Friday, November 04, 2011

Hockey Exegesis #3: The Moth of Madness

(Sure, it’s a totally irrelevant title for this post, but it would have been an awesome alternate title for Perdido Street Station, amiright?)

“You try to block out all the negatives. You worry about all the negatives, you end up in a rubber room.”
- Gary Suter

I don’t know if thinking about hockey has ever actually driven anyone insane. [N.B.: Here we are assuming that, by “rubber room”, Suter means ‘insane asylum’, not ‘New York teacher reassignment center’ or ‘fetish dungeon’. If we’re wrong on that count, feel free to discount this whole thing.] I wouldn’t doubt that the physical and emotional consequences wrought by a life in hockey could lead to certain kinds of mental illness. Depression? Sure. OCD? Maybe, maybe. Alcoholism? Oh yeah. PTSD? Seems reasonable. But those are not ‘rubber room’ type mental illnesses, and if hockey contributes to them, it is probably more through head injuries and social isolation than something as commonplace as worry. I’m not sure anyone, anywhere, has ever actually been driven mad- certainly not rubber room-mad- by worry.

So Suter is certainly being hyperbolic here, but let’s give credit to his experience: he clearly feels as though there is some kind of anxiety in hockey so deep, so debilitating, that he might possibly be driven insane if he indulged it. I mean, it’s one thing to say that it’s not productive to linger over bad performances, to feel regret or embarrassment, to worry about one’s future. That stuff might be a waste of time, but it’s not going to get you put in a straight jacket. What is it about ‘negatives’ that could make a player think, “Man, I can’t let myself go down that road. That way lies madness.”

Here’s a hypothesis: one of the things that makes hockey remarkable is that its gamestates are highly fluid and incredibly recursive [N.B.: I use the term ‘recursion’ with reference to the linguistic concept, not necessarily the mathematical one]. Every single play in hockey contains within itself numerous antecedent plays that contributed to both its appearance and its result. Here’s an example: A winger is coming into the offensive zone with some speed. He carries the puck down his side, but rather than taking a shot, he goes around the back of the net and comes back up the other wing, where he finds himself in a crowd and, after a bit of shoving, loses it to the other team. Could have been a scoring chance, but wasn’t. Why?

First impression blames the winger himself: it looks like he outskated his brain and wasn’t thinking fast enough to get the shot off at the right moment. Second impression gives credit to the opposition: the other team’s defense were covering the shooting lanes too well, he didn’t have any good angle. Third impression blames his teammates: nobody else got back fast enough to provide an opportunity for a pass. Fourth impression blames the coach: the forwards couldn’t get there in time because they’d been back too deep on defense, because of the system they’re taught to play. Fifth impression credits the other team’s offense: the forwards had to be deep on the backcheck, and were tired out as well, because of their opponents’ impressive cycling on the attack. Sixth impression blames the right defenseman: he made a giveaway in the neutral zone that allowed the opposition to go on the attack. Seventh impression…

Causation in hockey is like a polygamous genealogy- every event has at least a couple of proximate causes, which in turn have several earlier causes, and still further causes before those, going back beyond the last faceoff, beyond even the beginning of the game, back to the frosty childhoods of the players and the papery whims of the general managers. Like Laurie Juspeczyk, every scoring chance is a thermodynamic miracle, the single perfect child of a vast swarm of interlaced threads of probability and possibility, chaos and causality.

When things are going well, no one worries too much about this infinite recursion at the heart of the game, because when things are going well, it looks miraculous. At those times, the chain of causality looks like a well-oiled machine, just clicking and clacking along, tic-tac-toe from one victory to the next. It elicits admiration from the fans and a self-satisfaction from players, who are (of course) pleased with the way it seems to realize all their greatest plans and best intentions.

But then, sometimes, the machinery breaks down. One day it was humming pleasantly along, and then suddenly there’s a kind of a cracking noise from somewhere deep in the gears, and a poof of smoke comes out, and the whole thing starts wheezing and grinding, and then finally just… stops. And then they go inside, the coaching staff, with flashlights and power tools, and find a lot of things don’t look so good- some parts have gotten old, others don’t really fit completely right, there’s dust accumulated in this corner, oil pooled in that one. Of course, they can’t all be The Problem, or the machine would have failed long ago, so which is it? What stopped the works?

It’s very hard to see. There are too many moving parts, too many possible causes all interlaced with each other. When a hockey team breaks down in a bad game or a bad run, the problems tend to compound each other minute by minute, day by day, until it’s impossible to discern causes from consequences. Player A’s stopped scoring- is he the problem? If he is the problem, is it an issue of conditioning, or a personal problem, or a flu bug? Or is it his linemates? Did one of them start doing something different? Has the coach been matching him against the wrong opposition? Is it just that there have been a lot of road games? Or a lot of injuries? Or just plain bad luck?

Try considering all those possibilities for every player on every team that hits a rough patch. That is the way madness lies. There are too many possible recursions, too many branches in the lineage of the streak, too many gears in the machine. Start microanalyzing hockey failure and you might literally never stop. It could become an obsession, the sort of thing that leads people to hole up in dank one-room apartments, walls pinned everywhere with newspaper clippings and hand-drawn charcoal diagrams, different colored yarn strung from one to another to another, huge oversized painting of a fanged Gary Bettman in a gilt frame, until one day the landlord comes banging on the door with two cops behind him, and all you can do is babble nonsensically about diamond penalty kills and empty-net scoring rates, and they drag you away to… you know. At some point, a line must be drawn. This far, no further.

For most of us, that line ends up being, de facto, the next win. Once things the machine is going again, we stop worrying so much about the why of the breakdown. But some breakdowns are especially bad, and therefore especially hard on the sanity. When Suter said this, he was in the middle of the worst season of his career. It was January, and he had just scored a goal to secure a last-minute tie with the Red Wings. It was the first goal he’s scored in nearly two months. Once he had been nearly a point-per-game defenseman, sometimes better. That year, 1996-7, he would finish with 7 goals and 28 points.

Suter had been in the NHL for twelve good years, but he was getting into his mid-thirties, and the past two seasons had been rockier than their predecessors. He was a player on the downward slope of his career, surely he knew that much, but suddenly it was looking like a very steep descent indeed.

I imagine that for a player, the experience of a sudden decline must be like a sort of personal losing streak, except the gears grinding together are his own joints. Things that once synchronized seamlessly- hands and feet, muscle and bone- start to syncopate. Somehow, he ends up a half-step behind and a split second too late, and wonders why. Some new injury forming? Some old one not fully healed? Not enough time spent on training? Poor diet? Bad sleep? Stress? Age?

Could be all of those things. Could be none. Could just be luck.

Better not to think about it.

Not thinking about it kept Gary Suter in the NHL for another five seasons. And out of a rubber room indefinitely.


Clare said...

It's funny how different a fan's perspective can be from a player's. Lots and lots of fans love their causality, the simpler the better. And it's often linked to a particular player or coach. That failure _right there_ is the cause. I know a lot of people who are wedded to "because," and who'll throw a fit if you try to inject complexity in there. I keep wanting to point out that there are 19 other players and 59 other minutes (at least) that matter, too. Among other things.

Anyway, great post, as usual. Thanks.

E said...

for a lot of casual fans, the chain of causality only goes back so far as the person they'd like to blame, which is a pity. fanbases have a way of picking out heroes and villains within their own team, and while sometimes the designation makes sense, other times it can seem bizarrely arbitrary. it's frustrating to participate in those kind of arguments, for sure, but it can be really interesting to watch two fans with two different designated villains fight over which one is REALLY to blame for all the team's struggles.

Taylor said...

Great post as usual (I'm still catching up after discovering a couple of weeks ago that you'd started posting again). Great point Clare. People want nice neat explanations. Check out 'Fooled By Randomness' or anything else by Nassim Taleb for more on that phenomenon.

E - right on. Sometimes the placement of blame makes me shake my head. Usually its placed at the feet of some player who is not particularly physical or tough, redardless of how good he is or whether he played any especially prominent role in the team's recent struggles.