Hockey culture, character, and winning: how we choose what we value

"this decision represents an organization making a trade-off between a demonstrable on-ice value (the scoring potential of Kostitsyn and Radulov) and a more nebulous off-ice moral principle (players must all obey the same curfew). Coaches and managers make these kinds of trade-offs all the time in hockey- think Laviolette's Dry Island or Burke's Pre-Deadline Deadline- and in every case they should be questioned. Every time a team decides to put ideology ahead of pragmatism, every time they put something ahead of winning, we should ask why" -Ellen Etchingham, May 2, 2012, What is Team Culture For? (And Six Other Questions for the Nashville Predators)

"In Parityland, the winner doesn't necessarily have a magic formula and the loser didn't necessarily do anything wrong. Winning doesn't necessarily mean being inherently better at hockey anymore. Rather, it becomes a tautology: the winners won because they won, because somebody had to win, and they happened to be ahead when time ran out. " -Ellen Etchingham, April 20, 2012, On Parity

Philosophical consistency is not a strong suit of the human mind. I know I don't have it, not really. It's certainly not prevalent in sports analysis. Even as Ellen Etchingham chastised the Predators for putting character above winning, she recognized the absurdity of labeling individual players as "winners" and worried over the ways that league parity affected how teams have to play to win. And she's not the only writer to be so conflicted about the balance between "going for it" and "doing it right."

You hear it throughout the hockey world. Winning is everything. Winning ought to be the only consideration. Except for all the other considerations. Don't put your petty moralities above winning, unless your morality involves making a statement against defensive trap systems (the wrong way to win), or about the unacceptability of head shots (which should get guys taken out of the game no matter what), or realizing that a good player on a bad team is still a good player.

We actually have a complex relationship with winning. The same person who criticizes a coach or general manager for putting character above winning may also criticize a player or the league for not putting character above winning. Our job isn't to make good men, except when we need our players to be good men, aware of the humanity of the people around them. Teamwork only matters when it's mechanical in nature--players understanding what their teammates are doing on the ice--unless we need players to come together for each other and the fans.

Our language about winning reflects this complexity. We talk about deserving to win, about character wins, about beating ourselves. Sometimes we believe that winning must mean a team did things the right way. Sometimes we believe that their wins jeopardize the soul of the sport. Be tough and you'll win; just don't goon it up. Be skilled to win; just don't get too cute. Win through sacrifice; just don't block too many shots. And above all, have character and show respect for the game, the traditions, other players, the fans.

If we truly valued winning above character, above tradition, above watchability, above all other considerations, we would be unconflicted about a lot of things we actually debate endlessly. If winning were everything, we'd accept bad hits as the price you pay and we'd all understand that suspensions should never occur during the playoffs. We'd accept that any player--gay, straight, black, white, Russian, or (gasp!) female--would be welcome as long as they contributed. The question of European-ness or Canadian-ness in hockey would be a non-issue. There'd be no discussion.

If winning were everything, we wouldn't care about whether the number of goals was increasing or decreasing across the league. We wouldn't care about whether Alex Ovechkin's diminishing ice time makes the Capitals less fun to watch. We'd applaud the 1-3-1 as long as it helped teams win and drop it as soon as it didn't. All of our fears about the return of the so-called "dead puck era" wouldn't be fears at all. A 1-0 win is still a win. We'd be worrying about developing new strategies to win rather than changing the rules to make the game more watchable.

But winning isn't everything. And it never has been. We have lots of other values we want hockey to embody, and sometimes those things conflict with winning. We want fairness. We want passion. We want skill. We want teamwork. We want tough, smart, exciting hockey. We demand that players making ungodly amounts of money for playing a game have some perspective about that. We demand that they respect their franchises, their fans, their opponents, and the sport. We demand that they have their heads on straight and actually not act like sociopaths who can't empathize.

We want our players to be good guys. We just do. Yes, we want them to be tough and hard to play against. And of course we want them to create winning. But we want to think that, in the middle of all of that calculating coverage and angles and things, they're still aware of the other players on the ice being somehow like them, not deserving of that cheap, injurious hit to the head or knees. We want to believe that it takes a team to win, and that our players get that and know better than to coast along on their talent. We want to think that, in hockey, we win the right way.

We demand these things from our fans, too. We prize longevity in fandom. We prize creativity and passion. And we prize loyalty, win or lose. Got a losing team? Buy tickets anyway or say goodbye. Be a real fan. Low attendance has to be as much the fault of the fanbase as it is of mismanagement or poor play, right? For every voice reminding audiences that losing teams don't sell a lot of tickets, someone claims that that (sunny) city is just a bad market. Unsellable. Undeserving.

The league, we claim, must come to grips with the fact that certain actions "have no place in the game." In practice, the league is not there to facilitate winning, but to facilitate right play and we place many demands on it. Take head shots out of the game but preserve the traditions we've grown up with. Prevent large market teams from stockpiling talent and dominating small market teams through the sheer power of their wealth, but don't reward incompetence. Bring speed and scoring back to the game by tweaking the rules, but know when not to apply those rules.

Sell the game better. Defend the game better. Protect and promote the culture of hockey. Be consistent and transparent. Create fairness. Suspend in the playoffs, even in elimination games, like you would in the regular season. If winning were everything, if being great mattered more than being right, what difference would it make if Raffi Torres played? He can help his team win, right?

We do put other values above winning. We always have. And moreover we ought to; we need to. Because sport is a social arena and a moral one. And because, in life, character does matter. This may be a game, but it's real life--real, messy, complex life--not some video game simulation where the players and contexts and contingencies dissolve into electrons once we're done. We are human beings acting in human arenas, and in talking about sport we play out the moral dilemmas of our daily lives. We need sports to be at least in part about character. Because sports are about us.

To those who insist that winning must be paramount to all other considerations, that somehow all teams owe all fans a commitment to winning above all else, I say "who do you want to be?" What kind of person is a hockey person? Shouldn't our teams be doing their best to negotiate the same sorts of ethical dilemmas as we face? Do they not owe it to us and to themselves to take their humanity seriously? Shouldn't they be making thoughtful decisions that reflect the needs of all the varied constituencies that make up a community?

In the end, I don't think I could support a team that placed winning above its costs without even thinking about those costs. I don't think I could be an active member of a sports community that used people--players, fans, managers, everyone--so brutally. The fact that teams are willing to understand that in certain circumstances there is something more important than winning makes the wins better wins, wins I can get behind.

In hockey, winning the right way means something. And I like that it does.