Colorado Avalanche v Buffalo Sabres

Ryan O’Reilly, engaged in a scrupulously appropriate display of goal-celebration.

It is a curse to be born to overzealous parents.  While other kids are eating dirt and dismembering worms in the backyard, their child is sitting indoors doing long division, coated in hand sanitizer.  While most teenagers are drinking shitty beer and making out in basements, their precious muffin is drinking coffee through SAT prep.  I imagine having such parents is one long list of embarrassments and aggravations, full of extra meetings with teachers and nasty notes to coaches and being pulled aside to stand awkwardly in front of everyone while Mommy rambles on about what a special special flower you are.

Given the email his dad sent to the Denver Post, I assume Ryan O’Reilly never got to eat dirt.

This is the Don Cherry of emails, which is to say that it makes the most ordinary possible points in the craziest possible way.  Despite a disclaimer by Dater that the letter had been “lightly touched up for a couple minor spelling and punctuation things”, it’s not only riddled with such errors (“bases” instead of “basis”, “miss treat” instead of “mistreat”), but features Random Capitalization throughout, and unless you are writing about eighteenth century German philosophy or thirteenth century Catholic theology, you cannot capitalize common nouns without sounding crazy.  When you go, as Brian O’Reilly did, all the way to capitalizing conjunctions, you have lost any hope of being taken seriously.

But while the form is eccentric, the content is not at all bizarre for hockey commentary.  Clean up the grammar a bit, chop it up into soundbites and it could fit easily in the mouth of most intermission panelists and color guys.  For example, “Everyone is looking for those players that eat, sleep, and drink the game, who are unselfish and competitive, because they are intrinsically motivated to excel.”  Or  “Character players hate losing, and when they lose they self-evaluate rather than evaluating their teammates.  They take responsibility for the loss, learn from it, and come back to beat you the next time.”  See? That reads like perfectly standard hockey talk.  If Brian O’Reilly had an editor, he would have come off as Old-School Hockey Dad, not Loony Hockey Dad.  Although it’s a gift to intangibles-skeptics such as myself when someone makes traditionalist points in a batshit way, it would be unfair to portray the letter as representing a uniquely insane point of view.  It’s no more crazy in substance than all the other character-based commentary we hear every day. It’s just more crazily expressed.

It also represents an identifiably meddlesome Dad-ish point of view.  Raising children is largely about trying to develop good character in others.  You pop out a passel of little ids on legs and have to try to find some way to make them into decent human beings who don’t hit the dog and pee on the floor.  Mr. O’Reilly spent years worrying about Young Ryan’s character, and particularly his hockey-character, and is justifiably proud of having instilled such an elaborate set of approved behaviors in his son.  He has every right to think his boy’s fine qualities are worth millions, and to be disappointed that Greg Sherman doesn’t share that view.  Of course, Sherman shouldn’t share his view, being as how he’s not Ryan’s dad, but that distinction has been lost on parents since time was time and probably always will be.

So let’s get this out of the way:  character is a real thing, and it does matter.  When Brian O’Reilly talks about hard work, mental toughness, and respect for others, he’s referring to discernible qualities that people actually have in greater or lesser degrees.  We all know this- some people are personable, others are awkward, some are  aggressive, others are passive, etc etc etc.  It would be impossible to say that character does not exist at all, nor that it doesn’t affect how one performs one’s job and relates to one’s coworkers.

But although character is extraordinarily important, it is also extraordinarily complicated.  Personalities  are vast, shifting territories full of varied terrain and exotic species, some of it quite beautiful, some of it appalling, much of it in direct contradiction with itself.  We contain, as Whitman said, multitudes. Within a person, greed can coexist peaceably with leadership and debauchery can make a detente with compassion.  It’s possible to be both morose and reliable, friendly yet flaky, a great person to sit in a dressing room with and a terrible person to play on a line with. Moreover, this natural blend of desirable and undesirable qualities is itself always in flux, pushed towards different tendencies by the pressures of life.  A man in the year of his marriage may be entirely different from the same man in the year of his divorce, and will be even more different upon the marriage of his daughter- the same person with three variant characters. Humanity has spent centuries developing all sorts of personality tests and typologies, from Ayurvedic doshas to Galenic humors to the Myers-Briggs, and while the results have often been instructive, they’ve never been entirely satisfactory.  They’ve never been entirely able to define “character”, because character is not a stable, definable trait like height or hair color.  There is no such thing as one fixed type of “good character”, and certainly there is no single “good character” for hockey playing.

Additionally, when we talk about character in hockey, we mean something that goes beyond the internal.  The pursuit of hockey players with good character is the pursuit of players who have BOTH certain internal qualities (passion, work ethic) and socially-defined qualities (loyalty, leadership, humility).  The latter set of characteristics are not and cannot be entirely defined by the player himself.  You cannot “lead” abstractly; you have to lead someone somewhere, and how good of a leader you are depends very much on whom you are leading to what. The man who can lead the Rangers- a team in a big market with a lot of experienced, expensive stars- from good to great is not necessarily the same guy who would be best suited to lead the Oilers- a team of kids in a small, far-flung market- from shitty to good. Similarly, whether or not one looks “loyal” or “humble” depends very much on who is doing the looking and when- one season’s good team guy is next year’s mercenary asshole, and quiet humility by another name could be called indifference.  Character isn’t just unstable.  It’s also subjective and contextual.

The old-timers seem to have understood all of this.  Maybe it was the lack of mass media (my personal theory), or maybe people who lived through world wars and great depressions just had a finer sense of human frailty than we do.  Whatever the cause, the old hockey stars represent a wider range of obvious personality types than we see expressed in the NHL today.  Up through the eighties at least, the League was full of bitter depressives and unapologetic party boys, gamblers and alcoholics, obsessives, dilettantes, spiritualists, and sadists.  You could populate the entire DSM-IV with case studies of hockey players, but it wasn’t only dysfunction that hockey used to tolerate better.  It was also simple difference.  In the annals of the Canadiens, you’ll find stories of players who talked to reporters while knitting and wept openly after losses, traits that are not at all wrong but nowadays would be cause for mockery and scorn.  We think in more narrow terms now, and few of the old-time stars would pass our strict criteria for “good character”.  Yet they still set records, forged dynasties, and spent hundreds of hours stuck in train compartments together without even a single manslaughter.  They were crazy and difficult and troubled, but they still played great hockey, and they still bonded, somehow.

The problem is not with the idea that character matters.  The problem is that the modern hockey conception of “character”- the one Mr. O’Reilly’s argument is based on- is both simplistic and unachievable. Try to imagine a hockey player with perfect character.  First of all, he’d have to be awesome at hockey, which is hard enough to find. But  in addition to being awesome at hockey, he couldn’t be greedy or arrogant about it.  He couldn’t ask for too much money or demand a trade after a cut in ice time. He would have to be humble enough to celebrate his successes only with his teammates, yet proud enough to get up in front of the room and make them listen to his speeches.  He would be capable of the flashiest moves yet never make a selfish play, never swagger, never show off.  He would mentor rookies, respect veterans, pal around equally comfortably with Russian snipers and Minnesotan journeymen.  Be serious but not dour.  Be funny but not frivolous. He would hustle like a motherf**ker, hit like a freight train, and score clutch goals like Danny Briere, but also never put himself in a dangerous position, never hit anyone high, and never complain about a benching.  He would always stick up for his teammates, except when he was calling them out in the media at exactly the right moment.  He would fight, but only “real” fights.  He’d do charity work, always have time to sign autographs, be invariably kind to children and patient with drunks in bars.  In fact, he’d be the sort of guy you’d want to have a beer with, but not the kind who would actually drink very much, a man who loves a good steak but never puts on any weight.  He’d be both cool and accessible, but never do drugs or put his penis in random people. He’d be a devoted husband and a great father, yet also be willing to move his family around to a new city every few years and miss the birth of his second child because of must-win game against the Penguins.  He’d love New York, but still go home to Red Deer every summer.  He’d be passionately loyal to his team, until they needed to rebuild, in which case he’d accept a trade to anywhere.  You know, just an average, ordinary, lunchbucket working man who coincidentally also happens to be huge, muscular, rich, famous, freakishly gifted, fanatically devoted, and universally beloved.

That’s not a human being, that’s the hero of a direct-to-video action franchise.  It’s a model that doesn’t do justice to either the complexity of individuals or the complexity of group dynamics.

When PJ Stock used his Hockey Night in Canada platform to attack PK Subban’s character, arguing that Subban didn’t fit in, wasn’t liked, and that this would hurt his play, Dave Stubs at the Montreal Gazette shot back with an editorial informed by his closer relationship to the team.  While the article tells several anecdotes designed to show that Subban is friendly with some teammates, it also made an essential and underrated point: what matters most in the room is not whether or not they like him, but that he makes the team better. Yes, dressing rooms can be emotional places.  Yes, there are conflicts.  But these men are professionals. They’ve spent years honing elite skills for the sole purpose of winning, and that winning is dependent on their ability to discipline both their own multitudinous personalities and to tolerate the multitudinous nature of others. Character matters, sure, but performance matters more.  If you’re the kind of guy who can spend literally months of your life in weight rooms and running drills, fighting through losses, demotions, injuries, insults, and assaults all in the name of winning hockey games, then you can put up with PK Subban’s smiling, chatting, triple-low-fiving ways for the same reason.  More to the point, if I’m going to pay you millions of dollars, you can put up with whomever the hell I ask you to.

Pay for character, if you want, but it’s a high-stakes gamble in the modern NHL.  Of course everyone can see the advantage of getting buddies for your essential pieces, and if Sidney Crosby needs some fourth-liner in the stall next to him like a comfort goat, maybe that’s the compromise any rational team would make to keep a thoroughbred happy.  And sure, maybe a team full of shiftless layabouts would hypothetically need an ass-kicker to come in and kick some ass (although any NHL team that gets itself full of shiftless layabouts in the first place probably has more problems than any ass-kicking can solve).  But with so much roster turnover and so many divergent backgrounds among players, chasing some intrinsic charisma that will be equally appreciated by rookies, veterans, call-ups, Canadians, Swedes, Tatars, and goalies is a fool’s errand.  The guy who fits today might be a misfit next year, or even next week.  He might develop an addiction, or marital problems, or just never feel right in the city.    The team will change.  He will change.

Personally, if I’m a GM, I don’t break out the checkbook for character.  It’s too complicated, too circumstantial, and frankly just a little bit too seventh-grade.  GMs have actual hockey problems to manage, like concussions and cruddy power plays and a holes on the blue line and who the hell are we picking in June anyway? Figuring out how to identify, acquire, and afford actual hockey talent is challenge enough to make worries about whether Ryan and Matt are going to be BFFs a waste of  energy.  I don’t care if any player has the most noble soul in the universe or the most abject.  All I care about, as a hypothetical GM, is whether he can discipline the various perverse, arrogant, annoying, frustrating, unpleasant multitudes he contains well enough to play awesome hockey.  Like a f**king professional.

Character is a chimera.  Pay for professionalism.