Canadian hockey is extremely moralistic about style. […] There is a right way to play and a wrong way to play. The right way to play involves throwing big hits, going to the dirty areas of the ice, winning battles on the boards, and dropping your gloves […]. To be considered a ‘good’ hockey player by the Canadian standards, a man must embrace the most aggressive physical aspects of the game, and do so lustily and publicly. Even Canadian skill players pay lip service to these ideals, singing the praises of dumping and chasing and intimidating and shot-blocking, even when their entire game is based on playmaking or sniping.The difference between the way Sidney Crosby talks about how hockey should be played and how he actually plays is dramatic.
Some of the traditional values grew out of tactical evolutions — shot-blocking, for example […] — but others have always been pure stylistic preferences. The mistrust of flashy play has never been anything other than cultural […]. The Canadian ethics of hockey style are a mishmash of qualities that have real strategic value, qualities that used to have strategic value but don’t anymore, and qualities that never had any strategic purpose to begin with.
There is nothing wrong with valuing a certain style aesthetically. Some people just like to watch bruising, physical play, and that’s fine. If the argument is I want this type of player on my team because that’s the type of player I enjoy watching, that is a […] legitimate position […] but [it’s] subjective […]. One person’s enjoyment of a big hit is not ‘better’ than another’s enjoyment of a sick wrist shot. Your love of wide-open hockey is not ‘better’ than my love of precise defensive positioning. […]
And this is the problem: we […] often treat [aesthetic preference] as something that makes certain skills more legitimate than others. We […] become entirely blind to actual performance. I had people telling me that the problem with Semin is that he ‘couldn’t hack it, physically and mentally, in the NHL’. This is a man who has played 469 career games and scored 408 points — if that’s not hacking it in the NHL, nothing is.[…] [T]he difference between Semin’s playoff production rates and Parise’s is negligible. Yet the way Parise plays [inflates] his status, while the way Semin plays [diminishes] his. This isn’t just liking one way of playing more than another. This is allowing the ethics of style to dramatically distort the public perception of a player’s real contributions to his team’s success. […] [This] desire to make play style count for more than results stems from a discomfort with meritocracy. Sports […] reveal the point at which people go from loving meritocracy to hating it, which is generally about when they realize that sometimes achievement has more to do with genetic gifts than hard work. The usual concept of meritocracy in North America is the Horatio Alger version, where people achieve what they do by virtue of dedication and character, but in sports people achieve what they do through dedication, character, and inborn capacities that they had no control over and deserve no moral credit for […]. […] Nobody really likes the idea that there might be some places in life where some people are just plain better than others. So we […] try to make hockey into an effortocracy. […] Don Cherry goes on TV and begs for this or that prospect to make it, because he’s such a great kid and such a hard worker. Brian Burke holds a press conference and gets angry at the game because there’s no space for Colton Orr, who works so hard, who plays in such a good way. And people get angry at Alex Semin, because his gifts take him so much farther than other people’s hard work takes them, and although by the logic of meritocracy that’s completely fair, it nevertheless feels like a tremendous injustice. […] The scoreboard […] doesn’t care how much you care or how hard you try. It doesn’t care if you’re sincere, if you’re strong, if you’re compassionate. In its cold, magnanimous circuits, the […] only thing that matters […] is whether you can force it to change its numbers. […]
We don’t like that, especially when it rewards the sort of personalities we don’t like to read about or the sort of style we don’t like to watch, and we’re constantly trying to convince ourselves that somehow, somewhere, in the space between shots and goals, all the other little things we love about the game really really do matter. And sometimes they do. Sometimes the details of style and character do make small differences that one way or another add up to a number on the scoreboard. But the best those things do is influence the scoreboard. They do not overrule it. […]
When there is a conflict between preexisting ideas about how to play and the results a player gets, when a ‘soft, fragile, scared’ guy like Semin can kill ‘tough, strong, fearless’ fan favorites on the shot clock and the score-sheet, the productive response isn’t to try to come up with excuses for why Semin isn’t actually as good as the evidence suggests […but] to try to learn from that evidence. […] If he doesn’t have what you believe it takes to make it in the NHL, then why is he so obviously making it in the NHL? If he doesn’t do the things you believe are necessary to score, then how is he scoring so much?[…] To expect all players to play the same way because it’s ‘the right way to play’ will ultimately only quash creativity and freeze the evolution of the game. Does anyone really thing that Semin is suited to be a crashing-the-net, banging-on-the-boards kind of player? Does anybody think he would get more goals if he suddenly tried to be Mike Knuble? Expecting players to play against their gifts is at best destructive and at worst ridiculous. We don’t, after all, get angry at Knuble for not having the talent to be a sniper. Is it really more fair to be angry with Semin for not having the talent for battling in front of the net?
Alex Semin plays the style of game that he is physically, [instinctively], and temperamentally suited to play, and has proven he can make that style of game succeed in the NHL. The question for his team should not be how can we make him to play a different kind of game that he may well be worse at but we find more ethically satisfying? It should be how can we put him in the best possible position to succeed even more?
One of my chief complaints about former Kings coach Terry Murray was that he seemed to require all his players to play the same way. I say “seemed to” because it’s hard to know if, as Etchingham mentions in the post above, he was just paying lip service to the blue-paint/Canadian values or whether he really meant it. I suspect he meant it, since players who didn’t play that way, like Alex Frolov, found themselves the frequent object of public criticism and/or visits to the press box. It has often seemed odd to me that Dean Lombardi would draft players like Oscar Moller, or sign undrafted gems like Teddy Purcell or Matt Moulson, if he really expected them all to play like Mike Richards.
Is it really the case that every line has to be defensively responsible to the same degree and in the same way? Under Terry Murray, it often seemed like the first three lines were all designed to be the same, or at least, to play defense the same way (center coming back deep, etc.). But I wondered then (and do still): if every line defends the same way, doesn’t that make the code easier to crack? Why does every line have to have the same values as every other? I ask because it often seemed that Murray’s method when dealing with players like Frolov (or Ponikarovsky) was to say “continue doing what you have done (scoring) while also becoming defensively responsible.” Sounds good, in theory. Except: what if the two are mutually exclusive for a given player? What if making Frolov adhere to the same system as (insert defensive forward) makes it impossible for him to be Frolov? And if Frolov stops being Frolov after successfully executing your defensive system, whose fault is that?
One effect of insisting on one style of play over another is that such a world-view demands less of the coach (and of the players). The benefit of a team being able to play in different modes or styles is obvious. But maybe it’s just too much work — or too difficult — for most coaches. Maybe that’s why the ones who can pull it off — Scotty Bowman comes to mind — are a cut above everyone else.