Saturday, October 22, 2011

Come Together, Right Now

This is what I see:

This last game was very close. The game against Colorado was very close. The Canadiens played very well through the first half of the season-opener against the Leafs; they played extremely well for almost the whole game against Buffalo. The two Thursday games, against Calgary and Pittsburgh, I didn’t see all the way through, but by the accounts of eyes I trust, they were the worst two of the season so far. From what I can see, these Canadiens could easily have been 3-2-2 now- they look much more like a 3-2-2 team than a 1-4-2 team.

The difference between 3-2-2 and 1-4-2… it looks so big, but it is is composed of so few things, such small things- a stupid penalty here, a post there, a couple of improbable saves by an opposing goalie. Sometimes hockey is a game of moments; sometimes those moments go badly, and while there have been a few moments that I’m sure some of the Canadiens would like to have back, those moments don’t represent fundamental flaws so much as split-second errors. The lesson to be learned from a too-many-men call is not ‘fire the coach and the GM and the equipment manager’; it’s ‘don’t fuck up your changes’. Everybody on the Canadiens knows how to not fuck up a change; the Hockey Gods just gave them an object lesson in remembering it.

When I was just a little baby hockey fan, and didn’t know Jim Corsi from Tommy Dorsey, I would have felt very sad after all these losses, and so I would have gone out to some of the Habs blogs and message boards, and I would have found other sad and distressed people, and we all would have talked about all the things that we were sad and distressed about. And we would have reinforced each other’s disappointment, and wallowed in our collective self-pity. And then we would develop a fine sense of outrage and indignation at the Canadiens, who made us all feel so bad, which would then turn into a desire for various members of the team and/or management to be punished. And I would go to bed hating significant portions of my own team, and wishing that they not only be fired but fired out of a very large cannon into the moon. That kind of hate, that kind of wish, it’s not hockey analysis; it’s just vengeance born of disappointment.

But now, I know more, and among the things I know are these: power play success over the long term tends to be driven by shot volume, and the Canadiens have the sixth highest PP shooting rate in the League so far this season. Moreover, I know that aberrantly low shooting percentages tend to be unsustainable and eventually rise, and given that the Canadiens PP shooting percentage so far is… um… zero, whereas a typical shooting PP shooting percentage is more like 19%, the Habs power play is almost certainly going to improve dramatically. I know that the Canadiens have allowed the second-fewest PK shots in the NHL. I know that they’re even-strength SF/60 is the 5th highest, and their SA/60 the 5th lowest. I know that the Candiens dramatically outchanced Buffalo and Colorado, despite the losses, and didn’t do too badly against Calgary. I know that bad streaks have happened before, to my team and other teams beyond, and those teams have still made the postseason.

I could say these things without data. I could say, if you watch the games, you know that the Habs have dominated for whole periods, even pairs of periods in succession, and not gotten the sort of goals one would expect from such dominance. I could say that every cold streak eventually warms just as surely as every winter eventually gives way to spring. I could say that sometimes the bounces don’t go your way, and at those times the test of your character is not how hard you abuse yourself but how stoically you maintain your composure. I could say that sometimes a team doesn’t lose for a reason, it just loses. All these are things that hockey fans of long experience ought to know, they are truths we’ve seen demonstrated time and again. But if I just say those things, as lore, as wisdom, then the angry and disappointed will come back with their own lore, clichés about how ‘good teams make their own luck’, and the argument will come to a standstill, and I will wonder if maybe they are actually right in their self-righteousness, if perhaps there is something I haven’t seen. But if I say them with data, if I point to the facts, then I have evidence and they just have anger, and I can walk away. And I can go to bed loving my team properly, with a fan’s wholly appropriate faith that this too shall pass.

This is the great gift that advanced stats have to give ordinary fans and extraordinary players: the courage to walk away from the panic. The ability to look at variance and see it for what it is. And, irony of ironies, the strength to trust our eyes, to know that playing well can be playing well even when the scoreboard says different, and the knowledge that in the fullness of time, those who play well will rise, just as those who get lucky will fall.

The single greatest problem facing the Habs right now is not a lack of chemistry or trouble with coaching. It’s choking. A pile of losses, even unlucky losses, stimulates acute self-consciousness and anxiety, and self-consciousness is what makes even the best of players underperform. It drives the impulse to start changing something, anything, everything. Twenty hockey players, all believing they need to change something, all worrying about their skills, all feeling like they need to prove themselves RIGHT NOW OR ELSE is an absolute classic recipe for paradoxical performance effects. The best sports performance is the one that has complete trust in its own skills, and it’s gotta be really, really, really hard for any Hab tonight to feel too much trust in his skill set.

The fan/media orgy of despair has to stop. Everyone who is writing a hyperbolic, alarmist, irrational article/forum post/comment crucifying a third of the team needs to pause and consider that they’re engaging in the premeditated destruction of their own players. There are criticisms to be made of the Canadiens, and as the year goes on, there will be plenty of occasions to make them. But this problem, right now, in front of us, this whole 1-4-2 thing, this is not a structural flaw, it is some bad fucking luck, and if we-who-watch want them-who-play-for-us to get through it faster and come out of it stronger, this is the time for us to man (or woman) up, stop whining, come together and support our goddamn team. They can do better, and they will do better.

So long as we don’t cannibalize them first.

Friday, October 21, 2011

1-5

I have this hypothesis that Canadiens fans have no interest in being reasonable about their team. Being reasonable involves staying calm, examining evidence, and thinking long-term, which is not fun. Being batshit crazy, though, involves calling for people to be fired/traded/beheaded, making fun of Scott Gomez, and invoking the weeping ghost of Rocket Richard as often as possible, which is a barrel of fun in any language. Moreover, if you’re reasonable, you can be proven right, but you might also be proven wrong. For example, if I say: “Hey, it’s not that bad, lotsa teams go 1-5 for some stretch of some season and still make the playoffs,” I might turn out to be right, but they also might miss the playoffs, and then I look silly. Whereas if I posted a long rant about how Martin has lost the room and needs to be fired or this team will never make it, and then Martin stays and the team recovers, I can just post a follow-up rant about how obviously Martin must have listened to me and my fellow irate fans and changed his coaching style, thereby averting doom, and still proving me right. The secret of successful Canadiens fanaticism is to calibrate your optimism/pessimism quotient to exactly what the team is doing right now, and then turn the emotional intensity up to 11, while acting as though whatever is happening is exactly what you knew would happen all along, and adding as an afterthought that you’re still not impressed, because you remember Guy Lafleur and not one of these modern pussies would be fit to tape his stick. It’s a fan-culture where people want to freak out over everything, and in fact gain legitimacy by the intensity of their freaking out. Sort of like American politics, but with everybody on the same side.

Back in the first season my fanaticism, I was very enthusiastic about the freaking-out aspect of Habistan, but it gets a little old with time, given how utterly repetitive it is. No matter the roster, no matter the season, it’s always the same screaming, the same self-pity, the same abuse of the players, and the coaches, and everybody involved with the organization. Sure, the Habs have some problems, not gonna lie about that, but everyone is so obsessed with CHANGING SOMETHING RIGHT NOW NOW NOW that nobody looks to hard at long-term problems, or long-term solutions.

Firing the coach is the ultimate in short term solutions, because ‘the coach has lost the room’ is basically code for ‘I have absolutely no idea what’s wrong, but something should be done anyway.’ I’m sure some coaches do alienate their players to such an extent that the team suffers; on the other hand, there are plenty of nasty, hard-assed bastards who alienated everyone they ever met and nevertheless hold seats of high honor in the coaching pantheon. Bottom line: nobody who isn’t in the room knows what it’s like in the room, and those who are really in the room sure as hell aren't going to speak honestly to the public about what's going on when the doors are closed. So it's really not worth worrying about.

The simultaneously encouraging and depressing fact is that the Habs are a mid-range team who’ve had the unfortunate luck of hitting one of their relatively common 1-5 streaks right at the beginning of the season, instead of having it sometime mid-winter, as is more traditional. Observe:

Last year’s Canadiens had two 1-5 runs in the course of the season. Between December 19th and December 31st, they took a disastrous road trip, in the course of which they lost to the Avalanche, Stars, Islanders, Capitals, and Lightning, winning only one game against the Hurricanes. Later in the season, from February 6th to 20th, they had another 1-5 run, where they lost to the Devils, Bruins, and Islanders, lifted their heads up long enough to beat the Leafs, and then got their asses whooped by Alberta, losing to both the Oilers and the Flames. Ultimately, they finished 6th in the Conference and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual Cup-winning Bruins.

The previous season, 2009-2010, the Canadians won their first two games and then promptly lost five in a row, from October 6th to 20th, to Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, Colorado, and Ottawa, without picking up so much as a single loser point. About a month later, there was another 1-5 series, from November 21st to December 3rd, featuring a shootout loss to Detroit, a win in Columbus, and then a run of losses to Pittsburgh, Washington, Toronto, and Buffalo. Not satisfied with that failure, they lost another five in a row between December 10th and 19th. But was that the last 1-5 skid of the season? Nope, they went through another rough patch from March 20th to 31st. For those of you not counting, that’s four runs of games as bad as the one that’s begun this season. This team finished 8th in the Conference and went on to make it to the Eastern Conference Final before getting eliminated by the Flyers.

2008-2009 featured two stretches with a 1-5 record, from January 20th to February 1st, and then again from March 12th to March 21st. And, if that wasn’t enough, this season included a 1-7 losing streak, from February 7th to February 19th. The team finished 8th and were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, again by the Bruins.

And finally, in 2007-2008, the season when the Canadiens finished first in the Conference, by far the most dominating season they’ve played in recent memory, they still had period where they went 1-5, from November 30th to December 11th. They made it through the first round of the playoffs, sparking the most ridiculous riot in sports-riot history, and then got eliminated in the Conference semis.

So basically, a contemporary Canadiens playoffs-making season includes anywhere from one to four nasty skids of 1-5 or worse, and in fact the year that displayed the most shitty streaks of the past four is also the one where the team went deepest in the postseason. So 1-5 ain’t fun, but it doesn’t prove anything without the context of the rest of the season around it.

There is, of course, the more disturbing fact that the Habs have this habit of either a) barely scraping into the playoffs, and/or b) getting eliminated early. Unfortunately, they’ve been that way with two different owners, two different GMs, two different coaches, two different captains, and dozens of different players. That’s the real problem, and it’s a damn difficult one. If anyone honestly believes that firing Jaques Martin is part of the solution to it, they'd better have more evidence for that position than a 1-5 streak.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Play

Leaving my apartment at 6:30 on a Thursday evening, I feel very guilty. The Habs home opener starts in forty-five minutes, and I won’t be watching it. They’re going to flash those spotlights all around and splash projected nostalgia across the ice, and there will be kids skating around with flags and all the roster lined up one by one, and the blackness above sparked through with little flashes, like disco starlight, and a great wild roar crashing down like thunder over wind, and I’m not going to see any of it. I saw the Leafs intro, and the Jets, and the Oilers, but I’m going to miss the glorious launch of my very own team, and I could actually really use it, because truth be told I don’t remember Raphael Diaz’s number yet.

I truly meant to see every Habs game this season. Hell, it was part of the reason for coming back to this continent, to be able to watch games live in the evening like normal people. And really, how can one blog justly if one doesn’t see all the games? People who don’t see all the games are only sorta fans, they have no authority to speak on matters pertaining to the team. In the past, I have blogged only so far as I was able to watch the games, and when I haven’t been able to keep up with them, this site goes dark, for I will not talk about what I do not know. So dragging my bag down Queen, taking up far more sidewalk space than I deserve, I feel like a traitor to both my team and my writing.

My beloved old barn in Taipei had a screen wrapped across the front three stories high and half a block long that lit up the night like the Second Coming, if Jesus comes back plugging Johnny Walker and symphony tickets. This new rink is barely one story standing on its tiptoes, low and concrete with an arced roof that looks like it’s made of tinfoil. Like every building in my neighborhood, it’s sort of hunkered down and wary-looking, as though it’s hiding from bigger buildings who want to beat it up and take its lunch money. Nevertheless, I find it far more intimidating. The Taipei Xiao Ju Dan was an arena built by people who don’t play hockey for people who don’t play hockey- ice appended as an exotic novelty in a big splashy entertainment complex. It was a shiny, pretty, Olympic-size pleasure rink, softy gushy ice for Sunday families and teenagers on dates. This place, though, is a bluntly functional space, designed to do nothing more than freeze water cold enough so’s people can kick ass on it. The ice here is hard, and when my blades take a bite out of it, it feels like it bites back.

I am early, and I sneak into the dressing room with an unnecessary furtiveness. I’m officially registered for the class, so I have every right to be there, but it doesn’t feel that way. In Taipei, everybody dressed in the stands. I’ve never been in a dressing room before.

Before I start dressing, I take an inventory of my equipment. I checked it twice before I left the apartment, but I always feel like I’m missing something. Of course, I don’t have shoulder pads, but even accounting for that, there’s this vague suspicion that there’s some extra essential little bit of plastic and Velcro I’ve forgotten about. A solar-plexus guard, or a tonsil-protector. Ear flaps? Are there supposed to be ear flaps?

The other women start to filter in. They’re mostly my age, a few a little younger, some much older. They all enter looking different, hipster chicks and soccer moms, jockish girls in sweatpants and dignified ladies with gold earrings, but as we start to dress we all begin to look the same. They go about it calmly, chatting about their kids and their weekend plans, but I have to concentrate all my thought on the order of operations. It’s a very complicated process, putting on hockey equipment, and I know from experience that if you miss a step sometimes you have to go back and do it all over again, which is embarrassing under any circumstances.

At least now I can lace my own skates. I mangle my fingers in the process, but at least it gets done. Back in Taipei, I could never get them tight enough. I’d try, two or three times, and then one of the coaches would come by and just glance down and shake his head, and eventually I’d end up sitting on the bench staring down my leg at some dude, showing me how it should be done, again.

If there’s anything that sums up the way I feel about hockey practice, it’s that: hockey practice is the place where I need help putting on my own shoes.

***

It’s not that I don’t want to play. I want to play more than I want to do damn near anything. But then again, I’d also like to get in a time machine and go have tea with Shajar al-Durr (a tough lady and good with funerary architecture as well), but it ain’t gonna happen. “Oh, E,” you may say, “that’s because time travel violates the laws of the physical universe.” Well, me playing hockey pretty much violates the laws of the physical universe, or at least the laws of good taste. I’m 5’2” and 110 lbs in my winter coat, so small that most of my equipment is hand-me-downs from 14-year-olds. I have terrible depth perception, no hand-eye coordination, and poor balance. My spatial orientation is so weak I’ve been known to clip walls and lampposts while walking. I haven’t played a team sport voluntarily since the 6th grade, not because I don’t enjoy physical activity, but because I feel guilty about burdening others with my incompetence.

This isn’t a self-esteem issue. Like everyone, I have my talents, and over the past 29 years I have identified them, developed them, refined them. As the years go by, I will polish them to a fine sheen. I am already a very good teacher, a pretty good writer, and a reasonably competent wanderer, and because I am already good at those things, I will do them more and more, and get better and better, and when I die that’s the shit that will go in my obituary, because that’s the shit I can do. But nobody is ever going to call me a hockey player, because I have not one scrap of athletic ability anywhere in my whole being. There is nothing there to be developed and refined.

And so, for me, sports- along with the other things I cannot do well, like music and macramé- become a matter of taste. I do not do hockey, I like hockey. I shift the focus from active creation to passive appreciation. Do not judge me by my playing of hockey, judge me by my taste in hockey-playing.

I come from a culture of taste. Westerners, or at least Americans and by all appearances Canadians too, often define ourselves not by what we do but by what we think about things that other people do. Set up any online profile for anything, and you will be prompted to put in a list of the things you like to consume- products you buy, books you read, music you listen to. Preliminary mating rituals are, essentially, a long exchange of I-like-this, do-you-also-like-this?, with the answers determining the suitability of a potential partner. This is the sort of society where it really really really matters what your T-shirt says, because your T-shirt is a silent advertisement for your taste, and your taste is the single biggest criterion by which other people will decide whether they like you or not.

So like everybody I know, I have very developed taste in most things I cannot do, including hockey. I have very strong opinions on the proper development of prospects, and the allotment of cap space, and the drafting of goalies, and the duties of coaches, and the ethics of body checking, and because the grounds for these opinions is not my own ability but rather my taste, it doesn’t matter at all that I can hardly lace my own skates. That’s the miracle of taste- it can reach a high level of sophistication and complexity wonderful quick, which is why we are so fond of having it. Skills are slow growing things, like oaks that take a lifetime to really become themselves. Taste is more like a dandelion patch.

But refined taste breeds disdain. That’s the danger of it. We can come to appreciate some art or craft in such a precise, exacting fashion that very few examples meet our high standard. Connoisseurship can be lovely, we all enjoy a well-curated collection of stuff, but it involves not only the elevating of the extraordinary but the demeaning of every lesser thing. We come to believe that all that matters is that which is the absolute best, the highest pinnacle of the form, and there are so very few things in that category. And so we have a culture where millions of people buy the same few hundred albumns, and know the same few hundred painters, and watch the same few hundred hockey players, and anything that is even two steps down from those highest things is virtually ignored. We don’t watch ECHL hockey, unless we happen to live near it and the tickets are cheap, because it’s not good enough.

This is the real reason I avoid playing: because I am not good, and my taste cannot condone hockey that is not good. It’s not merely that I can’t shoot, can’t pass, can’t receive, can’t stop, can’t skate backwards, can’t do crossovers, can’t turn quickly, can’t stickhandle, and can’t keep my head up. It’s that I know how it should be done, all of that and more integrated seamlessly together to a level of such perfect coordination that the whole transcends the individual skills. And I know that no matter how hard I work, I will never be able to do that.

Our taste encourages us to look down on others who labor in even the middle ranges of skill, and permits us to outright mock those at the bottom levels. We feel justified in declaring that a fourth-line NHLer sucks, or that a local band is derivative, or that guy at the poetry slam is so lame. We take a perverse pleasure in shutting each other down, and eventually, we shut ourselves down. We don’t learn tenth of the skills our ancestors had- almost none of us know how to make a dress, or a pot, or a chair, or a drum, or anything at all. We couldn’t paint so much as a daisy. We don’t sing in front of anybody over four, and we don’t write poems after thirteen. Hell, we’re the sort of people who go to concerts and don’t even dance, we just line up in tight rows and nod rhythmically, indicating our mass approval of this object of shared consumption.

There is so much more to be learned in the doing than in the consuming. Consumptive pleasure is nice, but it’s seldom deeply transformative. Yeah, everyone has that one book where they’re all like, “Oh man, it changed my life,” but I bet if you had a God’s eye lens on that person at the moment of reading you’d see that they were basically the same way before as after, although perhaps with a few new ideas. There is no book in the world so good that it could change you half as much as the shitty book you write yourself.

***

Even with this rationale behind me- and it is a good rationale, I put a lot of time into it- it is still a feat of willpower to get through practice. Every time I lose the puck in my skates, every time I lose my balance going backwards, every time I miss the obviously wide open net because there is not even such a thing as a goalie in this practice, there is a part of my brain that is screaming FUCK THIS and ordering me to go home and donate my gear to some wide-eyed 14-year-old too naïve to understand that he will never be good at hockey either. I tell myself, over and over, like a mantra, like a meditation: It is better for you to sing a song than listen to one. It is better for you to write a novel than read one. It is better for you to make a shirt than buy one. It is better for you to play hockey that to watch it. But it is not such an easy thing to humble oneself, even for the good of body and soul.

Everyone is really nice, of course. Practices with the kids in Taipei were run by guys, very serious guys who learned the game from infancy and would shout ominous threats about the ‘Minnesota Mile’ at anyone who didn’t skate hard enough. This is women’s beginner hockey, though, so the ethos is much more, hey, why don’t you try it this way? Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter how nice everyone is. My only conflict is with myself.

At the end, when I am getting nearly full up with self-contempt, we scrimmage. The rink is full length but only half-width, and at 5-on-5 it’s pretty crowded, but we still make some attempt at positioning. I call left defense, and nobody argues with me. True, I still can’t skate backwards, but at least at the blue line end I don’t have to feel any responsibility for scoring. This will be the first time I have ever actually played a game. Everything before has been drills and exercises.

It is, as one would expect, an ignominious beginning. I can’t hardly even get to the puck much less do anything with it, and although I do my best to get between the opposing team and the puck, I’m more just getting in the way of everybody. At one point I race another woman after an icing (or what would have been an icing, if we had such a thing), only to realize at the last second that she’s on my team. When I do get the puck, I have a disturbing tendency to throw it out into open ice, away from whoever was chasing it but straight onto the stick of some opportunistic opponent. Ridiculous.

The practice is almost over. I am getting bone-tired in that way that only skating makes you tired and sweating from sweat glands that my body has probably never had to activate before. I am standing near the blue line of the offensive zone, trying to congratulate myself for at least being in more or less the correct place, watching my practice-mates scramble in an undifferentiated mass in front of the net. We’re like Timbits players, most of us, always a big knot around the puck, sending up a great clacking of sticks like a disorganized drum circle. There are some good players on my team, they could do some damage, if there was any space, but everybody is up in everybody else’s cage most of the time- not deliberate physicality, just clumsiness and a bit of puck-greed. The fact that I’m not in there with the rest of them has more to do with the certain knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to do anything useful down there than any selfless sense of good positioning. And then, as is wont to happen, the puck pops out of the knot of bodies, moving fast towards the neutral zone.

Would you believe it if I said that it happened in slow motion? It must have, because my reflexes are not good, but somehow, without thinking about it at all, I lean over and stretch my stick out and catch it, right before the line, and pull it in, and whack it to the boards and back in deep, just before the herd reaches me. And one of my teammates, some girl in a white jersey, catches it and lets out an excited whoop, and wraps it around the back of the net, and if the instructor hadn’t been playing amateur netminder and caught it with the toe of her skate, it totally would have gone in.

It was the absolute easiest, most basic, simplest play ever, but HOLY SHIT I DID IT, and I did it right, and it was good. It was good enough to almost be an assist.

It was the most awesome thing I have ever done. For about three seconds, I was a hockey player.

Back in Montreal, the Canadiens are losing, and for the first time in five years, I don’t care. The Canadiens have had thousands of games and are going to have thousands more. I’ve only had one, and it’s all I can think about. About how, if I work really hard, maybe next week I'll be able to play well for five seconds. And then ten, and then twenty, and by the end of the session maybe as much as fifty, and fifty seconds is almost a shift, and from there…

Shajar, put the kettle on.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Anthology of Interest

Five things I’ve enjoyed recently, because link dumps are the blogosphere’s way of paying it forward.

1. Wyshynski on Taunting
Like most general NHL blogs, I’m always a little ambivalent about Puck Daddy. It’s nice to have a one-stop-shop for what’s happening RIGHT NOW, especially for those of us who don’t get TSN and can’t deal with sports radio because we just don’t care about the Leafs and their large collection of apes and proto-hominids. But, like anything that has to update multiple times a day, there’s a lot of workmanlike filler on the blog, which means I often end up just skimming the headlines and missing some quality hockey writing in the process. Wyshynski himself, for example, is a smart dude with an effortless way of working humor, evidence, and Big Ideas into short pieces.

2. Richardson on Escrow
I got into hockey thinking it would be all about grace and blood, and it turns out that it’s really about numbers and paper. Whenever I can get over feeling disappointed by that, I’m going to have to put some real study into the business side of the game. Until then, I’m grateful for people who can explain the doings of the besuited men with the big desks in layperson terms, and also put comforting reassurances at the end.

3. Bourne on Defensive Breakdowns
One of my dreams in life is to have my very own video coach. If I were a billionairess, I would steal one from one of the cheaper teams and have him do nothing all day but break down video for me, because my eyes are still not so very good, as hockey-watching eyes go. Thankfully, since I’m never going to be a billionairess, or even a hundred-thousand-airess, more and more blogs have started doing this for free. Insha’allah, this trend is going to do a lot to help fans who think they understand hockey really understand it. Online discourse improves tremendously when everyone can rewatch a play as they discuss it, rather than referring to their various individual memories of what they thought they saw last night. The Copper and Blue has been doing a similar series, going tactic by tactic rather than according to current events. Either way, I very love it.

4. Likens on the ‘Best’ Team Winning
Okay, this is really old, but I just found it this week. I’ve been abroad, people, it takes the internet longer to get over there! Anyhow, it will take some time for me to get my head around the mathematics here, so I have no idea whether or not I agree with it yet, but it’s a great example of how rich some of the work coming out of stats-world can be. Whether or not you support the conclusion, whether or not you like the methodology, to understand this piece you really have to put in some serious thought, not just about the data itself but about how one defines ‘best’ and what is the truest observable evidence of whichever definition one comes up with. It’s the sort of conversation you really have to up your analytical game to participate in.

5. Smith on Overcoaching
Apropos of two recent posts, the one on clutchery and choking and the one of goaltending and technique, this essay from a goalie coach on how the focus on the technical game can induce choking in netminders. It makes absolute perfect sense, and problematizes somewhat my valorization of ‘technique’ in the earlier article, since apparently a focus on technique can fry goalie-brains as sure as a lack of control can. No wonder this job turns people into stress-baskets. Many thanks to Clare-of-the-Comments for directing me to the site.

Are there any blogs I’m not reading and ought to be? Tell me of them! I am woefully out of touch with what the kids are into these days.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hockey Exegesis #2: Control

“You’re really playing against yourself. You have to learn what you can control and what you can’t control and not let what you can’t control affect your confidence.”
- Mike Richter

Goalie wisdom is the best kind of hockey wisdom. Skater wisdom is useful, in that motivating, pump-yourself-up, c’mon-boys-lets-go way, but in the end it’s just a lot of different variations on “Try harder.” Goaltending, though, doesn’t lend itself to jockish mantras about giving 110% and your ACL being a long way from your heart. It’s a position that either drives men crazy or drives them philosophical, and either way it leads to (I think) some of the most genuinely interesting and widely applicable insights into the game.

Here we have Mike Richter, offering us a bit of goalie wisdom that is not only applicable to non-goalie hockey, but to life in the largest sense. Try Googling (actually, you can use whatever search engine you like, the Theory is not proprietary) the first sentence of that quotation- “You’re really playing against yourself.” No, really, go on. I’ll wait.

*twiddles thumbs*
*tries to whistle*
*adds a few items to shopping list*


See? Unlike the Bowman quotation, that sentence doesn’t lead you directly to Richter. Rather, you come up with dozens and dozens of people talking about investment banking and writing and education and all sorts of things, with no thought that they’re quoting anybody. Hell, Richter was probably quoting somebody else when he said it. It’s so common it’s a veritable idiom, it is. But I think this variation goes a bit beyond the cliché, in that Richter doesn’t just leave it at the moral of ‘don’t be to competitive’, which is how I think most people mean it. For him, it connects to issues of identity and responsibility, choice and chance, the very heart of the debate between free will and determinism. This is deep, deep goalie wisdom.

For a goalie, professional identity- self-evaluation, self-knowledge, what Richter is getting at with ‘confidence’- depends on a very difficult project: being able to differentiate his talent from the factors around him. How can he, in the heat of a season, without recourse to hindsight or the great overhead view of the Almighty, know how good he really is? What parts of his performance are his own and which are his team’s? What slice of the ice is his to control?

He can go by wins and losses. That’s what the team as a whole is judged by, that’s what the skaters judge their success by. For a goalie, though, it’s problematic, because a goalie cannot do anything himself that contributes directly to winning. The best he can do, on his own, is play to an endless draw. He can stop everything, engulfing pucks square in his belly like an amoeba absorbing its prey, admitting no goals and giving no rebounds, and all that will earn him is overtime and then shooter after shooter after shooter until he fails or dies of exhaustion. Michael Leighton famously once stopped 98 shots in a single game. He still lost. If the team in front of him doesn’t get goals, the goalie will fail, no matter how excellent his play.

Wins and losses are a terrible measure of people, too. Success in life, as in hockey, has a lot to do with the team you’ve got in front of you. Somebody born to the social caste equivalent of the Red Wings is going to see a lot more wins in his life than some Islander child. Both may work hard, both may achieve success, but in raw terms the person with the better franchise is going to come out ahead virtually all the time. You can judge groups by wins and losses, but not individuals.

The next option is save percentage. It’s a nice, durable little stat. It has the virtue of measuring success relative to workload rather than in absolute terms, and thereby equalizes out some of the inequities of playing behind a bad team. A goalie who gets unforgivably shelled and loses can still come out with his save percentage intact. Moreover, it tends to be consistent and gently predictive, so it clearly reflects something about underlying talent, particularly for guys who switch teams a few times. The human equivalent, I suppose, would be judging success relative to opportunities available, that is, recognizing that working oneself up from abject poverty to self-sufficiently working-class is actually more of an achievement than working oneself up from slightly wealthy to very wealthy.

I once knew a goalie who cared so much for save percentage that he cared only about save percentage. So long as he stopped shots at a better rate than his counterpart at the other end of the ice, he felt that he had ‘won’, scoreboard be damned. Of course, then there came one midnight game where the reffing was a little wonky and the defense a bit sluggish and before you know it there were four pucks one after the other in the back of the net, and this goalie threw the single greatest shit fit I have ever seen a human being throw. It was a tantrum so epic that for fifteen minutes everyone in the arena just stared silently, big eyes and bit lips, while he screamed and swore and pitched his blocker and his glove and his stick down the ice, and then went to the bench to throw the defenseman’s stick for good measure. He saw his save percentage tank and, although he rationally might have known that it wasn’t his fault, the measurement meant so much to him that he couldn’t keep his shit together if it was bad, even for one night

That’s the trouble with save percentage: it works well for large-scale analyses, the weighting of goalie seasons against each other, even the prediction of the future. For people sitting in chairs and studying goalies, it’s just terrific. But for a goalie’s judgment of himself, his ability to understand how well he’s playing, it can be toxic. For one thing, save percentage is constantly dangling that elusive 1.000. It implies that there is a perfection out there to be achieved, that the ideal performance would stop 100% of pucks. But there is no such thing as stopping 100% of pucks, except for very short, very fortunate periods. Line a goalie up against five offensive players with no teammates in front of him, and the best goalie in the world, a veritable goaltending machine, would not be able to stop 100% of pucks. There is no agility, no positioning, no vision, no size in the whole range of human variation that could accomplish such a feat.

A realistic understanding of save percentage, then, includes the understanding that it is not perfectable, that even the best goalies will get scored on- and moreover, since save percentage is an average, that they will get scored on at an irregular rate. No goalie lets in exactly one goal for every thirteen shots, but rather something like 1/13, 0/13, 4/13, 0/13, 2/13. The goalie’s experience of his own save percentage is not the experience of an average, but the experience of an accumulation of streaks of good and bad. How, then, is he supposed to understand which goals he can forgive himself for and which are rightly deserving of blame? How is he supposed to judge whether a bad run is merely the percentages being realized or an emerging flaw in his performance? One can see how save percentage doesn’t really help, in the middle of a season or a game, with problems of control and confidence. No one can know the real save percentage until the end of the season. No one can know the real relative success of a life until it’s over. In the meantime, a body needs something else. A working, ongoing standard by which to evaluate.

Which is why, I think, goalies are such fanatics for technique. The history of goaltending is, in my extremely preliminary cursory evaluation, the evolution of technique. Back in the weird old days, when goalies tended to be little more than lumpy skaters with oversized shinpads, technique was pretty much having the cojones to put yourself in the way of the puck as much as possible. Later, it added an emphasis on reading the play and making intuitive assessments of shooters’ character and intention. But come the advent of the butterfly, it became a calculation of angles and percentages, a true system.

Goaltending technique is the accumulated study of how to take away the greatest amount of easy net-space from the largest number of potential scorers at once. It becomes, in effect, a code of behavior, and thereby provides a standard of judgment that can be applied directly to individual actions without regard for individual results. It’s a set of categorical imperatives for the ice: if every goalie took this pose every time this particular situation arose, the most possible pucks would be stopped, therefore, it is always the right pose to take. So the aim of the goalie becomes not to stop every puck, but to always be in the position that, overall, will stop the most pucks.

Technique, as a code of behavior, allows a goalie to name the things he cannot control. Sometimes there will be a bizarre deflection off two moving sticks and an oddly angled skate, and that is not his fault. Sometimes his defensemen are going to get tangled up and leave a winger uncovered just to the left of the crease AND let the pass through, and that is not his fault. Sometimes there will be several hundred pounds of plastic and manflesh on top of his head and the puck will get prodded through beneath by God-knows-what, and that is not his fault. And sometimes he will have covered 83% of the net damn near perfectly and the shooter will make that improbable, obscenely difficult shot- hell, the shooter wouldn’t be in the NHL if he couldn’t make that shot every now and then- and THAT, even, is not the goalie’s fault, although it went right by his ear. Sometimes all of those things happen in one game, and the team will lose 5-2, and when that happens, a knowledge of technique is what allows a goalie to go to the dressing room, head held high although his save percentage is in the toilet, secure in the knowledge that it was beyond his control.

Out here in the real world, kittens, we’re all goalies. We’re all struggling to figure out what we can control and what we can’t, what parts of life we’ve made by our choices and which have been forced on us by fate, where our abilities end and the luck begins. And too often, we judge ourselves by our success vis-à-vis others- whether we have as much money, as lofty a title, as hot a girlfriend, as big a house- without realizing that success is often as far beyond our control as failure is. Play life according to the score clock, and you end up either taking blame or taking credit for shit that was actually handed to you by your team. Play life according to the save percentage, and you end up feeling as though you have responsibility for the bounces or the agility of your defensepeople. Play life according to technique, though, and the questions are subtler and deeper: Was I where I should have been? Did I do the thing I ought to have done? It’s only people who can answer those questions in the affirmative who go to their graves happy. In life as in goaltending, it isn’t whether you won or lost, it’s whether you were in position.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Epistemology is a Bitch

There’s an interesting article over on Backhand Shelf about choice and statistics, and for some reason Kierkegaard. It’s quite well-done, and clearly much thought-over, and although I agree with it in principle, I’m not entirely comfortable with the project it seems to be endorsing.

I’ve made a similar point about choice before, in a much longer and unnecessarily florid way, although I wouldn’t argue that statisticians neglect choice so much as they fold it into the category of ‘luck’. The decision to use the word ‘luck’ in sports stats is one of the great terminological disasters of the 21st century, the cause of numerous unnecessary semantic battles, the casualties of which still litter the fields of Hockey Blogistan whimpering about how Jaroslav Halak wasn’t just lucky, he really wasn’t. The trouble is that statistical luck isn’t the same thing as layperson luck. Layperson luck is the random, uncontrollable, unpredictable acts of the universe. Hockey stats luck is a fine hash of that randomness, choices made in response to that randomness, and myriad biological and psychological factors so case specific as to be innumerable and immeasurable. Personally, if I were a probability wonk, I would have called that category something like ‘miscellaneous’ or ‘various minor and nonpersistant factors’ or even just ‘Olga’- anything but ‘luck’, really, would have saved a lot of bloodshed.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure that the statisticians know that some choices do have some degree of impact on some outcomes. They’re big boys (and girls? Are there any girls? Please let there be some girls by now), and they’ve had this argument far more times than we have. They know that there are probably elements of choice and hustle and heart and choking and whatever else in the mix, influencing a bit of this here and that there. It’s not that they don’t believe in it exactly (although some of them really don’t), it’s that they don’t care. It’s not their project. They’re not anthropologists or psychologists (okay, that one dude is an anthropologist I think, but only in his spare time), they’re not trying to figure out why one person did one particular thing at one particular time, they’re trying to figure out the generally applicable principles according to which hockey always works, across teams and seasons. Things that happen once and only once, like the choices made by a particular player on a particular day, are not relevant to the scale of their work. So they get folded in with all the other small things, under the category of Olga.

Now, it is possible that there could be a study of the choices of hockey players that would demonstrate the long-term, large-scale impacts of certain kinds of choice-making. There have been longitudinal studies of other human populations before, looking at groups who made one choice and groups who made another and seeing, over a period of years, how that choice impacted their lives. There are a thousand wonderful hypothetical studies of hockey players that could answer a lot of questions about the role of choice vs. natural talent, what parts of the player are man and which are machine. You could study factors of disposition and temperament, training regimens, family situations, the efficacy of different methods of psychological self-discipline. You could look at correlations of IQ, EQ, executive function. And if you did those studies, and you took those findings to the statisticians, I bet you cash money they would be extremely interested in your findings.

Unfortunately, where professional hockey is concerned, those studies will never happen. There is too much money, too much power, too much hockey on the line for teams (or families, or communities) to surrender their precious precious raw materials up for double-blind studies, ethnographic observation, or psychological experiments. Any effort to use the tools of social science to really understand what kinds of choices and intangible characteristics make for better players would risk damaging them or holding back their development. The act of observing would disturb the observed, and so most of the people who make hockey would prefer to muddle through the process according to what they think is best, without knowing for certain if it is.

The problem with valuing choice, or any intangible, unquantifiable personal quality in hockey is that we do not know about these things. We know, from individual cases, that sometimes some intangible qualities can be important, but we don’t really know anything more than that. For example, we know that some players have an extraordinary work ethic, insofar as they spend far more time training and practicing than they are required to, and that some of those players are also extraordinarily good. But we don’t know how many players are putting in extra training to no avail, and how many actually damage themselves in the course of overtraining, and so we cannot really say how valuable work ethic is. We don’t know if more heart is necessarily better- as I learned in the post on choking, in other areas sometimes laissez-faire attitude can actually correlate with better performance. We have very little evidence on which to weigh these qualities against each other, and almost no idea how to weigh them against objective performance, so when we ask that they be valued, what exactly are we asking for? That they be given full explanatory power whenever we feel they ought to apply?

But then again, we don’t really know when they apply, do we? Hockey players are celebrities, we see only tiny slices of them, and most of those slices are edited and packaged by journalists and PR goons in service of their own agendas. Twenty minutes of play per game, some generic post-game interviews, the occasional cutesy get-to-know-you featurette, maybe a Twitter feed, and every now and then a scandalous escaped cell phone pic is all we actually see of a professional hockey player. When we derive our assessments of a guy’s work ethic, or his courage, or his choices, we are making an interpretation based on an artificial image of a person filtered through multiple intervening media. We do not see the man himself, we see only a fragmentary representation of him.

So while it is quite valid and probably quite true to say that player choices impact the outcomes of their seasons and careers, it is more important to remember that there are very few people close enough to the players themselves to really understand that process. Honestly, the player himself may have only a partial and confused notion of where his own choices ended and luck began, of which parts of his life he determined and which were forced upon him. Most people are not wholly aware of how their character and decisions impact their work performance, and I would assume hockey players are no more rich in intrapersonal intelligence than the average person. Someone who is truly intimate with a locker room- a trainer, a doctor- might be able to tell you a lot about the kinds of choices that have influenced the outcomes of games and careers, but that information would be the result of months and ideally years of close contact. It takes that kind of time to truly know the sort of intangible qualities a person has.

Fans cannot have that knowledge, and I call a priori bullshit on anyone who says they can see heart in 16:38 TOI and a ten-second postgame comment.

I don’t know this dude, the writer of this article, from around, but I’ve seen enough of these types of essays and comment threads- hell, I’ve written enough articles and comments in that vein myself- to smell the fear behind it. I feel it too. I live in dread of the coming of the Great Hockey Equation, because I know that the day the final formula is complete and proven is the day I will no longer be able to say anything about the game. This is my fundamental problem: I am no mathematician, but I love talking about hockey, and from time to time that conflict of interest does impel me to try to jam a shoe in the gears of the Great Calculator, in the hopes of slowing it down a little.

But the statisticians are damn near the only ones in this game who maintain any strict standards of epistemological honesty, and I’m afraid more and more that the assertion of faith in ‘intangibles’ is just an excuse for unfounded speculation on the character of people we do not know. It is a serious thing to sit in judgment of a stranger’s habits, his courage, his intelligence. His heart! My God, we go around thinking we are qualified, based on a few hours of game footage and a few bland interviews, to determine the measure of a man’s love for the game. Has it ever occurred to you, reader- and I ask this sincerely- what unforgivable hubris that is? What complete and utter fantasy most fan opinions of that kind must be? How often people see some tidbits of something that is vaguely suggestive in some way of something they don’t like and immediately connect it to an intangible flaw and the repeat it to each other so many times that it becomes the accepted wisdom? These days I cannot so much as hear of Alexei Kovalev without thinking I need to send the man a Hallmark apology and a dozen roses in whatever color is most suggestive of regret, but they don’t have a card for “I’m sorry I called you lazy and disinterested and enigmatic when in reality you’re probably just not quite as good of a player as I wanted you to be, and didn’t express yourself in the cultural idiom to which I am accustomed,” and I haven’t got the budget for roses.

Go ahead, get out the existentialist weed-whacker and clear as much ground as you like for the principle that choice matters in NHL hockey; but if you care about intellectual honesty, then that ground you clear will have to remain empty. The second you try to plant any specific ideas about which players making what choice caused what outcome, you’re sacrificing epistemological rigor for narrative satisfaction, making something up to satisfy your need to feel as though you know something you do not and cannot know.