rick nash

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

With the Columbus Blue Jackets having just wrapped up a historic win streak, former Rangers head coach and current Jackets skipper John Tortorella has been in the media lately talking about the character and identity of his team. As a bona fide nerd and believer in statistical analysis I’d typically be dismissive, even mockingly so, of Torts’ typical emphasis on things like “playing the game the right way”, but lately I’ve been reconsidering my stance.

The discussion around intangibles in hockey can be a polarizing one, and while I’m not sure I’m convinced that teams should pay premiums for the character of their players I’m by no means hesitant to say that these sort of things matter. Their on-ice impact is ephemeral and often over-stated, but even the most hardened spreadsheet fanalysts ascribe meaning to the game that ultimately can be tied back to qualities of character.

Let me start by establishing a basic, largely uncontested principle: the love fans feel towards the game, their team, and their favorite players transcends the pure X’s and O’s of hockey. This love of hockey can be tied to all kinds of things that help us find purpose in our fandom, but at minimum we all begin to grow fond of who certain players are as athletes. Each player brings a part of themselves onto the ice, and that ranges from the creativity we see in guys like Kevin Hayes to the resolve of Dan Girardi as he steps in front of yet another slap shot.

From interviews too we learn about the players’ personalities – Brad Richards clearly was a big fish to come from humble beginnings in a small town Canadian pond, Rick Nash is a bashful “good Ontario boy” and Zuc is exuberant and joyful in the way he approaches the game. As fans we attach ourselves to these qualities, casting our lot not only with the players but the people as we invest ourselves emotionally in their journey towards that shining silver prize.

This goes further beyond just liking certain players or teams for who they are athletically or personally; we begin to wish success or failure upon teams and players based on that murky mix of their talent and what we see in them as human beings. Think of how cruel it seems that Henrik Lundqvist, Alex Ovechkin, or PK Subban may never win a Cup and why that is. It goes beyond spectacular saves, rocketing one-timers, and smooth skating – we begin to truly care about these people.

On the other side of that coin is the resentment we begin to feel towards players and teams who have been spoiled by success or for some other reason may be undeserving. Look no further than the Chicago Blackhawks, whose key players in their campaigns for three Stanley Cups included Patrick Kane (a person so despicable I shouldn’t even have to explain his misdeeds), Duncan Keith (whose casual sexism sparked a minor controversy a couple of years back), and Andrew Shaw (whose use of a gay slur I’ve written about before on this blog). It’s unfair enough simply that they’ve had repeated success while great talents around the league seem to be stuck in a Sisyphean task, but when you consider the people they are it makes matters even worse.

Now that they’re one of the NHL’s reigning dynasties they’ve again trotted out Bobby Hull, a notorious abuser and Nazi apologist, as an ambassador of the game. No right-minded person would completely discard character in considering the careers of players like that, despite their individual and group accolades. Of course intangibles matter, although I realize there is some debate as to how exactly they matter and in what quantity.

So let’s move to the more concrete, on-ice aspects of intangibles or “playing the right way”. While it’s incredibly difficult to pin down the effects of good character and personality on the ice, it’s fairly easy to see what isn’t “playing the right way”.

Consider for example the recent Tom Wilson hit that hospitalized Devils defenseman and ex-Blueshirt John Moore. After some outcry on Twitter, a popular Caps blog noted that people decrying Wilson’s play would be a lot more convincing if they wouldn’t love to have Wilson on their team. This of course backfired, with fans responding that they would in fact not want Tom Wilson on their team.

It’s embarrassing and futile to defend plays like that or worse, because dirty plays and repeat offenders say something not only about the player but also about the person. We feel, as fans, a sort of shame being associated with that kind of hockey when it’s a player on our team and a general antipathy towards unapologetic fans when it happens on a different team. Playing the right way is important to almost any fan at least insofar as it means not playing the wrong way.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have guys like Derek Stepan, who as Sean Hartnett recounted on our podcast some time ago, is exactly the kind of player coaches love to have on the team due to the kind of leadership he brings to the locker room. Look no further than his exceptional effort against the Ottawa Senators a few weeks back when the Rangers were down early. In postgame comments Stepan remarked upon the lack of emotion on the bench and his desire to light a fire under the team and took it upon himself to do just that, helping the Rangers ultimately triumph over Ottawa with his two goals. It’s the kind of thing you can’t help but just appreciate to have a guy on the team who cares as much, if not more than we do as fans. You might even say that it’s “playing the right way”.

I want to qualify all of this with a few caveats. First, I don’t think any hockey fans or analysts completely discount intangibles. What I think people who don’t want to hear about heart might say is their impact is greatly overstated, impossible to measure, often just projection, and at worst a fig leaf for a normative, rigid hockey culture that’s rooted in the past. I’d have a hard time disagreeing with any of that entirely, but what I will say is this: hockey is a deeply human experience, involving all kinds of emotion, psychological factors, and morality.

It’s simply impossible to separate all of that out from the cold logic of stats and systems, leading us all to the question of how exactly to balance the two sides of the scale. On one end of the spectrum we have guys like Dan Girardi who are paid a pretty penny in large part because of their perceived leadership and character both on and off the ice, yet aren’t exactly worth it when you break things down in pure hockey terms (aren’t you glad we didn’t pay Ryan Callahan what he wanted?). At the opposite pole we have Patrick Kane, whose massive contract  corresponds to his considerable talent, but whose moral values are worse than lacking. What’s crucial is finding the Derek Stepans of the world – genuine talents who also bring leadership that translates to tangible on-ice results. While I can’t say I’m happy that the Rangers fall on the Dan Girardi end of that spectrum, I’m certainly glad that we (hopefully) don’t have any Patrick Kanes on the team, and I would under no circumstances exchange the former for the latter.

While I’m still more inclined to statistical analysis and looking at systems and plays to find answers instead of simply deferring to matters of effort or determination, I can see things from the other side because I do care about intangibles, and on some level we all do. I’m never going to get behind the idea of handing out a huge contract to someone like Casey Cizikas or Ryan Callahan, but I also wouldn’t want to pay gigantic sums of money for someone like Patrick Kane either. Intangibles, character, and playing the right way matter to all of us on some level – the big question is how to balance the weight we give them along with other factors in our outlook and approach to the game.


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