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Swallowing the Whistle

Hockey is a sport that is unique in the world of professional sports. Most, but not all, of the unique aspects are positive. One negative aspect is the officiating in the waning minutes of games. For years hockey officials persistently avoided assessing penalties with a game on the line. The NHL didn’t want its officials to “decide the outcome.” The expectation had always been that the referees should back off when a game was on the line and “let the players decide it.” Television comentators, led by Don Cherry, were the worst offenders when it came to encouraging this. Hockey officials were encouraged to alter the standards used to call a game, depending on the circumstances. They had to keep in mind more than just what they saw happen when deciding whether to call a penalty. This made hockey unique and the most difficult sport to officiate.

This doesn’t occur in other sports. When a foul occurs in a basketball game, the commentators don’t criticize the official. They come down on the player who committed the foul. A foul or goaltending is the same in the first quarter as in the fourth. The strike zone doesn’t change when you get to extra innings, and a player is called out or safe without the umpire glancing at the scoreboard. Yet in hockey, when a player hooked or slashed with little time left, the official, not the player, was criticized if the player was sent to the penalty box. And, as usually happens, this officiating practice was (is) followed in the amateur leagues.

When I began officiating hockey I was instructed by a senior referee not call penalties in the last two minutes of a close game. I didn’t agree with the practice, but had heard it many times growing up, and, being a junior ref, decided not to argue with a senior ref. I did call a penalty in the last two minutes of a game, and heard protests and condemnation from the team. “C’mon ref, let’em play!” is a common refrain. Let them play, until no one is standing? Let them play, and kill each other? How far do we go with this argument? And if letting the players decide the outcome is such a good idea, then why have officials at all? The “let the players decide” argument is both stupid and wrong. If a ref makes a call that leads to a powerplay goal early in a game that ends 1-0, that is no different than making the same call in a 4-4 game with three minutes remaining. All penalties, no matter when they are called, have the same potential to affect the final result. Thankfully, the NHL has abandoned this archaic practice, and has got in line with the way the rest of the sports world is officiated. Unfortunately, the practice still lingers in the amateur leagues.

O Captain My Captain

I’ve noticed a disturbing change in sports. I’ve seen it in both professional leagues, and in the amateur leagues I’ve played in: Selling out the captaincy by giving it to young players with a lot of skill but lacking experience and the maturity that goes with it.  It’s almost as if professional teams are counting down the days until they can make their young star the poster buy for the franchise by handing him the “C.”

This trend is most prevalent in hockey, which places a lot of importance in its captains. A modern example is Sidney Crosby of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.  At age 18, Crosby played half a season before Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien put an “A” (assistant captain) on his jersey. At the time, Crosby was already known in his dressing room for his cry-baby antics with the referees. He’d been coddled as a hockey prodigy since the age of ten, had not experienced adversity or failure, and was a poor choice for the assistant captainship at that time. Thankfully for the Pittsburgh Penguins and its fans coach Therrien resisted the temptation to make Crosby the captain leading up to the 2006-07 season. He went with three alternate captains instead.

Another modern example of this change is the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vincent Lecavalier. Back in 1999-2000, the Lightning was a horrible team. So with his team floundering head coach Steve Ludziko made 19-year-old Lecavalier the captain. At that time Lecavalier was a player halfway through his second year and whose peers were still playing junior hockey. Not only was Lecavalier not ready to be a captain at the NHL level, but being a captain turned him into a whiner who had to be benched for entire periods of some games. Subsequently in October of 2001, head coach John Tortorella wisely took the “C” off Lecavalier’s jersey. “You don’t name a player captain based on the talent they possess,” Totorella said, explaining the move. “That’s not what [being the] captain is about. [The “C”] was taken away so Vinny could see what leadership is all about. There are plenty of guys around here to show him.” One of those guys was Dave Andrechuk,  who replaced Lecavalier as captain and led the team to its Stanley Cup win over the Calgary Flames in 2004.

While captains are often the most talented players on their teams, that should not be why they get the job. The captain of a hockey team is supposed to be a shining example of character, experience, and leadership. Proper captains are guys who symbolize the character and heart of a hockey team.  Players who have been around, seen it all, and lived to tell about it. The ones who can stand up in the dressing room and say what has to be said and be believed because they’ve been there. Guys who lead by example, either by what they do on the ice or off it. Most importantly, they are players who bring a team-first attitude to the rink with them every day. (As opposed to the my stats-first attitude of some players.) Classic examples of good captains are players such as Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe.

Challenging Conventional Sports Wisdom: Defense Wins Championships

An often repeated sports maxim is “Defense Wins Championships”. Even sports legends such as pro basketball player Michael Jordan have been quoted saying it. It’s become part of conventional sports wisdom, and is rarely challenged. I’ve said it many times while playing several sports, and was only ever challenged once. But, is it true? Is defense more important than offense when it comes to winning championships?

The stats don’t say so. Of the 64 NBA championships from 1947 to 2010, the league’s best defensive teams during the regular season won 9 titles, and the best offensive teams won 7, which is pretty even. In the playoffs, the better defensive teams won 54.% of the time, and the better offensive teams won 54.8 % of the time–almost exactly even (the numbers don’t add to 100 because sometimes a team is both the best defensive team and the best offensive team). In the MLB: Among the last 100 World Series winners, the superior defensive teams won 44 times, and the superior offensive teams won 54 times. Among all postseason games, the better defensive teams have won 50.8% of the time versus 51.8% for the better offensive teams. That’s very even. The NHL and NFL data show similar results.

Bottom line: Defense is no more important than offense. It’s not defense that wins championships. You need either a stellar defense or a stellar offense, and having both is even better. So why is this mantra popular? Probably because defense, although necessary, isn’t glamorous or glorified. Defense is considered “dirty work”. No one needs to create incentives for players to score more goals and make more jump shots or score runs and touchdowns. The players who score, not the defensive players, get the Nike shoe contracts and other endorsements. And that’s likely why people such as Michael Jordan extol its importance: To get players to do it well so that the team can win a championship.

Source: Scorecasting

Challenging Conventional Sports Wisdom: Barefoot Running

I’ve been running long distances (cross country running) since elementary school, and I’d always accepted as fact the need for good running shoes. I usually spent significant sums of my limited money on expensive running shoes (usually Nike).  However, about 2 years ago I stumbled upon a new type of running shoe, the Nike Free (see image below). It’s a minimalist running shoe, a kin to the slipper. It has little support, no air or gel pads or other cushioning. The shoe confused me because I’d read, been told, believed and told others that you need shoes with good support to be a runner. So why was Nike introducing a shoe that went against everything they’d been telling us and selling us for decades? I was confused. Nonetheless, I bought the Nike Free and wore it as a street shoe, since I believed it would be folly to do any athletic activity in such a shoe. I love the shoe, and it has become my favorite shoe. I even played a season of ball hockey in them without injury. I’ve been tempted to buy a second pair, and likely will eventually.

While recently reading the book Born to Run, I discovered the origin of these shoes. The author, Christopher McDougall,  is a writer who was unable to run due to injuries sustained while running. He was told by several prominent sports medicine doctors that he was too big for running, and that he should switch to another sport (cycling was suggested). He wasn’t satisfied with their answers, so he set out to find a way that he could run injury-free. His quest took him to Mexico’s Copper Canyons in search of an ancient tribe called the Tarahumara Indians who can run hundreds of miles barefoot (nearly) without rest or injury. Along the way, he encounters cross country running coaches and doctors who recommend cheap running shoes and/or barefoot running. Apparently Nike listened to a few, and produced the Nike Free running shoe. I’ve noticed that other shoe companies are following. While walking past a Reebok store the other day, I noticed a Nike Free-type shoe advertised in their front window.

Disclaimer: I am a Nike shareholder.

The Great Mystery in Team Sports

In my roughly 25 years of playing sports I’ve been on many teams in several sports, but few of them had what most call “chemistry” (also called “teamwork”). Team chemistry is difficult to achieve, and I think most athletes would agree that it is required to win championships. Here are some of the best thoughts that I’ve found on the topic:

– “The best players don’t necessarily make the best team.” – John Wooden, Coach of UCLA men’s basketball

– “Great players rarely work well together, and are more effective with players of complementary and subservient skills.” – Ken Dryden, professional hockey goaltender

– “A championship team needs all kinds of players. Too many players of the same type, no matter how good, make a team vulnerable.” – Scotty Bowman, professional hockey coach

– “Some people believe you win with the five best players, but I found out that you win with the five who fit together best.”  – Red Auerbach, professional basketball coach

– “Teamwork is taught. You don’t just lump a group of people together in a room and call them a team and expect them to behave like one.” – Pat Summit, University of Tennessee coach

– “I’m a great believer that humour’s the lubricant that helps teams create chemistry.” – Dave King, professional hockey coach

– “One of the real mysteries of any team sport is how chemistry develops. It’s usually such an elusive, mercurial thing; it comes unexpectedly and can leave abruptly. For years, coaches and sports psychologists have analyzed, dissected, and theorized about chemistry. Many conclude that you can orchestrate its development within your team. Chemistry generally evolves on a day-by-day basis. I’d suggest some team-building activities can assist the process. At practice, during games, in the dressing room, on the bus or plane, at team meals and meetings – these are the moments when the chemistry is percolating.” – Dave King, professional hockey coach

The recent NBA finalists The Miami Heat had talent, LeBron James (see image below), Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh (the best three) but lacked team chemistry, and were beaten by a team having less talent but better chemistry, The Dallas Mavericks.

Top 10 Sports Quotes

Top 10 sports quotes (chosen by The Canadian Wordsmith):

10.  “Competition is won or lost on the six inch playing field between the ears.” – Gary Mack

9. “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” – Michael Jordan

8. “The team with the fewest crutches will win.”  – Scotty Bowman

7. “Some people believe you win with the five best players, but I found out that you win with the five who fit together best.”  – Red Auerbach

6. “The degree to which a player loves the game determines whether he’ll be a great player.” – Harry Neale

5. “You can’t outperform your self image.” – Dennis Connor

4. “The way you practice is the way you play.” – John Wooden

3. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters as much as the size of the fight in the dog.” – Don Cherry

2. “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” – Wayne Gretzky

And my favorite sports quote:

1. “Don’t worry about being better than somebody else, but never cease trying to be the best you can be.” – Joshua Wooden