Pull Together

Roman Hamrlik (#44) receiving the last hug he will ever get from Troy Brouwer (#20).

“I am disgusted. We have to push Fehr to the wall to get the deal. Time is against us. We lost 1/4 season, it is $425 million. Who will give it back to us? Mr. Fehr?

“There should be voting between players. Four questions – YES or NO – then count it. If half of players say let’s play, then they should sign new CBA. If there is no season he should leave and we will find someone new. Time is our enemy.”

- Roman Hamrlik, as reported on Puck Daddy.

Let’s start with an obvious point: Hamrlik isn’t wrong. Regardless of how you feel about his decision to say it- which we’ll be talking about for a thousand words after this paragraph- his position is completely valid. The players are losing money by holding out; many of them are losing the last season of their career. As many observers have noted, time is their enemy. Hamrlik, who is 38 years old and has already lost over a hundred career games to labor unrest, is a natural spokesman for that contingent of players who is losing far more in this battle than they can hope to win. He’s honestly speaking his interests, and it’s extremely likely that a substantial faction of the PA feels the same way, because Lord knows they have the same interests and not everyone is so altruistic as to sacrifice a year of professional hockey opportunity over HRR percentage points. As far as raw information goes, these comments are nothing more than the confirmation of shit we already knew.

And yet, although uncounted dozens of guys probably nodded along while reading Hamrlik’s rant, so far all of them save teammate Michal Neuvirth have swallowed their discontent and kept their mouths shut. Why? Fragmenting the PA would be the easiest way to get what they want: a deal signed and the game back on the ice. If fifty guys came out together and said, we are prepared to take whatever is on the table right now, they’d be instant heroes in the eyes of many fans and certainly in the eyes of their owners, and they’d undermine the solidarity that allows Fehr to conjure leverage out of air. If getting back on the ice is your highest priority, then it’d be supremely logical to do as Hamrlik did and let your grievances fly.

But (almost) no one does.

If you want to understand why, consider the intensity of anger Hamrlik’s views drew from other players. Sure, the look of a unified front is an important part of the PA strategy, but a frustration with someone mucking up your tactics doesn’t quite seem to explain the vitriol with which Erik Cole and Troy Brouwer responded to this breaking of ranks. Brouwer accused him of selling out and Cole of refusing to sacrifice for the greater good. Both players called Hamrlik “selfish”, both expressed the hope that he wouldn’t come back to the NHL, and- most importantly- both said they would find it difficult to play on a team with him again.

This seems a little bit over-the-top, no? Especially for hockey players, teammates and ex-teammates, whose most intense criticism of each other usually ends at “you hate to see that, but it is what it is.” I mean, dude is only saying what a lot of guys have to be thinking; at worst, he’s calling for a vote and willing to abide by the result. Certainly both Brouwer and Cole have shared the ice quietly with guys who’ve done worse in their lives than express an unpopular labor opinion.

As Bourne and others have pointed out, the team-first mentality that hockey players share contributes to the union’s strength, and I think it also explains why Cole and Brouwer are so deeply and personally offended by Hamrlik’s remarks- and specifically, why neither feels as though they could be comfortable playing with him in the future.

The dynamics within a hockey team are not so different than the dynamics within the PA: everyone’s self-interest pull in different ways. On the PA you have some guys- stars, established young players, third liners- who really need a good CBA to protect their future earnings, while you have others- veterans on their last legs, borderline AHLers in the process of proving their place- who need to play now far more than they need an extra 4% in 2016. They have to share a union while having diametrically opposed interests.

Similarly, within a team, player’s needs and desires pull against each other. The star who is in the process of negotiating a huge contract is, implicitly, negotiating to take money away from some of his teammates. That rookie who’s trying to pull himself up the depth chart is, implicitly, trying to steal ice time from his elders. The 5th defenseman who’s playing well is guaranteeing the 7th defenseman spends weeks in the press box. In fact, if we were to think like Ayn Rand and assume that the naked pursuit of one’s own fulfillment is the highest goal in life, hockey players have far better reasons to work against the guys on their own team than against their opponents. If hockey was a state of nature, with no codes, no ethics, and no morality tales, the third line center would be hacking the ankles of the second line center and the backup goalie would be slipping roofies in the starter’s Gatorade.

The team-first code, then, is a kind of social contract that has to exist in order to allow the team to, you know, win hockey games. Everyone swallows their pride for the greater good: the best player pretends he’s just one of the guys and hasn’t been the beneficiary of countless incidents of preferential treatment; the worst players pretend they’re totally okay with getting less money and less ice time than everyone else. The pleasant fiction of we are all the same and we all want the same things is what keeps the wheels turning.

Maybe the instability of the sport contributes to the pretense of unity as well, both in the context of teams and in the PA. Roles in hockey are not always firm; a man might work his way up the hierarchy or fall down it. Maybe part of the reason players extend the courtesy is that they hope (or fear) that someday they might be on the other side. Second liners hope that, if they make the first line, the guy who goes down will accept the change gracefully. Third liners know that someday they’re going to be on the fourth line, and model the kind of treatment they’d want to receive. Within the PA, players aren’t just fighting for what they can get as who they are now, but for what they might be able to get in the future when they’re either much better or much worse. Maybe, at the very root of it, putting the team first is nothing more than the Golden Rule, hockey version.

In this context, it is only a guy like Hamrlik- a veteran on the end of his career, knowing there is literally nothing for him at all in the next CBA- who can nakedly serve his immediate interest. His willingness to say so stems from his nothing-to-lose situation and obviously reads badly to those who still feel as though they have a lot on the line. But more than that, players have learned to expect and rely on the support of teammates who have every reason to wish them ill. That trust is what makes their work pleasant and profitable, maybe even what makes it possible. To look across the room and know that there sits a man who is perfectly willing to publicly act against your needs for his own flies in the face of what you need to believe to play with someone.

I’ve been critical before of the way hockey ethics expect uniform behavior from non-uniform players. Sometimes, frankly, the game demands too much sameness in the name of unity, and when good players are ostracized just because they don’t talk or act in a perfectly cliched way, it hurts both the specific team and the sport as a whole. There should be more room than there is for dissent and difference within the bounds of professionalism. That said, in this case Hamrlik’s behavior is rather more than just expressing a different point of view. It’s expressing a point of view that implies an action which, if successful, would do active harm to the interests of some of his own teammates. I can’t blame the men who’ve shared the ice with him for feeling betrayed.

Comments (15)

  1. Couldn’t you argue that the “Puck Gary” hats made public by Cole and the comments made by star players like Toews and Crosby are doing the exact same thing to the grinders and lesser paid players? They’re self-intereseted actions that put distance between the parties and thusly prolong the lockout. Players like Hamrlik, other old guys, and plugs are hurt financially every time a star player/recently extended player makes comments against taking a deal.

    I’m not saying that either party is right or that the player’s should bend over or stay firm, I’m just not convinced that Brouwer and Cole are more concerned about their hockey brothers than they are getting the full value out of the contracts they both signed within the past two seasons (as they should be, altruism doesn’t feed your family). Crosby doesn’t really care about the generation who comes next or the 4th line/3rd pairing guys on his own team (beyond the care that anyone would have for a coworker of course, he’s not a dick), he is concerned about whether he gets paid $104 million over the next 12 years and whether his cap hit remains at the oh so cute and superstitious 8.7 million.

    Not trying to sound snarky but to me human nature is a more powerful beast than the ‘hockey-code of ethics’.

    • Well, I won’t take you as snarky if you don’t take this as snarky: A) Prove to me that “human nature” is a thing, and if so, what exactly its content is. As far as I can tell, “human nature” is a phrase people invoke to naturalize culture as if it were inevitable. I’m pretty well persuaded, by the example of the number of guys in hockey who quietly swallow treatment against their interests (cuts in ice time, demotions to lower lines, healthy scratching, trades) that altruism-for-the-sake-of-the-team is something they legitimately believe in (or, possibly, that they’ve recognized how important it is to the culture and therefore to their success within it).

      B) On a team, as in the PA, there are always going to be times when the direction of the group goes with your interests and times when it goes against them. Not every player is going to be completely satisfied with the deals the union has offered, and some of them will be inordinately hurt by one version more than the other. But the principle at work is this: the group has agreed to go with a certain plan, and at that point, the individual is expected to buy in. Think about the Capitals and how they’ve made such a big deal of “buying in” to their new system in recent years, and how important it is that players who may not individually benefit from it do so anyway. Exact same expectation.

      • I think what you label as “altruisn-for-the-sake-of-the-team” is actually behaviour motivated by self-interest. Conformity to avoid the consequences of non-conformity, including ostracism in the room with regard to toeing the union line, and placidly accepting demotions (etc) to avoid the “difficult” label that derails careers.

        • Maybe, but doesn’t that eventually lead to the unfalsifiable (and therefore tautological) argument that there is no such thing as altruism at all? E.g.. “Oh, you’re only supporting that cause so that other people will think you’re a good person” or “People only give money to charity to make themselves feel good.” If you reduce it enough, everything can be seen in the light of self-interest. I’d argue that, most of the time, the important distinction is between the decision to make altruistic gestures, even if the motives aren’t wholly pure (as motives seldom are), and the decision to make self-interested ones. Even if a player’s embrace of the team-first mentality benefits him, it also benefits others just as much and perhaps more, whereas defying what the group has chosen benefits himself at the expense of others.

          • I understand what your saying completely, I just think its hard to decipher the true intents of what people are saying in something so dumb and convoluted as this fucking lockout. Is Hamrlik just thinking about himself or or is he being ‘team first’ to some of the older guys? Is Erik Cole thinking about his contract or the young guys coming into the league? There is sooo much spin going on in every statement on both sides and when someone does speak from the heart they either retract their statement a day later or delete a Twitter account.

            There are self interested people in every sport and while I side with the players in the fight I think we tend to romanticize hockey players as being these paladins of justice compared to say a football or baseball player (many of whom are fucking awesome people who do awesome things for the communities they play in).

          • Again, though, while I’m hypothesizing about intent, I don’t think figuring out intent is crucial to figuring out who is putting the group ahead of themselves. It’s not necessarily that Cole and Brouwer are any more right than Hamrlik is, and the work their doing- smacking down someone who defied the group- is not even in itself altruistic. The ones who are being altruistic are the many, many guys in Hamrlik’s position- i.e. possibly losing the last year of their career to the lockout- who aren’t defying the union.

            And, FWIW, in the last paragraph I tried to allude to the fact that I’m not sure the team-first mentality is necessarily always virtuous just because it’s not purely self-interested. I think you read this article as more laudatory of Cole and Brouwer than I intended it- the hope was to describe the dynamic more than to praise it.

        • Actually, it’s probably behavior that comes with understanding. No one understands just how RARE it is that anyone can play hockey like the superstar players than a guy who can almost but not quite get there. Believe me, a less talented grinder knows far better than we just how unbelievably rare someone like Jaromir Jagr is.

          He takes being treated like a lesser player because, in sober and perfectly accurate judgment, he knows that’s exactly what he is. And he does what HE can do to help the team. And sometimes that means staying the hell out of the way of the guy who he knows is more likely to stack up the points.

          And if the team wins, he wins along with them anyhow. Bobby Taylor STILL has a cup ring, and it still counts.

          Athletes do have a tendency to act like 12 year olds sometimes, but this is not one of those times. At bottom, grinders know EXACTLY why that superstar is getting the monster contract, and why they aren’t.

  2. Without knowing all of the details, or how big the contingent is that thinks/feels the way Hamrlik does, it’s really hard to crucify him as being “the guy” that is the one acting purely in his own self interest. Maybe he’s the guy that’s willing to take the blame for a much larger than thought group of players.

    He speaks out and guys feel betrayed. Conversely, nobody speaks out and an unknown and a different group feels betrayed. I think it’s hard to make an accurate judgment of his character until all cards have been played.

    Likely, he’s a selfish douche, but there is also the possibility that it’s the bigger name stars that are accustomed to getting special treatment and big dollars that are maybe not being the team players everyone thinks they are.

    • I agree completely. Someone could speak out in self interest but if it lines up on the right side of whichever argument we believe to be ‘morally sound’, we will assume it was in the interest of the group as a whole.

    • If, in the wake of Hamrlik’s comments, a large group of other players spills out supporting his view, I’ll reevaluate the position. But for now, I think the fact that most of the players who feel this way, whoever they are, have decided to play along with the unified front is the answer. Nothing is stopping them from acting in their self-interest the exact same way, but they’re not, even though they have little to lose by doing so.

      I’m also starting to wonder about the assumption that it’s mostly the star players who are driving the PA’s position. I don’t know if you saw Dellow’s bit on how salaries have changed under this CBA, but he found that the biggest winners were the good-but-not-great players, the lower-end first liners and second-liners. That group, particularly if we include the guys who aren’t quite in it but might plausibly aspire to be, is pretty large and has every reason to push for a deal as close to the last one as possible.

      • Yeah, I didn’t want to imply that we should expect Hamrlik to be at the forefront of a huge group of player opposition (see my comment: “likely, he’s a selfish deuche”), but it was one example I could think of off the top of my head that might illustrate the possibility of an alternative narrative. We’ve all seen the many many complaints about how much of a PR battle this has been, and I just wanted to point out that the PR battle might extend within the ranks of the player’s union as well.

        I have not read Dellows piece, but I wlll try and dig that up. But I do remember seeing a bit of discussion over the past year about how those mid their guys are really starting to make bank relative to their on ice contributions. I think the rational as that the salary floor has been pretty good at getting the middle guys some great pay. Either way, ill go look up Dellows now.

  3. This is not about hockey, it is called “civilization.” The social code all of us live by, that in our interactions with others we do what we do even if it is against our self interest or wants and desires. When you hand someone money, they put it in the cash register even when it’s in their self-interest to put it in their pocket. To show how strong the training is we usually stop at red lights at 2AM when there is no one else on the road. And how many times have we gotten ready to hop on the ice after the Zamboni, when someone down the bench says “Let the ice dry” and you stay put for absolutely no other reason than because you don’t want to be ‘that guy who goes on the ice before it’s dry.’

    Anyway, is Hamrlik on the union leadership council? Did he attend any sessions? Was he in any way championing against hiring Fehr before he was hired? Was he speaking up before the lockout in any sort of manner that would give consistency and weight to his message aside from his selfish personal interest?

  4. ” … if we were to think like Ayn Rand and assume that the naked pursuit of one’s own fulfillment is the highest goal in life … ”

    Then those guys would be playing golf or tennis, or some other individual sport.

    • Not necessarily. They would pursue whatever avenue allows them the greatest profit. If their advantage lies in hockey, then they will still pursue individual fulfillment within that set of limitations. If they suck at golf, they don’t stand to make more money, or attain greater fulfillment playing golf, even if it is an individual sport.

      • Depends on how you define “fulfillment.” If you define it as that which makes you the most money, then sure. But one of Rand’s big things was always following individual natural talents (obDisclaimer: I disagree with that outlook). It’s not a team-oriented outlook. The solitary pioneer is sort of fetishized in that worldview, and it doesn’t often go with team activities.

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