There’s some meat to the cliché “hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard,” but it’s not to be taken at face value. It doesn’t always. An adorable team of eight-year-olds isn’t beating the Kings because LA isn’t trying, and less ridiculous examples happen with teams in the same league all the time. “You can’t take any nights off!” is patent coach-speak bullshit, because some teams can. Sometimes the Canucks put it in neutral, make a couple talented plays and beat the Blue Jackets who are going mach six. (Incidentally, one of the worst parts about being on a crappy team is having to go balls out to have a hope to win. It’s a grind.)
When it comes to player selection at hockey’s highest levels, minimal emphasis is put on effort. Like, minimal. Only the ridiculously skilled are good enough to make the NHL without max effort (though don’t kid yourself, some are), and even they can’t get away with not trying very often. Regardless, you take “ridiculously skilled” when it’s available. Alex Semin over Tim Jackman every day of the week, I’m sure you’d agree, and the latter out-works him by eleventy-thousand percent.
The cliché has become more of an in-game threat than anything, given that it’s rare a coach will ever admit to his team that they’re the less talented one, so it’s said by the coach of the skilled team. “These guys can beat us if we don’t play up to our level, if we aren’t working.” Yada yada. Pro hockey comes down to 5-7 big plays a game, and if your team comes out on top of those, you’ll almost always win. (Problem is you never know when you’re in one of them.) Effort > no effort, obviously, but it’s not the be-all end-all.
The worst part about this reality is that the “hard work” in rec hockey is kinda-sorta-a-bit based on will and pride and other “intangibles” (very, very little, if we’re being honest), and mostly based in youth and fitness. The point here, rec hockey teams, is to pick your teams wisely.
This morning theScore’s digital team took on the theScore’s TV side at the old Maple Leaf Gardens, and I was left remembering a couple things about rec hockey: young players simply haven’t had time to get truly out of shape yet, and people who are in shape are jerks (not really) but great to have on your team. Barring a gross disparity in talent level, if you have a team of young, fit or both players, you’re damn tough to beat.
After most rec league games, the team of 30-somethings will bitch and moan about the other team being a bunch of try-hards, but when you’re young and in shape, you’re like an Alaskan sled dog – it’s easier to go than it is to sit still.
As I’ve risen well above my playing weight, I’m certainly not about to stop playing hockey. I’m not saying old chubby dudes should stop playing the game they love and getting exercise. I’m really just pointing something out in general: “try-hards” make a huge difference in rec hockey, and it’s almost never a mentality, it’s a fitness level.
The bad news for those of us already past the young and fit thresholds, is that this damn game is tough to be good at, and it’s only going to get harder for us. Which is why you should always remember: when picking your rec teams, pick some teammates who won’t be useless after 30 minutes.
I was today, but thankfully my linemates weren’t. A little counterbalance can go a long way.