It’s tough to quantify the value of “character” to a hockey team. I suspect if you asked 100 hockey people from all aspects of the game – fans, players, management, statisticians and beyond – to rate how important it is on a scale of 1-t0-10 you’d come across all 10 digits. It’s a nebulous quality that can’t be pinned down with narrative or a calculator.
Still, in the hockey world, it is an undeniable, capitalized Thing that’s deemed measurable by opinion, and extremely important. As a player, it’s key that you demonstrate that you’re a Good Character Guy, because being a Good Character Guy can elevate you beyond players that are better at hockey than you. Being a bad teammate, as in, someone of shoddy character, can cost you endless opportunity and dollars – that’s just how much the hockey world values this trait. Half the time you see a teammate “stick up for someone” they’re acting in self-interest, because not acting after a cheapshot would damage your stock as a character teammate. (That said, it does take stones to fight for someone, so whatever the motivation, it is somewhat admirable.)
When I was just out of hockey I wrote this about Travis Rycroft, a teammate of mine in Utah, about how much I believe his passion and general character helped us as a group. I truly believed then, as I do now, that he galvanized our group and made everyone care more than they might normally have. And, caring is good. That doesn’t up the talent level of your team, but getting the focus of all 20 guys on the same thing – hockey – as he could seemed to minimize mental lapses. We went to the conference final with a team that wasn’t anything special.
I’ve seen it work the opposite way too. Bad dudes, bad room, lapses galore on the ice.
Of course, both of those observations are anecdotal, and aren’t proof that having character guys matters. I suppose it’s possible that I retroactively credited our team success to a guy like Travis because I really liked him and he was the captain, so that made sense. I doubt it, but it’s possible.
So I can’t confirm that character makes a lick of difference to a team, but I think most people can agree on a pretty simple concept: extreme people (like Rycroft), in both directions, affect the people around them.
If you have a person of terrible character, who talks trash about co-workers or teammates, trust breaks down. Moods get worse, motivations become impure, and concepts like sacrificing for the greater good of a company or team go by the wayside. To hell with that, I’m just going to take care of my own work, and down goes productivity. People can do amazing things when they work together. They won’t work as well together if they’re asked to work with @$$#oles.
There are more times than people realize where guys on the same team are rooting against one another, especially at the pro level, so having people who purify the air from becoming toxic makes some sense. Personal motivations exist. You want someone’s powerplay minutes, you want someone’s spot on the depth chart, maybe you just straight dislike a guy. Who knows how that comes to fruition on the ice, but it could be in the form of looking off that guy on a 2-on-1 when the pass is the smart play. Ideally, you’d have your team making the best hockey decisions at all times.
When it comes to assembling a team I don’t believe that character is a trait you should pursue, because very few people are exceptionally awful, and very few people are exceptionally awesome. Most respond postively or negative to their circumstances (personal and team success = happy person, and vice versa), and the difference between “character” guys and not is probably negligible.
When you hear of teams actively pursuing “veteran leadership” or “character” or whatever, it’s a borderline laugher. Oh really, instead of pursuing real on-ice needs, you found a “veteran to mentor the kids?” I mean, seriously, hire an actual goddamn mentor for the kids then (no shortage of ex-pros who’d take that gig), don’t waste a roster spot on a guy who you hope can “teach them how to be pros.” Again, these things are nice to have if you can acquire them in a guy who is also still good at hockey.
As a GM, I think you can use character as a determining factor between Players A and B. There are certain players around the league that I’ve heard bad things about, and certain players I’ve heard good things about. You can imagine the anecdotal evidence GMs have from their people. If you’re interested in a couple of role players, and one is universally respected and the other not, I’m cool with using character to help make your decision.
If you can avoid the extremely bad dudes in the room (take a guy like Bryzgalov, who’s widely said to be one), and use character to help you decide between comparable players, I think you’ve taken using that trait to the max. It’s done all it can for you.
Unless, of course, you’re savvy enough to capitalize on a team selling low on a guy who’s perceived to have bad character (*cough*Seguin*cough*). In that case, I think there’s a nice chance to capitalize on hockey’s obsession with character.