Friday, April 30, 2010

Made-Up Shit

“…when people say that a team lacks the 'intangibles' to win, they are *making shit up* after the fact to match the results.” - Gabe Desjardins

First, a confession: I believe in intangibles. I believe there are small, mysterious human forces at work within hockey players and across hockey teams that can and do influence the outcome of particular games. I believe in leadership. I believe in chemistry. I believe in ‘good in the room’. I believe in grit, sacrifice, determination, cohesion, and even (albeit in my own personal, modified formulation) clutch. I believe in choking. I believe in psychology. I believe, in fact, in virtually every cliché hockey intangible you can name. Except for intimidation. That’s bullshit.

I believe in these things because, although I don’t know any professional hockey players, I have known accomplished, trained, elite-level professionals in other fields, and I know that delicate personal and interpersonal dynamics effect how they do their work- usually in small ways, because serious professionals do try to isolate those things from their job performance- but sometimes in dramatic ways. You spend enough time around people, you know that everybody has strengths of character, and flaws too. And while I know full well that hockey players are among the most rigorously disciplined people on the planet, I don’t believe any amount of training or professionalism can entirely eradicate otherwise universal human traits.

Despite all of this, however, I also agree with Mr. Desjardins that, most of the time most people in the hockey-talk world speak of intangibles, they are *making shit up* and made-up shit is the alpha number one reason I have found it progressively harder and harder to sustain an interest in NHL hockey. Because the vast bulk of what is written and spoken about the NHL game is, very clearly, made-up shit.

It isn’t really the fans and writers fault that we spend so much time making up so much shit (and please understand, when I speak of people who make shit up, I include myself and much of my own past writing in that category, and much of whatever venom surfaces in the following text is self-directed.) It’s the NHL’s fault, it’s the bizarre veil of secrecy behind which professional sports take place. The NHL has far more closed doors than open ones, they let out very little information about exactly what happens and even less information about why it does. It doesn’t help that they are covered by the least independent press corps known to man, guys whose ‘access’ is tightly regulated by the teams and dependent upon their collusion with the teams as far as what information is released or withheld.

This is also, incidentally, why even though I believe in intangibles, I also believe the vast majority of talk about intangibles is made up shit, because to actually know about leadership, chemistry, psychology, sacrifice, blah blah blah, we’d need to be a lot closer to the NHL than we can ever get. We’d need to be freakishly, intimately close to the players and coaches and trainers and GMs, we’d need to be up in their brains and snuggled down in their beds. The flies on the walls of thirty dressing rooms and thirty executive offices could doubtless tell us many things that would teach us much about the small, intangible influences on the outcome of specific games or deals, but I rather doubt even flies can get into those places anymore. Except in a few, rare cases, we don’t hear or see anything more than exactly what the team PR guys want to show us. For some reason, a lot of hockey fans believe that they have some kind of mysterious psychic power that allows them to penetrate the fog of bullshit, that somehow they can intuit the intangible truth through their television sets in the precise tilt of a coach’s head while he spews an unbelievably generic answer to a post-game question, and to those people I say: you are delusional. You do not know. They will never (well, almost never, blessed be Sheldon Souray) let you know, at least not until the time is so long past that you’ve ceased to care.

There is never enough real evidence available to sate the passion. There are always more column-inches and air-minutes to fill than there is material to talk about. Obsession without information is necessarily a lethal combination, where accurate, thoughtful analysis is concerned. Hockey commentary is perpetually frantic and memoryless. Words are barely spoken before they are in the wind, forgotten and irrelevant. I know, you will say, but I watch games, I have watched so many games, I have observed many things, doesn’t that count for something? Yes, maybe something, but not much, because in hockey-talk there is very little concern for accuracy. People say things, in the moment, based on what it looks like to them, and thirteen moments later say something totally contradictory that fits better, with no retroactive concern for why they were wrong the first time. How many predictions and projections and assessments- of regular season achievement, of playoff victory, of career trajectory, of player value, of deal quality, of draft success- prove accurate even six months down the road? Even considering only the experts, how often do their claims prove true? Do you even know? Of course not, because other than the occasional idea so outrageously absurd that it seems ridiculous on its face, or the occasional miraculous prophesy, you don’t remember what they said last month or last season or five years ago. There is no expectation of accuracy or truth in hockey analysis, and so bad ideas flourish as readily as good ones, and it becomes impossible to tell the one from the other in the great ocean of chatter.

Most hockey writing is NHL-centric and partisan, and as such it is defined by its emotional register rather than its content. A successful hockey writer is one who can write in three basic tones: funny, angry, and warm-fuzzy. Anyone who can write those feelings well, in delicate gradations finely tuned to the mood of the fan base in a given moment, will find an audience. People read about hockey in the elation or heartbreak that persists only between one game and the next, and they seek what seems right for the mood, not what is true.

Consider this: ‘knowing’ is a feeling. That fulfilled sense you get when you think you’ve finally hit on the answer, that righteous certainty, the moment of clarity when it all makes sense… that isn’t necessarily an accurate response to the information. It’s an emotion, like any other, and just as some things that might make you feel angry aren’t really worth getting angry about, some things that feel true aren’t really true. Your feeling of knowledge, your personal sense of satisfaction with an answer or explanation or a storyline, is not proof. You can feel sure and be very, very wrong.

The question is- and this is not a rhetorical question, this is a question for genuine, introspective soul-searching, this is a question I am still asking myself- do you really care about truth in hockey? Is ‘the truth’ what you want? Because on any given night, there’s a decent chance that the truth is something cold and unromantic, lacking the grandeur and scale you want for your team. When you make shit up, everything means something, every win is well-earned, every loss is tragic, and every season is an adventure. Made-up shit is what guarantees you a hockey world full of romantic, nostalgic, dramatic storylines, and it will always satisfy your emotional needs, it will always give you the feelings you want from the game- because it’s invented precisely to satisfy your needs, as the reading/watching/listening fan.

There’s no shame in saying you don’t care about the truth. Unless you’re one of the extremely fortunate (Hi, Ron Mclean!), this isn’t your day job. You’re not obligated to care about the truth of hockey any more than you’re obligated to care about the truth of Star Trek. It’s entertainment, and it’s your prerogative to take from it what you will. Just don’t confuse your entertainment preferences with hard knowledge- don’t think that just because Lt. Laforge says that aliens have a time portal underground that goes back to 19th century San Francisco, it means that you are going to be lunching with Mark Twain in the near future. He’s not saying that because it’s true- it might be true, it might not, truth is irrelevant- he’s saying it because it’s part of the storyline with which the producers are trying to entertain you. Which is, more or less, the same reason most hockey writers tell you the things they tell you. We tell the stories we tell, professionals and amateurs, to each other and ourselves, because they’re the stories we need to hear. The fact that they are satisfying doesn’t make them real.

Which brings us, after a long digression, back to Mr. Desjardins.

Pursuing the truth means having to confront bad luck, randomness, and chaos head on, it means subjecting a perfectly satisfying storyline to hard scrutiny for no reason other than the desire to know what really happened. And it means doing real work. While most of us are just sitting at home staring at our TVs yelling ‘CHOKERS!!!’ at the Sharks for no reason other than that’s the idea that happens to be passing through our heads at that particular moment, the stats dudes are counting scoring chances, writing equations, sifting through masses of NHL-collected numbers and throwing them against each other in a thousand varied permutations looking for suggestive correlations, and presenting the best they come up with in neatly aligned, color-coded tables for the benefit of people who are just going to keep prattling on about choking anyway. Whatever you think of their methods, they’re doing an epic fuckload of hard work to back up their ideas, and anyone who is interested in hockey truth should expect that some substantive research will be necessary to address any question. Whether or not you’re a math person, whether or not you believe in intangibles, whether or not you like all the funny, angry, warm-fuzzy writing generated by standard hockey discourse, if you consider yourself truly ‘a student of the game’, if you really care about what is true in hockey, you should be hailing the work of the stats guys with feverish passion, because they are very nearly the only ones anywhere working towards substantive, durable hockey knowledge- because they remember what they’ve done before, they prove their ideas against challenges from all and sundry and the tests of the real world, they leave aside the unproductive and work always towards better, clearer, more accurate ideas of the game. They are not the only people who are writing smart, accurate, thoughtful hockey writing, but they are the only ones who are building it into a systematic discourse that moves and grows. Most of the other smart hockey people are lost in the great sea of made-up shit, reduced to just one voice among many.

This, in the end, is nothing more than a promise to myself and a plea to everyone else: if you really are interested in what is true about hockey, stop making shit up. Stop treating initial impressions and vague generalizations as hard data. All the ideas, the hypotheses, the suggestive anecdotes- keep them, but please, for the love of God and truth and reason, back that shit up before you expect anyone to take it seriously. You don’t have to do graphs or crunch numbers- that’s a good way but not the only one. Go to the video. Find clips that show what you’re claiming you saw. Dig deep into the interviews, the coaching strategies, the deals. Look at the history, look at the culture, anything, just bring in some evidence before you heap on the meta-theories about ‘choking’ or ‘leadership’ or what-have-you. If you believe in intangibles, then do them the justice of treating them like tangibles, like real things that can be demonstrated, or leave them aside, as maybes and perhapses, until you know more.

15 comments:

R O said...

I believe in all sorts of intangible qualities. Some people are just better in the room and some are complete twats. And some people will leave it all on the ice, lay down to block the last-minute shot in the face, and some just won't make that sacrifice. I mean hockey is a revealing game, brings out the best and worst in us.

But, as far as how these things actually affect the game played on the ice... not much, I think. Some of the best players in this league are greedy, heartless unsporting douchebags who couldn't compel you to follow them into a sandwich shop, much less a 60-minute battle of bodies and minds. But, they possess the important physical and mental skills that help their teams outscore opponents and win games.

Aliceq said...

Antti Niemi arguably played the worst game of his life last night. I can easily see Blackhawks fans making up all sorts of shit to explain his performance in terms of "lack of heart", "fear", "lack of will", "intimidation", etc, rather than accepting that, sometimes, you get out-played by the league MVP.

I once read, and I really wish that I remember where, something that's stuck with me for 40+ years, about the level of talent and drive needed to write a really, really bad novel. While I've had aspirations of committing novelry, and even have a few abortive first chapters lurking on my hard drive, the gap between me and John Q Potboiler is far greater than the gap between Potboiler and Joyce Carol Oates. I'd like to think I'm not a bad writer, so what is it that separates me from John Q Potboiler? It's those intangibles.

Likewise, even if there clearly is a talent gap between Niemi and Luongo, the gap between Niemi and any of us armchair goalies is much greater. Even if we've played the game, if we haven't played at that level, we can't know what was inside Niemi's head (or his heart). And, more to the point, I'm not entirely sure that the ex-goalie commentators (e.g., Pang, Healey) can do much better, though they can clearly spout a more fluent and hockey-erudite line of bullshit.

I assume that all elite-level athletes want to win. No team wants to win more than the other team. If simply "wanting it more" were all it took to win a Cup, I'd imagine the Leafs might have won it all sometime in the last 40 years.

(My captcha on this is "extert", which seems a curiously appropriate nonce-blend of "exert" and "extort".)

E said...

r o- i'm not arguing that intangibles are regularly major determining factors in long-term, large-sample-size results. it's more that i think, if we had complete knowledge, we might find that 'intangibles' (or related phenomena) account for some of the various errata that tend to get lumped under the banner of 'luck'- things that are not necessarily consistent or replicable, but do affect the outcome of particular games or streaks. whether those things are relevant, being somewhat small and inconsistent in their impact, depends on what scale you're looking at. the classic example is what aliceq brings up- the bad game. from a statistical perspective, everyone is going to have a shitty game from time to time, and the incidence of shitty games is more or less considered the province of luck or randomness. however, if you had more perfect knowledge of the players or teams involved, there might be any number of causal explanations for why a given game was terrible. the problem is, in the absence of clear knowledge, attributing it to some specific cause is, well...

aliceq- there is, i think, a certain hubris in the extent to which some fans/writers/commentators feel justified in making up stories about players inner lives. it was somewhere between the dany heatley slash fiction and the utterly self-serious 'imaginative recreation' of a heart-to-heart between gainey and kovalev that i just lost it. there's a point at which you have to acknowledge that their headspace is their headspace and you are not ever going to be in it, and even though there might be all kinds of interesting things crawling around in there, you cannot know what they are. it's almost offensive to look at somebody you know nothing substantial about and make some claim to a deep psychological understanding of them.

R O said...

Well said, AliceQ, except for playing against the league MVP thing. That doesn't happen until Niemi has to face Crosby and the Pens.

R O said...

E:

I kind of know what you mean. But it's a bit of a nebulous concept.

I mean those who think, with their whole heart, that every goalie's bad performance is caused by mental problems... well they might actually have a basis to do so. I mean we're all good at something (that isn't hockey), and I think when we feel "out of the zone" then it usually precludes some sort of decreased productivity or effectivenss. You agree?

Problem with that is are certain parts luck and backwards narrating in that concept. I mean I think insofar as mental breakdowns or problems or out-of-focus moments exist, that even the best can't really fully control when these moments will come. If you can't control it, if it comes and goes non-deterministically... it's luck, no?

Also, sometimes "out of the zone" feelings might come because of recent failure. I mean which hockey players say they were "out of the zone" or "not motivated" when they have wildly successful results?

I dunno.

I will agree with you that we don't know nearly enough about the players to come to these conclusions. Hell, whenever I see someone say "he looks unmotivated" as a game-time comment... I do a double-take. Who among us is discerning enough or psychic enough to pick that up from a bunch of movements on the ice, portrayed through a TV screen?

E said...

r o- sure, some of those 'out of the zone' moments are random, but others have a cause discernible to the person him/herself and perhaps those close to them. lots of people have specific triggers that can put them in that less-than-peak place- disruptions in routine, personal life stresses, bad relationships with coworkers, health problems, seasonal affective disorder, whatever. my point is, if you could ask their teammates or family members, off the record, about a given player's bad game or cold streak, in some cases they'd be able to point with near-perfect certainty to a cause for it. in other cases, it would just be random. i'm not saying that all bad games are caused, i'm saying some are, and in some cases with better knowledge there might be something legitimate in attributing certain game results to 'intangible' factors. but without that knowledge, that closeness to the individual circumstances, it's not justified to speculate.

TMS said...

If a player even dares to try to explain why he didn't play well he's excoriated for making excuses.

Alice said...

The two examples of 'shit made up to match the result', for me at least:

Last years Hawks over Canucks. Now I cheered the hell out of that one and loved the result, but the storyline became 'the Canucks didn't have an answer for Chicago's speed', or some such. When it seemd apparent watching that Van absolutely owned the play for long minutes at a time and was clearly the superior team most of the time. Hawks managed to bury the chances they got, some timely goals, and there goes a series.

The other was how the Steelers QB clearly outplayed Seattle's some years back in the super bowl. I don't pay it much attention, but i did watch that one and if I recall the turning point came when Seahawks had a touchdown, or a first down at the 10, something like that , called back on a holding infraction. The next days papers it was all about how the Winning QB delivered victory over the opposing one. Nevermind that the QBs never face each other on the field, it just feels like these sagas are pre-written and they just have to properly merge the names from the winning and losing squads.

I'm looking forward to reading your Asian posts, having read Tropic of Hockey a couple of years ago. Love your stuff.

R O said...

If a player even dares to try to explain why he didn't play well he's excoriated for making excuses.

When speaking publicly, many NHL players are notorious making shit up after the fact and not having a fucking clue as to how their skills actually translate to success on the ice.

R O said...

Last years Hawks over Canucks. Now I cheered the hell out of that one and loved the result, but the storyline became 'the Canucks didn't have an answer for Chicago's speed', or some such. When it seemd apparent watching that Van absolutely owned the play for long minutes at a time and was clearly the superior team most of the time. Hawks managed to bury the chances they got, some timely goals, and there goes a series.

I remembered it as the exact opposite actually, I thought the Canucks were okay in games 1 and 6 but were otherwise dominated like the dogs they are.

So I checked TimeOnIce corsi logs for last year and sure enough VAN was dominated in Corsi, which implies domination in scoring chances. And CHI had a few leads, score effects come into play but not that much.

VAN got owned pure and simple. For all the talk of Luongo choking he absolutely kept them in that series.

Moné Peterson said...

If it helps, nothing immediately leaps to mind in your previous writing that strikes me as "made-up bullshit" (okay, there did seem to be a bit of mind-reading with the recent Bettman/Olympic article, but it was passionate and entertaining).

I think ("believe," perhaps, a better term given the subject at hand) that hockey is the most difficult sport to write about. It lacks the repeated stopping points of baseball and (North American) football, the isolation of events that allow writers (and statisticians, for that matter) to make sense of their respective sports. Basketball is more fluid, but still linear enough that the content of a game can be recited as a narrative, and documented well enough that looking at a boxscore can give you a fair idea of what happened.

With hockey, either you saw the game or you didn't, and if you didn't, the greatest writer in the world wouldn't properly begin to explain it, and even if you did see it, odds are someone out there will vehemently disagree with you about what you saw.

I fully support the advanced statistical work that's going on in hockey, but it isn't there yet, because the data it's drawing from is obviously inadequate. Either the 3"-diameter object has passed through the 4x6 square or it hasn't, and if it hasn't, then it might as well be in Timbuktu. This is more reliable than guaging some meaning from the average temperature of whatever city I happen to be traveling to week after week, but not by much. Judging from the year to year consistency of the results, on-ice/off-ice data, advanced plus-minus, Corsi, etc. is as subject to the capricious whims of fate as points, assists and goals against average.

But in some respects, that unpredictability is what makes hockey more enjoyable. It just makes hanging out with the "knowledgeable fans" a pain in the ass.

R O said...

Judging from the year to year consistency of the results, on-ice/off-ice data, advanced plus-minus, Corsi, etc. is as subject to the capricious whims of fate as points, assists and goals against average.

This is not true. EV corsi shows a much higher repeatability that EV outscoring over half-season time frames.

Moreover, EV corsi is a nice predictor of future EV outscoring, and correlates quite nicely which EV scoring chances.

Read for yourself:

http://vhockey.blogspot.com/2008/03/he-was-fuckin-lucky.html

Alice said...

RO ,
[scratches head] That's not how I remembered it. Of course cheering for the one side would certainly skew my perception, but it just seemed so dicey at the time.

So I took a look.

Over the 6 games, Chicago enjoyed a lead for 47:48.

Vancouver, in losing the series, held the lead for 153:16, and held the lead for times in the third period in both the game 4 (OT) and game 6 losses.

So I stand by at least a reasonable perception that it was a pretty ragged-assed win, all things considered.

And I hope they're bringing some more of whatever that is tomorrow!

Bruce said...

VAN got owned pure and simple. For all the talk of Luongo choking he absolutely kept them in that series.

R O: Now you're making shit up. VAN scored 19 goals in the series and held CHI to 173 shots on goal. How the hell do you square that with their goalie keeping them in the series? Even a supbar Sv% of .900 would likely have won the series, or at the very least forced a seventh game.

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