Earlier this morning I was talking with my boss about a Systems Analyst post I’m working on when he made an interesting observation: hockey analysts seem far more prone to point out errors and tear down players than build them up, which they do in other sports. You’ll often see an NHL team score a goal, and the immediate reflex of the talking head is to highlight where the breakdown happened. I’ve also heard people complain that our analysts are quick to shred our stars when they’re struggling (Mike Milbury on Alex Ovechkin comes to mind here), whereas other sports see their announcers and writers go to great lengths to prop them up.
In basketball, if a player naps on his coverage and LeBron gets a break and throws down a dunk, all you ever see, all you ever hear about, is that dunk. “The athleticism!” The blown coverage gets swept under the rug.
But there’s a reason why in hockey we’re far more likely to point out that an opportunity was a direct result of an error on defense: from an offensive standpoint, hockey is kind of about making the other team f***-up as much as possible, and finishing when that happens.
The intense defensive scrutiny isn’t because hockey analysts are more vindictive or don’t want players to get credit or are jealous of the guys’ wives or something. For the most part, our analysts just know what they’re looking for. Not that other sports’ commentators don’t, but consider: hockey simply doesn’t have the indefensible shots that other sports do. A perfectly executed fade-away jumper in basketball basically can’t be stopped, so credit to the shooter. You can make a great pitch in baseball and it can still get hit out of the park, so credit to the hitter. A perfectly thrown-and-caught quick slant in football is just about impossible to stop from happening, so hey, nice pass and catch.
In our sport, you have to make people miss. There is no even-strength goal without an oops, or at the very least, a That Could’ve Been Done Better.
Hockey, like golf, is a game of minimizing screw-ups as much as it is making incredible plays. On the course, a great shot and a birdie is helpful, but that good is far outweighed by the damage you can do to your game with a quadruple bogey. In hockey, it’s a lot easier to try to create chaos offensively and hope your opponent makes double bogeys than it is to go out and make birdies. And as a hockey analyst, it has to be awfully hard not to point out those squares on the scorecard.
Solid defensive hockey is why we see so many playoff upsets (thinking specifically about the year Montreal went on their run for some reason). If a team can stick to their d-side roles without blowing them and get high-quality goaltending, it’s on the offense to find a way to create something, and creating in hockey is just about the hardest thing to do in any sport. This is why great creaters – Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk and beyond – are considered such jaw-droppingly amazing athletes and worthy of the fawning they get. You almost have to think of offense in hockey like a court case – the burden of proof is on the offense, and all the defense has to do is defend defend defend. If there’s no hole in their case, good luck winning.
Hockey commentators are often ex-players, and all ex-players know that when your team gets scored on, the first thing you do is figure out whose guy it was and what happened. It’s reflexive. It’s possible that as analysts we could do a better job lauding the offensive players instead of highlighting the defensive ones, but we’re not analyzing house hockey here.
So your choices are listening to someone accurately identify the breakdown, or someone telling you that a goal happened because a player made a great shot while ignoring how the guy came to get that look.
I know where my preference lies, so to those ever-so-mean analysts out there, I say keep doing your thing. You’re not being hard on guys, you’re being good at your job.