Last Monday, I wrote a post defending Alex Semin against the character assassination that some commentators have attempted against him. The point was not, as some thought, that Semin is really a great guy, but rather that we do not know enough of players to see whether or not they’re great guys, and given all the things that can interfere with and cloud our perceptions, it’s best not to assume we know anything about character, and better yet not to assume that we know how character influences results.
In response to that post, I was confronted with a lot of arguments that derived not from Semin’s character, as the McGuire/Crawford/Cox criticism did, but from his style of play. People told me that the problem with Semin was not his personality per se, but rather that he does not play the right way. He turns away from the net after a shot rather than crashing it. He dodges hits rather than taking them. He doesn’t battle hard enough for the puck. He doesn’t exhaust himself on his shifts. The conclusions came fast and harsh: he’s soft, he’s scared, he’s weak. The implication is that, because of those flaws, he’s not actually as good as the evidence suggests.
Canadian hockey is extremely moralistic about style. [NB: It is probable that other hockey cultures are too- based on that infamous interview it certainly seems like Semin himself might be- but I don't know enough about them to say for certain, so this article will confine itself to the Canadian example.] There is a right way to play and a wrong way to play. The right way to play involves throwing big hits, going to the dirty areas of the ice, winning battles on the boards, and dropping your gloves- that’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. To be considered a ‘good’ hockey player by the Canadian standards, a man must embrace the most aggressive physical aspects of the game, and do so lustily and publicly. Even Canadian skill players pay lip service to these ideals, singing the praises of dumping and chasing and intimidating and shot-blocking, even when their entire game is based on playmaking or sniping. The difference between the way Sidney Crosby talks about how hockey should be played and how he actually plays is dramatic.
Some of the traditional values grew out of tactical evolutions- shot-blocking, for example, is both morally prized and a major component of certain strategies- but others have always been pure stylistic preferences. The mistrust of flashy play has never been anything other than cultural, the lingering influence of the dogmatic personalities who built the professional game in Canada and structured the rhetoric people eventually came to expect from the sport. If Art Ross had been the first GM of the Maple Leafs, Don Cherry might have some very different views on the subject of star egos and goal celebrations. The Canadian ethics of hockey style are a mishmash of qualities that have real strategic value, qualities that used to have strategic value but don’t anymore, and qualities that never had any strategic purpose to begin with.
There is nothing wrong with valuing a certain style aesthetically. Some people just like to watch bruising, physical play, and that’s fine. If the argument is I want this type of player on my team because that’s the type of player I enjoy watching, that is a completely legitimate position for a fan to have, but it is also a necessarily subjective position. One person’s enjoyment of a big hit is not ‘better’ than another’s enjoyment of a sick wrist shot. Your love of wide-open hockey is not ‘better’ than my love of precise defensive positioning. Aesthetic pleasure is a core part of hockey, but it makes poor ground for any kind of evaluation of players and teams.
And this is the problem: we don’t treat style as a simple aesthetic preference that colors our enjoyment of certain skills over others. We often treat it as something that makes certain skills more legitimate than others. We allow our aesthetic judgments to override our assessment of skill, to the point where we can become entirely blind to actual performance. I had people telling me that the problem with Semin is that he ‘couldn’t hack it, physically and mentally, in the NHL’. This is a man who has played 469 career games and scored 408 points- if that’s not hacking it in the NHL, nothing is. It’s as if people look at Semin’s goal totals and then subtract his style from them- well, he scored that one from 30 feet out, so that obviously isn’t a real goal. Oh, he didn’t try hard enough on that one, so it doesn’t actually count. As a commenter on the previous post pointed out, the difference between Semin’s playoff production rates and Parise’s is negligible. Yet the way Parise plays leads people to inflate his status, while the way Semin plays leads people to diminish his. This isn’t just liking one way of playing more than another. This is allowing the ethics of style to dramatically distort the public perception of a player’s real contributions to his team’s success.
If I was to hypothesize, I would say that this desire to make play style count for more than results stems from a discomfort with meritocracy. Sports are, on the ideal level, the ultimate meritocracy, and as such reveal the point at which people go from loving meritocracy to hating it, which is generally about when they realize that sometimes achievement has more to do with genetic gifts than hard work. The usual concept of meritocracy in North America is the Horatio Alger version, where people achieve what they do by virtue of dedication and character, but in sports people achieve what they do through dedication, character, and inborn capacities that they had no control over and deserve no moral credit for- their size, their speed, their vision, their percentage of fast-twitch muscle. Hard work develops these things, but at the acme of the game, the difference between good enough and great has nothing whatsoever to do with effort. It’s all about gifts.
No one really likes thinking about gifts. Nobody really likes the idea that there might be some places in life where some people are just plain better than others. So we gloss it. We try to make hockey into an effortocracy. We plead for it to be an effortocracy- and I say ‘we’ because I have been known to do this myself. Don Cherry goes on TV and begs for this or that prospect to make it, because he’s such a great kid and such a hard worker. Brian Burke holds a press conference and gets angry at the game because there’s no space for Colton Orr, who works so hard, who plays in such a good way. And people get angry at Alex Semin, because his gifts take him so much farther than other people’s hard work takes them, and although by the logic of meritocracy that’s completely fair, it nevertheless feels like a tremendous injustice.
Professional hockey isn’t fair. The scoreboard is a impartial mistress, and that’s both a heartwarming thing and a heartbreaking one. The scoreboard doesn’t care about your language, your nationality, your race, color, or creed. It doesn’t care which god you pray to or who you fuck. It is more blind than justice and more detached than Buddha. But likewise, it doesn’t care how much you care or how hard you try. It doesn’t care if you’re sincere, if you’re strong, if you’re compassionate. In its cold, magnanimous circuits, the one and only thing that matters about you, beautiful complex rich human being that you are, is whether you can force it to change its numbers. Not how you do it, or why, or for whom, or what it feels like when you do or don’t, but the simple, bare, existentialist question: can you?
You can trick the scoreboard for short periods of time. With runs of luck and injury and teammate influences, it’s possible for bad players to put up numbers for a while and good players not to, but over the long span of seasons that make up a career, the scoreboard and its subsidiary data will eventually find the true measure of a player, and that measure will not always line up with our values.
We don’t like that, especially when it rewards the sort of personalities we don’t like to read about or the sort of style we don’t like to watch, and we’re constantly trying to convince ourselves that somehow, somewhere, in the space between shots and goals, all the other little things we love about the game really really do matter. And sometimes they do. Sometimes the details of style and character do make small differences that one way or another add up to a number on the scoreboard. But the best those things do is influence the scoreboard. They do not overrule it. They do not count more than it.
When there is a conflict between pre-existing ideas about how to play and the results a player gets, when a ‘soft, fragile, scared’ guy like Semin can kill ‘tough, strong, fearless’ fan favorites on the shot clock and the scoresheet, the productive response isn’t to try to come up with excuses for why Semin isn’t actually as good as the evidence suggests. The productive response is to try to learn from that evidence. What is he doing that’s allowing him to succeed? Why don’t the traditional theories of intimidation that should be able to stop him work? If he doesn’t have what you believe it takes to make it in the NHL, then why is he so obviously making it in the NHL? If he doesn’t do the things you believe are necessary to score, then how is he scoring so much?
Gifts are not given to all equally, neither are the same gifts given to all. To expect all players to play the same way because it’s ‘the right way to play’ will ultimately only quash creativity and freeze the evolution of the game. Does anyone really thing that Semin is suited to be a crashing-the-net, banging-on-the-boards kind of player? Does anybody think he would get more goals if he suddenly tried to be Mike Knuble? Expecting players to play against their gifts is at best destructive and at worst ridiculous. We don’t, after all, get angry at Knuble for not having the talent to be a sniper. Is it really more fair to be angry with Semin for not having the talent for battling in front of the net?
Alex Semin plays the style of game that he is physically, instinctually, and temperamentally suited to play, and has proven he can make that style of game succeed in the NHL. The question for his team should not be how can we make him to play a different kind of game that he may well be worse at but we find more ethically satisfying? It should be how can we put him in the best possible position to succeed even more? Hockey is more exciting, more interesting, and more challenging when it embraces a diversity of successful player styles- the diversity of genetic gifts- then when it tries to force the homogenous values of a rote effortocracy. It is a better game when we listen to the scoreboard rather than the ideologues.