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The Illusion Of Intangibles In The NHL

Kent Wilson's outstanding series on the psychology of hockey (and sports in general) produced this gem:

So is chemistry real? Probably not in the way it’s commonly understood. Some players have chemistry because they’re simply good – Pavel Datsyuk and Sidney Crosby likely promote "chemistry" on a line as a matter of course since they are both prime drivers of the play. As such, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about chemistry as something apart from their superior abilities.

He concludes:

Chemistry is useful shorthand concept when describing something since it’s easily identified by hockey fans, players, etc. It’s therefore a narrative term more than anything else.

With his Rorschach series, Wilson has managed to navigate and debunk the psychological aspect of intangibles like confidence, team chemistry and momentum as expertly as Gabriel Desjardins has used his statistical prowess to debunk those same things.  His take on chemistry immediately calls to mind the last great chemistry-fueled line in Edmonton:  Curtis Glencross - Kyle Brodziak - Zack Stortini.

The narrative says the Glencross-Brodziak-Stortini line was greater than the sum of it's parts and the reason behind the line's effectiveness was chemistry.  Except that wasn't the case at all. 

Below is a table which contains the even strength points per sixty minutes of time on ice for those three linemates since the 2007-2008 season.

ESPTS/60 Curtis Glencross Kyle Brodziak Zack Stortini
2007-08 1.97 2.09 1.24
2008-09 2.33 1.62 1.76
2009-10 1.74 1.6 1.04
2010-11 2.2 1.65 1.07


Out of 379 qualifying forwards in 2007-08, here are the respective rankings league-wide in ESPTS/60:

Glencross - 97
Brodziak - 75
Stortini - 274

Out of 381 qualifying forwards in 2008-09:

Glencross - 58
Brodziak - 188
Stortini - 156

Out of 386 qualifying forwards in 2009-10:

Glencross - 163
Brodziak - 201
Stortini - 323

Out of 369 qualifying forwards in 2010-11:

Glencross - 67
Brodziak - 183
Stortini - 306

While it looks Brodizak's production falls off of a cliff, it's important to remember the circumstances he's played in since the 07-08 season.  A quick check of his Behind The Net player card shows an offensive zone starting percentage of 48 in 07-08, followed by a 35, 38, 38.  So many defensive zone faceoffs took their toll on Brodziak's offense. 

The effectiveness of the Glencross-Brodziak-Stortini line boils down to this - a legitimate second line NHL left wing was being centered by a legitimate third line NHL center playing against the opposition's fourth line.  That they were thought of as fourth liners at the time doesn't matter.  In the years since, Glencross and Brodziak have proven their abilities reach far beyond a fourth line.  As Kent said, Glencross and Brodziak promoted "chemistry" on a line as a matter of course since they are both drivers of the play. 

A line doesn't need chemistry when they are the superior players.  The Oilers could have a dominant third line if Glencross and Brodziak were still on the roster at the bottom of the lineup.  As Pat said:

Because when it comes to building a champion there is one model that stands above all others. Its a simple one. Accumulate good players. Keep them. Its what Detroit has been doing for two decades now and in that time period they have six appearances in the Cup Finals, four Stanley Cups and they have been a contender every single year.

Think about that. I would argue that that run is the greatest run in sports history, all things considered. To be at that level for that long in an era with this many clubs, free agency and a salary cap is mind boggling.

And yes I know they had advantages prior to the lockout.

But twenty years.

And the key is simple. They get good players and they keep them.

Superior ability is also often conflated with other superior intangibles in order to present or to continue a narrative.  Will McDonald at Royals Review recapped Jason Kendall's meltdown and turned his attention to the notion of leadership:

It's all silly. It's all a fantasy land of unprovables and reasoning that never gets verified. Sometimes leadership is being funny, being "loose", keeping the guys relaxed. Two days later, it's acting insane, starting a brawl, calling a players only meeting. Unrelated events happen, we create a false narrative, everyone forgets all of it anyway, and we move on. 162 games. Day after day. Nobody ever goes back and writes about the losing streak that wasn't stopped by a fiery speech, the slump that didn't end with a toxin-releasing brawl, the comeback that never came after the manager was ejected.

The game can never just be about the game, because we've all got to imbue an essentially meaningless activity, really no different at its core than an episode of Real Housewives or any other form of entertainment, with all manner of emotional, cultural, political, and psychological importance. For some reason we have to pretend that it actually would make sense for a baseball player to be "a warrior" or whatever else we want to call him. All that myth, which has seduced just about every supposedly literary account of sports, is hands down my least favorite aspect of being a fan.

Though McDonald is talking about baseball, the leadership narrative is even more prevalent in hockey.  Captains are revered in hockey, almost to the point of worship.  Broadcast crews have an awful habit of adding the prefix "The captain" to the beginning of every captain's name and emphasizing it when the captain does something positive.  "The Captain Bryan McCabe holds the puck at the line...", "The Captain Dustin Brown with another hit..." are so common that many fan bases have running jokes about the broadcast crews.  The media ascribes mystical qualities to captains and they can do no wrong, even when they do.  If they score a goal, it's the captain leading by example.  If they take a penalty, it's the captain trying to be aggressive and wake the team up.  If they blow an assignment, well, according to the media captains don't do that.

As McDonald writes, "Nobody ever goes back and writes about the losing streak that wasn't stopped by a fiery speech, the slump that didn't end with a toxin-releasing brawl..." because it doesn't neatly fit the narrative of leadership by great captains.  A three game winning streak coincidentally following a players-only meeting reinforces the great leadership of the captain in that meeting, but the three game losing streak following a players-only meeting is never discussed because it doesn't perpetuate the narrative.

The primary folly of the narrative of leadership is the belief that captains are a special class of player rather than just one of the best players (typically North American, though that is finally changing) on the team.  Occasionally a team will vote or a coach and executive will name a devoted plugger to wear the letter, but the vast majority of men who wear and have worn the 'C', are simply superior players. Like the best athlete ends up at shortstop in youth baseball, the best players are given the captaincy.  Read through the list of current NHL captains.  The list consists of nothing but all-stars, though some are over-the-hill or on the down side of their careers.  The great captains in history are all Hall of Fame players, and would still be in the Hall of Fame without the vaunted leadership associated with their names. 

The sports media has fed fans bologna-flavored storylines about intangibles for decades.  It was and is an attempt to elevate the importance of sports in the average fan's life and appealing to fans on an emotional level is a way to connect with them and sell more papers or television ads.  Tell a fan that heart, grit, love, chemistry, and leadership are the true basis of the game and they believe it because they want to.  They associate those qualities with themselves and can relate to players possessing their qualities.  The importance of the narrative has grown as sports has become sports entertainment and that narrative has grown to overshadow the game almost every night.  Fans cling fervently to intangibles because that's what they've heard and read since childhood and as long as the illusion that a fan has the same winning qualities as a player exists, the media will continue to deliver the narrative and fans will continue to eat it up.