Wednesday, February 06, 2008

As Canadien as Possible #10: Affective Response

Fans are not rational people. Fandom (or fanaticism, if we return to the original root of the term) is almost by definition a highly charged emotional state. Its core principles are an intense love and an equally intense partisanship, with the object being something which is not, from an unbiased perspective, worthy of such feelings. Even in the religious sense, the term ‘fanatic’ is pejorative, implying that the person so described has exceeded in the intensity of their belief or practice the norms of their own faith. We don’t refer to people with a passionate devotion to worthy things- say, World Peace or Human Rights- as a ‘fan’ of those causes, unless we’re joking or deliberately understating the case. No, fans are the rabid devotees of things like pop singers, television shows, comic books, and other such ephemera. And, of course, sports.

The paradox, however, is that within any fan community a high premium is placed on the appearance of rationality, although the very thing that makes one a member in good standing of such a community is one’s selective madness. This is particularly true of sports fans, and particularly when it comes to the evaluation of teams and players. Everybody likes to present themselves as the Voice of Reason amidst the crazed horde, the one person who sees clearly and judges dispassionately. We spend a lot of time protesting our lack of bias concerning the very issues we are most inclined to be biased about- the fairness of officiating, for example, or the moral turpitude of the opposing team. But such claims are rhetorical tools only, attempts to gain an epistemological high ground that no one who calls themselves a fan has any right to claim in the first place. It’s a Catch-22: if you’re a passionate enough fan to want to argue whether X’s roughing penalty was really deserved, than you’re probably one of the last people on earth qualified to judge that reasonably.

Therefore, it is generally a wise idea to assume that any fan’s claim to objectivity regarding their sport, and especially their team, is total bullshit. This goes even more so for any discussion of a specific player, as such discussions are often among the most intense and acrimonious in which fans routinely engage. In spite of all the talk of great hockey rivalries, most inter-team animosity is so ritualized and so irregularly engaged in as to be more of a custom than a real argument. Player arguments, however, are generally sporadic swellings of strongly felt yet contradictory emotions among fans who ostensibly share the same loyalty. They foment dissention and disunity, and as such are much more likely to be taken personally by all concerned.

Not all players are argued about. Most are to some degree or another, if a team has enough fans with enough time on their hands. But there are always a few on any team who become lightning-rods for seemingly endless bickering, certain names one only has to mention at the local sports bar to incite some kind of conflict. And it is in these arguments that fans often try to appeal most intensely to the claim of superior objectivity, when they trot out favorite stats, when they do the most rigorous inter-team comparisons, where they accuse their fellow fans most dismissively and hypocritically of irrational partisanship.

Preferences for certain players intersect with amateur GMing at certain junctures, but the two are not always- or even often- the same. While a player’s success or lack thereof in a given year can strongly influence fan sentiment towards him, the affective responses that the watching community has towards the playing community are generally formed for reasons beyond success or failure and are sustained over periods of years regardless of the vicissitudes of a career. Fans do not like players in direct proportion to their immediate utility. The most beloved players on a team can often be marginal (for example, the common phenomena of the ‘fan favorite’ on the 4th line), while extremely effective components go overlooked (not a lot of people go all mushy for their 4th defenseman, no matter how reliable).

How, and why, do we form these affections and hatreds? How do we come to embrace some players as intrinsic to our conception of our team and ignore- or even revile- others? Why do we all, each and every one of us who’s ever watched hockey seriously, have feelings about players that have little, if anything, to do with their numbers, players we like or hate so much that- if the surface numbers don’t confirm our prejudices- we will go sifting grain by grain through the Sahara of obscure statistical analysis to find some absolution or condemnation for?

But enough generalizing; let’s get to today’s case study: my own personal dislike of Alexei Kovalev. This aversion has always been problematic for me, because in general, I genuinely like my Habs- even those that I eventually came to believe weren’t good for the team anymore, I felt not even a hint of personal animosity towards. Go ahead, run down a list of most reviled Canadiens of the past season. Sergei Samsonov? Still like him, still hope he does well, rooting for him all the way in Carolina. David Aebischer? Heaven forefend I ever see him in my net again, but I like the guy and regret that he never really got a fair shot in Phoenix. Sheldon Souray? Glad we’re not paying his contract, but still love the dude. Even now, even though I’ve said that I wanted him benched, I like Ryder and would wholeheartedly support him getting another chance in the lineup after a game or two off. There have, in fact, only been two guys I’ve seen in a Habs uniform who I’ve disliked. The first was Garth Murray, who is now adorning the IR in Florida. The second is Kovalev.

Now, of the two, a dislike of Murray is unlikely to attract comment, and if it did it’d be just because he would have been an odd person to dislike. He wasn’t particularly controversial, I think most fans saw him as a sometimes-useful but entirely interchangeable 4th line placeholder. And my reasons for disliking him were more or less acceptable to most people, even those who didn’t feel strongly. He wasn’t a very good hockey player, and had a penchant for irritating, off-topic sideshow fights at random intervals that served no purpose other than to get attention for himself. Murray had the willingness to be a tough guy, but not the sense of timing, no sensitivity whatsoever to the rhythms of a game- his fights were selfish, for his own amusement, and therefore contradictory to the team-first attitude which is supposed to define a good character guy. I resented him for slowing down the game and starting shit that seemed to distract the team more than focus it.

The dislike of Kovalev is more complex. On the surface, there’s an obvious logic to it: last year, the first year of my hockey fandom, Kovalev had a bad season, and you know what they say about first impressions. His performance that year was, to put it mildly, disappointing. He was largely invisible, and when he was visible, it was often in all the worst ways- bad turnovers, carelessly abandoned plays, self-indulgent stickhandling marathons. Every four or five games he’d turn in a multi-point night that kept his numbers from utterly tanking, but for the rest of the time he was (at best) benignly neglectful of his teammates and the game as a whole. At worst, he was malignantly neglectful- starting pointless media controversies with petulant comments, blaming his failures on everyone from the coach to the rookies, voluntarily taking time off for injuries that might have been more to his pride than his arm. On a team that could good be only on nights when everyone worked hard, full of guys struggling desperately to make the playoffs, he was the one who never really seemed to give a shit. So it was easy to dislike him. I loved that team. He didn’t.

But this year, from an objective standpoint, from the standpoint of someone who wants only what is best for the Candadiens, there is absolutely no good reason to maintain an animosity toward Kovalev. Quite the contrary. This year he is effective beyond effective and doing everything right- lethal on the power play, strong at even strength, playing collaboratively on the team’s most effective line, and doing it all in high style. One could not accuse him of laziness or dullness or cancerous behavior, on or off the ice, and even I have to concede that lately he even says the right things. He’s becoming Habistan’s benevolent dictator, with an increasing authority that both the team and the media seem only too glad to concede, and the masses are content.

And yet, I find that his current performance, while thoroughly convincing the amateur GM in me of his importance to the team, while thoroughly impressing me as a fan of elegant, sophisticated hockey, has done little to mitigate my personal distaste for the man. If it was troubling to me initially to dislike him, simply because I didn’t want to admit to disliking anyone in bleu-blanc-rouge, it is even more troubling now because the small part of me that is still capable of rational analysis knows that the team’s success this season is in large part due to him. In fact, it may be the thing which is most responsible for the difference between last year and this year- more than acquiring Hamrlik, more than bringing up the Kostitsyns, more than losing Aebi, more than the development of Plekanec and Komisarek. I have to admit, it is quite likely that Kovalev’s performance is what makes these Canadiens part of the elite of the conference and not just another vaguely adequate team chasing the 8th seed.

I should adore him. I should be grateful to him. I should be willing to dress up in gauzy white robes and skip before him everywhere he goes, strewing his path with rock salt and rose petals, for everything he’s done for the team this season. And yet I find it difficult even to be charitable towards him. I can barely manage a neutral attitude. An affectionate one? That’s just plain impossible.

There is some small comfort in the fact that I am not the only one. Like Koivu, Kovalev is one of those lightning-rod players who are a perpetual focal point for argument, and there are many who still refuse to acknowledge his importance to the team, or do so only grudgingly. Players who attain this status, who have their value debated this intensely apart from the quality of their current play or their statistical worth, do so not simply because of personal behavior, but because something about their circumstance transcends the man himself and becomes, for fans, emblematic of some larger debate about hockey values. I have discussed before how debates about Koivu are not so much about Koivu himself but about the meaning and performance of concepts like courage, virtue, and leadership. Similarly, I would argue that a fan’s feelings about Kovalev are, at the most basic level, really his or her feelings about skill.

Skill is, of course, always a good thing in hockey. It is what makes NHL players NHL players and not convenience store clerks or plumbers. The skill level is why most hockey fans follow that variety of the sport most zealously, it is what makes the game most appealing. The level of skill on display in an average professional game is a universe beyond what any ordinary person can imagine doing, and that’s a big part of why we watch, to participate vicariously in what is, in the last analysis, the closest any of us will ever get to an authentic encounter with a supernatural powers.

But at the same time, we are profoundly ambivalent about it. Hockey, in Canada at least, is a sport that is still proud of its avowed blue-collar roots and industrial work ethic, and hard work is still the most beloved virtue a player can have. Skill, on the other hand, is intractably aristocratic. The skill level to be an NHL star is not fairly or evenly distributed and it is certainly not earned. Some degree of effort is required to unlock it and develop it, but it is mostly a result of genetic fortune and mysterious biological forces we still do not understand. Some people have it, some people don’t, and in hockey there is no escaping the fact that the lucky few haves are inherently better than the mass of have-nots. Skill is the antithesis of democracy, and at the advanced levels, even opposed to meritocracy, since it is not the exclusive province of the worthy.

To obscure this, so that we can be comfortable with our admiration for the freakishly talented, we expect even highly skilled players to affect the mannerisms and ethics of the lowest members of the hierarchy, to pretend that it’s really all about hard work and love of the game, to be modest and self-effacing, and to at least keep up the pretense that they have to bust their asses every shift. This is a key part of Canadian hockey ethics, the pretense of equality even where inequality is most obvious, the way that a star player will immediately deflect credit to his teammates or toss out phrases like, ‘the bounces were just going our way’.

Kovalev doesn’t do this. He personifies the arrogance of skill, the capacity that star players have to make their own rules, to shape the game the way they want it to be. He flaunts the fact that he doesn’t have to work hard every shift or every season, that he can be selective about how he deploys his abilities, and that irregardless of however much he defies the common ethics of the sport, the team will still need him. More than any other player on the Canadiens, more than most other players in the League, Kovalev reminds everyone with every stride, every shift, every interview that he is special, the he is superior, that he can and will invent the game as he wishes. Some people find this defiance sexy in a way, in that it gives him a rebellious air, in that it spurns the amiable docility that most players cultivate in their public personas. But to many, to me anyway, it is painful to watch.

I’ve talked, in my time, with a few serious Kovy fans, and most of their love of him seems to come down to awe of his skill and superstar mystique. They love him first and foremost for his spectacular plays, remembering specific games where he scored some impossible goal, almost as if they happened in isolation- they don’t dwell on his stats, on the success or failure of his team that year, or even whether or not the particular game was won or lost. Die-hard Kovalev fans are often among the purest aesthetes I’ve ever encountered in hockey, for whom the enchantment of the game is bound up with the most elegant, most dramatic, most mysteriously and inexplicably beautiful moments. On a day-to-day level they might care about wins and losses, but in the end what draws them to the game and keeps them there are those highlights-beyond-highlights, a sense of the game’s potential for the miraculous that goes beyond numbers. And like fans of an avant-garde musician or painter, they will put up with any amount of idiosyncrasy from one who can create beauty and amazement out of mundane components. If anything, his above-it-all attitude is appealing to them, in that it conveys his lack of concern for the conventions of the game, which may be exactly what allows him to do those rare and incredible things he can.

Kovalev is one of a few players who seems more or less immune to the sculptural forces of hockey coaching and ethics which would discipline his game. He follows his own muse, his own sense of artistry. Sometimes, when he feels that he’s playing with the right linemates, in the right context, he will sacrifice some of his own artistry in order to support theirs. Contrary to popular belief, I do not think that he’s selfish in the least. He’s elitist. He wants something amazing happen every shift- if he thinks that he’s the most competent to do that, then he’ll horde the puck jealously, but if he thinks that others have the capacity to dazzle, he’ll just as gladly give it up and enjoy the show. He’ll only play with, in truly collaborative fashion, those with whom he shares a common aesthetic. Perhaps both he and his fans resent the crude instrumentalism of most of the hockey world, the belief that what matters is winning no matter how you get there, the sort of attitude that gives rise to the neutral zone trap and the dump-in, ugly play styles that are nevertheless statistically effective. They are the people who care more about the journey than the destination, who really feel that it matters how a goal was scored and not just that it was scored.

Once upon a time, I thought I was deeply devoted to hockey aesthetics, but the fact that the beauty of Kovalev’s play isn’t enough to win me over tells me otherwise. The only times I really like Kovalev are on the PK, because it’s such a dissonant element to his character that he is a capable and willing participant in this least glamorous facet of the game. Yet he is brilliant at it, precisely because he likes to show off his abilities. It is where you realize how un-goal-oriented he is, because when he claims the puck on a PK, he seldom goes (as the younger players do) for the shorthanded breakaway. Rather, he indulges his stickhandling fetish, playing prolonged, teasing, and almost silly games of keep-away with the aspiring power-players. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, when he kills 20-30 seconds or more toying with the opposition- those are the moments when Kovy makes me smile, when I really like him. Because it’s still beautiful. But it’s also selfless.

For some fans, aesthetics are enough to be the basis of love, but not for me. I can respect stylistic originality and gorgeous skill, but what I really like, what stimulates my affective response, is the union of ability and ingenuity and collaborative spirit. I prefer my hockey beauty a little more mundane, a little more fragmentary, and a lot more team-oriented. Kovalev may be a great artist, but even in his most useful phases, he’s still at his core a solo act. In the end, my heart belongs to the ensemble.


Jeff J said...

"And it is in these arguments that fans often try to appeal most intensely to the claim of superior objectivity, when they trot out favorite stats, when they do the most rigorous inter-team comparisons..."

Stats are objective, even if statisticians are not. There used to be debate about which players had the hardest shots. Even after someone had the great idea of using a radar gun to measure them, there were skeptics. I recall one goalie saying something like, "Well, Smith's shot may be faster, but Johnson's is 'heavier.'" Once someone admits that they disagree with Newton's Laws of Motion, there isn't much point in trying to convince them any further. Over time BS like that tends to disappear and nowadays no one in their right mind would dispute the radar gun.

"In fact, [Kovalev] may be the thing which is most responsible for the difference between last year and this year..."

Whoa... The biggest difference between this year and last is the team's EV performance. Kovalev is four EV points better than he was last year. The difference is not Kovalev.

Now, on the PP he's 14 points ahead of his pace last year - that's where he's making a difference. On the whole, the PP isn't any better than last season. Kovalev has stepped up his production enough to compensate for the loss of Souray. That's an important contribution.

As for the EV difference this year, I think you have to look at the Hamrlik/Souray swap, the strides made by Plekanec and A.Kastsitsyn, and the vastly improved defense of Koivu's line.

I keep harping on this because it drives me nuts how the media grips something and beats it into our heads until it becomes a truism despite plenty of contrary evidence. Like WMDs in Iraq. With the salary cap, you need to have players outperforming their contracts. You need to spend money on areas that make the biggest difference - 5 on 5 performance. The Canadiens dodged a bullet by not paying for Souray's PP numbers, and they would be better off without the quagmire of a contract extension for Kovalev.

saskhab said...

Except that you seem to be interpreting Kovalev's 5 on 5 contributions as a negative, Jeff. They aren't a massive positive, but the stats you point out clearly show that his play 5 on 5 draws the most penalties on the team. And, as e points out here, his 4 on 5 contributions have been a positive. The Habs' PK has been improved over the first two and a half months of the year, and part of that has been an increase in both Plekanec & Kovalev's 5 on 5 play.

Is he the single biggest reason for our turnaround? That's debatable, but there's no denying his contributions have been a net positive for the team in every aspect. Which harkens the question, why would a contract extension be a quagmire, if this type of play were to continue?

Per the article, I think this little exchange proves the point that applying rational reasoning for arguments that are based on passion are, generally, irrational.

But then again, I'm clearly the unbiased "voice of reason" here.

(tongue firmly in cheek)

Jeff J said...

"...his play 5 on 5 draws the most penalties on the team."

OK, let's look at the value of that contribution. It works out to one minor drawn every 4th game. With the Habs' PP effectiveness, that adds up to 5 goals over the course of the season. That's not a big contribution compared to the 27 EV points and 42 PP points he's on pace for.

"Which harkens the question, why would a contract extension be a quagmire, if this type of play were to continue?"

Because you pay through the nose for counting point totals, like Lowe did for Souray. PP points are easier to replace than EV points. There are 200 NHLers scoring at a higher EV rate than Kovalev, including Sergei Samsonov. When a guy racks up big numbers on the back of PP totals, it has to send up a red flag.

Second point - how many millions are you willing to bet that this level of production will continue? How much did JFJ bet that Jason Blake would continue his level of production?

"I think this little exchange proves the point that applying rational reasoning for arguments that are based on passion are, generally, irrational."

Well, frankly I couldn't disagree more. I sure hope Bob Gainey doesn't make roster moves based on passion.

E said...

jeff- it’s pretty obvious that we have very different ways of interpreting the game. i could argue that kovalev’s stats at even-strength are still quite good by virtually all measures, and in some cases excellent; and furthermore that it is difficult if not impossible on a solidly-matched line like his (with a player who’s career history is as uneven as his) to demonstrate who is improving who; and furthermore suggest that while it would be wonderful if all players were like mark streit, sometimes you do end up paying more for something useful than might be ideal, but if it’s what you need it’s what you need and the market is what it is; and furthermore that power plays and penalty kills are an intrinsic part of the game and that a player who is excellent at both is objectively worth more than a player who is equally competent at even strength but lacks those abilities (and perhaps more than a player who is slightly better at even strength but lacks those abilities). i’m pretty sure we could go all day and well into tomorrow arguing all of this, although i’d feel a little odd about it as my natural inclination is to appreciate stats that suggest kovalev ain’t all he’s cracked up to be. makes my cognitive dissonance a lot easier to take.

but, in suggesting that the team’s improvement might be due to kovalev, i wasn’t so much trying to prove that such was true, but to introduce the possibility in order to throw a dilemma into sharper relief- how, and why, does one come to be in a position of disliking the team’s ‘best player’? he may not be the best player, that’s very debatable, but it makes the discussion more interesting to hypothesize that he might be, as a launching pad of sorts.

i will say, however, that i think it’s hyperbolic and unfair to suggest that anyone who believes that kovalev’s improvement is fundamental to the team’s improvement is just mindlessly following the media line. yes, there is evidence against that position. there is also evidence for it. it’s a legitimate debate that’s well worth engaging, and it does a disservice to others to dismiss the view simply because it also happens to be held by the mainstream press.

saskhab- i sometimes think that the constant exchange between extreme rationalism and flat-out batshit insanity is the best part of hockey…

jeff redux- i don’t recall ever, anywhere, suggesting anything about resigning kovalev or giving him more money or anything. the contract is a current fact, last year it seemed like a problem we couldn’t do anything about, this year it seems perfectly acceptable (if not ideal). there’s no particular need yet to talk renewal/extension. i think that’s the core of our difference in perspective: i’m not, at this point, in this post, interested in the question of what gainey should or will do. i trust him to conduct all due quantitative diligence on players before making his decisions, and while i enjoy parsing out the reasons he might or might not make them as much as anyone, one of the privileges of being a fan is that you don’t have to think about the game exclusively as a gm. you can put on your bob gainey suit one day and glower very seriously over the cap, and the next day you can run around shirtless and drunk with GO PLEKY painted on your pasty belly. and thank god for that, because we have no power over what bob will do. best to be able to find a variety of modes in which to love the game and the team, since the front office may disappoint.

kovalev fan said...

e, I grinned when I saw this article. I will only offer my personal reasons for loving Kovalev. My family is largely comprised of New Yorkers and thus, Rangers fans. Kovalev was a key part of that 1994 Cup-winning team. Also, my family members are of Russian heritage, and one of my cousins in particular has been mistaken for, as we call him, "Cousin Alexei." You see that nose of his? We've all got it too.

Having those familial feelings for Cousin Alexei, the feelings were, of course, strengthened for me when he came to the Habs. Yes, he was the goat for the overtime goal that put the Bruins up 3-1 in the series in 2004, but then he came alive and helped the Habs in no small part win the series. And then, that beautiful Tucker hit. (A quick youtube search will tell you all you need to know.)

I know he had a bad year last year, and let his vices get the better of him. But I knew he would be better this year. And I am sure he'll be even better next year (right before he hits free agency).

So my love for Kovalev may not be rational, but it sure as hell makes sense. And I completely understand those that don't like him. But I'll always stick up for him.

LeeT911 said...

Wow. Before we actually discuss the actual content of the post, can I just say that I find your writing incredible. It's got a semi-informal rambling kind of tone, and regardless of the content (which is worthy in its own right), your words always seem to have the perfect rhythm, replete with snide remarks and funny sarcastic comments. Seriously, this is better than most newspaper columns. If you wrote a book, I would totally read it. It doesn't even have to be about hockey.

Ahem. Now that I'm done cheering, you brought up some interesting points about "fandom" in general and specifically about liking certain players. Personally, I dislike conflict, so I hate getting into arguments about whether so-and-so should be traded or whatnot. I like all my Habs equally. Ok, that's not strictly true, but I would only consider Koivu apart from the rest. That said, I'm more of a "hate the sin, not the sinner" kind of fan. I like Kovalev, even if he did have a bad season last year. I like Ryder, with his accent and all, even if he's not doing so well this year. I mean, I like Brisebois too, despite all the bad turnovers. In fact, since I've started following the Habs, I think the only player I don't much care for is Samsonov, but that may have been because he was only there for one season and he didn't play all that much. Still, I don't hate the guy, and I hope he does well wherever he ends up (except when he plays the Habs, of course).

Another thing I found interesting is your perspective on skill. You're right that skill is in effect the anti-thesis of hard work and elitist to the extreme. I think most of us grow up hearing our parents tell us that if we work hard enough, we can do anything. And while that may be true to a certain degree, at the far right of the skill bell curve, there's a spot where hard work can't quite reach. I'm sure there are hordes of kids out there watching Kovalev (or Ovechkin) play and trying very hard to emulate him, but I think for a lot of us (mere mortals), getting there is pretty much impossible. Natural god-given (genetic) talent isn't earned, and no matter how unfair that may seem, I think it's the thing that keeps me watching hockey. I'm waiting for that superb, surreal play, where it seems that all the planets lined up just right and the magic blows me away.

This season, in the midst of what people are calling Kovalev's revival, I get excited every time he has the puck. This is why I watch hockey.