Archive for the ‘History Lessons’ Category

(Martin Rose, Getty Images)

(Martin Rose, Getty Images)

It wasn’t your typical Hollywood underdog sports story. Underdogs generally don’t win 9 straight heading into a championship final. Underdogs don’t tend to be one of the top-scoring teams in a tournament, finishing tied for the most goals. Underdogs don’t boast incredible goaltending, finishing second in team save percentage.

That is, however, what Switzerland did at the World Hockey Championships, defeating Sweden, Canada, the Czech Republic (twice!), and USA enroute to a landmark appearance in the gold medal game. Despite ultimately losing in a rematch with Sweden in the final, it was still an incredible tournament for the Swiss.

The national team’s performance, combined with the emergence of Swiss players in the NHL, is an indication that Switzerland is once again poised to be a top tier nation in hockey.

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Hegel

The most important thing to remember about Hegel is that he looked like an apprehensive garden gnome.

Every now and then, someone accuses me of over-intellectualizing hockey. They wander into my posts from God-knows-where and turn around and around, strewing befuddled comments every which way. “Why are you talking about Arabic poetry? What the fuck is up with this Taoism? This isn’t some fancypants French salon, my girl, this is hockey. It’s about sweat and facepunching and manly grunts, not ideas.”

This is, of course, completely wrong. Everything people do, certain reflexive bodily functions aside, is ideas. EVERY-F*#KING-THING. Just because many of those ideas are seldom or never fully articulated, laid out bare on a page for all to see, doesn’t mean they’re not there. They’re embodied ideas, ideas of practice and discipline rather than pen and paper, but ideas they are.

The evolution of hockey is also the evolution of ideas about hockey, and as such it bears a certain resemblance to the evolution of other kinds of ideas. And when one is talking about the evolution of ideas in the 21st century Western world, one eventually has to talk about Hegel.

For the record, I do not especially want to talk about Hegel, because Hegel was a nineteenth century German philosopher, and there is no more certain path to madness than nineteenth century German philosophy. It’s the gateway drug of insanity: people always insist they’re just going to try it once or twice, then ten years and two advanced degrees later you find them curled up in a corner of the library muttering untranslatable 35-letter-words with random capitalization, like Tim Thomas on ketamine.

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Tarasov

There is an idea- or perhaps nothing so fully formed as an idea, but a sense or an impression- that advanced statistics are a new thing in hockey. The debate between quantitative and qualitative methodologies is often framed, in a narrative that goes back at least to Moneyball, as one of the new vs. the old, a bright revolution of young radicals setting fire to the staid customs of their fathers’ age.

This is both true and untrue. True, in that before recent years there existed neither the data nor the technology necessary to do the kind of work currently being done. No matter what one’s values or interests, it simply wasn’t possible in the 1970s to count all shots directed at net for every team in the NHL, then to aggregate and distribute that data widely among many different thinkers, all with extensive computing resources at their disposal. The kind of large-scale, league-wide, multi-year analyses that constitute the meat and muscle of contemporary fancystats are a product of the internet as much as of a new ideology.

But despite their limitations, there were plenty of premodern hockey men who experimented with using quantitative methods to get beneath the skin of the game. Conn Smythe, who was so traditional that his views virtually define tradition in Canadian hockey, who believed hard in good bloodlines and beating people in alleys, recorded all Leafs games on film and rewatched the footage, noting who was on the ice for which types of events in pursuit of objective data about quality of competition. Roger Neilson, dissatisfied with shots on net as a measure of team offense, kept his own count of on-ice scoring chances. And, of course, the metric for shots directed at net is named Corsi for a reason. While technological limitations made it nearly impossible for early innovators to do work on the advanced statistics of the NHL as a whole, it is clear that within franchises, some GMs and coaches have been pursuing fancystats for several decades.

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Montreal Canadiens

 

There are more than a few irregularities in the beginning of a shortened season.  Things that would go smoothly in the standard cycle of season-postseason-offseason become unexpectedly complicated. With training camps delayed for months and then rushed, some players showed up on the ice with their timing all out of whack and their bodies all out of shape.  With contract negotiations delayed for months and then rushed, some players didn’t show up on the ice at all.  The opening of the 2013 season featured not one, not two, but three RFA holdout dramas- Benn in Dallas, Subban in Montreal, and O’Reilly in Colorado.  That’s a lot of holding-out for players with no discernable leverage.

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Here’s a question: what would a player have to do to get suspended from the NHL for life?

Todd Bertuzzi sucker punched Steve Moore in the back of the head, doing permanent spinal damage. He still plays in the NHL. Eddie Shore smashed Ace Bailey’s skull, ending his career, and he still played in the NHL. Wayne Maki did similar brain damage to Ted Green and got suspended a grand total of 30 days.  I have a photo from the cover of the Hockey News where Bernie Geoffrion swings his stick like a baseball bat at the torso of his shadow on the other team, and he’s in the pantheon of saints.  Hell, in 1976 three Philadelphia Flyers were convicted of assault for things they did on the ice, and not one of ‘em was kicked out of the League for it.

Yes, all of these lovely people were welcomed back with open arms, for the hockey family is a forgiving one, and the NHL family more forgiving still. Far from being a mark of iniquity, a few filthy dirty incidents can almost burnish a player’s reputation. No hockey fan ever spoke with real pride about having a Lady Byng winner on their team. We like our heroes with broken teeth and black eyes.

But there is a limit to even the NHL’s tolerance for violence, although it has only been reached once. In the entire history of the National Hockey League, there has been only one player, ever, suspended for life. His name was Billy Coutu, sometimes called Billy Couture, although that seems to be a corruption, and he is no relation to the ironical Logan of the present day.  He started in pro hockey way back at the beginning, in 1917, the birth-year of the League, and he finished in 1927, when Frank Calder banished him forever: the one man too violent for hockey.

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Bobby Dump-In

Even years later, Bobby still sometimes had to resort to less than glamorous plays.

Somewhere in your knowledge of hockey, there is a line. This line sits on a particular date, although chances are you couldn’t say exactly which date it was; it was too long ago to remember, and back then you weren’t counting anyway. On one side of this line are the things you know personally: the games, players, editions of teams and incarnations of the League you yourself have followed through the course of your life. On the other side are all the things you’ve only heard about in stories and montages, things that were over and done before your time. One side of the line is memory. The other is myth.

Memory and myth engender two fundamentally distinct types of response. Players we remember ourselves are familiar creatures, we love them like friends or hate them like rivals. No old legend can ever arouse half the same tender affection we feel towards the men who inspired us as kids, even if those men were, objectively speaking, average practitioners of the game. But similarly we feel entitled to dissect and critique the players of our own time, no matter how great they were. Fans of my generation are fully capable of abjectly venerating Wendel Clark and snarkily deflating Wayne Gretzky, despite the obvious skill deferential and the certain verdict of history. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s one of the privileges of “being there”, in the game, at a particular moment- the right to reimagine the grand narratives of hockey through your own idiosyncratic experience.

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The New York Americans in 1929: The Least Happy Hockey Team on Earth

Last week, the New York Islanders finally broke their 21st-century-long streak of doing nothing interesting whatsoever with a big announcement: the team is moving! Slightly to the left! Four years from now! Okay, sure, maybe this doesn’t sound like big news. It’s not like we traded for Rick Nash! news or we solved the lockout! news, but by Islanders standards, it’s pretty big.  If nothing else, I’m sure that the once-and-future players of the Eastern Conference are absolutely delighted that they’ll never have to see in the inside of Nassau Colosseum dressing rooms again.  And fans are absolutely delighted that they can now make hockey hipster jokes for the next eight million years, because the Isles aren’t moving to any old place.  The Isles are moving to Brooklyn.

Bizarrely, this won’t be the first time Brooklyn has had an NHL team, but it will be the first time NHL hockey has actually been played in Brooklyn.  Scroll down the list of defunct NHL teams, and you’ll find the name Brooklyn Americans.  The list will tell you that Brooklyn had an NHL team for one year, from 1941-42.  What the list will not tell you is that the team was never in Brooklyn and the name was a publicity stunt, the last desperate gasp of one of hockey’s lastest, most desperate teams.

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