“Don, why doesn't every featherless biped on earth qualify for AA? By AA's reasoning, why isn't everyone everywhere an alcoholic?”
“Well Geoffrey man it's a totally private decision to admit the Disease, nobody can go tell another man he's—”
“But indulge me for a moment. By AA's own professed logic, everyone ought to be in AA. If you have some sort of Substance-problem, then you belong in AA. But if you say you do not have a problem, then you belong in AA. But if you say you do not have a Substance-problem, in other words if you deny that you have a Substance-problem, why then you're by definition in Denial, and thus you apparently need the Denial-busting Fellowship of AA even more than someone who can admit his problem.”
Hockey is inching toward a sabermetrics-type statistical revolution. And like the other major non-baseball North American sports, hockey nerds are naturally taking cues from their baseball brethren, who have just recently seen their good work appear on ESPN tickers and stadium scoreboards. Hockey’s would-be Bill Jameses have even adopted the sabermetricians’ us-versus-them tone—the kind of snark with substance that incubates on message boards after a few thousand unfunny Fire Joe Morgan imitations.
As a card-carrying member of the revolution, however, I worry that the pantsing-arrogant-mainstream-sport-journos approach might prove counter-productive. Mockery galvanized baseball’s advanced stats revolution because it had the force of truth behind it. Baseball is the classic example of writers over-narrating random variation. Moneyball taught us that the out was the indispensable currency of baseball, and suddenly cliché phrases like “productive outs” didn’t just seem wrong—they amounted to doublethink.
And now they’re calling it “Moneypuck,” a nickname encapsulating all the dangers of the comparison. There are no fundamental truths waiting to shake up the conventional wisdom of hockey’s elite. Necessity made the shot the currency of hockey’s advanced statisticians, not revelation. There are no “productive goals allowed” of which to point out the obvious absurdity. They do say “the two goal lead is the hardest to protect,” but I’ve always interpreted that more as optimism from the trailing team, not a 1+1=3 moment from the other guys.
In fact, the very fluidity that makes the game resistant to Moneyball-type analysis makes it similarly resistant to Ken Tremendous-brand satire. Hockey clichés occupy a much more interesting and vital role than perhaps in any other sport.
“Don't look at me like that. Show me the flaw in my reasoning, I beg you. Show me why not everyone should be in AA, given the way AA regards those who don't believe they belong here.”
“And now you don't know what to say. There's no cockle-warming cliché that applies.”
“The slogan I've heard that might work here is the slogan Analysis-Paralysis.”
“Oh lovely. Oh very nice. By all means don't think about the validity of what they're claiming your life hinges on. Oh do not ask what is it. Do not ask whether it's not insane. Simply open wide for the spoon.”
Managers who needed to justify unduly inserting themselves in games invented many of baseball’s clichés. Greats like Earl Weaver and Davey Johnson intuitively knew baseball lent itself to a laissez-faire-style of management. For most skippers, however, constantly needing to validate your existence in the form of giving away outs requires a special language, one equipped with the requisite bullshit to massively mismanage million-dollar assets and get away with it.
Doing the little things. Getting your uniform dirty. Putting pressure on the defense! All the while, useless players like Juan Pierre justify their contracts by putting on little inconsequential shows on the base paths. Managers applaud the grit of these vessels of their influence, sportswriters parrot that praise, and the feedback loop spins out of control until some brave nerd in his mother’s basement fires up Wordpress.
Funny thing, though: grit has a real place in hockey. So do the little things. Baseball’s cleanly demarcated binaries—its three true outcomes—lend themselves to statistical analysis. Each hockey game contains fractals. It is a constant proof of the butterfly effect. The little things aren’t hermetically sealed by the white chalk lines, within which Juan Pierre’s influence can be contained. The big things in hockey are all sums of the little things.
“For me, the slogan means there's no set way to argue intellectual-type stuff about the Program. Surrender To Win, Give It Away To Keep It. God As You Understand Him. You can't think about it like an intellectual thing. Trust me because I been there, man. You can analyze it till you're breaking tables with your forehead and find a cause to walk away, back Out There, where the Disease is. Or you can stay and hang in and do the best you can.”
“AA's response to a question about its axioms, then, is to invoke an axiom about the inadvisability of all such questions.”
“I ain't AA Day man. No one like individual can respond for AA.”
Hockey’s clichés are not a cover-up for its untruths, rather a lifeline for its participants. In baseball (and football, if you really think about it), everything important happens with the player standing still, after being given ample time to strategize. Sure, in the moment of truth, athleticism and reaction time count, but everything’s either instinctual or premeditated. Nobody thinks on the fly.
Hockey players are in a sense just the sums of their on-ice decisions. And clichés are the guide to coping with these split-second choices. Put the puck in deep. Manage the puck. Keep your head up. In baseball, clichés are the refuge of the untalented player—a justificatory mechanism. Hockey clichés are bits of knowledge so oft-repeated to become trite, yes, but also instinctual. They remove the need to think when time does not afford such a luxury.
All hockey coaches talk about “buying in.” And by this, they mean surrendering oneself to this collective knowledge, which may seem flimsy in parts. Focus on the trees hard enough and you’ll see the forest eventually—trust us.
“'Getting In Touch With Your Feelings' is another quilted-sampler-type cliché that ends up masking something ghastly deeper and real, it turns out. It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.”
The great triumph of sabermetics was players taking this wisdom and using it to turn against the establishment. The usual ad hominem arguments about having never picked up the bat seemed even weaker with the world’s elite in our corner.
Felix Hernandez crediting a post on U.S.S. Mariner, a Seattle Mariners blog, for improvements in pitch selection was great. Zack Greinke admitting to his aspirations of becoming the first “10 Wins Above Replacement” pitcher startled. Brandon McCarthy and Brian Bannister have carved out decent careers simply by choosing the smart adjustments, albeit not the popular ones.
And that’s the big difference: baseball player development is still scattershot. Different coaches tell players different things and half of it is bullshit. But by simply working to increase your statistical value—by getting more ground balls, or drawing more walks—a player can suddenly and permanently be fixed.
Statistics are not the salvation of the hockey player. Sure, some forwards should shoot more. And maybe a grinder extends his career a few years by learning some face-off tricks. But you know that scene in Moneyball in which Brad Pitt walks into the weight room and explains in simple, logical terms that they need to walk more? There’s no analogue. Hockey players hear the same stuff their whole careers and either they buy in, or they think about it too much and sink.
Despite what you may have read, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is really just the most overwrought sports metaphor ever committed to writing (and with entire chapters on Quebecois terrorism, it might as well have been about hockey, too). I think the novel's halfway house bears a special resemblance to hockey, more so than tennis, or any other individual sport. You keep doing all these little things as you’re told. You’re conscious of these maxims, but there’s no higher order thought—you don’t prod their truths as you lay in bed. And suddenly, they start to make sense in light of your successes.
“The best part about baseball is that you can do something about today tomorrow.” That’s one cliché the sport should hold onto. Hockey players need to take care of today today, though. Hockey is played in just the present moment. Focus on the past and you will become comfortable in your lead or assured of your defeat. And in a game of momentum and small scores, baseball’s assurance of getting them tomorrow must never be on anyone’s mind.
So, please, let hockey keep its clichés. It’s the only way the game is possible.