Alexander Sulzer watches as the Red Wings take a 2-1 lead with eight minutes to go in the third.

Alexander Sulzer watches as the Red Wings take a 2-1 lead with eight minutes to go in the third.

As things currently stand, the Buffalo Sabres have lost four straight games and sit a full five points behind the second-worst team in the league. They are in the basement, and the door to the main floor appears be padlocked and guarded by a Cerberus with the heads of John Scott, Patrick Kaleta and Steve Ott. Their goal differential is -35, with the league’s next worst total being -20. We are 25 games in. They are bad.

The team’s star Thomas Vanek has been dealt, the GM and head coach have been fired, and they’ve made no bones about the fact that they’re looking to make more changes, which drastically changes the daily tone in the dressing room. Things are tense from daily arrival to departure, both at practice and in games, and each loss only makes things worse. They say winning heals all, and Buffalo isn’t doing much of that.

All of which is to say, when I was watching the Red Wings and Sabres do battle on Sunday and the camera panned to the Sabres bench after a beleaguered Ryan Miller (31 saves on 33 shots) had been yanked in favor of a sixth attacker with 90 seconds to go in a 2-1 game, I was a little surprised to see to a couple Sabres on the bench looking up at the jumbotron and having a giggle with the trainer, while Miller and his .919 save percentage (with 3.11 goals-against and four wins in 18 starts) contemplated faking his own death to escape the misery that has become his hockey life.

I tweeted this:

Hey look, it’s Alexander Sulzer (with I believe Henrik Tallinder?), the guy who was featured in the picture at the top of the page as Detroit scored.

Now, the wording of that tweet from me is a little annoying (and dramatic). As in, I’m annoyed at myself, because I was those Buffalo Sabres. Every coach I’ve ever had will attest to that – I tried my darndest on the ice, but damned if I was one to take the game too seriously. It’s a hockey game. We’re humans. Things are funny sometimes. Whatever.

But seeing that did irk me, as I imagine me giggling with a teammate on the bench while we trailed late in a game would’ve sent my coaches-of-yore into Full Tweak. Were I Ted Nolan and I noticed that, I probably would’ve reacted the same way as those guys.

Because as the coach, this stuff matters – it isn’t a game anymore, it’s your life, your career, your livelihood. Pro hockey isn’t house-league-who-cares-who-wins-as-long-as-you-have-fun, it’s what you get paid to do. It’s a billion dollar industry. You’re supposed to be competitive to a fault. Winning is everything. The Stanley Cup is your holy grail – weren’t you raised to believe that? Each loss is affecting fans out there more than it’s affecting guys on the actual team, I’m going to lose my mind.

So now that I’m a few years removed from the playing side, I got to wondering: what’s the appropriate demeanor in situations like that, and is it okay to ever laugh and have fun in a pro hockey game?

Starting with the last question first, yes. Yes it’s okay to laugh and joke around during a hockey game. You’re communicating with other people a lot, and if you can’t occasionally laugh at things it’s going to be a long, painful slog, and frankly, I find that dishonest. Very few people are that serious all the time, and I think if you’re trying to get the most out of people it’s not great to ask them to suppress their personalities.

That said, there’s a time and a place.

You never want to see your group too loose, but when you’re winning there’s obviously more room for yuks. Hell, practice days on a winning team are amazing. I believe that winning feeds on itself because as everyone loosens up they tend to think more openly, get more creative, wield their sticks more confidently, and get better. But, it’s tough to walk the fine line between “open and comfortable” and “not focused and mentally lazy,” and it’s easy to confuse the two.Sabres bench

When guys are too comfortable they’re more distractible and they miss assignments, they forget to cover the back door, they forget that it’s not zigging time, they were supposed to zag. So, logically, you would think “Who the hell cares if two guys on the bench are mentally turned off, they’re not on the ice and the game is almost over anyway.” But…no. That’s not right at all.

You want guys to give a s**t for the obvious reasons – for one, you’re going to get more out of any employee that cares than one that’s just collecting a paycheck. Two is that guys can learn from things on the ice, so you want their attention there. Three is that you don’t want a guy “turned off” because he’s no longer a personnel option. Four is that if your team does score there’s more hockey to be played.

What I’m getting at is that during a loss you expect your team to be frustrated, to be working, to be pushing with every ounce of their might to get the car unstuck from the mud. Now is the time for focus and attention. It’s not 5-2 in the second. Your team is on the verge of another loss in a losing year and you’re yukking it up over something on the jumbotron. That’s not okay.

It didn’t affect the outcome of this game a lick, but maybe it says something about your guys. Maybe it’s that they expect to lose, that they’re getting used to it, that the so-called “losing culture” Ted Nolan planned to change is deeply engrained and more changes have to be made. It’s irritating if you’re someone who does care. Why aren’t these guys as bothered by all this failure like I am?

I think it’s a-okay to pick your spots throughout the game to look at the jumbotron, to point out stuff in the crowd to one another, and to enjoy your job. I also think there are times when people expect that the horses they’ve hired to pull the cart get to work and stop chewing on grass. That situation for the Sabres felt like cart-pulling time. That isn’t the case for every second of every game, but that just felt like the wrong time for fun.

A lot of folks don’t think this stuff matters, and maybe it doesn’t. But it certainly matters to people in the organization, and at the very least, you should put on the proper mask if you don’t feel the motivation your employer expects.