semin, former Capital, gifted scoring winger, and, apparently, the least popular man in hockey. While most free agents of any quality whatsoever see their value pumped up beyond reason in their UFA year- two years ago no one had a $98 million hard-on for Zach Parise- Semin has been the object of the most thorough, brutal, and unrelenting bashing the hockey media has laid on a scorer in my lifetime. Note, however, that nobody dares to say that Semin isn’t good at hockey. The evidence is very clear that Semin is good at hockey. Rather, they attack him by saying he isn’t good in the room.
They say he doesn’t try. They say he doesn’t care.
It is impossible to know what another person is feeling. Human beings have blasted into the outer heavens and dropped into the deepest oceans, but for all our technological advancements, we are no more able to enter into the heart of another than we were five thousand years ago (although we’re less likely to attribute black moods to demon possession, which is progress of a kind). The inside of someone else’s head is a foreign country you will never travel to. It’s customs seem very similar to your own, you have heard reports of events there. But you will never know for yourself. All you think you know about its climate and culture is based on hearsay, suspicion, and faith.
There is a whole set of hockey intangibles that are defined by dispositions. Feelings, really, events in the faraway lands of hockey player amygdalas. Passion, heart, intensity, commitment. Caring. Trying. These are not particular actions, like skating or fighting, they’re not even general actions, like toughness or grit. They’re emotions. They’re inside things, happening far beyond the boundaries of our knowing.
It is impossible to know, for sure and certain, how much a player cares.
Most of the time, the expression of feelings corresponds more or less to the reality of feelings. We act in the way we feel. We smile when we’re happy and we sigh when we’re sad and run around scattered and frazzly when we’re stressed, and on and on. It’s mostly safe to assume that people feel inside the way they seem to feel outside.
This must be true for hockey-feelings as well. A lot of the trash-talk you see on the ice is probably genuine hate, or at least genuine trollery. Many of those super-focused expressions probably come from actual super-focusing; a lot of that hustle probably represents real eagerness. A lot of hockey emotion is exactly what it looks like. But not all of it.
The surface appearance of feelings does not always match the interior reality of feelings. Some people express the things they feel in unconventional ways: those who remain eerily calm on the surface no matter how tense they feel inside, those who never cry no matter how sad they might be. It is not fair to assume that simply because someone is not displaying the conventional behaviors we associate with a feeling that they therefore do not feel it. External expression is not the same as internal experience, and in some cases, to assume that they are is not just incorrect but insulting. If you see a person the day after a relative died, the humane thing is to assume that they are suffering, whether or not their eyes are red and puffy.
The same must be true for hockey player intangibles. To reach the NHL takes an incredible amount of dedication and sacrifice, a whole childhood and adolescence dedicated mostly to training, practicing, and competing. The root of hockey skill is in the genes, but even the most genetically gifted have to put in thousands of hours to hone their skills to pro-level. Granted, not everyone works equally hard, but even the laziest NHLer has worked harder at hockey than you or I have ever worked at anything. To accuse them of not trying or not caring is no small insult, and to level it with no personal knowledge of the player is an act of hubris. The humane thing is to assume that they care, no matter what symbols of caring we see on the surface.
Sometimes, though, it goes the other way. Sometimes people perform feelings they’re not actually experiencing. This is especially common in the world of work, where our very living may depend on emotional states. We have superiors who expect us to care a lot and try really hard. We have peers who watch us to see if we do. But the truth is that nobody cares all the time. Nobody works hard all the time. No matter how deep our passion or focused our attention, things happen every day- fatigue and boredom and personal problems and whatever- that eat little holes our dedication. But, over time, we learn to fake it. We learn how to put on a performance that fills in the gaps when our real feelings don’t quite measure up to the ones we’re supposed to have. We learn, essentially, social theatrics.
Little hockey players growing up in Canada learn a lot about the theatrics of trying and caring. Because it takes so much work to get to the pros, at the lower levels coaches are constantly weeding out those they don’t think have the intensity of feeling for the long haul. Young hockey players who are perceived as passive, lazy, or ambivalent will have a harder time progressing and will find themselves treated worse along the way. They’ll be the object of more cuts, more insults, more callings-out. Like anyone in any profession, if they want to continue, at some point, most of them learn that it’s in their interest to fake certain things when they don’t feel them.
The seasons are long and none of them are easy, and in them every hockey player experiences moments of selfishness, disinterest, exhaustion, and non-fuck-giving. Every single one. The ones who never seem to are the ones who learned best how to fake it.
I suspect a lot of hockey players- especially the borderline ones, especially those whose advancement was never certain- learn the importance of performing effort early and never give it up, until it becomes nearly as real as real effort, a Pavlovian response, like a model’s smile. The guys on the borderline know that the little gestures of being out early for warm ups, of hustling extra hard on the backcheck, of saying all the right things about team-first and 110% can add up to the difference between another year in the NHL and an early retirement. For them, the performance is mandatory, and being mandatory, eventually becomes automatic. Covering their doubts, swallowing their frustrations, and suppressing their egos are part of the skill set, and eventually, it doesn’t matter whether they really feel it or not, only that they’re willing to act like they feel it constantly.
Eventually the performance becomes more important than the reality.
Some people don’t perform. Some are morally opposed to pretense and dishonesty. Some are terrible actors who can’t fake anything convincingly. Some honestly don’t care what anyone else thinks. But whatever the reason, we often find such people disconcerting. Performance is ingrained in the heart of civilized society; it smooths the progress of life, for ourselves and for others. Few of us like it, but for most, it’s a minor, necessary evil, a sort of little white lie. When we encounter a person who refuses to participate- a coworker who openly spends an hour on Facebook without so much as spreading some papers out on the desk, or who freely admits he’s got no intention of taking some work on The Important Project home with him- we are almost reflexively offended, not because they’re not working but because they’re not even bothering to make it look like their working. In the end, those people may very well not be getting any less work done than the rest of us, and in fact could easily be working more efficiently. But we’ll still think less of them, even if their results are great, because they haven’t put on the right act.
You can see this kind of stunned offense in the hockey world’s response to players who don’t go through the expected paces of effort. Coaches come up through the developmental leagues working with players who will all put on the expected performance in order to move forward. The vast majority of players come up the same way. For them, it is just understood that you should be doing the little things that signify possession of awesome intangibles, whether it’s talking on the bench or giving an opponent a little extra cross-check in a scrum or spending some extra time in the weight room. Most of them have gone to autograph signings they didn’t really care about just to seem like a team guy. Many of them have fought fights they didn’t want to fight because the coach expected it. You do those things either out of genuine desire or because it would be detrimental to your career not to seem to have genuine desire. Paradoxically, caring enough to fake it becomes itself proof that you care. When someone comes into this environment who isn’t interested in this performance, it’s shocking in more than just an individual sense. It’s a shock to the culture. It upsets the balance of social expectations.
I don’t know how much Alex Semin tries or cares. I don’t know how much any hockey player tries or cares, because I can’t see trying. I can’t see caring. All I can see is the performance. All I see is the theatrics of effort. It may be true that Semin is not as good at (or as interested in) putting on the kind of performance of genial hard work we like to see from hockey players, and it may be true that his coaches and some teammates find this off-putting. He’s defying the behavioral expectations they have come to see as standard, and it may be possible that some of them find him difficult to like because of it.
But this is hockey. It’s not kindergarten and it’s not a presidential election, and you do not win by being likeable- in fact, from Eddie Shore to Patrick Roy, teams have been winning with unlikeable guys for eighty years. Some players are unlikeable because they’re egotistical, some because they’re depressed, some because they have strange tics, some because they’re don’t perform the standard cliches, but fact is all those types of bad-in-the-room guys have won Cups.
An individual player’s likeability, the way he performs his emotions, may contribute in some small, fractional way to his team’s success, but you know what contributes even more? Scoring goals. In fact, you might say that scoring goals contributes more to winning hockey games than pretty much anything else. Of all the tangible hockey skills, the measurable, definable, quantifiable things that contribute to winning, scoring is the most important, the rarest, and the most expensive. Guys who can smile in the locker room and be first on the ice in practice are a dime a dozen- or would be, if there wasn’t a League-mandated minimum salary. Guys who can put up 20+ goals and 50+ points a season? They’re five million per, and for good reason.
So anytime a person insists that they’d rather have a Cam Janssen on their team than an Alex Semin because the former ‘is the kind of guy you need to win’, that is a person who does not understand how winning works. It’s one thing to balk at the term Semin demands, if it is vastly long, or the salary he wants, if it is insanely high. I wouldn’t blame any GM for preferring to be conservative during the UFA season. But those fans and analysts who say they would not have Semin on their team at any price are being ridiculous. There is no team in the League that would not benefit from Alex Semin at the right price.
There is nothing inherently wrong with valuing theatrics. What is wrong is overvaluing great actors of limited talent and undervaluing great talents of limited acting ability.