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On hockey and Hunter S. Thompson

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro"- HST

In 1889, Oscar Wilde observed that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life”.  His theory was that this concept “results not merely from life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of life is to find expression, and that art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.”

I believe that sports can be a stand in for art in this framework, as I believe very strongly that sports are a form of expression that human beings seek as an outlet for a number of emotional concepts.  Over the past nine or so seasons that I have been writing for BSB, I have seen life imitate art many times over, but much more acutely these days.  The intersection of sports and politics, fear of change, the proverbial hamster’s wheel always spinning has caused something of an existential crisis in my desire to write and engage with both the Rangers and the sport of hockey, as a whole.

In times of crisis, especially in writing, there is only one place to turn: Hunter S. Thompson.  The great Gonzo journalist spent quite a bit of time covering sports in his storied career; from his early career writing for El Sportivo in Puerto Rico, covering the Ali/Foreman fight in Africa and the infamous Sports Illustrated coverage of the motorcycle race that would eventually become the subject of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”.

What many people do not remember, though, was the almost five-year stint Thompson spent writing a weekly for Page 2 on ESPN.com in the early 2000’s, entitled “Hey Rube”.

While focusing (imagine HST “focusing” on anything) mostly on football, basketball and politics, Thompson’s work at ESPN was bizarre to say the least.   However, he was passionate about sports and constantly irritated by the sea of idiotic and bad faith takes that permeated the industry and shaped fan opinion and interaction.  It was disingenuous garbage and Thompson knew it and wasn’t going to let them get away with it.

Looking back on this column some 15-20 years later, it is undeniable how far ahead of its time “Hey Rube” really was.  Sure, some of HST’s opinions and predictions did not age particularly well, but he cut to the heart of the complete and utter bullshit that can make sports so maddening to follow and cover.

Surveying the current landscape of sports media, filled with hack-sycophants and faux-insiders, I realized that the NHL really needs a voice like that.  I’m not implying that should be me, of course, because I am no Hunter S. Thompson, but I feel like when you hit the end of your rope with the passive bile of a complacent and incompetent industry, you can either pack it up, or turn to brutal honesty.  That brutal honesty is something the NHL is sorely lacking.

Rob wrote an article the other day about how NHL GM’s are boring and risk averse. It was a really well written article exposing the hideously short-sighted approach that NHL GM’s take with respect to trades.  Rob is an honorable, respectful guy, so he took the high road instead of calling out what these men really are: incompetent and cowardly.  If you took a GM from MLB and gave him 6 weeks to understand the CBA and study transactional trends and valuation models, he would begin promptly fleecing every NHL GM in sight.

That’s because those guys actually know what they are doing.  The only thing holding them back is ownership greed and artificially depressed spending.  The NHL on the other hand, has your typical ownership greed, repressed spending through a draconian salary cap, combined with terrified man-children who refuse to adopt any sort of novel thinking, which makes them completely incapable of taking any risk to create any transactional efficiency.

Honestly, I’m not 100% sure where I’m going with all of this other than I’m tired and frustrated and generally annoyed at the same record playing over and over and over and over and over and over again.  I love writing, I really do.  When faced with the prospect of either writing the same rationalized dreck over and over again or not writing at all, I choose the third option.

So, here is my pledge to you, BSB.  From hence forth, I am going to try to bring a little Hunter S. Thompson into hockey writing.  It’s going to be brutally honest, many-times substance addled, not always correct, but always trying to make you think about this sport a little differently.  If that’s not your thing or you feel like that makes me a [insert pejorative here], just like Hunter, I couldn’t care less.

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  • No BS… it’s much more likely the nhl owners you criticize as risk averse are just an evolved product of their self created league constraints, and the idea that an owner from a different league would be fleecing nhl owners has no basis in fact.

    The nhl owners made a boring league with too much parity and restriction on player movement – for their own financial benefit. That’s a fair statement. An outsider owner would likely do absolutely nothing to change that. The system needs changing. I have a hard time believing an mlb owner could run an nhl franchise so succesfully im relation to existing owners that he could alter the direction of the entire league.

  • Have at it Justin. But remember a key aspect of this sort of journalism is that you are going to say some things that you will realize down the road were incredibly foolish. A willingness to say things that go against the grain leads inevitably to saying things that really are wrong.

    I do not think comparing hockey to other sports is particularly useful. Mind you, I do think that comparing hockey to other businesses is appropriate. Short-sightedness abounds throughout the economy and there are no doubt pretty good parallels though none come to mind. But hockey is a somewhat unique sport. It is not as financially healthy as football, baseball, basketball and harder to statistically analyze. Yet it is far healthier than soccer or professional women’s sports.

    We view hockey salaries like other salaries, but they have to be lower. We have teams like Arizona and Ottawa struggling to survive. Look at San Jose. Doug Wilson has signed a number of contracts which have crippled the team for years to come and frankly the situation is so bad that there is no point in ownership replacing him.

    And are organizations correctly evaluating personnel? Certainly the status quo is not always right. In the 60s, the NFL was better than the upstart AFL. The AFL innovated. When the Vikings squared off against the Chiefs in Super Bowl IV, no one I knew gave the Chiefs a shot. But the game was a rout. The AFL teams had simply found a better way to play the game. In Money Ball, we saw how Oakland had found a better way in baseball. Of course, there can be a better path in hockey.

    But is anyone finding it, either in management or in the outside world? Those fascinated with new stats will champion Keith Yandle who has only gotten into the playoffs twice in the last seven years, both with a team that did not appreciate him. In fact, Florida finished first in their division the year before they got Yandle.

    People have been busy polishing advanced metrics, but I have seen no interest in testing them. Here is a quick possible study. Decide which teams value metrics and which don’t. Now, see which teams actually fare better. If there is no correlation, then the metrics may not work. Supposedly, players like Marc Staal are dinosaurs. Do organizations that value dinosaurs prosper or falter? Do organizations that value veterans in general prosper or falter? Do organizations that are quick to hand out long term contracts prosper or falter?

    I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But I know two things. One is that just because it has always been done thus does not mean it should continue to be done thus. The second is from Bill James, the baseball sabrmetics guy. His caveat was that all the stats were based on the assumption that managers would make decisions more or less as they had in the past. The number of runs scored was (roughly) equal to number of baserunners times slugging percentage — BUT that presumed normal lineup construction. If you actually tried to maximize that product by having Babe Ruth lead off, you don’t actually increase runs, OR at least there is no evidence that you do. And in hockey, there is no evidence that you can increase the number of goals by artificially taking more shots.

    A hockey player who is mostly good but once or twice a game makes a horrible blunder resulting in a 50% opponent scoring opportunity will be a good Corsi player but a bad hockey player. The reason Corsi is predictive in part is because coaches will not play this guy.

  • go for it Justin! I read a few HST books and I’d love to see what hockey articles would look like with that kind of inspiration!

  • You have alot to live up too………..This is a day in the life of Hunter S. Thompson.

    3:00 p.m. rise

    3:05 Chivas Regal with the morning papers, Dunhills

    3:45 cocaine

    3:50 another glass of Chivas, Dunhill

    4:05 first cup of coffee, Dunhill

    4:15 cocaine

    4:16 orange juice, Dunhill

    4:30 cocaine

    4:54 cocaine

    5:05 cocaine

    5:11 coffee, Dunhills

    5:30 more ice in the Chivas

    5:45 cocaine, etc., etc.

    6:00 grass to take the edge off the day

    7:05 Woody Creek Tavern for lunch-Heineken, two margaritas, coleslaw, a taco salad, a double order of fried onion rings, carrot cake, ice cream, a bean fritter, Dunhills, another Heineken, cocaine, and for the ride home, a snow cone (a glass of shredded ice over which is poured three or four jig­gers of Chivas)

    9:00 starts snorting cocaine seriously

    10:00 drops acid

    11:00 Chartreuse, cocaine, grass

    11:30 cocaine, etc, etc.

    12:00 midnight, Hunter S. Thompson is ready to write

    12:05-6:00 a.m. Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee, Heineken, clove cigarettes, grapefruit, Dunhills, orange juice, gin, continuous pornographic movies.

    6:00 the hot tub-champagne, Dove Bars, fettuccine Alfredo

    8:00 Halcyon

    8:20 sleep

  • “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
    Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”
    ― Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

    Go for it, Justin!

  • As I wrote to Rob’s criticism of NHL GM’s:

    “Apples and Oranges Rob. NBA drafts players that are virtually PRO ready, usually 22-23 years old [I stand corrected by Joe, the top picks are younger — at the same time they opt into the draft because they are presumed READY to make an impact], they can have a big impact within a year or two … NHL teams draft 18 year olds and despite all the hype about some 1st rounders they often turn out to be “meh” players and take years to develop. Secondly the money is different, NBA teams can afford to play around with 20-30M. Thirdly, NBA teams need a good 7-8 players … NHL teams need to make sure that aside from a couple of stars that they have real depth to their lineup, your 4th liners need to contribute and at least play 20% of the time — in the NBA those equivalent 4th liners only get in when the game is a blowout and they have no impact on a game.

    In general NHL GMs have to be a bit more cautious, they can’t afford to throw money away and they can’t bounce back as easily from a bad trade.”

    That said, sure there are HACK GMs in the NHL, but the same can be said in any sport — but most just work within the constraints of the system. So the criticism should actually be leveled at the owners (Board of Governors) with the caveat that they are limited and constrained by the NHL market. Any way you slice it, hockey is just a big NICHE sport … it will always stand behind the NBA, NFL and MLB.

  • Hardy Har Har Rube- As the director of Hockey Puerto Rico AND a writer at the San Juan Star for two decades- Why don’t you go after the Rangers exhibition here in 2006? A total fiasco- YOU might be the problem- –

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