Monday, November 06, 2006

On Teams

First principles: Hockey is a team sport. This is obvious, yes? Hockey is not golf, or weightlifting, or the 100 meter dash. It is part of that class of athletics practiced by large groups of men in identical uniforms, against other large groups of men with different identical uniforms. Also by women, presumably also in identical uniforms, but I am told that the rules of female hockey are different and I’ve never seen it, so for now, I’m going to continue thinking of the ‘hockey player’ in the abstract as more or less male.

Most professional sports in North America are team sports, and anyone who has spent any amount of time watching them has been exposed to a lot of talk about teams and teamwork. This generally amounts to a huge quantity of rather similar generic sports platitudes that all basically mean this:

These sports are played by groups of people. They are won or lost based on the performance of the group. Therefore, it is necessary for the individual members of the group to recognize themselves as such, and try to work together, as a collective. This is called ‘teamwork’.

So yeah, teamwork is important, and everybody says that. But I don’t know how much we (fans, commentators, journalists- you know, people who watch) actually believe it. In the past month or so of hockey commentary and analysis and conversation I’ve observed, it seems like 90% of it is about individual players. The quality of various teams is broken down into the statistics associated with various players, their strength or weakness given as the proximate cause of the success or failure of the group. And it goes beyond that: apart from the context of an actual game, the players become totally detached from the team.

The most obvious aspect of this is the media phenomena that surround the sport, the interviews and replay clips and ads and whatnot. For example, I’ve not yet actually seen a Penguins game. Never. Yet I’ve probably seen more of Sidney Crosby™ than I have of any of the players on the teams I do specifically follow, because he’s in some commercial or clip all the damn time. Now, I’m not saying the attention is unwarranted: he’s really freakin’ good, and makes for great 30-second bits of video. But there are a lot of guys who are really freakin’ good, and- maybe, possibly, I’m just suggesting here- some who are better. But Sidney Crosby™ is also young and stylish and photogenic and therefore seems to have developed a kind of personal charisma that goes beyond the parameters of the actual game. Which is fine, many congratulations to him, but the problem is that I don’t really much care what Sidney Crosby™ does by himself. I mean, I’m sure he can do lots of wonderful things- for all I know he can turn lead into gold, water into wine, artificial cheese flavoring into cheese- but as far as I’m concerned, he’s only a meaningful entity in the context of the game. And nothing he does in the game is done as an individual.

That’s the bottom line: hockey isn’t just a team sport, it’s seriously, truly, deep-down-in-the-bones-of-it, a team sport. What makes it good, and even transcendently good, is coordination, the ability of disparate players to move as a group. It’s too fast for individuals, too fast for communication, too fast for anything except that crazy intuitive pseudo-telepathic rhythm. That ability that the truly great teams develop to know each other’s positions and intentions in less than a second.

This is an ideal of course, one that no team fully achieves. But some of them come close, and that’s what gives the game its unique value. It also often makes the difference between winning and losing, but I’m going to go beyond that for a moment. A team that truly functions as a team is nothing short of dazzling: pure eye-catching, heart-wrenching, visceral pleasure. Poetry in motion, as they say. What I’m trying to say is that teamwork isn’t just the obvious idea that individual players should try to get along or communicate or whatever, it’s the essence of the game. And it’s certainly what makes the game worth watching. I recently made the mistake of watching a game between two badly coordinated teams, and it was just depressing- clumsy, slow, very often still in a strange, hesitating way; like 10 guys loitering at a bus stop, who just happen to have hockey sticks and aren’t quite sure what to do with them. And it wasn’t the fault of any particular player. This wasn’t some guy making egregious mistakes, although the commentators did try to find a way to pin blame on particular guys. But the problem wasn’t the players as individuals, but rather that the players were acting like individuals, and you just can’t play hockey as an individual.

I assume, of course, that players more or less know all of this, and it’s certainly arrogant of me, hockey ingĂ©nue that I am, to presume to tell anyone anything about the game, but I still find the fetishization of specific players troubling. Like those big charts that the various talking heads throw up every now and then, trying to rank the best something-or-other in the league, a practice that seems to me to be entirely missing the point. Yeah, it is definitely possible to be a good player in spite of a weak team, but even in the case of an exceptionally gifted individual, the difference between a good clip and a great player seems to be the right team dynamic (or at the bare minimum, the right line dynamic). We fundamentally misunderstand the game when we spend more time thinking about individuals- as defined by their stats or by their celebrity- than about the teams that form their context.

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