Sunday, July 11, 2010


Hockey is a sport most of the time. It’s a sport, except when it’s a game, which may or may not be the same thing. Sometimes, also, it’s a business, which is rather a different game altogether, and other times it’s entertainment, and still other times it’s a culture, and I am told that in some peculiar corners of the world, it’s a religion. So hockey is actually a terrible lot of things and it’s a wonder we can even begin to process something so very complicated and layered.

On top of all that, it’s also work. That’s a hard one to imagine: hockey as work. Most people play hockey for fun and consider it recreation, but for a certain subset of people, it’s a job. They don’t ‘play’ hockey- whatever they do, there isn’t much ‘play’ left in it by the time it’s good enough to get paid for. More like they do hockey, or make hockey, or produce hockey.

They’re lucky, eh? Let’s just get that part out of the way. People who play professional hockey are some very fortunate bastards. Or, at least, people who play NHL-brand professional hockey are fortunate. People who play AHL or ECHL or LNAH professional hockey are brave or passionate or obsessive or insane or acetic or inordinately fond of busses or just plain stupid, but I wouldn’t call them lucky. The guys in the show, though, they’re lucky- in their money, in their lifestyle, in their fame. They’ve got more on their first day on the job then most people will ever achieve. So we are not going to feel sorry for them.

But considering that happiness levels tend to equalize for everyone, the fortunate and misfortunate alike, a workday is a workday is a workday, and a workplace is a workplace is a workplace. A hockey team is a somewhat irregular and mobile workplace, but it is a workplace nevertheless. If anything, it is an especially tightly knit and high-pressure workplace, considering that one spends virtually all one’s working hours in the company of the same thirty-some people, that one is often obligated to eat, sleep, and travel with said people, and that the actions of same people are under intense public scrutiny at all times. One might accurately say that a hockey team is a far more difficult workplace, by its very nature, than most.

There are good workplaces and bad workplaces, yes? We all know this. Some years in some jobs, you wake up in the morning loving what you do and happy as clam in serotonin marinade to head out to the office. Other years, other workplaces, you approach the thought of work as though it were bandage-changing time in the pediatric burn unit. Every workplace culture exists somewhere on a spectrum from synergy to discord, depending on whether the various workers’ energies complement or confound each other. There is such a thing as a workplace where all is personal harmony and professional cooperation and the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts, each individual making the others more efficient, more creative, and more intelligent. And then there are workplaces where everything goes to shit- people are selfish or lazy or unfocused, wrapped up in personal vendettas or petty jealousies, undermining each other and getting more or less nothing done. Which, come to think of it, actually sounds a bit like the differences between some good and bad hockey teams.

You cannot make a good workplace. An adept human resources department can do their best to avoid hiring obviously incompetent or unqualified workers, but it’s perfectly possible for good and qualified people to spend all day buying discount antidepressants off the internet and gossiping about celebrity weight loss and making out in the break room. Interpersonal relationships are complicated. Creating good ones- functional, productive ones- between dozens of people at the same time is nearly impossible. It’s mostly a matter of luck.

But we can’t rely on that kind of luck to get everything done, hmmm? No, we absolutely can’t. If we relied on people who work together having naturally happy and productive relationships and a consistent, burning passion for their job, society would accomplish virtually nothing. The only functional institutions in the world would be organic vegetable cooperatives, indie record stores, and The Daily Show. Most hockey teams wouldn’t play more than twenty games a season. So in order to mitigate the implications of workplace stress and discord, humanity invented the idea of professionalism.

After payment, professionalism is the second-biggest difference between work and play, a job and a hobby. While working, one puts aside a good deal of one’s personal feelings and immediate impulses. Bite your tongue, keep your pants zipped, leave your bong on the nightstand- that’s basic. More than that, though, do your work. Respect your professional obligations. If you’re a psychologist, don’t tell the cops about your patient’s lifelong dreams of thieving diamonds from wealthy widows. If you’re a preschool teacher, don’t leave Sharpies and Exacto knives on the Circle Time rug. If you’re a librarian, don’t shelve Tolstoy novels under 716.3. And if you’re a hockey player, play the goddamn game.

Which is where we get to Sergei Kostitsyn.

Okay, so maybe the Belarusian melodrama was really all Grabovski’s doing. And maybe he totally didn’t know that Mangiola was a gangster, and maybe he was in some way misused or underappreciated by Jaques Martin. Let’s say we all give him the benefit of the doubt on those points. The fact is, this is a young player on a supposed ‘value’ two-way contract who won’t report where he’s told, won’t listen to his coach, and is perfectly willing to take any and all grievances to the press. In other words, he’s getting paid, but he won’t act like a professional.

This is not a small thing. It is not some kind of tiny personality flaw that could be managed, if only the Canadiens had an appropriately inspiring coach or kind, grandfatherly GM who could mentor this troubled young man through his growing pains. It is not a minor smudge on otherwise glittering potential. It is a huge freaking problem. Professionalism for hockey players involves, necessarily, quietly accepting decisions one doesn’t agree with. There will never be enough roster slots for every promising prospect who thinks it’s his year, there will never be enough PP minutes for every guy who thinks he could work wonders with them, there will never be enough sweet-passing centermen for all the would-be snipers on the wing. It is thus at the peak of any profession- only so many premier spaces, and those only for the very best. Those positions are not given, automatically, to those with great potential or great ego, they’re earned, and part of the earning is doing the menial work necessary to prove that potential might become reality. A player who cannot accept that is not a useful player.

Oh, but he might score so many goals, he can score so many goals, as a junior player he did score so many goals. True enough. But for the Canadiens, he was only able to grab a top-six job as ‘the other option’ when some combination of more established forwards was damaged or dysfunctional for a time, and his play always vacillated between the brilliant and the barely competent, which is not so very unusual for young players, and therefore is hardly grounds for special treatment. More importantly, in the case of a player with attitude problems of this scale, how do you see through the smokescreen of bullshit? Recurrent claims of stifled potential are impossible to either prove or disprove. He might be a great player in a bad development system; equally he might be the enfant terrible version of Chris Higgins: a man with a wildly inflated sense of his own capabilities. Either way, however, Sergei Kostitsyn made it perfectly clear that extracting whatever capabilities he had was going to be a long, frustrating, and embarrassing project for the Montreal Canadiens.

It is an undignified thing to be an aspiring hockey star. The early years of a hockey career are full of false starts- promotions and demotions, injury call-ups and benchings, training camps and test runs, and all with the very real likelihood of total failure just a single cold streak away. It must be tremendously stressful, and I sympathize with Sergei’s frustration over his shifting place on the team over the past few seasons. But there’s a reason that hockey-professionalism demands that these trials be endured gracefully and relatively quietly, because otherwise every team would suffocate in a miasma of poorly-articulated rookie anxiety.

The professionalization of hockey is a debatable process. Some people say that back in the day, when rosters were more stable and ownership less corporate, hockey teams felt more like family than business. I have my doubts about that, but there’s probably something to it, in that once upon a time the people involved with a team probably knew each other better and could relate to one another on a closer, more familiar level. There may have been less need for professionalism, more importance placed on personal relationships, and this may be where we get the idea that Sergei Kostitsyn could somehow be brought around by some kind of mentor. But that world passed away long ago, if it ever existed at all. Contemporary dressing rooms rely on professionalism to channel the pressures of the game, especially in a place like Montreal. The taboo against trashing or defying the team isn’t just insulation for the GM’s ego, it’s insulation for the hockey itself, to give the game on the ice the best possible chance of hitting those moments of synergy, to spackle over the fissures and cracks between those thirty people of widely varying ethnicities, personalities, and roles who absolutely have to be working at their peak every single game night.

Maybe, someday, Sergei Kostitsyn will grow into a good hockey player with a professional respect for the game and the team he works for, but I think it’ll take some years for that to happen, perhaps more than the Canadiens would have had of him anyway. In the meantime, he’s just not worth the trouble he can make in Montreal; he’s an asset worth far less to the Canadiens than his MSRP. Perhaps the Predators can turn him around. That proverbial change of scenery has to work at some point for someone, right? This is where we find out just how inspiring Barry Trotz can be…


Anonymous said...

NHL's almost plant like, deleteriously chemical defensive response to the KHL's ambitions: a steady exportation of dysfunctional, acetic (non ascetic) agents?
I just recently found out about your blog (Walrus piece, through HIO), and fully expect (résigné) that your fine mind will move on. Not just yet, thankfully.
Sorry for the not lava-hot metaphor.

AJ in Nashville said...

An interesting treatise. As a Predators fan I obviously have a bias toward the power of Trotz's so-called, 'Predators Way' which has now evolved into a full-blown philosophy that becomes more easily definable each year he continues behind the bench. I believe it is at its core, a mentoring philosophy; a system in which personal responsibility rules over talent. If he can wrap his mind about it and embrace it, Kostitsyn will flourish here.

I think it was a risk worth taking for David Poille; it will be interesting to see how profitable this low-cost stab at a diamond-in-the-rough ends up being.

E said...

L.- my mind has a way of coming back around to hockey eventually. we all have our muses, i suppose.

aj- i don't know a whole lot about preds philosophy, but if it's as you say, then the boy will either be an inspirational success or an epic failure. nevertheless, it's a good move for nashville- he cost them very little, and there are fewer ways for him to create a shitstorm down there. my point was more that, by montreal standards, he was a seriously devalued asset- yes, theoretically he might have been worth more, but practically speaking, there was very little they could do with the kid. personally, i would guess he'll end up in the khl within the next three seasons, but i'd love to be wrong about that.