Thursday, December 6, 2012

Memorandum to Mr. Gary Bettman and Mr. Donald Fehr


To: Mr. Gary Bettman and Mr. Donald Fehr
From:  A concerned consultant
RE: NHL Lockout
Subject:   Hockey doesn’t belong to you
Requested Action:   Immediately return the sport to the people to whom it belongs

Dear Mr. Bettman and Mr. Fehr,

You don’t know me, so let me start with brief background that explains I am more like you than I am like members of the NHLPA (respectively, seemingly your adversaries/constituents).   Briefly:  I’m 30 years old.  I was pretty much a straight-A student through high school and college and got in trouble as a kid for thinking I knew more than I did.   (Sound familiar yet?)  In the years since college, I’ve worked in most key aspects of business (consulting first, which entailed operations, sales, and marketing, among other things).  In sheer business terms, I do not think you understand the UVP (unique value proposition, for anyone else who doesn’t use consultant-speak) of the National Hockey League.    And, to be blunt, I think you do not understand this UVP because you just don’t get the game of hockey.   (Please don’t get emotional with me in objecting to this contention; I can’t guess that either of you got to this stage of your careers without being at the far end of “T” on the “T/F” Myers-Briggs scale.)

However, I actually grew up in a hockey family (albeit not a professional hockey family).   But I still grew up in a hockey family.  And since neither of you really grew up in a hockey family, I think you are missing a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to the UVP of the NHL which, frankly, is the game itself—which is way larger than your oversized personalities and even more outsized agendas.

The UVP of hockey is the game itself, and everyone who has an investment or interest or delight in the game.   These are the folks who generate enough interest and revenue to pass the game onto their kids who in turn pass the game onto their own children (and make sure the future stars of tomorrow actually learn to play hockey).   The UVP of the NHL is the people who have made hockey, the game, what it is—and there are lots of these people.

You should get to know a few of these folks: 
  • Hockey belongs to the kid in Kladno who doesn’t have access to fancy equipment or even really a “gym” but who nonetheless develops trees like tree trunks by exercising every day for YEARS.  
  • Hockey belongs to the kid in Quebec whose single mother makes sure her son can play hockey. 
  • Hockey belongs to the kid who plays roller hockey in California and runs for miles in the summer and plays in the AHL while pursuing a career in the NHL. 
  • Hockey belongs to the kid in Nova Scotia who sells newspapers so he can afford to play hockey. 
  • Hockey belongs to the privileged son of a wealthy businessman who already has the world at his feet but works really hard to play hockey at an elite level. 
  • Hockey belongs to the kid who knows he’s never going to go pro, but plays for his club team anyway.   Hockey belong to that kid who now coaches a high school hockey team.
  • Hockey belongs to the kid who’s been paralyzed by the sport he loves. 
  • Hockey belongs to the kid who played for years in the minor leagues before he had to give up the dream—but for whom the dream lives on as he coaches a minor league team. 
  • Hockey belongs to the coach who started off as a high school coach and became a college coach and then lived the dream as a coach of a Stanley Cup champion team.
  • Hockey belongs to the kid in a Russian mining town who was so good at hockey he didn’t have to work at the factory like everyone else in his town grows up to do. 
  • Hockey belongs to the professional daughter who lives far from home and always has something she can share with her dad when they talk because of the game they both love. 
  • Hockey belongs to the patient who’s dying of cancer, who’s in tremendous pain and can’t really enjoy anything anymore, but who can—at least for the few hours a game is on—get caught up in something other than a horrible disease that’s robbed her of who she used to be. 
  • Hockey belongs to the father who never had the chance to play hockey but who’s made sure to give his son and his daughter every chance to play the game he never got the chance to play—which means he’s up at 4 AM to take his 6-year-old to practice and at the rink at 11 PM at night with his 14-year-old—and that he abandons his own hobbies to make sure his kids have a chance to pursue what he never had the chance to pursue himself. 
  • Hockey belongs to the mother who went into debt and took on a part-time job to make sure her son got the chance to chase his dreams.
  • Hockey belongs to the woman struggling with depression after the death of a loved one, but who’s able to smile when her+ favorite player does something magical on the ice that—for the first time in such a long time—makes her smile. 
  • Hockey belongs to the man who’s been desperately searching for a job for more than a year and who can’t find one and who needs to know there’s hope and he can see hope in a story of his “up-from-the-ashes” team that went from last place to first place and from terrible to a Cup contender. 
  • Hockey belongs to the adult children who miss their own parents, but who now pass on their love of the game to their own children.
  • Hockey belongs to sick kids in the hospital, whose eyes light up if they get to spend even five minutes with a player on their favorite team.  Hockey belongs to the parents of sick kids in the hospital who--years later--remember with gratitude and fondness who was there for their child when the child was sick.  
  • Hockey belongs to the woman who’s been teaching 3-year-olds how to skate at a community ice rink for the past forty years.
  • Hockey belongs to the player who’s struggling to balance getting an education with going to the next level in hockey.
  • Hockey belongs to the kid who’s riding bus after bus in snow and ice from town to town in the hopes that the practice and coaching he’s get in junior hockey will be his ticket to the highest level of hockey.
  • Hockey belongs to the coaches who spend hour after hour with thirteen-year-old kids, helping them to become better hockey players, and in so doing—and without even realizing they’re doing it—teaching those middle school kids about how to commit to something and how to work with other people as a team and how to learn what they’re good at and get better at it and learn where they need help and learn so they become better players. 
  • Hockey belongs to the girl who plays the sport and realizes she’s not limited because she’s a girl. 
  • Hockey belongs to the 75-year-old who’s now retired and who made a living in sales for 30 years and played in the NHL years before players made millions. 
  • Hockey belongs to the men who played the sport seriously for years before they had to go pro in something else—taking everything the sport taught them about hard work and sacrifice and discipline—into careers in law, medicine, dentistry, and government.   

Of course, you don’t know all of these people.    Some of them, I know because I have read their stories countless times in Sports Illustrated, autobiographies, or newspaper articles.  (FYI, the kid in Kladno was Jaromir Jagr.   You may not be aware of this, but Sidney Crosby sold newspapers as a kid.  And that coach who has been dead since 1991—who started  a high school coach before he won the Stanley Cup—in the hockey world, he was known as “Badger Bob.”)    Others, I know because those people are my brother, my parents, my friends, or my brother’s former teammates and coaches, or--to be honest--players playing for my NHL team's AHL affiliate, players on my NHL team whose stories are not as popular, and, well, of course, some are simply the stories of fellow fans of the game it's easy to find or read about online these days.    

But you should know all of them.   Not just the Sidney Crosbys and Jaromir Jagrs and Evgeni Malkins and Kris Letangs of the world (don’t get me wrong, I love to watch all of them play, and somehow they have all played for MY team).   You should know them, of course, because—in the NHL—they are part of your product.  The game itself is your product, of course, but players with the skill of Jagr and Crosby--who do things in games that develop a history that underlies all of hockey--sell your sport. 

But the other people.   These people are your CUSTOMERS--AKA the people who will watch the game on TV and buy season tickets and merchandise (some of them may even grow up to get jobs with major TV networks and want to help you out because of the game they love).   These are the people who are also part of the sport and part of the story.   Hockey is their game, too.  Some of them never made it to the NHL.  Some of them are going to make it to the apex of the industry (not convinced that will forever be the NHL the way you’re going) but not as players.   Others are going to pass along the marvelous lessons of hockey—and have great memories of hockey road trips, hockey tournaments, and—of course—of how much fun it was to be with a spouse, a friend, a parent, a child—while learning to skate or watching players like Coffey and Letang skate.  

In all your negotiations, I have yet to see anything that indicates you value and understand your UVP.  And, if you’re actually in this for the long haul, you need to know: All these people—these are the people to whom hockey belongs, and if you were truly being "guardians of the game," that is the UVP of your business, you'd make it a point to know why each of them sacrifice something to play some role in the business that is the NHL.  

If you truly understood that these are the people to whom hockey belongs, Mr. Bettman.    Mr. Fehr, if you were truly concerned about the best interests of ALL your players, you would be terribly concerned that the NHL has not banned headshots (as EVERY other level of ELITE hockey—from major junior to college to the International Ice Hockey Federation has).   Mr. Fehr, if you were truly concerned about growing the game in the United States, you’d actually find a way to work with Mr. Bettman on the very things that prevent the game from growing revenues exponentially (we’ll simply ignore science and continue to allow “legal headshots” and we will not make any changes to our rulebook—as the NFL, with revenues that dwarf the NHL’s, does regularly to encourage a better product—because, who really cares that our All-Star talent was sidelined for months last year and some Future Hall-of-Fame player's career just ends due to concussions).   Mr. Bettman, you’d tell owners to get their acts together and realize there are 3 to 5 men in the world at any given time who merit a contract that’s 10 years long (hello, the prime of a career is usually 5 years, even for All-Stars!) and to make decisions with the brains that made them their billions in the first place rather than their “I must win!” play pocketbooks.  Mr. Fehr, you’d actually deal with the root issues of what’s wrong with the “NHL” brand of hockey when trying to ensure your players make the most money they can throughout their careers. 

One last—but important—honest observation:  I don’t think you two like each much on a personal level.   I think you are both used to winning.  I think you both have stubborn personalities.   And I think these personal issues—“F” issues, if you will—are inhibiting you from making wise and rational decisions.    And I’d like to advise—from a cold-hearted, rational perspective—that no one who actually gives a damn about the game cares at all about your feelings or “contest” or “one-up-man ship” or who wins this little game the two of you have going about “I must win” and “No, I must win.”

Because you don’t understand that what you’re doing is not the game—you are destroying the game.

And, as you should have already seen, the game of hockey just doesn’t belong to you.  The game never has belonged to you, and the game never will belong to you.

So, in the best interest of the game that had enabled the NHL as a business to generate revenues in the billions, please immediately return to the game to the people it belongs to—before it’s too late for any new folks to come to enjoy the game we know and love, that’s way bigger than us, one that was here long before us and should—should, whether it’s NHL or not is up to you—exist long after we’re not here.


A Concerned Consultant

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Different Approach to Silly Season (AKA The Importance of Personality Theory in Constructing a Champion)

With Jordan Staal gone, Ray Shero has a problem. The problem is not replacing the minutes Staal played on the penalty kill (Brandon Sutter should be able to do that) or even replacing the goals Staal scored (more challenging, especially if the Penguins don't manage to land a scoring winger in 2012 silly season, otherwise known as NHL unrestricted free agency). Nope, the Penguins have a different problem with Staal gone.

Think back to the printed copy of last year's schedule and the Pittsburgh players whose photographs graced that schedule. The then-core of Crosby/Malkin/Staal/Letang/Orpik/Fleury.

Now let's do a brief explanation of personality theory. In Myers-Briggs typology, Fs are people driven primarily by emotions. Fs are emotional. They tend to make emotional decisions, they wear their hearts on their sleeves, and they can be high-strung. On the other hand, Ts are rational. Ts tend to make decisions based on logic and data, not on what "feels right." Ts tend to be "low-key" and "calm."

Hockey Consultant, frankly, doesn't give a flying fig about the personality of Pittsburgh's core players OFF the ice (and she would not be at all surprised to learn that players who are Fs on the ice are Ts off the ice, and vice-versa). She is first and foremost—and frankly, only—concerned about their on-ice temperaments. And, quickly, let's examine the ON-ICE personalities of Pittsburgh's remaining core players.

Sidney Crosby: Emotional leader. Plays his best with controlled passion.

Evgeni Malkin: Highly emotional, highly skilled player. Like Crosby, plays his best with controlled passion.

Kris Letang: Another highly skilled, highly emotional player. Like Crosby and Malkin, he plays his best with controlled passion.

James Neal: Skilled. Emotional. This seems to be a pattern. He plays best with just the right edge to his game.

Brooks Orpik: He's a little older than the other players, and perhaps he's closer to the line, but there's no doubt he's more emotional than not and that he, like the other players, plays his best when he's controlling his emotions. He, too, plays his best with just the right edge to his game.

Marc-Andre Fleury: Oh, yes. Watch him practice and you know he's skilled and emotional through and through.

To be blunt, players like Pittsburgh's current crop of core players do not play well when they are not emotionally engaged in the game. They do not play their best when they try to be something they are not: low-key or steady-as-she-goes. They play their best when they are in control of their emotions, but they also play their best when they're working from their strengths: their emotions can propel them to take over games. As a fan, watching one of these players determine, "We're not losing this game" or "We're winning this game" and then letting his controlled passion propel him to take over the game, well—that's exactly what you want your core players to do.

To be blunt: There's absolutely nothing wrong with being an emotional player. It's not an indictment of character or leadership to be emotional. And it's also important that emotional players are always emotional players. Typically a more mature player learns to harness his emotions more effectively with experience, but make no mistake Chris Chelios still played his best hockey, at age 25 or age 40, with a nasty and emotional edge to his game. Natural temperament isn't outgrown, but that should not be considered a problem. Frankly, a hockey team that has no emotional players and no emotional leaders is not likely to win anything. Teams, going as far back as the 1992 Penguins, have always needed an emotional F in Kevin Stevens to guarantee the victory and a low-key, steady T in Ron Francis to help such victories along with their calm and steady presence. when something goes wrong during the game.

But what happens you have an entire team comprised of guys like Kevin Stevens? What happens when you don't have Ron Francis to balance out Kevin Stevens? What happens when you have an entire team comprised of guys with no emotional spark? What happens when your team is out-of-balance one way or the other?

Is it fair to say what happens is what happened in Pittsburgh's first-round meltdown against the Philadelphia Flyers, when players who have won before, who have previously shown character in spades, simply seemed to forget hockey basics?

Is it fair to say the way to bring out the best in emotional players is NOT to surround them with players who are exactly like them?

So, with Jordan Staal—seemingly the only one of the core players who wasn't an on-ice F and whose emotions didn't get the better of him throughout that series—gone, how should Ray Shero approach 2012 silly season? How can he bring out the best in his current core of players?

Assuming Shero keeps the same core, the way to bring out the best in those emotional players is simple: Don't surround them with players exactly like them.

It's still first and foremost about hockey—so get guys who can penalty kill if you don't have them. Get size if you need it. Get scoring if you need that. But if you're selecting between two guys who can play defense, then don't take the guy whose personality exactly matches that of "the" guys on your team. Take the guy who cares just as much as those guys, but the one who—frankly—is far less likely to respond emotionally to a to a real or imagined offense of an opponent or to something going great or going poorly in a game. Because you already have the core players who can do what most teams dream of when they harness their emotions and unleash their all-world skills to take over a game, it only makes sense to surround such talent with other players who, by their very nature, are far less prone to being driven by their emotions.

Make the deliberate decision to balance your team. It's not a coincidence the 2009 Stanley Cup champions had defensive stalwarts Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill to go along with offensive defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang. It's also not a coincidence that a championship defense was balanced with steady Ts Scuderi/Gill/Gonchar and emotional Fs in Orpik and Letang. Balance, in both hockey skill and personality type, matters a great deal.

Frankly, the Penguins' core players need help to be the best they can be—and that help will not come from surrounding them with players who are just as emotionally driven as they are. Far better to surround them with players who care just as much, but whose "steady-as-she-goes" on-ice approach is the perfect complement to a "run-and-gun; let's go do this!" that helps the Pittsburgh core players play their best hockey.

In other words, Ray Shero, go get some steady Ts to surround your All-Star emotional Fs.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Championships=every player in right role at right time

                                      Stop asking if the player(s) choked or lacked character.
Start asking if every player was in the right role at the right time of his career.

In the midst of disappointing playoff defeat, it's easy—if more often than not a logical fallacy—to attribute unexpected playoff losses to teams or players "choking" or "lacking character." But, more often than not, there's something else going on when a player who has previously won a championship suddenly appears to be "choking" or a team's core that isn't quite ready to win a championship just appears to have all sorts of "character" issues that cause them to "choke" or "underperform" in the postseason.

Let's look at some historical examples:
  • Prior to 1991, Mario Lemieux was considered a player who wasn't as good as Gretzky. Lemieux hadn't won a single championship, let alone multiple championships. In 1991, however, Lemieux finally got a championship team around him, and the result was two consecutive championships. Lemieux, thrown into the playoffs with no help=his team chokes and he lacks character and can't win big games.   Lemieux, in the playoffs with a supporting cast=he is full of character and the captain of a champion and a player who comes through in the clutch.  
  • Prior to Detroit's Cup victories in the nineties, Steve Yzerman and his Red Wings were considered historical underachievers.   Yet Yzerman got help in the form of a deep supporting cast, and, suddenly, the Red Wings were the elite team in the NHL.  Suddenly, Yzerman was a great leader, full of character, who helped his team win. Yet Yzerman, like Lemieux, finally got help—and when help arrived, well, so did Stevie Y as a hockey leader.
  • Wayne Gretzky won four championships as an Oiler. He remained a great player, but he never had other players, playing the right roles at the right times, to win another championship.
  • Mark Messier, considered the leader of leaders, required the right players in the right roles at the right time to win championships. When Messier was surrounded by players playing the right roles at the right times in their careers, he won. And when Messier wasn't surrounded by such players, he didn't win championships—a pattern that's held true for every Hockey Hall of Famer throughout history because hockey is a team game.

Now, let's look at some examples from this playoff season:
  • In Los Angeles, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are complementary players who do not have to be the faces of the franchise. Suddenly, Richards is free to play the role at the NHL level he's best suited to play: stalwart second line center. Suddenly, it seems, "Dry Island" wasn't really the issue. Instead, it seems the Los Angeles Kings have players such as Richards and Carter playing the right roles—very important complementary ones—at the right time in their careers. (Philadelphia made the right move in determining these players weren't best suited to be face-of-the-franchise players, but the Kings also made the right move in slotting them in their proper roles as complementary stars.)
  • The current core of the Washington Capitals has been accused of "choking" or lacking "character" a lot in previous postseasons. Never mind facts about Alexander Ovechkin's career points-per-game average in the playoffs. Never mind that Washington has never had a true number one shutdown defenseman or true number one goalie. No, it's always about "character" or "choking." Suddenly, however, when John Carlson and Karl Alzner have matured into defensemen who can play a shutdown role (and if you think they're good now, just watch them in a couple of years), when Ovechkin's job can simply be to generate offense, when a very good goalie can stop the puck, and when Mike Green doesn't have to be a #1 defenseman but can do his thing offensively and on the power play—the Capitals look like a very, very good team because, for the first time, ever, they may actually have players in the roles they are best suited to play. (And when Alzner and Carlson get Cup rings—and they will—it won't be because they suddenly grew "character" but because they were playing the roles they were suited to play on a team that was fit to win it all. And if by some chance those players don't get rings, it won't be because they lacked character, but because they had the misfortune of playing on teams not constructed with every player playing the right role at the right time in his career.)
  • If you watched Game 3 of the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, you watched former Stanley Cup champions Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Kris Letang have mini-implosions that made it look those players were simply choking. If you watched, at best you thought none of those players had any composure, and, at worst, you thought they lacked character, big-time. If you looked back to when they won the Cup in 2009 (when these players, three years younger, looked like they had composure and character in spades), you'd discover that a well-conditioned Crosby beat Philadelphia with two large physical wingers on each side of him. You'd discover a defense that insulated Marc-Andre Fleury a lot better and a defense that ran eight deep, helped each other, and didn't force any one defenseman (even Gonchar) to do everything by himself—and you'd note that Crosby, Fleury, and Letang no longer had the help they'd had when the 2009 Pittsburgh team won it all.

When you look at facts, you see how silly it is to attribute playoff losses to issues of character and choking.

Throw any great player into the playoffs with no help. His team chokes. He lacks character. He can't win big games.

Surround a great player with a team that can win it all. He has lots of character. He wins the big games.

Memo: Mario Lemieux was the same player, with the same character, before 1991 and after 1992. Ditto Jaromir Jagr after 1992 (in fact, Jagr got better as a player). When Lemieux and Jagr lost, in later years, look at the goaltending they didn't get. Look at the defensive help they didn't have. They were the same players, winners and champions, but they didn't have the right help at the right time, and they only won two championships because their later teams didn't give them the right help at the right time, with every player in the right role at the right time in his career, to capture another championship.

The harsh truth: it's about the right role at the right time. So, what does that harsh truth mean for general managers who are charged with putting teams together? What does it mean for coaches? What does it mean for analysts and fans?

General managers have to figure out what roles their players are best suited to play at this point in their careers, and surround those players with the help they need to play those roles. If your superstar center needs a big wing, make sure he has one. If your stalwart defenseman happens to be smaller than average, make sure you have some body-bangers on defense who can do what he physically can't. If your goalie can make the big save at the right time but needs some help to do so, make sure your team is properly insulating him. If your team is full of emotional players who wear their hearts on their jerseys and care so much they can lose their minds, make sure you surround them with some steady-as-she-goes guys who care just as much but are by nature temperamentally a little calmer. (Memo to Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero: I think I may have stated some of the help I believe your core players need.)

Coaches need to put players in the best position to succeed. There's a reason young defensemen tend to play protected minutes—it's for the team's good, and their good. Sometimes a GM forces a coach's hand, and a coach is forced to put players in positions where they can't succeed. But coaches need to know. My center needs this winger. My goalie needs this support defensively. I can't run my top two defensemen into the ground if I want them to play at an elite level game in and game out.

For analysts and fans, it means that most "analysis" (save for silliness like players staying out until 4 AM the night before a playoff game) should not be about "character" or "choking"—because, historically, it's just rare the actual core issue has much to do with "character" and "choking." Character and choking, as it turns out, have a lot to do with players being in the wrong role at the wrong time of their careers, or being in the right role at the right time of their careers but with no help to perform that right role at the right time.

If you watched Pittsburgh's first round series with Philadelphia this spring, you saw meltdowns. Ray Shero said it wasn't about character. And I agreed with him. It was about players not having the help they needed to play the roles they were asked to play.

Right roles, right times of career, with the right help=a team that wins a Stanley Cup 

Wrong roles, wrong times of career=a team that won't win the Stanley Cup

Right role, right time of career, but no help to play that role=a team that "should" win the Cup on paper, but is never going to win the Cup

For players that have won championships before or will win championships in the future, it's all about the right roles and the wrong roles and the right help or insufficient help. This year, it's about Jaromir Jagr, at age 40, not being expected to carry a team on his back like he did in his twenties. In 2009, it's about Kris Letang, in his second year in the league, being expected to play a complementary role on the power play, but not run the power play, on a team that wins a championship. Last year, it was about John Carlson and Karl Alzner—character guys and talented players—not yet being the shutdown guys they would be a mere one year later. (Seriously, if Washington was truly going to win it all in 2011, what in the world were they thinking having two very talented but very young and inexperienced players—kids— in the role of shutdown defensemen?)

Being real forces us to admit that talk of character and choking should be dismissed as the joke it usually is, and that, instead, we should turn our attention to the real question: Do I have the right players in the right roles at the right time of their careers, surrounded by the help they need to perform those roles well, so much that my team can win a championship?

That's the only question that matters. And those meltdowns—they're often about caring, albeit "too much" or a "wrong" manifestation of caring. And they belie a greater issue: Which of these roles does this team need to address in order to capture a championship?

Injecting Some Sanity into Speculation

Two questions must be asked, and those questions aren't about the cap

For teams whose NHL seasons have ended—and even for some teams whose seasons have yet to end—speculation has already begun. Speculation about free agents staying or leaving. Speculation about trades. Speculation about the upcoming CBA and the salary cap and how that will impact which players will remain with or leave certain teams.

Let's be honest. Most of this speculation is just that: speculation. It's idle speculation at best, and, for the most part, it's not based on any real knowledge. But, by starting with the salary cap, it's fundamentally wrong. Since speculation will always happen, let's speculate by asking the two questions teams should be asking themselves when constructing a roster:

Question 1: What's our timetable?

Question 2: What do we need to achieve our timetable?

The salary cap is the framework in which these questions get asked, but, fundamentally, the salary cap is just that: the framework in which everything happens. The hockey questions must be answered within the context of the salary cap, but the above questions are the questions teams must first and foremost ask themselves when they go about constructing their rosters.

The "What's our timetable?" question is critical. Because, if you're speculating about a trade between a team in "Win now while the opportunity is available" mode and a team that "Young and developing, but we're a couple of years from being a serious Cup contender," any "responsible" speculation should acknowledge the reality of teams in different circumstances and the different needs of a developing team and a team that's built to go capture the crown, now.

Which leads, of course, to the second question teams must ask themselves—and the reality that most idle speculation is just that precisely because that particular player or proposal is not going to help each team answer question 2 affirmatively.

So, let's talk about some of this "idle" speculation. A team built to win it all, and win it all now, based on this team's most recently playoff performance, needs to improve its defensive play and special teams. A team that's young and developing has lots of skills up front but has no one on defense who is in any way comparable to their young, offensive stars.

Now suggest a trade that improves the contender's offense while diminishing its defense. Now suggest a trade that meets a "nice to have" component for the young, developing team if it were a contending team, but not a truly "transformational" piece that takes that young and developing team to a contending team.

Now explain how this proposal would make sense for either organization--neither of which would be helping themselves to meet key areas of need.


Yet, if a hockey organization is wise, they're looking at the first two questions, and then they're figuring out how to deal with the cap constraints. The contender is looking at the reality that offense is not a problem, but defensive play certainly is, and so are special teams. If the contender is making a wise trade while remaining in "win it all now" mode, aren't they looking to improve areas of weakness rather than add to areas of strength?

Now, let's look at the young and developing organization, already rife with elite offensive talent. If one examines this team, they'll note there's not yet an elite defenseman on the team or in the pipeline. The team, as is, could be a couple of years away from seriously contending. The team could try to go and get an elite defenseman now—which is problematic because the small number of teams in "win now" mode that possess elite defensemen are likely going to want an elite defenseman to replace the one they're giving up, and you don't have an elite defenseman to offer them in return. Or your organization could draft an elite defenseman to grow up with the offensive talent up front. But, what you probably don't want to do is give up the elite talent that you might later need to obtain an elite defenseman in a trade for a player who's not going to meet your area of deepest need.

Simply stated, speculation that's based on solely on the salary cap misses huge points. It misses that the Pittsburgh Penguins, offensively, were fine and dandy; it misses that the Pittsburgh Penguins really need to fix special teams and defense if they hope to win another Stanley Cup. It misses the reality that the Edmonton Oilers' major need—now and for the future—isn't a Selke nominee (sure that would be nice), but an elite, minute-munching defenseman who can control the game at both ends of the ice. (The Selke nominee is a secondary need, but improving the defensemen themselves is more critical and would prove far more transformational to take the team to the next level.)

It is true, of course, that hockey organizations don't always behave rationally. It's true that the salary cap—whatever it winds up being in the new CBA—will always be the framework in which the hockey questions must be asked and answered.

But, when you're speculating about a player going here or going there, Hockey Consultant would dare to suggest you think like a wise hockey organization should and ask the hockey questions.

So, the next time you're talking about free agency or a trade, remember these questions:

  • What's the timetable?
  • What is needed to achieve that timetable?

More often than not, you're going to find most speculation is just that—speculation that is not likely to play out as speculated. Simply because, as it turns out, well-run hockey teams ask the hockey questions….and then try to make trades or sign free agents that will help them achieve their goals. And, more often than not, though you have to give to get, a team is not going to be giving up a player that helps them win if that team is not getting a return in their area of deepest need.


The Convenient Cop-out of Character & Choking

History Lesson 1: The 1992 Chicago Blackhawks
Why cries of "No Character!" and "They choked!" are most often a fallacy

It's springtime, which means it is NHL playoff season. Which means it's time for an annual rite of spring: teams favored to win the Stanley Cup are eliminated, earlier than they were supposed to be. Teams that were built to win it all disappear in the first or second round of the playoffs. And then comes the alleged analysis—otherwise known as fans, journalists, and former players now making their living as analysts trying to figure out what went so wrong with teams favored by Vegas to win hockey's holy grail. And, almost automatically, attributions about a "lack of character" and/or "choking" arrive. For a team with so many All-Star players, with a team that won so many games so easily during the regular season, surely the only explanation for an early round playoff exit is the lack of character of said team's star players and, likewise, the inability of that team's star players to perform in the clutch.

Rather than deal with the logical fallacies of "lack of character" when it comes to players who have been proven their character many previous times in their careers and the blatant idiocy of stating that key contributors to previous championships are completely incapable of coming through in the clutch, I want to take a look at a team that broke an NHL record for most consecutive wins in one playoff season. I am not talking about the Stanley Cup champion 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins, who actually tied a playoff record first set by the team they would ultimately face in the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Let's examine the highlights of the roster of the 1992 Chicago Blackhawks. (You can view the entire roster here).

Goalies: Ed Belfour, Dominik Hasek
Defensemen: Chris Chelios, Steve Smith, Igor Kravchuk
Forwards: Jeremy Roenick, Dirk Graham, Steve Larmer, Steve Thomas, Brent Sutter, Michel Goulet.


So, Chris Chelios won multiple Stanley Cups and Norris Trophies in his career. Did he "choke" as a member of a team that let a 3-0 lead in Game 1 slip away? Did those players who performed on championship teams all choke? And did those guys who were known for their character and grittiness for the duration of their careers lack character? Looking at other players, up and down the roster, it seems clear that the Blackhawks were an excellent hockey team, full of character players, guys who had won or would win Cups or medals, who were winners.

So what in the world happened to a team that was swept in the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals? 

The 1992 Blackhawks had to play against the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins. The excellent Chicago team that broke the record for most consecutive wins in one playoff year earned the privilege of playing against three Hall-of-Fame centers, a Hall-of-Fame defenseman, and 4 wingers who would combine to score thousands of goals in their NHL careers. 

The Blackhawks had to play against Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Jaromir Jagr, and Larry Murphy.  They had to play against Rick Tocchet and Kevin Stevens when they were in the prime of their careers as power forwards. They had to play against a hot goaltender, Tom Barrasso, in his prime. They had to play against defensive stalwarts named Samuelsson and bottom-line grinders who had come up through the system and gone through losing and learned how to win and it likely mentions reiterating: well—the offensive skill of that 1992 juggernaut Pittsburgh team speaks for itself.

Years later, Hockey Consultant still believes that 1992 Blackhawks team was the best team Jeremy Roenick ever played on. She still believes that 1992 Chicago team was the best chance Jeremy Roenick ever really had to win a Stanley Cup. (There's only one other team that's won 11 consecutive games in a single playoff year.)

Yet, what happens in hockey happens in hockey. Match-ups matter. And a team, full of character guys who had previously won Cups and many of whom would go on to win still more championships, was swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins after "choking" away a 3-0 lead in the first game of the 1992 Cup Finals.

But the Blackhawks didn't choke. Ed Belfour and Dominik Hasek didn't choke. Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick didn't choke. Dirk Graham, the captain of that Chicago team, cared as much as any player on the 1992 Penguins.

That Blackhawks team had the misfortune of encountering one of the best hockey teams assembled in the past quarter century, with half a roster full of players who could legitimately be considered for a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. And the Blackhawks lost, and lost badly in close, tight games—they were swept.

Yet, if you look at the careers of the players on that Blackhawks team, you won't find players who lacked the "character" needed to win Cups or medals, and you won't find an entire team of guys with a record of "choking" (it's worth noting both those Blackhawks goalies eventually won Stanley Cups). You'll find great guys who comprised an excellent team and who played tremendously—and who just got beat by a better team— the only team, in fact, that has ever matched their record of winning 11 consecutive games in a single playoff year.

More often than not, a player who makes it to the NHL is not one with a track record of "bad" character, nor is that player one who "always chokes" during big games: most players with any of those issues simply simply don't get or manage to stay in the NHL if those are their issues. And crying "bad" character or "always chokes" of a player who's contributed to championships, well, clearly this is not a pattern of "bad" character or "choking" if that player has contributed to championship teams. More often than not, crying "no character!" and "they choked!" is a lazy, all-too-convenient cop-out for people too lazy to do actual analysis of why a team they presumed was so great ended up losing a playoff series.

Two decades later—when it's easy to analyze actual hockey because the raw emotions have dissipated and history tells us about the career trajectory of those Blackhawks and Penguins—it's simple merely to look at the video, rosters, and box scores, and come to the conclusion that the 1992 Chicago Blackhawks being swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup final wasn't about choking or character at all.

That it was just about hockey, and one hockey team, full of character guys who had won, beating another team, also full of character guys who had won and would win still more.

So, a simple request: The next time you're prompted to scream "Character!" or "Choking!" to attribute the cause of an unexpected playoff loss, would you consider redirecting the conversation to something that's actually related to hockey, rather than—let's be honest—imaginary issues about players who—on the whole— care deeply about winning championships?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

One of Us is All of Us, or They’re All MY Guy

  The emotional argument for banning all headshots from NHL hockey

When Hockey Consultant was a fifteen-year-old avid hockey fan (emphasize on FAN) back in the late nineties, her team was the Pittsburgh Penguins.   Those Penguins were led by Hockey Consultant’s all-time favorite player, a right winger named Jaromir Jagr.     At the time, Jagr’s chief rival for the title of “best hockey player in the world” was a center from the Philadelphia Flyers named Eric Lindros.   As a fan, Hockey Consultant hated everything about the Philadelphia Flyers.  And, of course, Hockey Consultant insisted her guy, Jagr, was far better than the Flyers’ guy, Lindros.

A decade and a half later, Hockey Consultant will shake her head in shame as she regurgitates exactly what she thought about Eric Lindros at about the time Scott Stevens was making it a point to bash Lindros’s head very hard.    Lindros, you see, wasn’t as good as Jagr.   Lindros wasn’t as good as people cracked him up to be.  A specific flashback to the thoughts of a 15-year-ols fan yields something like the italicized paragraph below:
Eric Lindros is a whiny crybaby who needs to learn how to keep his head up.  If Lindros had the sense and wits to keep his up and not do that stupid stuff, he’d never get concussions and he’d be perfectly fine.  If Lindros were truly as good as people say he is, if he were really as good as he was heralded to be, none of this stuff would have happened to him.    Clearly, Jaromir Jagr has superior hockey sense.   Clearly, if Jagr can play and not get concussed, then Lindros isn’t as good as Jagr.   While Bobby Clarke is an imbecile for insisting Lindros should play through serious injuries, fact of the matter is, if Lindros just had a bit more of that heralded hockey sense and used his brain a little better, maybe he would not have a brain injury in the first place.  If Lindros is really that good, why can’t he just keep his head UP? 

Hockey Consultant winces and is ashamed of her age-15 thinking.    Because, as you’d probably guess, Hockey Consultant doesn’t think the same way she did at fifteen anymore.   As an adult she’s read about the post-playing lives of players like Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau, and she can now see them first as humans, not as she used to see them (when they were Flyers and that’s all they were because, yes, hockey fans are that insane).    Even this season, she’s read about the agony endured by another Flyer, Chris Pronger, and she admits all her italicized thoughts, circa age fifteen, were, are, and will always be completely wrong. 

Yet, in February 2012, Hockey Consultant observes an NHL that still adapts, far too easily, to her fifteen-year-old mindset.    In the 2011-12 season, the NHL still has a Rule 48 that puts the emphasis on a player in a vulnerable position to avoid the hit rather than making the elimination of head shots as black-and-white clear as are the league’s high-sticking penalties.   Hence, head hits that concuss athletes and have the potential to end seasons and careers aren’t always penalized due to the gray area of league rules.   And the men who run the NHL don’t seem to have an interest in changing those rules.   “It’s a hockey play.  He has to accept risk.  He has to keep his head up.”  The most recent such incident happened in a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars, but the ongoing dialogue has happened throughout the year, and all often, we still hear, “It’s just part of hockey.” 

There are legitimate business reasons to eliminate all headshots from NHL hockey (including the need to insure contracts; avoid legal trouble, both with being sued and have the government intervene and shape the game for you due to serious injuries; and the obvious one of needing to sell and market the players who can do what few others on the planet can do).  Likewise, there are legitimate medical reasons to eliminate any gray area when it comes to “legal” hits to the head in NHL hockey (concussions are a brain injury, not like playing on a broken foot) .   Yet none of these reasons seem to make a dent in in the ingrained mindset of those who are accustomed to viewing incidental head contact, and well, everything awful that’s associated with it, as unfortunate but a “part of hockey and we can’t do anything about it.”

Except they can do something to minimize it, by eliminating the gray area.   And the only thing, it seems, which gets a mindset to change, is when it’s YOUR guy who’s the one who could be the next Eric Lindros.

Let Hockey Consultant admit what she’s felt as a fan.    Twice this season, she’s watched her current favorite player drop to the ice after being struck in the head.   (Yes, Eric Nystrom may not have targeted Kris Letang’s head, but Nystrom still hit Letang in the chin, which, last time Hockey Consultant checked, was part of the head.)   She’s winced each time it happened and wondered if a 24-year-old who’s been projected to win a “Norris trophy or two” by the time his career is over is actually going to get that chance.   

And she understood something, as a fan, which she didn’t understand at fifteen.    Speaking from the mindset of a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins:   Crosby and Letang are her guys.   They’re HERS. 

Do they lack hockey sense?   (Despite what some amusing folks posting on online forums complain about when they’re nitpicking about Letang, hardly.)   Are they soft?   (No.  Ask the Ottawa Senators of 2010, who remember Kris Letang as a player who regularly took hits to make plays.)   Are they players who lack toughness or heart or hockey sense, who somehow “deserve” the concussions they got?  When Letang’s head is slightly down because in both cases, he was actually trying to make a hockey play, that’s supposed to mean it’s OK to hit him in the head?  (Needless to say, Hockey Consultant no longer thinks what she used to think of Eric Lindros, either.)

Now, from the broader perspective.    Take a look at the list of players who have been out with concussions this season.   The Blackwks, Flyers, and Penguins—three contenders for the Stanley Cup, especially if the teams were 100% healthy—are all without their captains and faces of the franchise due to concussions.    The Capitals are without their number one center.    Three of these teams are still in playoff position.  But their fans, and potential fans, don’t get to see these teams at their best. 

And the crazy thing?   A simple change to the rules could fix part of this.   Not fix all of it.  Not eliminate all concussions.   But simply do what’s done for high-sticking, where accidental or not, the penalty is the same.   Eliminate head-shots.   One-time headhunter Matt Cooke has stopped hitting people in the head, and if Matt Cooke can stop hitting opponents in the head, other players can learn to do the same.

Because, when it comes to NHL hockey, they are all “our” guys.   Claude Giroux and Chris Pronger from the Flyers; Jonathan Toews from the Blackhawks; Nicklas Backstrom of the Capitals—these are “my” guys as much as Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins.   They’re the men who should be the headline stories in the playoffs.     The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers could easily meet in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.   Both teams could easily be without their franchise players—and not due to “hockey plays” like shot blocks that break bones or inadvertent, accidental, awkward collisions that result in torn knee ligaments. 

But, if you’re a fan, or you’re in the game, you know the agony you feel when it’s “your” guy who goes down?  When it’s Letang who’s sprawled on the ice again, a player who’s beloved both by at-opposite-ends-of-the-spectrum Hockey-Hall-of-Famers Scott Bowman and Paul Coffey, and you’re angry and sad and worried all at once about the player and the game and the league? 

And there’s a simple way to look at reducing the agony that simply says, “Be accountable and don’t hit someone in the head.”

You don’t want it happening to your guy.   Then, remember something else, Eric Lindros is your guy.  So is Keith Primeau.  So are Sidney Crosby, Chris Pronger, Kris Letang, Claude Giroux, Nicklas Backstrom, and Jonathan Toews.

Let the playoffs be a fair fight between the franchise centers and franchise defensemen of the Flyers and the Penguins.    And you do that, simply, by saying that a hit to the head—accidental or inadvertent or not—is not a hockey play, and that it has no place in the NHL game.

Because all those guys.   They’re all your guys, and they deserve to be treated the way you want your guys to be treated.  And if there is any possible way to prevent your guy from being sprawled on the ice in agony, or out for months, or out for the year, or done with his career far too soon, if that injury to your guy could have been prevented--be honest.

You want to do what it takes to protect your guy.   If the injury could have been prevented by a simple change to the rules, you want the rule change.  Because you want your guy on the ice, doing his thing and helping your team.  So, the emotional argument to ban all headshots--accidental or otherwise--is simple.

You don't want it for your guy, and, though your fifteen-year-old self may not realize it, truthfully, they're all your guys.

An Open Letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

     The purely pragmatic business decision:   Remove all headshots from NHL hockey

Dear Commissioner Bettman:

I’m writing about the need to eliminate all headshots—accidental or inadvertent or otherwise—from NHL hockey.    And I’m writing about this need from a purely pragmatic, bottom line perspective of your need, as NHL Commissioner, to maintain a sustainable business model for the National Hockey League.

There are three primary reasons for the NHL to eliminate the gray area from the rulebook and make all headshots illegal.  All three reasons have everything to do with maintaining the National Hockey League as a sustainable business over the long haul.

Reason 1:     You won’t be able to insure the players.
Mr. Bettman, this one has already been written about.   But the NHL is a huge business, and players sign multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts that teams insure.   Now put yourself in the position of an insurance company asked to insure the contract of a player who’s already suffered a few concussions.    It is highly likely individual NHL franchises won’t be able to afford these premiums.     I will not spell out all the potential consequences of this issue, but suffice to say, the NHL is going to have to change if it desires for its business to remain viable.  

Reason 2:  The potential ramifications of failing to eliminate headshots put the NHL in a precarious legal and financial position.
Mr. Bettman, you are no doubt well aware of the former NFL players who have filed a lawsuit against the NFL.   By failing to address a known issue (head hits cause brain injuries), chances increase that the NHL is one day on the receiving end of a similar lawsuit.    But there is a second, more immediate legal danger.  One NHL General Manager has stated he is petrified a player is going to die on the ice from a  head hit.  If that happens, what do you expect the legal ramifications to be?    Isn’t there a chance—more than a chance—that a government steps in and legislates the game for you, or worse yet, makes it illegal to play hockey, or illegal to play hockey that way?  (Lest you think I am imagining a doomsday scenario, imagine what happens if a player dies on the ice.  Is that manslaughter?  What is it?)     Since you have a law degree and I do not, I will leave the above statements as such and let you draw your own conclusions, but make no mistake:  The NHL could reduce its legal risks if it would make it clear in its rulebook, and strictly enforce, that no headshot of any kind is acceptable in any NHL game.   

Reason 3:    Allowing legal head shots to continue makes it impossible for the NHL to market, sell, and grow NHL hockey. 
Mr. Bettman, here I am not talking about what you have no doubt heard ad nauseam (how it’s the players like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews and Nicklas Backstrom, not the guys who concuss them, who sell and market the sport of hockey).  I respect your intelligence and will not bore you with facts you know: That it’s better for hockey for great players to be on the ice and that what they do on the ice sells and markets and grows the sport more than the greatest sales or marketing plan.

No, here I’m talking about something that goes beyond the need for the stars to be on the ice.   I’m talking about what happens to your league when it’s another star player who gets hurt.  When the list what’s up on NBCSportsNetwork at intermission is all about the list of injured All-Stars who are out of the lineup with concussions.  I am talking about parents who won’t want their children to play hockey due to the risk (I grew up assuming my future kids would play hockey, and this past year has made me reconsider that long-held assumption).   I am talking about potential fans who won’t buy tickets because if they want to see head hits, there are other sports where they can watch that.   I am talking about long-time fans who flick off the TV, or get tired—though they love hockey—of defending a sport that can’t take proper care of its own players. 

I love hockey.   But for hockey to thrive, role players have to be more like reformed Matt Cookie, circa 2012, not like Matt Cooke, circa 2010, who hit opponents in the head.   Hockey will always remain unique in requiring short shifts and the right role players to complement superstars in order to capture a championship.  Collectively, all those players sell and market NHL hockey.

But right now, how can all those players sell and market NHL hockey when NHL hockey is viewed through the lense of elite athletes out with concussions and a league that’s failed to act to protect its players?    Right now, with headshots and head injuries detracting from everything great about hockey, the NHL isn’t even giving its players—all of them—a chance to show off the greatness of NHL athletes.    And the players, and the game itself, deserve the chance.

Commissioner Bettman, while I believe the three reasons I’ve delineated above speak volumes about why headshots no longer have a place in the NHL game, I understand that you’ve never played hockey at an NHL level.  I also understand that you respect those who do and who have and view those men as “guardians of the game.”  

For hockey to be played.  For parents to allow their children to play hockey.  For elite athletes to grow up and want to play hockey.   For insurance companies to be willing to insure your players’ contracts.   For the government not to have to rewrite your rulebook for you.    For all those reasons—not just the common (and truthful) song-and-dance you hear about needing star players to market and sell the sport to fans new and old—you have to make a purely pragmatic decision that is driven only by business interests.

You—on your own, as its business leader—have to push through to many who say “it’s just a hockey play” whenever a player hits another player in the head—that head shots are no longer part and parcel of NHL hockey.  That all head shots are illegal.

And, Gary, this isn’t about the sport of hockey.   This goes beyond the sport.   It’s about taking care of the athletes who play the sport, who need to be protected from themselves.   It’s about taking care of the business of the sport.

However, I suspect you will find that taking care of the athletes, and taking care of the business, enables the sport to take care of itself.  Hockey will still be hockey.  Injuries will still happen, and concussions won’t totally go away.

But the league will have taken a step in the right direction, a step that keeps players on the ice, playing hockey, and that makes it much more likely the NHL remains a sustainable, viable business well into the 21st century.

P.S.  Other initiatives, including work on equipment design and various studies on other ways to reduce head injuries, should also be implemented and acted upon in an effort to reduce concussions.  But we know direct blows to the head cause concussions, so start there, and act swiftly as the league’s business leader.  And, since they already boo you, who cares if you get a few more boos if you’re doing the right thing?  (But, if you pushed through a ban on headshots, I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll be remembered not as the man the fans booed, but as the man who helped to save hockey by saving the sport from itself.)