Saturday, October 01, 2011

Hockey Exegesis #1: Sometimes They Hate You for a Reason

“Every boo on the road is a cheer.”
- Scotty Bowman

This is one of those hockey quotations that’s become famous solely as a one-liner. It’s popular as a lead-in for post-game recaps, a pre-game motivator in tough buildings, and one of those random sentences people put at the end of forum posts. It is never given any context or further explanation; rather, it’s taken as a scrap of transcendent wisdom. The attribution to Bowman is hardly even necessary, although it provides a certain pedigree: the winningest coach in NHL history must know whereof he speaks.

But for this series, I want to know more about these little bon mots. I want to know what motivated the person to drop this little pearl of insight: why they said it, to whom, and where, and when. In the case of a quotation as popular as this one, this is slightly tricky. So many people quote it out of context that it’s difficult to find it in context- and by ‘difficult’, I mean ‘requires three or four Google searches, rather than one.’

So here’s the back story: It’s May 1996, and the Detroit Red Wings are stumbling through the end of an otherwise glorious season. They’ve got 62 wins and 131 points in the standings, but their going into the playoffs on a cold streak, which is bound to make anybody a little irritable, and is making Scotty Bowman particularly tetchy, given that it’s his responsibility to turn this shit around and soon.

The Red Wings are playing against the Avalanche, who are at this time the up-and-coming team, and who in the future are going to defeat the Red Wings for the Western Conference Final and go on to win the Cup, but nobody knows this yet. In the course of this game, Claude Lemieux punches Slava Kozlov in the face. Scotty Bowman obviously disapproves of the punching of his players, so after the game he finds Lemieux in the parking lot, and tells him rather emphatically what he (Bowman) thinks of him (Lemieux), to whit, that Lemieux is a dirty son of a bitch who deserves to be suspended. Now, while both of these things may be true, at the time Bowman is yelling this, Lemieux is walking to his car with his wife and daughter, and there is a bit of a taboo against shrieking profanity at people in front of their children and womenfolk. It is not classy behavior.

Subsequently, Bowman (by his own admission) sends some tapes to the League and asks that Lemieux be suspended, and being the venerable figure that he is, he gets what he wants. The combination of these two events means that, the next time the Red Wings play in Colorado, every time Bowman’s face turns up on the screen, it provokes a wave of heckling from the Avalanche faithful. After the game, he says the following:

“Am I supposed to not try to win and not send the tapes to the league for review so I can be friends with the other coach? Your reputation precedes you. Often it’s a lot of balony. Boy, they were watching me tonight. Every boo on the road is a cheer.”

The thing that’s interesting to me about this is that it’s got nothing to do with players. Usually, when people quote the line, the implication is that it’s advice from the coach to a team. I always imagined it’s what the Canadiens’ opponents say to themselves before playing Le Centre Bell, an attempt to psychically counterbalance the wall of angry noise that will fall on them every time they do something successful. Remember, the people up there are against you. Their pain is your gain. That sort of thing.

But Bowman isn’t talking about his players, he’s talking about himself. He’s defending a linked pair of dickish moves: confronting Lemieux in front of his family, and using some of his guan xi with the League to get Lemieux suspended. The Avs fans aren’t angry at him because he’s beating their team; he’s not, he’s losing to them. They’re angry at him because he was being an asshole. And Bowman is basically saying that it’s okay for him to be an asshole so long as it’s against Colorado.

Which puts the real meaning of this quote not in the category of “Don’t let the bastards get you down” wisdom, but rather “You only hate Chris Neil because he doesn’t play for you” wisdom. It’s the justification of any and all behavior against opponents simply because they are opponents, and the parallel suggestion that there is nothing actually wrong when it serves your interests.

This actually gets to a long-standing debate in hockey theory: to what extent is the competition for the Cup an all-out war? Yes, over the course of the season, it is a zero-sum game, but over the long run players, coaches, and GMs participate in an ever-shifting web of relationships wherein employers (and therefore allegiances) frequently change. To a certain extent, everyone understands that your enemy today might be your friend tomorrow, and therefore doesn’t hold past aggressive behavior too strongly against possible future friends, but there are exceptions, breaches of collegiality so severe that they become ongoing black marks on a person’s character. Sean Avery has alienated himself from more than one franchise, and certain GMs don’t deal with other GMs over old offer-sheet grievances. Perhaps there shouldn’t be any limitations on what one does in the interest of one’s team, but practically speaking, there are. The pro hockey community is a small, small pond, and classy behavior can be the difference between a job next year and an early retirement.

That doesn’t apply to Scotty Bowman, of course. By the time he laid down this famous line, he was already well-established as a fantastically successful eccentric, a kind of coaching autistic-savant. He had secured his place in the hockey pantheon. He was in a position to do what he would and damn what people think. But as a piece of advice for the masses, this is not one to take to heart- or, if you do, please, take it out of context.

Source: Toledo Blade, May 26, 1996

1 comment:

Rachele said...

This is great!