Montreal Canadiens v Philadelphia Flyers

P.J. Stock wants Don Cherry’s job.

True, I don’t know this for a fact, having never been to the bucolic paradise that is the inside of Mr. Stock’s head, but let’s consider the evidence. Firstly, there’s the clothes. True, Stock has not gone so far as to come on TV in purple plaid- yet- but he’s clearly laying the groundwork for it. How else to explain the inexplicably popped collars, deep burgundy hues, and disco-shiny fabrics Stock has slowly been working into his wardrobe over the past season, if not as a slow progression towards Cherrywear? Secondly, consider the spluttering. Of all the men in hockey broadcasting, none is more likely to repeat the same point three times in three unfinished sentences than P.J., save for the old man of the first intermission. But the third and most damning piece of evidence for the Cherrification of P.J. Stock is that he’s increasingly drawing Ron MacLean’s patented “there is a crazy person sitting immediately to my left” expression.

That expression was on full display last Saturday evening when, in the Hockey Tonight segment setting up the Habs-Bruins game, Stock launched into yet another of his signature P.K. Subban is everything that’s wrong with hockey rants. For purposes of evidence, I have transcribed this rant and his co-panelists reactions to it:

Stock: “It is… I mean, P.K. right now… Is he up for the Norris? He’s gotta be. He’s definitely… and P.K., coming off, I think, a great first three-quarters of a season had a moment here where he hits Brayden Schenn, they go in, they collide, and then it… the clip keeps going. At the end of that, at the end of the period, they would meet along the boards, and Brayden Schenn then has an opportunity to run into P.K. Subban, and he kinda goes to his- I don’t wanna say his old way- but embellishes a little, and, instead of standing up, he kinda goes down, and then it kinda leads to the mentality that Montreal is, that kinda gave Philly their life, they go in their locker room… No one knows what was said in that locker room, but you know Philly’s saying, “We’re not losing to, to this. We’re not gonna lose to this.”

MacLean: “And do you buy that?”

Stock: “I totally buy that. But at the same time, that’s the situation in Montreal.”

Friedman: “When are you gonna leave this guy alone? He’s got thirty points, he leads the NHL defensemen in scoring, he’s doing everything the Canadiens have asked about him… It’s enough already.

Healy: “I think we gotta blame him for global warming.”

MacLean: “Hold it, let P.J. finish that. So you do buy that Philadelphia rallied and won that game because P.K. was…

Stock: “I do. I know what it’s like in that locker room when you… when a moment like that happens and a guy dives. Philly came out, two fights- bang bang- and then took over the rest of the game.”

MacLean: “Oh, all right.”

Stock: “So I know that mentality…”

MacLean: “Wonderful.”

Stock: “… in that Philly dressing room.”

Now, that’s a long transcription, so let me give you the executive summary, in modified language:

Stock: “P.K. Subban took a dive, which offended the Flyers so deeply that, in their dressing room between periods, they forged a sense of common resolve sufficient to win the game.”

MacLean: “Wait, you actually believe that?”

Stock: “Yes!”

Friedman: “P.K. Subban is awesome and I don’t know why you have a vendetta against him.”

Healy: “This situation is getting awkward so I’m going to make an ineffectual joke.”

MacLean: “Wait, I want to ask again if PJ believes this crazy thing he has just said.”

Stock: “Yes, I absolutely believe this crazy thing I have just said, because I PLAYED THE GAME, BITCHES.”

MacLean: [there is a crazy person sitting to my left expression]

There are two interesting things about this interaction. The first is Stock’s contention that his experience of playing professional hockey gives him a privileged knowledge of the emotional undercurrents of the game, and that these emotional undercurrents are the causes of winning and losing. The second is MacLean and Friedman’s obvious skepticism.

This skepticism is a relatively new thing in televised hockey commentary. For a long time now, broadcast hockey discourse has been dominated by men who played, coached, or managed in the NHL, and a lot of their views and positions derive from that experience. The traditional panel format is almost universally one never-played-the-game reporter presenting, and usually deferring to, the opinions of two or three ex-somethings, with maybe an insider on a cell phone tacked on at the end of the long desk. The arguments are so set that they’re almost rote: I played the game, so I can tell you that fight was important. I coached a team, so I can tell you that player needs to be benched. I ran a franchise once, so I can tell you that they had to overpay for that particular guy. Oftentimes, the evidence for such positions is nothing more than the authority that is presumed to come from having been in a room, behind a bench, in a negotiation, from feeling the feelings that are felt in such rarified places. We’re used to seeing hockey narratives presented like war stories: if you weren’t there, you don’t know, man.

That guys like MacLean and Friedman, who never played in the NHL, have no problem openly rolling their eyes at Stock’s argument-from-experience is a sign of how hockey analysis is changing. As advanced stats come into the common parlance, as replay and tracking technology advances, as more and more new fans come to the game, bringing with them a naif’s confusion at the enormous, violent, and self-contradictory mass of hockey tradition, there is a growing demand for explanations based on evidence that everyone can see and understand. We’re not so easily satisfied by convenient emotional explanations for winning and losing anymore. Or perhaps we’ve just gotten bored with them.

Such skepticism is wholly justified. Hockey games are emotional things, certainly. There are currents of feeling and passion running all through them, palpable even from the stands, even to those who’ve never laced up skates much less put those skates on NHL ice.  I don’t think anyone doubts that players feel something strong when an opponent dives. I believe P.J. when he says that such things are spoken of in the room, and that such conversation forges a bond of common feeling. Hell, I’d even happily concede that such feelings can have some sort of impact on the play. But whatever causal force feelings have in hockey, it is only one of many, many causal forces at work.

What goes into determining who wins and who loses a hockey game? The raw talent of players on the roster, firstly, and their ability to actualize that talent within a 60 minute time frame. The instincts of shooters and the reflexes of goalies, the first passes of defensemen and the strategies of the coaches. The privileges of home ice and last change, the rigors of the schedule, the comfort or desperation of the standings. The subtle pressure of score effects, the delicate balance of illness and injury, and the inconsistant decisions of the referees. And luck, oh my God, there are as many species of luck in hockey as there are of beetles in the Amazon, influencing every single thing I have just listed and more besides. Whatever role emotions play, it is necessarily tempered and often overwhelmed by these countless other factors, all of them more concrete, all of them more powerful.

But it is a peculiar defect of humans that we overestimate the power of emotion. We are terrible, as a rule, at distinguishing between “feels important” and “actually is important according to the standards of objective or intersubjective reality.”  Anything that inflames a passion, be it love, hate, sorrow, or fear, seems like a matter of critical importance.  This is clearly visible in hockey.  There are thousands of momentary gestures that contribute to the final score, but which are the ones that players, analysts, and fans are most likely to point to as “the reason” for it?  The emotional ones.  The surprise goals that give us a jolt of joy.  The vicious fights that angry up our blood.  The long penalty kills that build up anxiety and then let it go, like finally coming up for air after nearly drowning.  These things are not necessarily more causal than any number of mundane clearances up the boards or quotidian carries over the blue- they may, in many cases, be a good deal less causal- but try telling that to someone who watched the game, or played in it.  P.K. Subban’s (alleged) diving was probably about as relevant to the Habs’ loss as your coworker’s nose-picking was to your firm not getting that contract, but try telling that to someone who f*#king hates nose-picking.

Here, let me tell a story about feelings and causes. Once when I was fifteen I sat in the grass with a boy and we looked deep into each other’s eyes and we felt as though we were in love and would be in love forever and would grow up and buy a house and have babies and happily ever after. I felt that, and he felt it too, and it was real, I guess, insofar as feelings can be real. But as far as really-real goes, we were fifteen, very stupid, and not at all in love, and as for houses and babies and forevers, I have none of those things, nor any idea what became of him.

What, is that a silly example? Of course it is. It’s so patently obvious that such feelings have no direct causal impact on the future that it seems ridiculous to even mention it. Yet, if I was a large man and I was telling a story about how me and my teammate stared into each other’s eyes with steely intensity and felt as though we would win this game because no way we lose to that kind of team, I could get thousands of dollars and a job on TV.  Fortunately, though, Elliotte Friedman would be there to roll his eyes at me, exactly the way any sensible person would.  The only sense in which feelings are ever “real” is the tautological one: if you feel angry, you really do feel angry.  But there their power ends, for no matter how much you stomp your feet or scream at the sky, your anger cannot bend the world to its will.  It can tenuously influence certain things in small ways, but most of those influences will be diluted, resisted, or ignored entirely.

However, just because feelings are not often major causes of winning hockey games does not mean they should play no role in hockey discourse. Every analytic viewpoint has its myths, and if the myth of subjective experience is that it determines the outcomes of games, the myth of objective data is that the only things that matter are those which determine the outcomes of games. Feelings are only a small part of what makes winning happen, true, but they are a huge part of what makes hockey- particularly the great, bloated, hedonistic spectacle of NHL hockey- happen. They’re what draw fans to their seats and couches, they’re what inspire the jersey purchases and the book sales. The emotional ebb and flow of the game, from the tender hugs to the bitter fights to the perplexing calls- that’s the stuff of memories and montages. It builds the community. It keeps the wheels turning.

All Stock has to do to transform his point about the feelings teams feel from shudderingly awful to potentially interesting is to take out the because. The Flyers did not win the game because Subban (allegedly) embellished, and saying that makes him look like a dude who played 235 games in the NHL without understanding how hockey works. Try it this way, P.J.: point out the embellishment and the Flyers on-ice reaction, describe how much teams hate it when opponents do that, maybe tell a story about some particular gifted diver who used to piss everyone off during your playing days, and finish with some speculation about how satisfying it might have been for Philly to get the win after asserting their combative ways over Subban’s (allegedly) floppy ones. People might still not like it (there is, after all, the whole inexplicable vendetta aspect) but with just that little tweak the entire point goes from being completely wrong to perfectly acceptable- and even, maybe, entertaining.

We need ex-players to come on TV and talk to us about feelings. We need the testimony of witnesses to tell us what it’s like to be in the places we can’t go and how it was in the times before we were born. We don’t need this because it tells us why the Habs lost, and in fact such functional applications are an impoverished use of narratives that could aspire to so much more. Hockey has a lot to teach us about how to be a fallible, frail, emotional human being caught up in a frenetic spin of potential glory and looming disaster, which is what we all are, in our own small ways, already. Stories about how hockey feels are precious in their own right, and they should stand on their own as part of the conversation. Like any emotion, they’re tautological, and that’s fine. They don’t need to explain any-damn-thing except themselves.