How You Play the Game

PK Subban, behaving awesomely/inappropriately/interestingly, and therefore winning hockey.

PK Subban, behaving awesomely/inappropriately/interestingly, and therefore winning hockey.

Why, exactly, is it a problem for hockey to be unfair? Okay, sure, maybe it has some depressing existential implications concerning the potential for fairness in other parts of life. And maybe it’s a troubling experience when that unfairness hits your team. But there are plenty of games- not sports so much, but the sorts of games we play on boards or at tables in Vegas- wherein the outcomes are dictated in part or in whole by randomness. Even knowing that, we still enjoy them. We still choose to play. Why can’t we think of hockey in the same mold, as a long succession of weighted dice, rolled by a trickster god? Is it possible to say, yeah, sure, it’s unfair, so what?

Yes, it is, but in doing so one calls into question many, if not all, of the conventional narratives of the sport. Admitting that a large part of the game is not determined by any particular skill, action, or intention on the part of any team or individual means decoupling results from both talent and choices. This is troubling because sports narratives are almost universally meritocratic in tone, with winning postulated as the highest value. If you admit that any and all actions, no matter what their inherent value, can easily and frequently be swamped by chance, it starts to undermine the functionality of free will.

Free will, after all, isn’t just the ability to choose things but the ability to enact those choices in the world. Anything that invalidates the efficacy of free will substantively invalidates it’s actual freedom. If I am in prison in Reno, I theoretically still have the ability to “choose” to go to Lubbock. I can make up my mind, pack my bags, maybe even get on the phone and book a flight- before running smack into a row of iron bars. I am still making a choice, but without the power to realize it, that freedom of choice is little more than a mockery of itself.

So it is when the outcomes of games and seasons are dictated by unfair causes, be those injuries, reffing, resources, bounces, or percentages. Such results don’t invalidate all of the effort, but depending on exactly how unfair the outcome- how brutal the gut punch- it can invalidate a lot of it. The worst pain in the game isn’t losing itself; it’s losing unjustly. Fair losses are motivating: either they draw attention to the flaws in one’s own game, which might be fixed, or they showcase the superior play of another squad, to which one might aspire. Being honestly outplayed is a challenge to play better. Unfair losses, though, retroactively devalue the effort that came before them. All that practice, all that training, all that focus, everything that goes into creating a win-worthy performance- they all failed, because… luck. Hockey’s most important core narrative is the one of constant self-sacrifice in the name of winning; if winning can’t be expected no matter what the sacrifice, why are we doing all the sacrificing again?

Even our so-called “underdog” stories are meritocratic. They’re supposed to be about bad teams that triumph, but usually such “bad” teams aren’t presented as actually bad, but simply misjudged, undervalued, discriminated against, rag-tag or somehow otherwise wronged by the world. They always, ultimately, win in ways compatible with our sense of fairness. Nobody ever made a movie about a team that gets solidly outplayed for fifty-five minutes, but wins on the strength of a weird bounce off the back boards and the goalie’s ass sometime in the second period doldrums. Nobody, not even the most die-hard homers, was ever inspired by a team winning because their opponent’s star had a back injury and also the refs awarded a penalty for a non-existent trip in OT. These moments happen all the time in hockey, but they’re not the stuff of beloved underdog stories. The best feeling you can possibly feel about an unjust outcome is relief. The worst is crushing existential despair.

Sports are not supposed to be random. Chaos is not in itself a bad thing, or contrary to entertainment value. But that’s not what sports are. Sports stories aren’t stories about randomness. They’re stories about well-earned, justified results; fantasies of a meritocracy more pure than any found outside of a rink, court, or field. May the best man win.

Sports ethics invert this idiom: players try to be the best in order to win. Everything, every argument, every position must be justified by an appeal to winning. Why should teams fight? In order to show toughness, intimidate opponents, and therefore win. Why should teams not fight? In order to ice better players, focus on the game itself, and therefore win. Why should teams use advanced stats? To win. Why should teams value intangibles? To win. It doesn’t matter what point we’re trying to make about hockey, somewhere at the end we all feel obligated to tie it into beliefs or evidence about what creates the most winning. Hockey people, in fact, define what it is “best” to be by how much winning they expect it to generate. But if being the best does not mean winning, if, in fact, many of the best men might play long careers and not win any of the big prizes, then we are left with a question: what is the good in these games besides winning? What is the value left in sports when control over outcomes is gone?

Imagine knowing, in advance and for certain, that your team’s season would be ruined by unfairness or bad luck. Doesn’t matter how- maybe there’s a miscellaneous run of injuries, maybe there’s a miscellaneous accumulation of cold streaks, maybe there really is a nefarious referee cabal plotting against them. Pick whatever unfair thing in the game rankles you most personally, and imagine knowing that it would definitely come between your team and the Stanley Cup.

Take away winning. Take it out of the equation entirely. You still have to play the games. So how do you want to play them?

This is perhaps the great gift that a recognition of hockey’s unfairness can give us: a chance to see clearly what is important in the game other than winning. A lot of the arguments we tag with “… so you can win more” at the end aren’t really about winning anyway. They’re expressions of aesthetic preference, or community feeling, or market necessity, or any one of a hundred different values that people bring to hockey and then disavow. Let’s be honest: if you want to see fighting, it’s not because you think it wins games. It’s because you want to see a performance of honorable, brutal, archaic masculinity. If you don’t want to see fighting, same thing- you don’t enjoy that performance, and so would rather see it replaced with some other kind of action more to your liking. In either case, what’s really going on is a debate between aesthetics and safety that has very little to do with winning at all. Transfer this to almost any question of narrative, intangibles, style, or team culture. Leadership: do you need it to win? Who cares, it’s still a great thing to have. When it works, it makes players happier to play together and fans happier to watch. In general, it is preferable to have it, win or lose or shootout. What’s better: wide-open hockey or defensive hockey? A dozen upon dozen teams have won with both, and even more have lost with both. Probably your team will lose with either. So which would you rather see them lose with?

The fancystats men often use the phrase “process over product”. In their case, it’s used to justify a commitment to analytics-based decision-making even in the face of unfairness and randomness. But the same mantra could easily apply to any kind of process in the face of the same conditions, including a commitment to, say, having a certain proportion of French-speaking players, or to playing a wide-open style, or to being big and truculent. The Stanley Cup is a great treasure, but it’s far from the only amazing thing that happens in a hockey season, and many of those other amazing things will actually carry far more weight for far more people, will contribute more to the evolution of the game, and will mean more for the future of the League. The process is, has always been, what we’re really in it for- to see what kinds of crazy-awesome shit happens along the way to whatever outcome comes out. The Cup, and the winning it represents, is a McGuffin. It really is, in the end, all about how you play the game.

The drive to win, regardless of success or even efficacy, is indispensable. It’s the engine of hockey. For people with certain roles to play- and here I am thinking of general managers and coaches- it will always have to be far and away the highest priority. But it cannot be everything, and it’s doubtful if it can even provide significant satisfaction to be most of the things. Because like as not that unfair loss will be this game; that shipwreck season will be this year. Valar morghulis- all teams must die. The best of them are those who do the most cool shit before they do.