Showing posts with label Psychology of Hockey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Psychology of Hockey. Show all posts

Saturday, September 3, 2011

NHL Player Killed in Fight During Game

NHL Fights RIP
The title of this post is a future headline that will one day appear in newspapers across the country.

As players get stronger, fights in NHL games become more vicious, and the league continues to condone aggravated, bare-knuckle assaults, it's only a matter of time.

When the inevitable happens, NHL owners and the players' union will quickly convene a meeting, and shortly thereafter, fighting in the NHL will cease altogether.

Or at the very least, fighting from that point onward will be dealt with in a serious enough way that teams will stop paying otherwise talentless players to provide entertainment to the blood-lust set under the guise that it somehow benefits the game.

The Official Response

The NHL will be swift in delivering a slyly worded, equivocating bit of nonsense regarding the tragedy. The ultimate goal will be to avoid liability and offer up some clever, nostalgic tripe about the passing into history of condoned fights in which players were allowed to drive their fists into each other's faces with little or no possibility of defending themselves, and with no worry of being penalized in a meaningful way.

The official response from the NHL will be quick for a simple reason: it is already prepared and ready to go for when the inevitable comes to pass. All large organizations prepare for crises, and the death of a player during an on-ice fight is something that the NHL has undoubtedly expected for some time now.

But until a death does occur in the inane and indefensible NHL sideshow known as hockey fights, the baboons in charge will continue deluding themselves into thinking that there is no good reason to take preventative action.

As the Bettman experiment of expanding the league into southern US states starts to collapse, the head clown and his band of little sycophants no doubt believe that pulling the plug on mutually agreed upon aggravated assaults would further galvanize his time in power as one of the strangest and most tin-eared that any professional sports league anywhere has ever experienced.


As the corpses of NHL enforcers past and present continue to pile up in this most depressing of off-seasons, surely it must be dawning on the wackos in charge that there is something inherently warped in allowing the most amateurish, cack-handed aspect of the game to continue on unabated.

However, I'm guessing that the broken enforcer who is hanging by a thread in his personal life is a narrative that is far more familiar in the relatively closed world of the NHL than it is to the general public. Those at the top have known for a long time the all too predictable storyline that follows the enforcer.

"But the fans love it!" the mules shriek. Sure, people everywhere love unhinged displays of violence. If the NFL were to allow players to engage in fights during games in which they swung their helmets wildly at each other's faces, and then paid a senile old fuck a couple of million dollars a year to pander to ignoramuses while talking up the helmet-swinging sessions as being absolutely necessary for the integrity of the game, then it would likely be somewhat popular as well.

And let's be honest about the tragedies of Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak: they're good for business. Death sells. Tortured souls who died well before their time is an emotional narrative that will result in a deluge of "soul-searching" type articles just in time for the new season. And it will make many fans feel that they are part of something big and important that has real and tragic consequences. The bit of tripe vomited forth by Bettman and his boys in response to the deaths is as meaningless as all the other garbage they offer up when the heat is on.

The NHL policy of tacitly allowing on-ice assaults has helped to create these Frankensteins, most of whom likely suffer from brain damage and turn to booze and drugs as a way to escape the physical pain and/or to fulfill their anti-hero, hard-man roles.

No doubt their off-ice woes are also related to the effects of knowing they have to attack and defend night after night. The possibility of being humiliated, injured, or severely damaging another player has got to take its toll. Add into the toxic mix the fact that enforcers often have a tenuous hold on their jobs with NHL teams, and the pressure has got to be at times overwhelming.

Let the Shrieking Commence

And when the expected happens and a player is finally killed in an NHL fight, the shrieking from all sides will reach a fever pitch. Cherry will exploit it for his own gain and his legions of moronic followers will regurgitate his every incoherent utterance as they face the reality that one of their beloved outlets for their sociopathic tendencies is coming to an end.

The entire nation, except for family and friends of the dead player, for those are the only people ever truly affected by a death, will experience a collective exhilaration stoked on by unctuous journalists, politicians and other self-serving pukes.

The most apoplectic of the NHL fight crowd will scream with renewed fury that those who oppose fighting "just don't get it" while being utterly incapable of articulating the rationales that they claim they understand so well. But more than that, the fighting proponents will state outright that anyone who says fighting should be banned in the NHL is somehow less of a man.

For that is at the heart of the visceral passion that so many have for watching other people attack and assault each other: feeling like a hard-man by proxy. Like chicken-hawks who lust for war while those who have experienced its horrors are always more circumspect and cautious, I've always had the suspicion that those who love hockey fights the most have rarely, if ever, been involved (with many exceptions of course) in arranged or spontaneous fights.

Just as watching other people self-destruct is sublime and romantic, seeing other people assault each other and hearing of complete strangers dying is a strangely satisfying tonic for human beings. It reminds us that we are alive and that something horrible has not happened to us yet.

So the spectacle of NHL fights will continue. Bettman and his yes-men have apparently convinced themselves that the end of condoned fights on their watch is not a legacy they want. Presumably, the death of a player during an NHL fight is something they are more comfortable with.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Valentine's Day: The Perfect Script and Fan Loyalty

Many people, mostly of the female persuasion, seem to have a script in their minds regarding the potential love of their lives and how things should play out. One of the most important aspects is the initial meeting. The more quirky and memorable the better.

In keeping with the popular romantic comedy plot-lines of the day, it doesn't take much for a person to steer a situation towards an appropriate starting point. Something that can be retold at family gatherings and starts the relationship off with a dramatic flair, convincing the woman that the whole narrative will play out according to plan.

When that initial encounter was too embarrassing or bland, the passage of time and revisionist history can set things right.

So too with sports fans, their first experience with a team can take on special significance. It doesn't have to be grand or extreme to become a tale worth re-telling. Just spun correctly.

Vicinity is the most obvious factor that brings a couple or a fan and his team together. But just as often it can be psychological and as a way of rebelling against authority.

"Me old man drove me head against a brick wall tellin' me I'd be a Millwall supporter for the rest of me bleedin' life. I started to see stars and then they formed the Arsenal crest. It was a match made in white trash heaven I tell ya'!"

Once the relationship is up and running, it's bound to become dysfunctional in no time at all. As with the male/female variety, the wheels start to come off because of assumptions, expectations and good old fashioned boredom.

When the times are good (i.e. a good job and success or the team is winning) those problems become insignificant. As with all relationships, however, the real test is when the bloated gut appears, the teeth fall out and others around you seem to be having all the fun. Many remain loyal to the bitter end, holding up sad mantras and the accumulation of years as some kind of badge of honour. The nasty, twisted aspect of the crumbling marriage becomes a sick joke that has its own certain appeal.

Others start to "get a little bit on the side" (cheering for a "secondary" team) just to make things somewhat tolerable while still keeping the primary relationship alive out of sheer habit. Perhaps the illicit affair provides more of what the person really needs but just as likely the seedy taboo aspect is what provides the real thrill.

Sometimes circumstance intervenes and what was a less than perfect set-up comes to an end because of practical reasons. A team goes bankrupt or is bought and moves hundreds or thousands of miles away to start again (the Winnipeg Jets or Quebec Nordiques.) The split is emotional but it seems to ignore the fact that things were probably doomed anyway if it had carried on as before.

It creates an instant nostalgia for a handful of wackos who can't let go and they are left to forever lament the loss and dream about an unlikely reunion. (Not sure of a good analogy here for husbands and wives...a temporary job overseas that slowly becomes permanent? A rich Arab lures the woman half away around the world, leaving her lazy oaf of a husband in his menial job? )

After years of futility, the long suffering fools who have remained loyal may get a burst of redemption with a championship. Then things settle back into their old patterns and the pleasure from that moment in the sun slowly recedes.

Some fans have no time for sentiment and will abandon their team for a younger club with more excitement and potential and not saddled with self-destructive habits that ultimately lead to long-term failure. They are scorned by others who stand by their haggard and well-used mates/teams. They have to attack those who left for greener pastures. To not do so would invalidate their own character and choices.

But there's more to the rage and disdain directed at the ones who have moved on. There's a small bit of envy and regret that they haven't taken the hard, purely self-serving approach that results in more short-term happiness.

Maybe the teams and people in life who take the ruthless, win-at-all-costs attitude do enjoy the most success, recognition and satisfaction while those who are always mired in mediocrity are left to offer up stale bromides and meaningless rationalizations.

Whether the relationship you have with your favourite sports team is healthy, obsessive, twisted, dysfunctional, masochistic or otherwise...


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Book Review: Higher Goals by Nancy Theberge

Higher GoalsHigher Goals: Women's Ice Hockey and the Politics of Gender is a book that looks at the inner workings of a women's hockey team through the lens of gender politics in sport. The author, Nancy Theberge, spent a few seasons with one of the top senior women's teams in Ontario in the early 1990's.

Academia, especially in the humanities, has always been plagued by the need to ram the often inexplicable sludge of life into neatly arranged and labeled explanations. The most recent and well-received ideas of the day are either revered or questioned by subsequent authors who then add their two cents. For sure, many of those attempts are downright intriguing and very plausible.

My criticism is that they often seem to conveniently ignore details that would cast their renderings of the world into a less convincing narrative. While mere hints that lend credence to their hoped for conclusions are given far too much weight.

This book mostly avoids that because it isn't overly ambitious in terms of advancing new theories. It mainly alludes to pre-existing literature within the field of sports psychology and gender studies and examines whether the author's case study of women's hockey fits within those frameworks.

I won't go into too many details of the intellectual minutiae presented in the book. It isn't so heavy going that the average person can't get their head around the concepts and interpretations. There is really only one chapter where the soup of scholarly double-speak gets thick enough to warrant a re-reading or three.

And isn't it always when attempts to re-order standard notions come up against universally held truisms that the most intricate and extensive verbal gymnastics are necessary?

Here, the belief held by essentially everyone in the world that men are physically stronger isn't so much challenged as cast into a different light. That this obvious and considerable difference in strength is the basis for men's higher level of sports competition and increased attention from spectators is because we choose to emphasize those aspects as the most worthy.

In other words, if people didn't only "celebrate the advantages men enjoy," and instead considered the attributes that favour women, such as "agility and long-term endurance" (this according to the book, though no evidence is given), things could be different (just to be clear, this is mainly the author referencing various writers in the same field.)

There are other situations in the book where meaning is squeezed out of unremarkable or pedestrian occurrences that really deserve no such significance. In discussing the structure of the team, the author examines the supposed irony of women who are defying stereotypes yet still play under a management structure dominated by men.

Many of the husbands and boyfriends of the players accompany the team on road trips and when the bus breaks down on one excursion, the men take it upon themselves to move the equipment to a replacement vehicle. This is kind of framed as "these independent, athletic women who play a violent, tough sport are still held captive by the standard societal stereotypes of male/female roles."

Maybe the husbands and boyfriends didn't want them to expend undue energy before the game? On the other hand, how would it have been spun if it was assumed the women should do the lifting? Definitely an interesting anecdote worthy of inclusion in a book that is concerned with such relations but hard to believe that it's so meaningful.

It's not too difficult to accept the basic assumption that all relationships are based on power and inevitably one side will possess or exert the most influence. There are a lot of thought provoking ideas here that you may or may not agree with but they are never presented in a shrill or insistent way. I won't risk bastardizing or simplifying other concepts in the book to the point of being unfair to Theberge.

The best parts of the book are in the player interviews and the simple observations where insight is provided into women's hockey. Each chapter covers a specific topic and some of the most intriguing include the prevalence and acceptance of lesbians on the team and within the sport in general, interaction within the locker room and physicality in women's hockey (incidental hitting as well as the allowed variety which existed in certain senior leagues before 1990.)

There is an analysis of a wide range of different situations on and off the ice and regarding the make-up of the team, its management and the world of women's hockey in general. This is very often looked at through the filter of how the women's game compares to the men's version.

The writing goes beyond the pedantic and mind-numbing academic style that is present in similar works, rendering them almost unreadable in many cases. While it is still a detached, almost clinical take on its subject compared to non-fiction solely intended for entertainment purposes, it somehow manages to remain interesting and compelling most of the time.

A slightly annoying aspect of the book is that it only uses pseudonyms, though this is no doubt accepted protocol for such studies and probably increased the likelihood of candour from those participating. Relatively short in length, the content presented is packed with detail representative of the efforts of two seasons of watching and interviewing.

Does it transcend the specialist audience it is aimed at (i.e. students or other academics) enough to make this a book hockey fans in general may enjoy reading? Somewhat, I would say.

This definitely won't appeal to most fans looking to pass the time with a light and entertaining read. Within the world of hockey fandom, the women's game receives short shrift and this is at least an introduction to the motivations of the players and some of the obstacles they face.

And for someone specifically interested in sports psychology and/or sociology, parents of young girls looking to get involved in the game or those who don't mind wading through some heavier passages, it well might be an enjoyable experience.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

NHL Hockey: Memories, Myths and Nostalgia

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a movie directed by Sam Peckinpah. It's about the end of an era and the gunslingers disappearing along with it.

The ghost-like figures at the heart of the film are being forced to accept changes to a society that is moving on. They lament the inevitable and do their best to adapt but are drawn back into old ways, regardless of whether it may end up costing them their lives.

They speak in a cryptic and fatalistic patois that pays tribute to an honour code that is also dying. They are wary of the contemporary breed of man shaping society and moving things forward. Those amongst them who try to reconcile with the new ways are conflicted with themselves and their die-hard brethren who can never truly conform.

The movie is heavy on style with a loose semblance of a plot. It is a series of vignettes stitched together, all highlighting the conflict between the outlaw and a world that is squeezing him further to the margins. The lack of a traditional cinematic trajectory is almost a precursor to the rock videos that were still a decade away when the film was released in 1973.

That feeling is enhanced by the Bob Dylan soundtrack (and a role by Dylan as well; quite possibly one of the worst acting performances that never saw the editing room floor. So utterly stilted, unnatural and horrid that it adds to what is already a somewhat surreal experience.)

Ironically, despite the outward sense that these ragged mavericks represent a fraternity that adheres to a special code of ethics outside the corrupt establishment, almost every scene is highlighted by a singular and brazen act of gutlessness, many of them perpetrated by those same individuals.

And here is one of the themes that runs throughout the movie. That all people romanticize their lives and hold onto a time that never really existed as they remember. The alternative is to reach the end of life as a broken down son-of-a-bitch with a collection of unfulfilled dreams, fleeting victories and the inevitable realization that it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. When we package life into narratives flavoured with nostalgia and a belief that there was a better time (and the possibility that it could return), it makes living and dying easier.

There's nothing that hasn't been filtered through the rose coloured glasses of the past. (Next time someone is on about the better music of previous decades, pull up a few years of top 10 album sales from that era and take a look at most of the tripe that captured the imagination of the masses.) Hockey is no exception.

Perhaps because there is an ever-expanding number of media outlets providing employment for a host of aging commentators and former players, the lamentations of the past are at an all time high. It's difficult to read a day's worth of columns or listen to a few hours of radio talk shows without being subjected to the tired line about how good the game once was.

Any number of factors are held up as culprits regarding why NHL hockey has supposedly eroded over time. The instigator rule, the presence of helmets and visors and that oft-repeated mantra that "there just isn't the same respect that once existed."

Speaking on Leafs Lunch a few days ago, Bill Watters put forth the inane argument that if the NHL were to forbid the wearing of helmets, the league's revenues would skyrocket and the game would suddenly become much safer. He seemed to sense the absurdity of what he was saying as soon as he floated the idea. He likely received validation and was congratulated on his brilliance when making the claim amongst other like minded old-timers. It was embarrassing to listen to but once he had begun he couldn't back down.

The current number of stick swinging incidents, cheap-shots and other cowardly acts have probably not seen some kind of increase as compared to the past. The claims of greater recklessness in today's game are made without any hard statistical proof and just as often by the same people who reminisce about the mayhem that used to occur. Ah, the bench brawls of old where honour ruled and never an act of nastiness or disrespect took place!

Not that it's impossible to demonstrate that particular eras may have been qualitatively better (different) in certain ways. Just that the comparison is rarely taken beyond anecdotes and relies on hazy recollections and the knowledge that there will always be an audience for such musings.

The nature of such requiems demonstrates how it's about what your mind retains more than any objective reality. An indication of how you've changed, a microcosm of your own screw-ups, hopes and fears. As in the movie, it's about grieving a lost way of life but also about preparing for the ultimate loss. Exaggerations of bygone days are also about trying to avoid irrelevance and being forgotten. The hope that past myths and lives lived are recognized by a new generation already in the process of creating their own stories and memories.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Performance and Mindset: The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Shootout

Leafs logoThe shootout is currently an important part of the NHL. Rip it all you want (and it is rip-worthy) but the ability to do well in the one-on-one tie-breaker represents the number of points that will decide whether many teams reach the playoffs.

With a dozen or so opportunities for most clubs in the regular season, failure to attach significance to players' effectiveness at scoring goals in the shootout indicates a serious flaw in thinking on the part of coaches and management.

The Leafs are failing miserably in both performance and perspective.

The philosophy starts with coach Paul Maurice, who has a bizarre habit of ridiculing the shootout as well as flippantly dismissing his team's ability to determine its outcome.

The thoughts and mood of a coach are contagious and influence the players a great deal. Here are some comments from Paul Maurice following the Leafs' shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens last night:
Coach Paul Maurice has little patience for questions about the shootout. He acknowledges the entertainment value of the format, but little more.

"It's part of our practice, sometimes the guys do it on their own at the end. Sometimes the goalies want them. It's not something you want to do every day with a goaltender, one shot right after the other after practice," said Maurice.

Read the full article here.

This comes following a previous Leafs shootout loss against the New York Rangers on November 10th. Maurice was both sullen and derisive in the press conference after that one. He mocked the format and suggested it was good for nothing more than "novelty value." He forgot to mention that besides that, shootouts are worth valuable points that will help determine his team's regular season place in the standings.

You can see the trickle down effect that his frustration has on the team. In the same Toronto Star article, a number of players indicate their failure to get a grasp on the shootout. They essentially come across as flummoxed and annoyed at having to participate. They seem to have no focus or game plan heading into each shooter/goalie showdown because that's the message they are receiving from their coach.

It's hard to overstate the effect that repeated statements from managers and coaches have on players. In effect, those declarations become the team's operating procedure on any number of issues. Players pick up on these beliefs and make them part of their overall opinions and understanding about the game. And then it affects their behaviour.

Just yesterday, as John Ferguson made the rounds on Toronto radio stations responding to some of the criticism he has faced recently, he repeated a rehearsed statement about "the fine line between winning and losing." Lo and behold, today Toronto players are regurgitating that remark almost word for word. You give your players a subtle out shameless excuse to explain away their failures and they will latch onto it, subconsciously or otherwise.

I'm surprised Maurice hasn't been leapt on by the Toronto media for such a deficient approach to a part of the game that many teams are taking advantage of. There's no guarantee that a more positive outlook and more practice for shootouts will improve the Leafs' record but it would be a step in the right direction. With much of the focus and scorn being heaped on Ferguson, Maurice is getting a free pass on this one.

Mike Peca, who wasn't re-signed by the Leafs in the off season and ended up with the Columbus Blue Jackets instead, recently got in a few digs on his former team regarding their poor shootout record. Columbus haven't had much more success than the Leafs but they did come out on top during their most recent attempt against the Red Wings.

Further preventing the Leafs from grabbing any extra points is the performance of Vesa Toskala. He has been in goal for all Leafs' shootouts so far this season and his play is part of the reason for the team's 0-3 record in those situations.  Toskala is 0-7 in shooter on goalie challenges since the NHL adopted the current tie-breaking procedure.

Paul Maurice summed up his most recent musings on a part of the game that has Leafs' players and fans shaking their heads with this quote: "I don't know how much is chance."

A set play that can be practiced, improved upon and tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of each particular opposing goaltender and involves probabilities and odds that go up based on shot type and shooter; that can be accompanied by a focused and positive outlook and embraced as an opportunity to pick up a good chunk of extra points in the race to get into the playoffs, is essentially written off as nothing more than pure luck...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

NHL Teams Give Thanks for the Power of Change

Leafs logoDevils logoThe Atlanta Thrashers reacted to their horrific start by firing their head coach. With GM Don Waddell behind the bench they have responded unbelievably well.

The Dallas Stars saw their mediocre beginning as unacceptable and replaced their general manager with the duo of Brett Hull and Les Jackson. While hard to attribute that specific move to better play by the team, the psychological aspect of making it known that lack of results won't be tolerated can't be discounted in the Stars' 4-0-1 record since that time.

The Phoenix Coyotes have been at the bottom of the league standings but have made it clear that they will make moves in an attempt to get better. They picked up goalie Ilya Bryzgalaov off of waivers and have seen him play well in his first two starts, collecting wins in both games.

The Washington Capitals took the unfortunately timed but necessary move of firing Glen Hanlon and bringing in interim head coach Bruce Boudreau. Far to early to judge how it will play out but at least his first game was a victory for the Caps.

And the Toronto Maple Leafs? In the bizarro world of Leafs hockey, there are few consequences for losing. In fact, Toronto players were rewarded for their poor play so far this season with a luxury box at an NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets on Thursday.

A nice little outing for the team as they were in Texas to face the Dallas Stars on Friday night. There was a great deal of enthusiastic gushing and expectant musings from Leafs players in the lead up to their little quarter season treat.

To be fair, this was no doubt something arranged before the season began. And the Toronto press talked up the story with the players numerous times. They can hardly be faulted for accepting the offer to attend the football game or for talking about it when asked.

Still, is there truly no comprehension amongst coaches and management of reward and punishment associated with the kind of effort and results that are offered up by the hockey team? Perhaps, canceling such an excursion as a way of showing the team that repeated failure will not be accepted might have been a consideration.

Riding the buzz of having watched the Cowboys hammer the Jets in the comforts of a luxury box and likely having plugged themselves with all the grub they could get down their necks, the Leafs offered up another forgettable performance in a 3-1 loss to the Stars the next night.

No one would be silly enough to claim that the players yuk it up amongst themselves and congratulate each other on coasting along without having to pay any real price for their dismal performances. But when losses are not accompanied by any angst or fear of being benched for repeated mistakes or lack of effort, the effects of such subconscious psychological conditioning are hard to measure but undoubtedly exist to some degree.


Devils TurkeyIn the latest batch of e-mail updates, many NHL teams included holiday wishes for the Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S.

The New Jersey Devils e-mail featured this nice holiday bird with the Devils' logo emblazoned on its chest.

Perhaps the office intern slapping together the bulletin in a hurry before heading out to celebrate the holidays with his or her family didn't consider the potential for embarrassment.

Luckily, the Devils have been playing well in their past few games and have put together a three game winning streak.

In their holiday match-up against the Atlanta Thrashers they weren't roasted, skewered or feasted on and they didn't lay any eggs. No one could call them turkeys after their 3-0 win over the Thrashers.

If anything, Devils' goalie Martin Brodeur stuffed the Thrashers with his first shutout of the season and added another feather in his cap following career win 500 in a game against the Flyers on Nov.17th.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

England's National Football Team and the Toronto Maple Leafs

As England failed to qualify for the 2008 European football championship (Euro 2008) with a loss to Croatia last night, it raises the question of whether similar conditions surrounding two teams in different sports can lead to the same kind of results. Specifically, the Toronto Maple Leafs and England's national squad.

There are many similarities between the two teams' histories, fan bases, management, media coverage and lack of success in the recent past.

The last time England won the FIFA World Cup was July 30th 1966, as they beat West Germany 4-2 in the final. Less than a year later the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1967. Neither team has claimed the top prize since. The attention, hype, drama and failure that have dogged the Leafs and the English squad have similar qualities and perhaps can explain to some degree the elusive nature of again hoisting one of the most important trophies in both sports.

Both teams play in proximity to the birthplace of their respective sports. The tradition and love of the game for fans of both teams results in a constant demand for information about their team and players. The media circus surrounding both teams continues throughout the year and raises the profiles of marginal players to the degree that, as one British journalist put it recently, some will be remembered as "celebrities who just happened to be football players."

Nothing can come close to the nastiness of the British press as they fabricate, ridicule and sensationalize to an insane level. Building players up and then bashing them into the ground at the slightest opportunity is one of their tricks. Or simply reporting on the tawdry private lives of a few individuals who also happen to possess great playing ability.

The Toronto press are well mannered and tame in comparison though they still take up issues that are questionable and see players' lives as potential fodder for gossip and rumours. While the British scribes are reporting on the sordid sex lives of English football players, Toronto writers usually focus on more bland subjects such as Darcy Tucker relaxing at his Muskoka cottage in the off-season. Though they will report on more titillating issues when they become impossible to avoid.

The core of writers who follow both teams and are most concerned about games, results, skills and playing ability are a large group who exhibit a herd mentality that ricochets in the opposite direction at the merest whiff of disaster or success. The demand for narratives, analysis and predictions means that each small development is leapt on by a journalist eager to be the first to report on what could be the next big story. The combined output of any one writer is often more schizophrenic than the play of the team they cover.

Regarding the specific makeup of management and individual players, the current incarnations of both squads have a number of similarities as well. With the exception of one older and fading superstar on both teams (Mats Sundin and David Beckham), the rest of the players can be classified as overhyped and overpaid disappointments (though obviously players on the English team don't get paid for international competition, they receive huge sums from their club sides and endorsements.)

There are also some parallels between Sundin and Beckham's style and performance. While Beckham is a world-wide icon who often seems more concerned with boosting his image and racking up endorsement contracts as opposed to concentrating on his play, he is still noted for his effort and ability to perform at an advanced age (in football terms.) Sundin as well delivers night after night while he is surrounded by others who don't pull their weight nearly as consistently.

Sundin is but a blip compared to the visibility Beckham enjoys. Despite that fame, Beckham retains a surprising level of ostensible modesty and has a soft-spoken demeanor not unlike Sundin.

The management of the Leafs and England's national side are, at this point in time, very comparable (though of course the role of a hockey general manager and football manager differ somewhat.) Steve McClaren has but minutes left in his brief tenure as England's manager (correction: it's already over) and unless a miracle is on the horizon, John Ferguson Junior's days as Leafs' GM are also numbered. Both men have been lambasted in the media as underqualified and nearly incompetent in their performances. Press reports for both have long since veered into mockery and the caricature that resonates is of pitiful, desperate buffoons.

Recent success has been limited. England reached the semifinals of the 1990 Football World Cup but have had little else to cheer for since their victory in '66. In the European Championship they have reached the semi-finals twice, in 1968 and 1996, but have never advanced beyond that point.

The Maple Leafs have made it to the playoff semi-finals five times since their last Stanley Cup in 1967 but have not made it to the finals once during that 40 year stretch.

The fan bases for the Leafs and England are huge, rabid in their support and apparently loyal to the end, regardless of how long the losing continues. While the vast majority are decent individuals who enjoy supporting their side, it's fair to say that a misplaced arrogance also permeates a significant portion of each team's supporters. Perhaps unbridled rage at how such limitless resources and attention to the game can result in few positive outcomes? I've experienced nastiness from both.

Years ago while traveling in Spain, I landed in Barcelona on the eve of a big match-up between one of the city's top sides and Manchester United. We attempted to get tickets but the game was sold out so we settled for a small pub in the shadow of the huge stadium. Man U were hammered 4-0. Enraged Brits in their team's colours were stalking the area after the game looking for trouble and the following day the papers were filled with accounts of violence and vandalism.

While living and working part-time in London pubs a number of years ago, I witnessed the booze-soaked post match gutlessness of the fringe minority who sought an outlet for their impotent rage.

Only one tale regarding a Leafs' fan. It must have been about 2002 and I was sitting in a pub in Vancouver. There was a playoff game between the Leafs and another team on the big screen. Not sure if it was the game in which Toronto were eliminated but regardless, they lost.

There was an emaciated individual in a Leafs jersey sitting alone and pondering the cruelty of life and the realization that it was all over for another year. I was having a pint with a friend and discussing the game. While I don't recall inviting the Toronto fan, who looked like a junky who had crawled in from Hastings and Main, to listen in on or join our conversation, at the merest mention of the word "Leafs" this wacko was in my face.

I seriously considered battering the fool into the concrete but I settled for laying a verbal assault on him as he shrank back into his seat, shut his gob and proceeded to profusely apologize. In the heat of the moment he seemed to recognize that he had erred and had the decency to say sorry. I guess a person could admire his commitment and the willingness to take such an unwise risk in what he thought was the defense of his team.

Comparisons between the two are a bit limited of course. The English national team play in a small number of major tournaments and players can be invited to participate without regard for financial concerns or other teams competing for their services. But the Leafs also have no real financial obstacles and still fail to hire the best managers, scouts and apparently, coaches.

So what's the reason for such limited success in the midst of endless enthusiasm, finances and, at least in England's case, a culture that results in widespread participation and layers of player development? Is the pressure so intense and the dreams of glory so enchanting that no one can play or manage to their potential? Or maybe a subconscious sense of entitlement and assumption stoked by the surreal media coverage? Hard to say.

One thing is clear however. Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and England's national football team have little hope for any real success in the near future.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Darcy Tucker vs. Sean Avery

Leafs logoRangers logoIn a sport where driving your fist into an opponent's face is tolerated, the uproar over the pre-game tiff between Sean Avery and Darcy Tucker the other night is a bit surreal. Such incidents always elicit responses from those who seem to have a hyper awareness of some kind of honour code that respects a certain "line" that they of course would never cross.

That line apparently applies to both actions and words. Where exactly is that line then, regarding what is allowable in terms of physical play? Does it stop in front of launching an assault against another player who is much smaller and doesn't want to fight? No, that happens all the time.

How about continuing to hammer one's fist into an opposing player's face once he is down on the ice and prone? Again, no. That is a regular occurrence in the NHL. While many of these actions may be ostensibly prohibited in the NHL, everyone knows they are brazenly condoned. The reality is that there is an ever-shifting "code" that is invoked only when it suits the player wanting to issue threats and set up a good revenge scenario.

So why the outrage over a few words exchanged before the start of a game? With blunt actions go blunt words and vice versa. With expectations of an all out war against an opposing team, surely you bring out the heaviest verbal artillery as well. Why would you care what a detested punk on the opposing team had to say about you or one of your team-mates? Why let someone control your emotions and throw you off your game?

Unless of course you are secretly or subconsciously thrilled at the license it provides to act in a certain way and occupy a desired role (victim, avenger, etc.) It even supplies the freedom to openly issue threats in public, the kind which would spark a visit from the local police for most people (what a liberating sense of being outside the law it must be for many professional athletes.)

Wade Belak's fantasizing about what could happen to Sean Avery in the future if he provides the desired provocation is oddly reminiscent of gun lovers and their drooling over the thought of criminals giving them the opportunity to be heroes.

Aside from all that though, what I'm still trying to get my head around, is what exactly could Avery have said about Jason Blake's cancer (If that is in fact what his comments were about. And that story is losing credibility by the day.) "You like suckin' back those pills every day punk?"

As horrible as cancer is, it just seems there are better sources of insults for getting under someone's skin. After going through the shock of hearing the news for the first time and reconciling yourself to a life forever changed, I think any derogatory comments would come across as oddly meaningless.

There are much more effective ways to get people riled up. It's no coincidence that the nastiest insults in languages the world over are based on a person's mother and a certain part of her anatomy.

But despite the lack of any hard proof about Avery going after Blake for having the audacity to be afflicted with cancer, why did that rumour quickly gain traction? Because it doesn't take a genius to know what most people's vulnerabilities are. And we all have some unpleasant, if usually unarticulated, thoughts bouncing around inside our skulls.

That's part of the reason why in many instances words can come close to actions in sending people over the edge. And it's interesting how often words seem to cut deeper than actions. Getting knocked down and kicked in the guts is one thing. But being mocked and ridiculed is somehow even worse and stokes the fires of murderous rage.

Maybe being called a gutless maggot after you've been flattened compounds things a thousand times over because now there's some validity to the claim and the thoughts of self-doubt are more open to confirmation than ever before.

Except in cases where someone is physically injured, actions disappear into the ether the moment they occur. The rationalizing narratives that remain are designed to alleviate any discomfort about what really happened and helps us form opinions about ourselves. Someone getting inside our minds and churning things up with a well placed insult can be distressing and may force us to confront buried truths.

We all know that regardless of what was really said, Darcy Tucker is really most concerned about his opponents behaving in a more respectful way when they come to the Air Canada Centre. Tucker, Toronto fans and all those who love the game of hockey really don't want any villains that ratchet up the intensity and potential for an explosive rivalry between the New York Rangers and the Leafs.

There just wouldn't be enough "class" in a situation like that.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Rick Tocchet Re-Instated by the NHL

NHL logoYotes logoRick Tocchet will be back behind the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes as an assistant coach in February. He was re-instated by Gary Bettman with a stern but forgiving public lecture and given a set of conditions that must be adhered to.

This seems odd to me on a few fronts. First, the requirement by the league that Tocchet must not have anything to do with gambling and also has to undergo examination by league doctors and agree to treatment if necessary. This is good. But is everyone forgetting the fact that Tocchet attended the World Series of poker only a few short months ago?

If you believe that the legal nature of his participation in that tournament makes such an example irrelevant, you are clueless as to what is at the crux of this issue. The fact that Tocchet got involved with questionable characters in setting up a sports book says all you need to know (the independent investigator hired by the NHL found that there were no links to "organized crime." But wasn't the gambling ring itself "organzied" and a "crime"?)

Like with any addiction, gambling skews your priorities and perception. That Tocchet couldn't see this as a potential problem demonstrates that. That it didn't register with him that showing up in Vegas to join a widely publicized orgy of gambling at a time when he was unemployed because he had been suspended for gambling, sort of confirms that notion.

I'm all for giving people second chances but this has potential jackassery of the highest order written all over it. It's like putting a former junky in charge of a methadone clinic. Tocchet will be back in that highly charged atmosphere that acts as an appetizer for the thrills and risks that gambling provides long after the game has finished. He'll also get a healthy increase in salary from the zero per month he was receiving for the past two years. He'll surely have some debts to pay off as a result and may even have some income to dispose of.

Most people can accept that gambling is an affliction like other compulsive and destructive habits such as drinking and drug use. The high from gambling is every bit as addictive as other vices and may even be stronger. Without the accompanying physical battering, it can have an energizing effect on a person. The risks involved and the hit to a gambler's ego when they succeed/get lucky heightens the rush. An added element to the challenge can be keeping the habit hidden and thinking you've put one over on others.

In the credibility-deprived NHL operating under the umbrella of other professional sports leagues hammered by scandal, the decision sends a message to both fans and other players and coaches. While the perception of those under the spell is filtered through their addiction, for fans of the game it becomes a trust issue with all the attendant possibilities and nastiness.

To others within the NHL with gambling problems, the message is "it's manageable." Keep it low key, don't bet on hockey and be secure in the knowledge that you're more clever than that anyway. Worse comes to worst and you get found out. Plead instant epiphany, claim you're cured, take a vacation to Vegas during the down time and return fresh and ready to go.

Convinced of your own prescience and skill in making the right picks together with your healthy salary makes money issues unimportant. Financial ruin is an impossibility and even if it came to pass your mates would bail you out. You wouldn't be ashamed enough to keep it quiet. And you certainly wouldn't be stupid enough to be receptive to others leaning on you. Persuading you to agree to just help out with a few things and in the process get out of that hole you're in...

Lacking any clear evidence that Tocchet's actions were more serious, the NHL apparently doesn't have much choice but to allow his return. They believe in his ostensible desire to give up gambling. Walking away from the World Series of poker after being sighted by the press has convinced them of this.

Hopefully this works out for everyone involved but if it blows up in their faces you can't say they really weighed the odds too well.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Hockey and Schadenfreude

"Schadenfreude" is an imported word from the German nihilist tradition that nicely sums up a common human sentiment. It simply means "to gain pleasure from someone else's misfortune." There's no single word in the English language that captures the meaning so perfectly. Which is probably why it has become one of those newly popular words with the mainstream media in the past number of years.

It's a logical emotion to experience. The rage that humans have always felt is still present as it was a thousand years ago. But the historical response of bashing in each other's skulls is no longer an option for most. The accumulation of slights, disrespect, and mistreatment at the hands of others in society needs an outlet.

It fits in nicely with another one of the most widely held beliefs. That somehow there is a cosmic righter of wrongs who makes sure everyone gets what they deserve. An absurd notion that people use to calm themselves when they have been screwed over by another, telling themselves that "what goes around comes around."

Of course, most people never stop to consider that if that's the case, then the misfortune they have just suffered is also well deserved and payback from something they must have done in the past. (For the most asinine sports related example of this type of thinking, check out the Glenn Hoddle story from a few years back.) This kind of world view is easily validated because inevitably every person will experience some kind of tragedy or setback.

Professional sports offer a never-ending litany of opportunities for the spectator to satisfy their shadenfreude instinct. The most common example and one that is not troubling, is the enjoyment a fan takes in seeing opposing teams become frustrated, make mistakes and lose.

Taken a bit further, satisfaction can be derived from the personnel or disciplinary side of things imploding for a hated rival. Management changes, fines and suspensions are the types of situations that fit into this category.

When schadenfreude veers into sociopath territory is when pleasure is taken from the sight of a player knocked out of a game with an injury. While some sports are premised on doing exactly that to achieve victory, I'm referring more to team sports such as hockey.

By far most fans don't like to see anyone injured during the course of a game but there are more than a few who will delight in the sight of a player from the opposite team being stretchered off the ice.

Some who seem to enjoy this recognize that it comes across as inappropriate and will seek ways to rationalize their feelings. With a huge database of hockey clips on public sites such as YouTube, a person can easily search for hits delivered by a currently injured player and hold that up as why they "got what they deserved."

Others are far too energized and thrilled to worry about what it says about their character. Take in an NHL game and witness the few who revel in being hard-core and unrelenting in their callousness. Better yet, patrol any number of discussion boards and witness the gloating over shattered limbs, ripped ligaments and bashed in faces.

You might think that one of the worst incidents in NHL history, which saw Steve Moore's career ended by a blind-side assault from Todd Bertuzzi, would result in universal sympathy for Moore. Not so. There is still a vocal contingent who think that, in fact, he "had it coming."

Who is worse? The fan who goes to lengths to explain away his views? Or the one who shamelessly luxuriates in the physical pain of professional athletes who happen to be on the other team?

Every serious injury in the NHL is accompanied with comments that "no one wants to see this kind of thing." I can only assume that those making these claims are trying to cast the game in the best light or live strictly in that world of the public face that is played out in the pages and on the airwaves of the most popular media outlets.

Revenge scenarios in the NHL are some of the strongest and most intriguing of any sport. It's hard not to get caught up in the frenzy of wanting to see your team damage their bitterest enemies with a lopsided victory. Some are simply unable to draw any reasonable boundaries and take things to their most twisted conclusion.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Major League Pitchers and NHL Goalies

As the Boston Red Sox look set to win the World Series, if not sweep the Colorado Rockies in four straight, it's time for a look at the roles played by major league pitchers in comparison to NHL goaltenders.

Success at both positions relies on controlling a small hard missile that the opposing team is trying to drive forward with sticks or bats.

While pitchers are hurling 100 mile per-hour plus fastballs past, and sometimes towards, hitters, goalies are the ones facing the onslaught of rockets in hockey. Yet both represent the defensive linchpins in their respective sports.

pitcher.jpgIndividual pitchers play a far bigger role in terms of their impact on specific games. This is a fact demonstrated by the odds offered by book-makers on a team, which will vary a great deal depending on the starting pitcher. No doubt a goaltender can be the difference in many a game and outstanding performance at that position is often the key to a team winning the top prize. At the very least, solid play in the nets is necessary if a club hopes to go far into the playoffs.

But the entire flow of a baseball game hinges on the pitcher. He is the focal point and, while able to rest at the top or bottom of each inning, when on the mound his exertions are almost continual. A goalie goes in stops and starts and may stand idle for stretches at a time as his team-mates control play in the other end.

Pitchers hold more weight in terms of importance in the outcome of a game, but both they and hockey's puck stoppers carry a similar burden of responsibility to provide a solid foundation if their teams are to have a chance of winning.

Perhaps that's why the outward image of many goalies and pitchers is of the brooding individual, simmering at the constant flow of contempt served up to them. That is the very essence of the opposition. They are trying to show that they are better and capable of beating the defensive best the other side has to offer.

Pitchers and goalies often speak of the disrespect shown to them throughout the course of a game. It's natural that players on opposing teams consciously or otherwise degrade and/or set them up as enemies to be destroyed and dominated. However, the behaviour directed at both often goes beyond acceptable standards.

emery.jpgThis is most noticeable in hockey where players will takes runs at the most vulnerable player on the ice. In the far subtler and less aggressive game of baseball, there is nonetheless accepted conduct related to the positioning of batters when standing at the plate. The flouting of this code is the manifestation of the underlying antipathy pitchers feel from opponents. When pushed too far, a pitcher may nail a batter and a net-minder may lash out with his stick or fists.

Hitters in baseball and goal scorers in hockey will openly flaunt their success in the faces of goalies and pitchers, showing them up with over-the-top celebrations. Though perhaps it's in the inherent low-key nature of prevention and defense that results in pitchers and keepers rarely celebrating a single stop or strike-out in an animated way, they would probably attribute it to professionalism.

The ultimate individual triumph for pitchers and goaltenders is in shutting out the other team in victory. Only then will they allow their satisfaction to boil over into open celebration. They will inevitably be swarmed by their team-mates in recognition of how just important they are to everyone's success.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Magic Dust of NHL Coaching Success

Every NHL season is guaranteed to see changes within its fraternity of head coaches. Such are the ways of the big league hockey world with huge payoffs at the gate the further a team goes into the playoffs, valuable exposure and merchandise revenues that come with a successful season and glory for all those associated. Failure to bring these dreams closer to reality with a winning team will result in at least a few unceremonious sackings throughout the year.

Just what goes into making a good hockey coach? What are the different qualities, characteristics and skills that contribute to long-term success? What are the unique elements that are especially relevant at the highest level with all the attendant media pressure and exaggerated expectations?

To first get a shot at weaving his magic in the big show, a coach must possess a decent pedigree. Former NHL players who demonstrated a desire to further their understanding of the game are usually the ones who will follow the coaching path. Those who took the lead in practices and the dressing room as a conduit for hammering home important points. Not all coaches in the NHL were players in the league, though most played competitively to a reasonable level while growing up.

Coaching experience before entering the NHL at that position is mandatory. The years of playing and coaching before getting the big opportunity lead to the requisite hockey knowledge that every big league bench boss posses to some degree. This is pretty much a no-brainer. Without an extensive and nuanced understanding of the game, a coach can never hope to move beyond the theoretical stage.

The ability to take that knowledge and use it to implement a practical system is much more difficult. Organization, hard work and surrounding oneself with a competent supporting cast are the foundations. While some of the assistant coaches, trainers and other support staff may be hired at the whim of the GM, normally the head coach will have a say as well. It is here in the personnel he surrounds himself with that the first glimpses of a coach's inner workings are revealed. His input in assembling a team is also key and highlights the importance of being able to recognize existing and potential talent and who will play well together.

The communication and interaction with players is where the real test begins. A coach must be able to relay the set plays, strategies and overall focus that he wishes to establish in leading to a team identity. Burn those drills into instincts and make them operate in tandem with the clean, uncluttered narrative that has been preached regarding what will lead the team to success.

In seeking out that perfect game plan and approach to a season and each individual game, a lack of rigidity is essential. It's perfectly understandable that every coach has their own particular take on the game and what works best. Based on the current climate, the quality of opponents and past experience, a potential system for winning must be created with the players who are available, not the team a coach wishes he had. Skills can be improved, habits broken and new ones learned, but there has to be a realistic recognition of the talent that is currently in the room.

Fine-tuning and responding to changes and developments as necessary and addressing lapses in fundamentals when needed, comes from years of observations and a feel for the emotional state of the team. It's also necessary to recognize when things are ticking along nicely and not to interfere or over-think things too much at that juncture.

Conditioning, training and practice regimens are a critical part of how a coach relates to his players. In any type of coaching or instruction situation, it's important to create routine and expectation for players. Humans crave patterns, systems and logic. In teaching his system, a coach must break it down simply, make it effective and somehow maintain enthusiasm within the familiar.

A hockey coach's performance leading up to a match-up and in actual game situations is one of the most vital factors in establishing whether or not he will rise to the elite class. Pre-game preparations, goalie selection and line arrangements in expectation of an opponent's strengths and weaknesses are aspects that should be used to judge coaching skills.

When the puck drops, reacting to game situations, matching lines and communicating with players are skills practiced under the glare of 19, 000 fans and the media and with little time for hesitation or second guessing. Between-period blackboard sessions and pep talks start to take coaches into that netherworld of intangibles and a hard to define "something" that really separate the individuals who have started to master the psychological aspects of the position from those who are passing through on their way to oblivion.

In many ways, it's an individual's make-up as a person that determines how well he manages the motivational side of being a coach. His character, temperament and ability to deal with adversity are things that are seen and felt by the players, who will spend many of their waking hours with the man assigned to help them achieve their dreams.

Mood is contagious and weaknesses can rarely be hidden over the long-term. To create a sense of trust, respect and just enough fear of the consequences if game plans aren't followed and effort isn't exerted, is something that can only be accomplished by a rare few people. Understanding players on an individual basis is crucial for the successful NHL coach. Create a sense of fairness amongst team-mates while actually engaging in anything but. It's important that a perception exists within the team that the same standards apply to all.

But anyone who has worked as a coach knows that different people react to different methods of extracting their best. And so some must be coddled, others nudged and still others rammed head-first into dressing room walls. To achieve the holy grail of coaching by creating a sense of urgency and eliciting performances beyond expected limits is the ultimate goal.

At the NHL level, another component of the mental game is the relationship that a coach develops with the media. Players make some allowance for the difference between what is said behind closed doors and what is offered to the media hordes. In fact, it is expected. A smooth talking raconteur of a coach can be a valuable tool in shaping the message that is played out in the public domain.

The media too can be used to send coded messages to the team through a coach's scripted utterances. It's a risky proposition to call out players in public for poor performances. A relationship with hockey writers and broadcasters that is too cozy will create some unease and mistrust in the room and may shatter the "us against them" mentality regarding opponents, the media and outsiders in general.

For all the talk of team togetherness and the code of keeping it behind closed doors, coaches are aware there is always the risk of the dreaded "losing the room," where certain players, usually the highest paid untouchables, decide to openly challenge authority and spark a mutiny. In today's game, players know that they can manipulate a coaching situation far easier than they could in the past. It's natural for individuals on a losing team to want to avoid the hard questions that such situations create. A good coach will keep the focus on improving, recognizing destructive narratives in their infancy and castrating them appropriately.

At the same time, he may have to engage in some mind games of his own. For example, subtly playing certain players off against one another without having it come across as contrived nastiness or done for any other reason but for the good of the team.

So what kind of ideal prototype do those qualities and abilities result in? The thoughtful enigmatic coach who induces a strong sense of loyalty and respect? Whose respect and approval in turn becomes almost as important to players as their desire to win? A Roger Nielsen, Freddie Shero or perhaps from today's crop a John Paddock? Or a hard-nosed, disciplinarian along the lines of Pat Burns or Mike Keenan who simply won't accept losing?

Various elements don't just come together and conspire to create a winning group of players. Many a talented team has been squandered and more than a few over-achievers have been created because of the actions of a head coach in the NHL. The magic coaching dust that some seem to posses, that ability to push players beyond their normal level of performance, remains a singular and hard to define quality that will elevate some to the level of myth and greatness. In many ways it's all about the words a coach uses and the atmosphere he creates. It's one long rap, riffing on and hoping the players will buy into his system and ride his wave of wisdom all the way to the top.

"Win together today, and we walk together forever."

Saturday, October 20, 2007

NHL Officiating: Let 'Em Play

NHL logoGrowing up in the frigid wasteland known as Winnipeg, a common occurrence to alleviate the boredom was for someone in our group of friends to pull an outrageous stunt. In the process he would provide some entertainment for the others, create instant local legends to be re-told and embellished and gain the approval of his peers.

One such malleable sort would regularly take out one of the family cars when left at home alone. The rest of the lads would pile in, high on the coming adventure and thrilled at how easily they had manipulated the situation.

A quick ride to the outskirts of town and open fields so as to avoid detection from the police (we were well under the legal driving age) and the fun would begin. Everyone would get a chance to hammer the car into the ground. Hard turns that destroyed the alignment, grinding the gears at will and a competition to see who could drive the fastest and straightest in reverse without fishtailing.

It was all light-hearted fun done with the utmost of respect for the owners of the car. The individual who facilitated the free driving lessons no doubt assumed that because his parents implicitly trusted him with the run of the house, they also accepted his wisdom regarding whether to take the family car for a joy-ride. However, perhaps he did experience a shred of doubt about what we were doing.

Though he would have happily burned down the family house if he knew it would bring a long stretch of notoriety amongst his mates, Mr. Responsibility engaged in a desperate and pathetic bit of compensation for his misdeeds. As we careened around the field, he made certain to use the turn signal when he was at the wheel.

Yes, as he mashed the pedal to the floor and cut a swath through the waist-high wild grass, he made sure to indicate which way he was going to swerve. I believe he clicked on the right blinker just before he slammed into a copse of saplings and medium-sized trees, clear-cutting a path until coming to a rest against the one tree that wouldn't give way. The absurdity of his misplaced diligence ramped up our yelping, guffawing and back-slapping ever further.

It makes sense though. No, not the joyriding but the use of turn signals regardless of what situation you're in. It cuts out the need to waste mental energy and instead turns it into an ingrained habit that contributes to safety on the roads.  The same mentality applies to other situations as well.


I was listening to a recent podcast of Leafs Lunch in which the host Brian Duff was discussing the state of officiating in the NHL with former Leafs' assistant GM Bill Watters, who always sits in on the first half of the show.

Watters went off on one of his rants in which he lamented the new standard of reffing that has been evident in the NHL for the past few seasons. Since the league returned after the lockout in 2003-04, there has been a far stricter and more uniformed enforcement of all penalties, especially the type that fall under the category of "obstruction."

The result has been a better flow to the game and the inevitable whining from those who can't accept change. Watters' main point in criticizing the state of NHL reffing is that calls are not made with the consideration of "whether or not the penalty directly affects the game." Duff was left momentarily speechless before responding that the specific actions of the players in question and the subsequent non-call (from the Leafs/Panthers match-up on Thursday) of course affected the game.

It was a glaring example of poor officiating because calls in general have been more consistent since the changes. It stood out for that reason. Allowing too much leeway to referees means that calling penalties becomes far too subjective. Within such a free flowing, fast moving sport as NHL hockey, to require that refs determine whether or not an infraction affects the game, introduces far too much inconsistency.

The result would be a return to the days when certain refs carried reputations for how they officiated (which they still do but to a lesser degree.) And a shifting standard depending on what stage of the game the penalty takes place and at what part of the season the game occurs.

As with any debate where two options are being discussed, it comes down to which type of fallout comes with either choice and which is less detrimental. I'll take the situation as it exists today where there may be some poxy calls but they are all being made and a more entertaining game is the result. As opposed to having players unsure, pushing the envelope to see what they can get away with and the inevitable increase in officiating controversies.

You don't hear the requisite euphemism these days, the one that used to accompany situations where the officiating in a game had broken down completely, "They're really letting them play tonight..." Oddly enough, that same description could be used for the state of affairs today and be far more applicable.

It's much easier to have consistency when the only issue at hand is whether the infraction took place, not the more difficult to determine qualifier that Watters talked about. Sorry Watters, you lose this argument hands down.

The teams that can't get their heads around the fact that this is the way it's going to be will continue to take penalties and be rightfully labeled as undisciplined. In the meantime, NHL refs can continue devoting their energy to calling penalties by the book instead of carrying on an internal dialogue with themselves about if it's the appropriate time or situation. Just as I'm sure my long lost mate is still dutifully using that turn signal regardless of whether he's on a crowded city street or bashing through a desolated field in an off-road vehicle.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hockey and Alcohol: a Potent Mix

Rob Ramage was found guilty on Wednesday of drunk driving in the incident that killed former Chicago Blackhawk Keith Magnuson. The response from his coterie of supporters is an odd sort of incredulity that he may actually have to pay for what he did. It's a glaring example of the long-standing claim by many that athletes are so accustomed to being treated as special that they never learn what it means to take responsibility. More than that though, it's a reminder that the booze-soaked hockey sub-culture is alive and well.


One of the saving graces of growing up in a frozen hole like Winnipeg is the number of outdoor hockey rinks that are dotted around the city. Every neighbourhood has a few community centres where, from the beginning of November until the end of February, anyone can go and lace on their skates. You can join in a pick up game or simply coast around on the one ice surface that is usually reserved for both such purposes. As a youngster I spent many hours at the local rinks. By the time I was old enough that a curfew no longer restricted my movements, I would on occasion head out at 11:00 or 12:00 at night when the clubhouse was closed and the floodlights were off.

A perfect windless night for a lone midnight skate with a six pack chilling behind the gate on one of the benches. The ice-cold booze numbs the back of my throat and adds to the surreal atmosphere. Float around in a kind of meditative trance heightened by the effects of the alcohol. Hammer a few shots on net, try to improve my backward skating, enjoy the fact that for once I'm the best player on the ice.

Sit in the box and slurp back a few more leisurely drinks amongst the detritus of the rink. A few splintered sticks, wads of used tape, even a broken puck or two. Laugh about how such an image would play with most people...alone on a frozen night at a deserted ice rink relaxing with a few beers and contemplating life. I take another slug...


The old Winnipeg Arena was located on Maroons Rd. and St. James St. and shared the same patch of real estate with the city's biggest shopping mall, Polo Park. Running along St. James St, which faced the large parking lot and the side of the arena, were a handful of mid-sized wholesale businesses with the requisite loading docks in the back. A rail-line ran behind them and then further on some side streets that were perfect for parking for Jets games and other events at the arena.

Before tail-gate parties there were impromptu pre-game booze sessions that took place on one of the loading docks of the rarely used or deserted businesses. With the arena visible a few hundred metres away and the buzz of the game gaining energy, we whipped ourselves into an alcohol induced frenzy.

The trickle of early arrivers turned into a steady flow of people and then a surging crowd as the opening faceoff approached. Raging towards the game we would stop traffic as we crossed the street and join the throng wedging themselves into the arena. The swilling would continue with cans smuggled in and topped up with the overpriced beer sold at the concession stands.


Playoff hockey provided one of the year's greatest reasons for going on a six week to two months long bender. The rush of the alcohol high together with the excitement of following your team creates an addictive and powerful rush. Not only is the experience incredible but the validation of all those around you who are getting similarly shitfaced adds to the feeling. Even simple things like the barrage of beer commercials rolled out around the playoffs especially to honour committed drinkers, makes it a great time to be alive and drunk. Knowing that the brotherhood of boozers includes many of those players you are cheering for every night adds to the collective insanity.


It’s at once odd but completely understandable that no NHL club has yet enforced a team-wide ban on drinking amongst its players. With the millions at stake and the fleeting window of opportunity for any collection of players to challenge for the Cup, something as simple as eliminating the short-term detrimental health effects of even occasional alcohol intake, would no doubt be positive. Impossible to implement, of course. Beyond any other rationale, booze is legal. Just like the failure to compete and win, a player who can’t handle a few drinks is the one at fault and is simply demonstrating weakness.

Drinking is part of the teenage hockey sub-culture as it is within every other group of adolescent boys. For the simple reason that it feels good and creates incredibly strong and powerful memories. Especially in the early going of a young piss-head’s life, when those feelings are so new and more likely to create lasting impressions.

There are always a percentage of people who, for a variety of reasons, are sucked into the nastiness that is alcoholism and are unable to moderate or control their urges like most others. The NHL has had more than a few examples of players over the years whose careers and/or lives were cut short because of the bottle.


SandersonDerek Sanderson was a star player for the Boston Bruins (and a handful of other teams) and one of the earliest celebrities in the game. Because of all the glamour, accolades and hangers-on that came with success, Sanderson’s off-ice routine became one long alcohol-soaked party. As a way to keep himself plugged into, or insulated from, the non-stop lunacy of the off-ice distractions, he kept on pounding back the drinks.

Sanderson eventually reached the proverbial bottom of the bottle. A down and out skid row vignette straight out of the pits of despair, Sanderson woke up on a park bench hung over, with waves of nausea and self-loathing coursing over him.

Though his playing was greatly affected by his alcoholism, at least he salvaged his life and went on to have a second career as a sportscaster and businessman.

For a player like Sanderson, who reached a high level in terms of playing ability, his off-ice downfall was similarly spectacular and can be compared to other sports legends and their tribulations. Spurred on by the voyeuristic energy of those witnessing such a tragedy, it’s almost like a performance of another kind.


Bryan Fogarty stepped into a tragic role fueled by a cocktail of his inner demons and a river of booze that never stopped flowing until the day he died. It was a trajectory that was instantly recognized by others around him. Yet they were helpless to intervene and save what could have been a very good professional hockey career or at least a life lived beyond the age of 32.

Fogarty could never handle the pressure of a big league career and drank as a way to deal with it all. Just like sports, alcohol is one of those many things humans use as an escape from reality. It allows a person to hide from their problems while providing a whiff of already known or hoped for glory. Of course, the longer you use booze as way to avoid facing your weaknesses, the more tragic their effect on your life will be in the long run.


KordicJohn Kordic was a bruiser who played for a handful of NHL teams including the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. As with many hard-core drinkers, he seemed to gain solace not only from alcohol but from the seediness and accompanying sideshow that is part of the drinking lifestyle. Perhaps it brought reality down to a place that was similar to the internal dialogue and thoughts he had about himself. It’s tempting to offer up half-baked speculation like that in an attempt to bring some kind of semblance of understanding to tragedies such as Kordic’s, though no doubt it’s more nuanced than that.

Like Fogarty, Kordic died at a young age as a direct result of his drinking (and drug use.) The two had apparently formed a brief friendship based on the shared understanding that they both had a serious problem.


Brian "Spinner" Spencer was another tragic case whose problems with alcohol and drugs led to an early death. Spencer grew up in the tough northern B.C. town of Fort St. James and developed a taste for alcohol at a young age.

The effects of alcohol are different for everyone. For every functional boozer there's someone for whom the drink latches onto one of their fundamental flaws, takes hold and never lets go. For Spencer, it must have somehow seemed appropriate to lead a reckless life on and off the ice. Perhaps he felt cursed after his father was killed in a shoot-out with police.

He had been enraged when his son’s first big league game as a Toronto Maple Leaf played on a Saturday night, a match-up originally scheduled to be shown on the CBC in his area, was pre-empted. He stormed off with a gun to the closest CBC station and minutes after arriving he was dead.

Spencer’s personal life included the usual string of self-made problems that come with out of control substance abuse. He ended up leaving hockey earlier than he might have otherwise and was murdered during a drug deal in Florida in 1988.


FleuryTheoren Fleury played in the NHL for 17 seasons and will best be remembered for his years with the Calgary Flames. Fleury was tough as nails, especially considering his stature, and could score goals as well. Probably as close to a functioning alcoholic as the league has ever seen, the drink still ended up costing Fleury a handful of suspensions and must have at least reduced his potential to some degree. Which highlights what he did accomplish as all the more impressive.

Fleury did not hit rock-bottom in such a dramatic way as some other players and he benefited from an increasing awareness within the league and the advent of a substance abuse program in the NHL.


There is a litany of other second or third tier players who will be remembered as much for their off-ice imbibing and related antics as for anything they did on the ice. In many of those cases, the individuals engaged in a fearless and nasty style of play that fit in well with the hard-drinking desperado image. The likes of Steve Durbano, Link Gaetz and Billy Tibbets fit in this category.


With growing societal awareness and stricter enforcement of laws related to drunk driving, many of the most recent examples of NHL players and drinking problems have come to light only after the law got involved. See Mark Bell and Jay Bouwmeester for such unfortunate situations. Both however, seem to have a shot and leaving their problems behind them and continuing on with their hockey careers.

These are only a sampling of the players whose drinking problems destroyed their lives or affected their careers. Others have been social drinkers able to keep their lives relatively stable and unaffected by alcohol up until one tragic mistake that resulted in the death of themselves or innocents (for example, Steve Chiasson and Craig MacTavish.)

When a case involves a well-known player, it will of course have a higher profile. Add in the intrigue of public melodrama and death and the voyeuristic appeal ramps up even more. Do hockey players abuse alcohol more than the general population? Probably not, though I feel it’s at a higher rate than other professional sports played in North America.

What’s the reason? Perhaps it’s the Caucasian-centric nature of the NHL and the Anglo Saxon roots of the drinking subculture and the connections to preparing for battle. The game of football (soccer) as played in Britain seems to have the same boozing narrative and examples of tragic cases of players stoked by the surreal media glare and lapped up by a sympathetic audience.

Or maybe it’s because after being immersed in the ongoing drama that is a boozer’s life, there’s a realization that the trade-off isn’t all that bad. Reliving the moments of glory within the drunken haze of the endless celebration together with being feted as a true raconteur in exchange for the occasional dark night of the soul, potential ruin and early death. Throw in the sympathy, interest and energy of the fans who watch as your life becomes a real-life soap opera and the alternative, which is the drudgery of even temperament, obscurity and a safe, uneventful personal life, just isn’t enough for some.

Monday, October 8, 2007

A Ticket to Boo

Jets logoLeafs logoWhat an odd word and an even stranger way to express your displeasure at something. To actually yell "Boooooooo!!!!" Sure, booing often incorporates more than just choruses of that sound, but many times, that's it.

Years ago while attending Winnipeg Jets games, I can remember getting into the action as the entire arena rained down abuse on opposing teams. There seemed to be particular type of play or penalty committed by an enemy player that elicited the genuine and spontaneous boos. It's that essence of gutlessness that isn't always easy to articulate but when you see it, it's visceral and at once enrages and motivates.

The habitual booing of a certain player is something different and is almost surreal when the arena is otherwise sullen and detached. The off/on switch of the puck on the hated player's stick has got to have some kind of effect, though I've got to think it could be more of a motivator than anything. To know that you've got 18, 000 baboons watching your every move and waiting to utter a moronic sound in unison has to induce a certain amount of glee in many players who have been targeted. Hammer one home and shut the primates down, make them hoarse with your possession and enjoy the fact that they respect your ability and are utterly helpless to do anything else. Individual players may be tagged for a game, playoff series or their entire careers.

To boo an individual player on your own team is something I've never fully understood. I can understand letting the entire team have it on occasion but to target a player for a period of bad play is counterproductive in my opinion. What is the rationale? Obviously, the fans who engage in such behaviour must loathe the player to such a degree that they would like to see him hounded off the club.

The practice has got a nasty air of unfairness about it and I've no doubt it turns into nothing more than a habit for many of the lunatics who haven't got their fill of nastiness at a particular game. I've often thought that such behaviour is partly because of the thrill people get from letting others know how far they're willing to go. Part of the appeal of being a sports fan is the tribalistic aspect of of living and dying with your team. But within the fan base there are of course divisions and cliques just as there are in any group. The "I'm a better, nastier, more dedicated etc. fan than you because..." is something that occurs amongst fans, though usually never so brazen as to be stated directly like that.

It's even further beyond comprehension that the new Leafs' goalie Vesa Toskala would get booed in his first game (albeit preseason) in nets in Toronto. In such a situation it's beyond the play of Toskala, who hasn't even been given a whiff of a chance to show what he's got. It's more from the frustration of missed playoffs, years of poor management and the thought that "here we go again."

I guess fans who are willing to boo one of their own players at the first sign of less than stellar play should ask themselves what they really hope to accomplish. Clear away the usual (and completely legitimate) lines about "paid for my ticket," "when they play well enough not to get booed," "want to send a message" etc. and consider that the net effect is to produce some gut-churning anxiety for someone like Toskala whenever he may let in a soft goal. Do you really want any of his mind space devoted to the angst related to the expectation of the first wave of derision? Or do you want him to focus completely on the task at hand?

If that's irrelevant in what you consider the world of the hockey fan, then carry on...

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Maple Leafs and the Media

Leafs logoI had been ready to write a post about how rising player salaries and long-term contracts have resulted in performance based decisions regarding NHL rosters sometimes taking a back seat to monetary and perception concerns. Management and coaches have to demonstrate their confidence in an investment by allowing a longer period of sub-par or mediocre play before deciding to make line-up changes, trades or demotions.

Then the Toronto Maple Leafs went and started Andrew Raycroft in goal in their first game of the season against the Ottawa Senators. I was surprised and actually a bit heartened to see them buck the wisdom that you have to go with a newly signed but unproven player because of the hype surrounding the trade and the big contract. It would have looked a lot shrewder if Raycroft had been anything more than his usual uninspiring self.

At least they kept the media hounds guessing with the "clever" refusal to confirm who would get the start. Though the snickering Raycroft and the sullen Toskala obviously weren't clued in on the plan to dupe the legion of Leafs hacks.

But you've got to wonder just how much energy is expended and focus lost with the constant dysfunctional tango that is the relationship between the Toronto sports media and the Leafs. By basing their strategy on the belief that they have no friends amongst the ink-stained wretches, that their words will be twisted regardless of what they say and that there's a kind of us versus them mentality that can inspire the team, the Leafs have got to be alienating at least some of their huge fan base at the same time.

Just in the past few months alone there have been a handful of examples that demonstrate that duplicity, half-truths and shameless manipulation are at the core of the Toronto Maple Leafs management and coaching subculture when it comes to dealings with the media.

The recovery time following surgery on defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo's knee does not appear to jibe with the indications the Leafs provided about the severity of the injury. The usual escape hatch would see them claiming justifiable deception because of the need to keep personnel info from other teams. Journalists who have been had don't see it that way and are more likely to use such an example to highlight the bloated salaries John Ferguson Jr. gave to other defensemen and the lack of maneuverability such moves have presented in dealing with the Colaiacovo situation. The casual attempts to mislead seem to occur within the organization as well, with the media used as nothing more than useful idiots.

John Ferguson Jr. was promised a contract extension before the end of the summer and this was repeated to various journalists on numerous occasions. The lie was put to that claim with the beginning of a months-long farce that involved a search for a mentor for Ferguson. Could they possibly humiliate him more if they demanded he show up on game days wearing a school boy uniform and a beanie with a propeller? Next, the discussions with Scotty Bowman regarding his potential hiring as a mentor to Ferguson were denied (though no doubt that was partly at the urging of Bowman himself.) Perhaps the guarantees of a contract extension weren't lies at all but an amusing experiment conducted by the head asylum masters in an attempt to show their underlings how the nasty little propaganda game works.

And then the seemingly spur of the moment, almost petulant decision to keep the goaltender choice a supposed "secret" until shortly before each game. This doesn't seem like it was well thought out but resulted more from the building frustration Paul Maurice must be feeling after more than a year on the job.

When nailed with proof that honest answers and truthful information are not part of the Leafs media strategy, the usual excuses are offered. The fact that they seem to screw each other over as evidenced by the ongoing treatment of their own GM renders the "us against them" sentiment a bit meaningless. For a team that enjoys fans who are some of the most loyal and willing to part with their cash in support of a perennially losing cause, such a lack of credibility in dealing openly with the media (and hence with the public) must come across as arrogant.

The blundering nature of the goalie spin and the apparent frustration of Maurice and Ferguson only days into the new season should be worrisome for Leafs fans. The pressure of dealing with the media and the obvious decision that there is a clear need for constant spinning and dodging could be affecting actual hockey related decisions. The "absurdity defense" would no doubt flow if they were faced with such an accusation.

"A multi-billion dollar enterprise that features some of the best conditioned athletes in the world, headed by highly skilled and experienced (cough) individuals used to dealing with the kind of pressure that makes these media chumps look like lambs in comparison and we're basing our decisions on how it will play with them?? Ha...ha...HAAAAAA!!!"

Pettiness and vindictiveness can drive people to strange and inexplicable actions and are often in response to perceived unfairness and nastiness. In this case, the abrasive and relentless sledgehammer of media scrutiny. The deception games are actually a tacit admission that the constant criticism hurts. To deny that having your actions, game plans and long-term goals for the team constantly ridiculed is anything less than extremely uncomfortable just doesn't wash. It's like denying that being threatened doesn't have a tangible effect on a person. Which is why the creeps who employ such tactics do it. They know it works to a degree.

Similarly, that is why good journalists engage in harsh criticism. Because it results in real pressure and moves their punditry towards a place where it can actually mean something, i.e. the kind of rolling narrative that gains steam and ends up influencing the actions of a team's management.

The constant vagueness, spinning and semantics games to provide an out at some point in the future when something that was communicated (or at least insinuated) doesn't come to pass, is tiresome and needs to end. The loose and convivial raconteur persona that was Paul Maurice in his first season behind the bench is fading fast. The Leafs need a comprehensive, organization-wide media strategy that alleviates the burden and energy required for making it up on the fly. Preferably one that is heavy on openness, honour and lack of hubris. It's fair to the fans, will remove a distraction for the coaches and players and well may create a more positive team atmosphere at the same time.

In the process, Paul Maurice will have more time and mental energy to devote to the most important task at hand. Winning hockey games.