Boston Bruins v Montreal Canadiens

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.

Comments (15)

  1. In referral to one of your final statements about it being a laugh that a team would acquire someone with veteran leadership to “mentor” the kids.
    Take into the account when Dean Lombardi acquired an obviously over the hill/over-paid Ryan Smythe to come into LA, take Dustin Brown under his wing, and show a group of kids how to take the next step.
    I can’t guarantee that it worked, but a Stanley Cup Championship captained by Brown can’t be denied.

  2. 10 PRINT “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.”

    20 GOTO 10

    There you go, now you can spend the rest of the summer at the beach.

  3. Character guys dont always have to be heros.

    I recal when Matt Cooke was known as the “heart and soul” of the Canucks.

    Granted a cankerous heart and a mortgaged soul but you get the point.

  4. Great article. I would think that they count a whole bunch.

    The LA Kings would agree since they signed Dustin Brown to an 8 year, $5.75M/Year AAC contact.

  5. I agree with what you say about the guy who has great or terrible character. A team is all about chemistry. Amazing talent can overcome other short comings but only to an extent. I have been on a team in Midget hockey where one guy ripped apart a room into cliques and a great team talent wise was still good but nowhere near the ceiling.

    I was on a soccer team where we were bloody average at best but everyone got along and we did better than all of us thought we could. All anecdotal as well. No science and no fancy stats but I firmly belief it is one of many factors that add or take away from a team.

  6. I know the other comment above points to at least one guy viewing these sorts of posts as filler, but I liked this one.

    In my “real job”, I’m working for a growing startup software company that is doing work in the sport, fitness and healthcare fields. It’s almost all guys in the office right now (about 20 of us) and most of us have been around the block a bit (to varying degrees of experience), but a lot of what we’re working on is new and as we continue to grow and adjust, things like character are extremely important. From the start, the goal has been to bring in guys who are a “good fit” and we really live by the sport team analogy when it comes to building the team.

    This is all not hockey or sport related at all, but these sort of articles really speak to me more in terms of a business sense and how a small company (or a team) operates best. Having a company that works well together or a team that gels together is important, because of the sum of the parts argument. Everyone has to fill their role and support one another, even as there’s internal competition for responsibility.

    I don’t know, I just felt the need to make a comment after buddy’s comment about Greeked Text. Sure, it’s the offseason and maybe this is filler, but I like this article.

    • I find I can apply Justin’s wisdom to all walks of life. Kudos for putting out quality pieces during the offeason and not simply listing who signed where.

    • I think when people wonder how much effect “chemistry” and “character” have on a hockey team, bringing it back to their own workplaces is a pretty easy connection for them to make. Of course those things matter, to some extent.

      As for the “filler” comment…I appreciate that it’s pretty funny, but this post was requested by a pretty respected hockey dude, so I’m not too worried about it. Incidentally, I got a great response about character from a coach I may run later today. Thanks KForbesy!

  7. I truly think that character does in fact matter greatly. Look at the Rangers, they made it to the Eastern Conference Final and runner up for the Presidents Trophy on a defensive minded team, let go of 2 key character guys in Dubinsky and Prust and they struggled greatly all season. Despite picking up Rick Nash in the Dubi/Artie trade they only looked good on paper, their bottom 2 lines were significantly worse to the previous season and they never meshed, Torts lost the room, and they shockingly actually made it to the second round when they probably shouldn’t have. Late acquisitions of Brassard and Moore, and the re-appearance of Zuccarello helped them get that far.

  8. Reading this, one line kept running through my head on repeat.

    Edmonton Oilers. 4 Years. $13 Million. Andrew Ference.

    Definition of bringing in a high-character, questionable-ability guy (for the cap-hit)

  9. Justin – Could you possibly do a follow-up to this article about what happens when a well-liked “character guy” gets traded from your team?

    I remember a few years ago (before Lockout 1) when the Flyers were still really young. They’d lost Primeau and had turned the keys over to Carter and Richards. Word about the young guys partying lifestyle was slowly starting to leak out, and suddenly, one day Holmgren trades Scottie Upshall (to Fla, I believe). The Flyers nosedived during the 2nd half of the year and didn’t look like they were having any fun.

    I likened the Flyers trading Upshall was like killing the funny/loveable/earnest sidekick character that everyone knew wasn’t getting out of the movie alive. I thought it killed the room, but more than few people laughed at that idea.

    Am I crazy, or is that something that could really happen in a pro locker room?

  10. An example of character going the other way is when the Oilers made Shayne Corson their captain in the mid 90s. That team wasn’t very good back then, but his ‘leadership’ damn near ruined what was there. Thank goodness Doug Weight was there to wash away the stench of Shayme.

  11. Aleksandr Syomin <——————– good character guy

  12. Nice article. Bs fans enjoy a team culture that elevates character to an almost cult status, which shows in the people they’ve promoted within the organization (Don Sweeney, Cam Neely) as well as the players they keep or discard. People laugh at the money Ference got from Edmonton, but he’ll be sorely missed here as an extreme glue guy. On the other end, serious hockey people here are relieved to get Erikson for the perpetually annoying Seguin and his incredible display of perimeter play. We got a hockey player, Dallas got Dorothy Hammill with less grit. Thornton can stay as long as he likes, because character really does matter here. Thanks again for a great blog.

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