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.

Comments (32)

  1. Great article. Saturday was the first time this season I actually watched the intermissions.

    It would be so entertaining to just have Maclean and Friedman having an intelligent discourse on hockey. Instead we get 15 seconds of thought and 3 minutes of insane babbling from the combination of Stock, Healy and Weekes.

  2. PJ should be relegated to the Kypreos Panel of Dusters

  3. PJ Stock is what’s wrong with HNIC. This guy is a lunkhead who can barely put two words together when describing the play. He’s an idiot, has nothing to offer HNIC, and can barely remember his own name half the time. Time for this moron to find a job selling shoes or something.

  4. Truly a great read. *golf clap*

  5. Oh, and the transcription of what he actually said hurt my brain

  6. Poor McLean… he’s had to deal with one Don Cherry for so many years, and now there’s another

  7. Great stuff, Ellen. Also, now I really need to listen to Radiohead.

    • Yeah, admit it, Ellen, there was no guy, it was just you listening to radiohead in that grassy field and crying.

  8. Well I started reading this thinking Stock is entirely wrong about just about everything in his statement, but your conclusion is wrong too.

    Emotion/feelings absolutely can play a role. The NHL is a grind. To think that players are going to give you 100% Stanley Cup finals worthy effort for 82 (or 48) games is insane. Same could be said for teams that are underperforming and just want to get the season over with. Bourne has noted the feeling of walking into a locker room like that.

    Players take shifts and sometimes entire games off. The team as a whole could be having an off night, then an opponent takes a run at a player that they felt unnecessary or gave their goalie an extra poke, and then they

    And if you get angry on the rink, you can do a hell of a lot more than stomp your feet and pout. Maybe you finish a couple extra checks that you would’ve rubbed the guy out or just skated by. Maybe you have an extra jump in your step to get to a loose puck. Maybe you just grab the guy and beat the crap out of him because that does happen in the NHL. The saying “you don’t poke the bear” holds true. Emotion itself can not over come talent, but in the NHL and in a situation where all else is equal, emotion can and will play a role.

    Andddd with all that said, diving? Seriously DIVING(!?) is why the Flyers might have come together and won that game? Go home PJ, you’re drunk

    • I think you’re wrong and missing the point. Emotions only aid the game, they do not win it. Skills win games.

      • Well then I am not missing the point. Because in my post it specifically says:

        “Emotion itself can not over come talent, but in the NHL and in a situation where all else is equal, emotion can and will play a role.”

  9. Great defenseman, yes. But it’s possible P.K. dives with more regularity than anyone in the league. He’s too good for all his diving and he should cut the crap and focus on his game, which is impressive.

    • I agree that Subban does embellish, but I don’t know that he does it much more than any other player in the league. Maybe he’s just not as good at it? He needs to give that up and stick to being a great offensive defenseman. Too much of a soccer mentality in the game these days (flopping to the ground as if a sniper just took you out from 300 meters).

  10. Id contribute money just to have you translate these panels all the time.

  11. Amazing read. Well done.

  12. While I profess no love for PJ (and do, in fact, find him mildly irritating) I can attest to his “understanding” and use of his brand of “feelings”.

    There exist intangibles (as yet beyond the scrutiny of the Newtonian Method) – Hockey analysis seems headed the way of 19th Century “Better Everything Through Science” – That, though inexplicably “subjective”, are rooted in experience, and manifest themselves as “instinctual”.

    I speak from such experience; having served in the “trenches” of my many, varied careers. When you’re “there”, you’re “THERE”.

    “There” is a place where there’s far too much information for (let’s call him or her) the “unbeliever” (or the analyst) to process – But, for someone who has been “there”, it boils down to a “gut-existence”. An instinct.

    That PJ Stock lacks the vocabulary to articulate his understanding of the aggregate of the contributing subtlties that result in his conclusions doesn’t make them any less valid – Though, that doesn’t necessarily validate all such conclusions, as some are simply nonsense and “spitballin’”.

    In the heat of action (be it in a professional capacity in a kitchen or on a job-site, or facing a deadline, or working with any experienced team, under a time-sensitive, mission-critical situation) there develops a “team-instinct” – and, though it need not be based on anything ostensibly logical – It remains empirically sound.

    Let’s not call it “feelings” – Let’s call it “According To Hoyle”. One need not understand how it works; only that it works.

    It may be any combination of “rule of thumb”, knee-jerk response, repetitiveness, familiarity, established practice, myth and the shortest distance between two points – And it is best applied “unthinkingly” and impulsively. It uses freneticness and near-panic and simplicity as essential tools and allies, and eschews theory, ornateness and conscious decision-making.

    …And when it’s functioning – and I’ve been part of such an experience; it’s transcendental – time seemingly stands still and everyone hits “The Zone”. It seems like everyone is sharing a “hive mind” and every move and “decision” contributes to optimizing the team-effort.

    Truthfully, it is very base in its’ requirements – You tap into an animal consciousness, acquire a thousand-yard stare, let your spine dictate your every move and go with the flow. In its’ highest forms it is manifest as Jazz, or improvisational dance or comedy…..Or, Hockey.

    For an analyst, trying to dissemble the “why”, the task is overwhelming – And any ready conclusions drawn are self-fulfilling and disingenuous and ad hoc – Ultimately relegating any attempted (non-analytical) explanation to the realm of “feelings”.

    Regardless, call it what one may, such a mechanism exists – And it does work.

  13. PJ Stock is a Bruins fan. PK Subban is a fantastic Habs player. It’s only natural that PJ would continue to attack Subban, in the hopes that he can influence his play for the worse. It is the same thing Don Cherry did, when he claimed to have watched PK growing up in Toronto but at the same time claimed to not remember his name.

    HNIC is anti-Montreal, and pro-Boston/Toronto. Which all comes back to Cherry’s biases, along with the added voices of PJ Stock and Mike Milbury.

    The only thing that is uncertain is whether race also plays a part.

    • Umm, I grew up with PJ in the suburbs of Montreal, an I can assure you he is a Canadiens fan, though we all grew up believing Cam Neely was the greatest player there ever was. As for pro Bruin, sure he feels some affinity to them, since he played for them, but he also started his career with the Rangers, and his proudest moment was putting on that Canadiens jersey for real, and playing in front of friends and family in Montreal.

      As for what he said, take it with a grain of salt. I do not know if he has a personal vendetta against Subban or not, but what he was trying to describe shouldn’t be waved off out of hand. During the long grind of a season, you can have games where as a team you may be emotionally flat, and some play, innocuous or not, can light a charge into a team, and make them re commit to the parts of the game that are important to winning. I believe what he was trying to say wasn’t that the hit in of itself made the Flyers win, but it did refocus them.

      Just an opinion

      • of course. The dive and the locker room itneraction could have triggered the flyers. The two fights stated “they cared” and then they got a goal. But they did not get a goals because of a dive and a couple fights. They got a goal because the puck got through…

  14. Your philosophical hockey treatises are getting better and better. The are my favorite sorts of things in life; those that are simultaneously so influential and so meaningless, like the emotions cited by PJ. Thanks for a quality read!

  15. Best. Post. Ever.

    PJ Stock is a sad, sad man with the depth of a piece of paper. There is no logical reason he is on TV. Or maybe that’s just a feeling I have….

  16. TLDR as per usual.

  17. I love this article. Not only is it informative and interesting, but it’s well written and thoughtful, as so many blogs are not. Keep up the good work, Ms. Etchingham, ’cause I will be back for more!

  18. The title of this article is a Radiohead lyric. Awesome!

  19. Stellar writing, analysis and insight yet again Etchinham. Well struck.

    Stock is definitely trying to become some sort of neo Cherry. Although he doesn’t incessantly self-promote to the same degree as Cherry. Key-rist, Donald Trump could learn a thing or two from Cherry on that front.

    Regardless, they add little but biased hyperbole and quasi articulated bombast to any attempt at analysis or discourse on HNIC. (Cherry’s stand on no-touch icing, notwithstanding) Sadly, both often dominate the program by shouting down others.

    Perhaps Don and mini-Don are a couple of the contributing factors as to why the Ceeb may well lose the broadcast rights to HNIC to a competing network in the not-too-distant-future.

    Your articles are up-ice sauce, right on the tape. Please keep going.

  20. p.j stock, pfff, i didnt use capital letters because he ant tall enough and its pj stock a guy who couldnt make it in the nhl wants to take over cherrys job lmfao. keep dreaming little man keep dreaming

  21. Nice response by icehound up the road.

    But mostly, this piece is an example of what I keep saying to my stats-loving friends – if you argue with morons, it lowers your game. Which is to say, if you try to understand an “emotions-based” argument, and you use PJ Stock as your opposing viewpoint, your response will becme… pretty PJ Stockish.

    And this one is. Which pisses me off. For example: “… 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.”

    This is the flip-side of an already-bad argument made by many fancystats-types, that “We can’t see inside the dressing room, so there’s no sense speculating about what happens there.” Which is to say, “The aspects of this reality we can’t see, THROUGH OUR TV, cannot be central to our discussion.”

    Does that not strike you as freakishly closed-minded? And at times, a rather aggressively censoring thing to say? Which is to say, are the only realities which are allowed to be discussed, are the ones we can all see on TV??

    And you’ve now taken it another yard. We only want, only have an interest in, explanations based on “what everyone can see and understand.” Now, that sounds smart, and scientish. But just step back an inch from the brink and think about what you just said. Try to extend it to any of 1001 other realms of life.

    Try to use this methodology as a means to understand a family, a marriage, a soldier’s experience, a parent’s, the inside of a CEO’s office while decision-making, etc. etc. If you, the grand, all-watching, all-powerful, all-knowing TV spectator cannot see it, then… it doesn’t exist.

    And more, it’s boring even to hear about it.

    This is the sort of nonsense that PJ would write. Look at this:

    “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.”

    I mean, it’s nice that you used the word tautological, but your usage is nonsense. The idea that feelings have no power is…. Well. I donno. Take a family? Ever seen what shit happens when someone loses it emotionally? Sure, other family members can dilute, resist or ignore it, but in my experience, people running on high emotion regularly do shit THAT CHANGES THEIR ENTIRE LIVES.

    Which points us to…. the question of scale. If a person hates Capitalism or the Catholic Church, their “feelings” will generally be of fairly minor influence. They’re likely to get diluted before they can change it or bring it down. But if they have high feelings about their workplace, their family, their school, their location, or, say…. the next 40 minutes of life at the game/work they’re doing at that moment…. their ability to influence it, is actually quite huge. Take a bad penalty, become forgetful, find that extra ounce of energy, shake up your team-mates, chop someone, dive in front of a puck, not give a shit – all these things can make a big difference.

    And so what if those “feelings” aren’t independently verifiable. They just… aren’t. That’s reality, a scientific reality – they’re not accessible by us. And likewise, they don’t show up well in statistics. Hockey stats- are almost entirely useless in predicting the next few moments results of any one particular game. That’s the reality of statistical tools. They’re good for some things not others.

    But now, we want to kick their power to the curb because we can’t see them? Or question their reality because PJ Stock is a walking talking moron? Seriously – “doesn’t mean they’re there?”

    Why don’t we all try this instead – not taking PJ Stock as our spokesperson for the impact of emotions on the game. PJ may well have some privileged access, may know some shit we don’t, because of his life’s work and experience in the NHL. I donno, I know more about Nova Scotia and London and energy efficiency in a house than PJ does, because of my life’s experience. Which means, he’s allowed to suggest that emotions may have turned that game, and even identify that emotion.

    But we don’t have to agree. We may think other stuff is more important.
    Or we may not think emotion played any role at all.
    Or we may suspect it’s there, but not like it’s being there.

    There’s a whole shit-load of things we can feel and talk about. But why don’t we try to be as intelligent and articulate about emotion, about motivation, about the intangibles, as we are about advanced stats? Why do we feel/choose to set up PJ Stock or Don Cherry as THE BEST VOICES AVAILABLE ON EMOTIONS?

    I mean, Don Cherry likes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think they’re appalling, mass murder initiated from our society’s stupidity and rage. But should I take these bozo’s as the best way in to foreign policy? It’s the same with emotion – it’s a bigger, and whole lot deeper, topic than these guys present.

    Anyway. End rant. Sorry for the heat. Emotion turned to 11 and all that.

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