Monday, May 2nd, 2016

Anger and a Sputtering Machine


Tony Gallagher delivers up a particularly vitriolic rant this morning after the lacklustre performance delivered up by the Canucks against Montreal Saturday night:

Perhaps now the Vancouver Canucks are disintegrating before their eyes, those so utterly determined to make excuses for these guys will give it a rest. When you lose to the worst team in the Eastern Conference in your own rink in the middle of a homestand and get the crap kicked out of your alleged stars in the bargain, it doesn’t get much worse.

Does Tony Gallagher actually believe this tripe or is he pandering? The team is not disintegrating. Excuses are not required and there is no one utterly determined to make them. And obviously, it can get much, much worse. Ask the Montreal Canadiens (or their fans) if they would like to trade seasons with the Canucks. Their win on Saturday provided little comfort, although I am sure they enjoyed beating alleged stars.

Gallagher’s piece reminded me of this post from Ellen Etchingham about fan reaction to team failure:

So, if not the boycott, than what can fans do to push a failing team to get better? In my own native Habistan, while the boycott notion has certainly been floated from time to time, the more common form of fan activism is bilious hate. Hockey fanaticism in Montreal is not a sunshiney thing, people do not subscribe to the notion that being a hardcore fan means being in any way kind, positive, or optimistic. There are Habs fans who have hated the Canadiens for twenty years. Not just disliked them, not just been frustrated with them, but hated them with a red-hot loathing that even the most ardent Leafs zealot could not hope to match. Yet these anti-fans don’t leave the team. They still buy gear, they still go to games, they still call in to the sports talk radio shows. In Montreal, the disaffected activist fan seems to see vocal, intense anger as their moral duty. I think it comes from a sense of history- fans see themselves as the custodians of the team’s legacy, and thence conclude that it is incumbent upon them to act as the braying, nostalgic conscience of the modern franchise, prodding it to live up to the glorious past.

Ellen correctly concludes that there is nothing a fan can do to change the fortunes of the team, but what Ellen describes here is not unique to the Canadiens. Nick Hornby in “Fever Pitch” was surprised to discover that he absolutely despised his football team and that hatred was often what drove the most ardent of fans. No one in Vancouver attracts that rage like Roberto Luongo. It will take somebody smarter than I to explain it, but it is there nonetheless. Sometimes I think Gallagher feels that rage himself and expresses it in his column. At other times I think Gallagher knows it is nonsense but writes to please the mob looking for someone to lynch.

As to the Canucks – and at the risk of being labelled an apologist – there really isn’t an explanation for their recent play. For whatever reason many of their best players – Sedin, Sedin, Burrows, Bieksa and Edler – are not playing very well right now. Etchingham had another brilliant post that described how easily such a simple game can drive us crazy:

…[E]very scoring chance is a thermodynamic miracle, the single perfect child of a vast swarm of interlaced threads of probability and possibility, chaos and causality. When things are going well, no one worries too much about this infinite recursion at the heart of the game, because when things are going well, it looks miraculous. At those times, the chain of causality looks like a well-oiled machine, just clicking and clacking along, tic-tac-toe from one victory to the next. It elicits admiration from the fans and a self-satisfaction from players, who are (of course) pleased with the way it seems to realize all their greatest plans and best intentions.

But then, sometimes, the machinery breaks down. One day it was humming pleasantly along, and then suddenly there’s a kind of a cracking noise from somewhere deep in the gears, and a poof of smoke comes out, and the whole thing starts wheezing and grinding, and then finally just… stops. And then they go inside, the coaching staff, with flashlights and power tools, and find a lot of things don’t look so good – some parts have gotten old, others don’t really fit completely right, there’s dust accumulated in this corner, oil pooled in that one. Of course, they can’t all be The Problem, or the machine would have failed long ago, so which is it? What stopped the works?

Ellen’s question – what happened? – is the mystery that is at the centre of hockey. It explains why I love it so (and also why I will be forever sceptical of statistics purporting to evaluate individual players.) Either everyone (less a few struggling players) is going or nobody (except a few players with jump) is going. Either the machine is humming or it is sputtering. Either the collective skills of the players meld cohesively or they do not. Because the Canucks are a very good team, the machine is usually churning at top speed and the team wins a lot of games. But when it is not going, a bad team playing well will beat them.

Why does it happen? Nobody knows any more than anyone knows why a baseball player slumps. It is easy to point out the errors that are being made, but errors are made every game. Why are they being made more frequently now? It is easy to see that the Sedins seem to be a step slow these days, but why? Why has Edler recently taken to falling down? Why is Bieksa coughing up the puck?

Nobody knows and nobody knows what can be done about it. Some coaches think punishment – the bag skate – is an answer, but that assumes the players are happy to suck when we know the players want to do well every time they step on the ice. I like that Vigneault’s approach is to remain patient and upbeat. He’s probably giving the players a couple of days off, a practice on Tuesday and try to put a good game on the ice on Wednesday. He may tinker with his lineup or line combinations. It will either help or it won’t.

Gallagher is correct when he says that a first round exit is a possibility. (It always is.) It is a near certainty if they do not put a better game on the ice in the playoffs. But unless you believe that the Canuck “alleged” stars have suddenly forgotten how to play, sooner or later the machine will cough a couple of times and hit a stride again.

The best answer is to follow Vigneault’s lead and be patient and upbeat. Even if that is not so and indeed “the Canucks are disintegrating”, there is nothing to be done about it now anyway. I’d rather relax while watching the car wreck.

There really isn’t anything to get angry about.

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6 Responses to “Anger and a Sputtering Machine”
  1. Jess says:

    Thank you!!! Finally some sense. They’ll come good and all the haters will again become lovers until the cycle repeats itself. Sometimes, you’ve gotta lose one to win one because you never want to experience that kind of pain again….the true test is coming soon. The cup will come, but I’ll always love my Canucks no matter what. p.s. It’s Hornby…no ‘s’ :o)

    • Jess says:

      Ooops that was meant to be smiley

    • Tom says:

      Thank you for the correction. I’ve fixed it.

      Most teams do seem to lose before they win one but sometimes really good teams never can put together the run to win. Assuming the Canucks put there best game on the ice – and I expect they will – I think they can win. When the Canuck machine is humming, they are very difficult to beat. Unfortunately, the probabilities are against every team. Fan expectations are ridiculous. Many think that the favourite – perhaps the Canucks – should win when in fact even the favourite has, at best, about a 20% chance. There are too many factors beyond their control. I go into it thinking they are probably going to lose because it is hard to argue with arithmetic. How can I get mad if they fail to overcome daunting odds? I’m happy to be the fan of one of the few teams that “only” faces daunting odds. It could be very daunting odds or even almost impossible odds.

      I can’t imagine hating the players either. Every hockey player does some things well and others not so well. When things are going well it is the strengths that matter and the weaknesses hardly matter. When things are not going well, the weaknesses glare. I believe that you win with team strengths – an absence of weakness never beat anyone. As a result, I care more about the positives a player brings and I tend to look on the bright side of the players, friend or foe.

      • Tom says:

        Further to this point: This mornings Province quotes the odds from

        As for winning the Stanley Cup? Here’s how they’re rated: St. Louis, 19.1 per cent; Boston 16.8; Rangers 13.9; Detroit 13.6; Canucks 12.0; Penguins 9.0.

        Nobody should have any realistic expectations of winning. The only reason anyone wins, is because somebody has to.


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