He looks left, then right and then up to the scoreboard. Seven minutes left to play and his team is down by 2. His teammates look battered and fatigued, but worse than that they look mentally defeated. After a Stanley Cup, 3 teams and 10 years of being a pro John’s been witness to this situation many times before. This is a crucial moment in the game for team morale and a few catch phrases to psyche up the boys from a coach or the captain just won’t cut it.
“Actions speak louder than words.” John mumbles to himself.
“Actions speak louder than words.” Once again he repeats the phrase, this time with a stern sense of purpose.
Sweat pours from his brow, pain shoots through his limbs and his lungs feel like they’ve been stabbed by a red-hot poker, but these things are inconsequential, meaningless. ‘Pain’ and ‘Fatigue’ will have to take a number and ride the pine for the next seven minutes, because the only thing that matters right now, the only thing on John’s mind, is that next shift.
Glancing over his shoulder, John notices his coach scanning the bench and its players. This coach was at one time also a pro player and with 10 years of bench experience under his belt he was just as privy to the current predicament facing this team as John was. Oh, he sees it. He most certainly sees it; morale at its tipping point. Eventually, the coach’s scan makes its way over to John and they lock eyes.
“Yup, he gets it. He knows what’s going on.” The coach silently assures himself.
He walks over and taps John on the shoulder signifying the next shift will belong to John and his corresponding wingers. An exchange of words was unnecessary. They’ve both been around long enough and understand each other well enough to not have to waste time and energy mincing words. Shortly thereafter, the whistle blows due to an offside at the other team’s blue line. Showtime.
“Actions speak louder than words.” He relays the message to all his line mates, defenseman included, just before they hop over the boards. The phrase alone is motivating, but it’s John’s demeanor that really puts his line mates at attention. It’s the demeanor of a man with serious purpose and drive, a man not to be trifled with.
“Get the puck deep and follow my lead. Let’s make them earn it.” John looks over the faces of his line mates one last time before they setup for the draw and he’s reassured to see no sign of their earlier fatigue and pain. They’re wearing their poker faces and it is now officially ‘ON’.
The puck drops and John cleanly draws the puck back to his defenseman who in turn fires it in to the opposing team’s end. John’s stride cuts deep and true and within seconds he’s at top speed. The puck slows itself into the far corner with the other team in hot pursuit to get there first.
“That puck is MINE.” He wants the puck, but he wants to throw his weight around just that bit much more. Thoughts of inflicting pain dance around in John’s head.
To John’s great pleasure, his opponent doesn’t shy away from the corner and is the recipient of a board rattling, bone crushing hit! The crowd roars in approval as John successfully separates player from puck to gain possession. As he and his wingers take turns laying the puck off to each other with an effective down low cycle, John is sent hard to the ice by an illegal crosscheck from behind that goes undetected by the refs. Pain knocks on John’s door once again, but he refuses to answer. No doubt, this was a retaliatory response to his earlier bone crushing hit. He looks up and makes a mental note of the player’s number, 3. John will deliver a response of his own when the opportunity presents itself.
“Actions speak louder than words.” The phrase rings loud in John’s head reminding him of his purpose. He lifts himself to his skates and with added determination once again begins pursuit of the puck he just recently lost possession of.
Now in his own end, John sees his winger trip, fall and get caught out of position. The winger’s point man takes full advantage of the mishap by moving into open space and teeing up for an uncontested slapper from the top of the circle. John doesn’t hesitate, skates into the shooting lane, drops to the ice and sacrifices his body to block the howitzer of a shot. Pain slams hard against John’s door for a second time, yet John remains steadfast and refuses to answer.
“Actions speak louder than words.” John grunts out as he heaves himself to his skates one more time.
It is said ‘Fortune favors the brave’ and it sang true here as John’s blocked shot results in an odd man rush the opposite way. A few powerful strides and John hustles his way back into the play. His hustle is rewarded with a clever drop pass that he receives and unloads into a quick snapper towards the net. Caught off guard by the creativity and quickness of the play, the opposing goalie has trouble corralling the rebound resulting in a mad scramble in front of the net. Bodies collide, sticks clash and the puck bounces end over end, but doesn’t cross the goal line. Then John sees HIM… number 3 in the middle of the mêlée delivering yet another crosscheck from behind, however this time to one of his teammates.
John skates over and shoves the player labeled 3 from behind to get his attention.
“Let’s see how tough you are without that stick in your hand, Nancy.” Says John who’s doing his best to try and goad a response.
Player 3 is no slouch and apparently doesn’t at all appreciate being referred to as ‘Nancy’ based on his change in facial expression. He quickly drops his stick and mitts and John gladly reciprocates. They square off, engage and start trading rights at a rapid pace. This is a spirited exchange and in no possible way could be deemed staged. With both players literally punching their last punch to the point of exhaustion, John decides ‘it’s not over yet’ and switches to southpaw. Looks like fatigue will have to wait even longer. He delivers 1, 2, 3 left hand blows and player 3 tries to bear hug John in self defense, but John will have none of it. 4, 5, 6 more lefts and the refs finally jump in deciding enough is enough. Decision: John
A member of the officiating crew escorts John to the penalty box and while on his way John looks over towards his bench. All his teammates are on their feet, slamming their sticks against the boards, and shouting commendations to John. Their previously fatigued and dejected expressions have now been replaced by a fierce fire and energy to compete. As he continues his way to the penalty box John is notified that player 3 will receive an additional 2 minutes for cross checking and as a result his team will have the man advantage. Still looking at the bench John makes a pointing gesture to his teammates signifying, “That was for you.” They all return the gesture and point back at him eager for the chance to repay the favor… coach included. The transformation is real and pronounced. This team is ready to play again. They too are now ready for that ‘next shift’. Team morale is back on the high horse, for the time being.
Yes, this is a fictionalized story, but stories like this tend to play themselves out ever so often during a game, particularly amongst teams who possess player types like John. Maybe they rally with a goal on the PP, tie the game later on and then send it to OT. Maybe they don’t. There are no certainties in that regard. However, what I do know and what I’m more than certain of is that this team and its players will play with their hearts on their sleeves for their next couple of shifts. They will put that extra ounce of effort into every stride, every shot, every pass and every hit. That extra effort might not win them the game, but it will certainly give them a better chance of achieving that goal than were it not there at all.
Why does this happen? How can a player improve his play due to another player’s actions? What kind of voodoo is this?!?
Well, it’s not voodoo, it’s not a novel concept and it’s not a coincidence academic institutions across the globe have dedicated decades of time, research and money towards the study of leadership, motivation, communication and other influential behavioral traits. In fact, Harvard, arguably one of the finest academic institutions on the planet, has dedicated an entire department and curriculum to the cause. Concepts like leadership, or ‘intangibles’ as some label it, most certainly do exist and only an ignoramus would claim they were inconsequential to player performance. Who would’ve thought that a human’s performance would be affected by human behavior? *Sarcasm alert*
The element that John brings to a team is not clearly evident through stats alone. Statistically, he may appear to be an average NHLer or equivalently a 3rd line player, but this is far from the truth. What he accomplished in that one shift is far greater than the recorded stats of 1 hit, 1 shot, 1 blocked shot, 1 fighting major and -1 corsi differential.
The element that John brings to a team is not clearly evident through stats alone. Statistically, he may appear to be an average NHLer or equivalently a 3rd line player, but this is far from the truth. What he accomplished in that one shift is far greater than the recorded stats of 1 hit, 1 shot, 1 blocked shot, 1 fighting major and -1 corsi differential. On that bench he found the ability to motivate himself when no one else could. He found that extra ounce of strength despite his body telling him it didn’t exist. Through that shift, his actions elevated the morale of an entire team. He reenergized his teammates and focused their minds to the task at hand. He LED them in the right direction, towards a chance at winning. John is a leader and a motivator. How can a spreadsheet even possibly fathom to illustrate this? How can someone through stats alone possibly discern the affect a player has on his teammates, good or bad? How can someone with any intimate knowledge of the game whatsoever not accept these intangible concepts as highly relevant?
When I look at Kessel on a spreadsheet, I see an elite level talent. When I look at Kessel on the ice, I also see a player who hangs his head on the bench after every shift, is slow to his feet when he falls to the ice and will never, I repeat NEVER, sacrifice his body for his team. Where’s the stat that illustrates this to me? This ‘stuff’ DOES matter. Centuries of study in human behavior attest to it. My tenure on this planet as a human being attests to it.
If I appear emotional about the subject, it’s because I am. The Leafs used to dress players who put the team ahead of themselves. These players sacrificed themselves for each other and extracted every ounce of effort they could muster, plus some. It pains me to see what the Leafs have become. It pains me because I was witness to what this team once was, “The Bay Street Bullies”, a team not to be trifled with.
To summarize what good teams have and what the Leafs are more than lacking, I leave you with a quote from a soldier of war recently returned from battle.
“It’s not about winning the battle… that doesn’t really matter in the heat of the moment. It’s about the man next to you, making sure you have his back and he has yours.”