Monday, February 19, 2007

On Losing

They say, write what you know…

Losing is, almost by definition, the worst thing in hockey. Like any competition, hockey is played to win. That is the sole purpose, the only goal, the entire point. Although we know, at least since the advent of the shootout, that every game must be lost by someone, and therefore that losing is inevitable, it always feels wrong. Losing is not sad, or even infuriating, so much as it is itchy. A loss is uncomfortable, awkward, a disturbance in the force, and it doesn’t matter how many times it happens, it always feels that way.

As Tolstoy famously said, all wins are somehow alike, but every loss loses in its own way. The number of ways to win a hockey game is somehow finite, but there are nearly infinite ways to lose. In any game, a million things can go wrong, there are a million mistakes to be made, and it only takes one, uncompensated for or undefended against, to lose. It only takes one moment, when the wrong players are on the ice or the wrong penalty is taken, and everything’s over. Losing is easier than winning not because it is simpler, but because it is actually more complicated. A team wins by doing the few clear but immensely difficult things that all its members have known, for their entire careers, that they must do. But a team might lose for one reason or many- sometimes a lack of ability or a lack of desire or a lack of intelligence, but more often simply by failing to see all the angles, by letting some small error slip by unnoticed in the heat of things, an error which somehow snowballs ferociously until it becomes decisive.

Because of this, there is a great deal of nuance to losses. There are games lost on unfortunate bounces, on injuries, on fatigue, on bad calls. There are close, down-to-the-wire losses and losses so one-sided that it’s as if only one team was even there. A game can be lost on one bad play or twenty, and sometimes even on none at all. Each of these losses is different, they feel different and they are, in fact, structurally different.

This is the redeeming quality of losses: every individual loss contains within itself the seeds of a future win. The occasional loss is good and healthy, and even necessary for a team. With the exception of the elite team- a creature which has always been rare and is now nearly extinct- every team has its flaws and problems: the offensive line that collapses in its own zone, the too-slow defensive pairing, the disorganized power play, the tendency to take excessive penalties. All of these can pass uncorrected, and even unnoticed, as long as a team is winning. Sometimes it is only when the pylon-defenseman gives up the game-losing goal that he realizes how urgently he needs to improve. Sometimes it is only the impulsive double-minor in the last minutes of the game that reminds a team, collectively, of the importance of self-control. The right loss at the right time (or, from the team’s perspective, the disastrous loss at the worst possible moment) can be, in its own way, more inspirational and motivating than a great win. The loss exposes weaknesses that the win might conceal, and if properly managed, the revelations the come from a bad loss can ultimately strengthen the team.

The dangerous thing is that losing, like winning, has its own momentum. There is a point when a streak of any kind gathers speed and becomes destiny- the winners who seem to mow down everything in their path, no matter how many mistakes they make, and the losers who can’t seem to get a goal no matter how hard they try or how many things they do right. The beginning of either variety of streak might be luck or skill or hard work, or the opposites of any of these, but the momentum of a streak is all psychological. After struggling to put together those first 3 or 4 consecutive wins, a team can ride on a wave of confidence, the aggressive joyful energy that results from comfort with one’s own abilities and the sure knowledge that fortune favors the bold.

If the momentum of a winning streak is hubris, the momentum of a losing streak is introspection. A little introspection is necessary for hockey players. Without a certain attention to one’s own play, one can easily become a liability to the team, the guy who’s constantly trying to pull off things he just can’t do. But nothing kills a team faster than too much introspection. For a hockey team to function well, perhaps more than in any other sport, the players must be more attentive to their teammates' play than to their own- a great defenseman is great not so much because of what he does, but because he can predict what his teammates will do, an offensive line is great because its players can find each other on a rush without thinking, without planning, without intending. A great center is great not because he knows himself, but because he knows his wingers. Even goalies, the most individual of players, are better when they have an thorough understanding of the guys in front of them.

When you watch a team on a losing streak, you can almost see the precise moment when it breaks apart, and that breaking apart has nothing to do with dressing-room bickering or blame-throwing- such are the symptoms, not causes, of collapse. The collapse is simply the players, one by one in succession, turning their attention inward. The coordination is the first thing to go, and it’s painfully obvious on the ice, each guy so preoccupied with making the right play himself, so desperate to prove that he is not the problem, that they stop seeing each other. Passes don’t connect, rebounds drift out into empty ice, and teammates accidentally collide with alarming regularity. It is not a lack of confidence that ruins a team on a losing streak; it is rather a sheer lack of team-ness, cohesion, trust.

This is why, early in a losing streak, it seems like trades are the solution- in those initial losing games, it might seem to be very clearly certain players who have fallen out of sync with the rest. But as it wears on, it looks more and more like no trade will solve anything, because the problems have become total- we throw up our hands and give up, thinking that only an entirely new roster could solve anything. We have, however, fundamentally misunderstood what we are seeing. The players are not, individually, suddenly all worse than previously. Rather, we are seeing in action the simple fact that no one is a good hockey player by himself.

A line scores together or it doesn’t score, and it should come as no surprise that the Habs finally broke their streak on the strength of a 2-point night for both Ryder and Koivu, each assisting on the other’s goal. For weeks analysts, amateur and professional alike, have been trying to blame one or the other of these guys for underperforming, but the real problem is in both of them and neither of them equally. They didn’t score, last night, because one or the other of them put forth a superlative effort, but simply because they found each other and managed to intuitively and instantaneously trust each other in the same second. Because they played together, not separately.

It is true, then, that a game can be lost easily on individual failings. But it can only be won as a team. We would, all of us, do well to remember that in the worst depths of any losing streak.

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