Hockey: Where the Outcome Retroactively Becomes the Strategy

The New Jersey Devils, off to a surprising 9-3-1 start fell on Tuesday night, 3 to 1, to the St. Louis Blues.  The Blues were one of the NHL’s top teams last year, and they are off to a strong start this year.  In Tuesday’s game, the Devils scored a few minutes into the game to take a 1-0 lead.  They would allow a late second-period goal and an early third-period goal to fall behind 2-1.  The last St Louis goal was an empty-netter in the final minute.  My takeaway from the game was that, while the Devils’ offense has looked vastly improved this season from last season, the offense is not yet good enough to handle a top-flight defense like St. Louis’s.

However, Devils’ coach John Hynes had a different takeaway.  After the game, Hynes said, “That’s a test of maturity, and I would say in tonight’s game, we failed the maturity test of understanding what it takes in a 60-minute battle against a top-five team in the league.”

Devils’ forward Brian Boyle added, “When you score in the first period, you don’t try to hang on to win 1-0.”

These two quotes are hilarious to me, and they are the ultimate proof why I am not the ideal hockey coach (even though I was one for two years).  If I were the Devils’ coach, I would have simply said, “The Blues have a great defense, and we could not generate many quality chances against them over the last 30 minutes of the game.”  Done and done.  However, that’s not how it works with hockey coaches.

Only in hockey does the outcome retroactively become the strategy.  Only in hockey is perfectly normal for a coach to say that a team must learn that it is hard to maintain a 1-goal lead for 58 minutes.  NHL players have been playing hockey since they were 5, but a coach can say that players have to learn to keep trying to score goals even if the team is up 1.  So silly.  I watched the full Devils/Blues game.  There was zero part of me that felt throughout that the Devils were resting on their laurels, trying to nurse a 1-goal lead, or generally trying not to score.  However, because the Devils ended up scoring only one goal, Hynes feels he is right to say that the Devils were not trying hard enough to score.

You do not hear this craziness in other sports.  You don’t hear baseball managers saying, “Yeah, we scored 2 in the first inning, and the players have to learn not to mail in their at-bats after that.”  You don’t hear NBA coaches saying, “Yeah, these players thought they could win with 55 points tonight, but they have to learn that even bad teams score at least 65 per night.”  This would be laughable, but it is normal in hockey.

My Hynes and Boyle quotes are not isolated incidents.  I remember hearing Ken Daneyko say two years ago during a Devils loss at the Rangers, “Hopefully the Devils learn some lessons during this game so they can play better tomorrow against Edmonton.”  Again, those Devils had been playing together for four months that season and had been playing hockey in general their whole lives.  Were there really great hockey lessons they were going to learn during that one loss?  Of course not!  Fortunately, announcers of the other sports know how dumb they would sound saying lines like that, so we are not subjected to Gary Cohen saying, “Hopefully the Mets learned something in their first two losses in Washington so they can beat them tonight.”  Pro athletes lose many games, but, in most of them, they really don’t learn large lessons.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the newest stupid hockey-cliche craze is that all teams want to “play a puck-possession game.”  John Hynes stressed that when he was hired as Devils coach.  It was as if, five years ago, hockey players and coaches had not yet realized that possessing the puck greatly  helps teams win hockey games.  Time and time again over the past five seasons, I hear players say things like, “We need to play more of a puck-possession game.”  Translation: “We need to have the puck more”.  Again, this is as silly as a football team saying, “We need to try to gain more yards on offense” or a baseball team saying, “We need to try to get more runners on base.”  Wow, brilliant.  It’s like hockey coaches one-upped Einstein with a new theory of relativity.

Anyway, all of this said, let me return to my earlier premise that, in hockey, the outcome retroactively becomes the strategy.  There is a reason why hockey coaches can get away with this practice.  The players buy into it.  Hockey players genuinely believe that, if they don’t score enough goals, it is because they weren’t trying to score goals.  They believe that, if an opposing player scores on a good shot, it is because their team “didn’t play tight enough defense” or “didn’t play within the system.”  Never mind that, if a team is much worse than its opponent, the “system” typically won’t matter.  That said, these mind games do work for hockey players.  If you make a hockey player think that he wasn’t playing hard enough offensively or defensively, that player (unless I am that player) will believe you.  I think I am the only person involved with hockey who does not believe these principles.

This also shows why I was not a great hockey coach.  In almost all games I coached, I thought that players were trying their hardest in all zones and were in the correct positions.  Likewise, in the NHL, players are typically air-tight positionally.  This means that I cannot and could not blame “the system” for things that go or went wrong. Therefore, I attribute(d) success or lack thereof on the ice to a combination of talent, execution, intellect, and a little bit of luck. When I coached, I knew we sometimes lost games because we didn’t make plays that we could have made.  However, I never felt like the team was not trying or was holding back.  I never felt the team needed to “learn how to win”, a cliché often spewed by hockey coaches, players, and announcers.  To the contrary, I assume that every team knows how to win.  The “knowing” is the easy part. It is everything that follows the “knowing” stage that is tough to do.  Unfortunately for me though, telling the players on a team that they weren’t playing hard enough, needed to learn how to win, or were holding back is a hallmark of a good hockey coach!  I guess I’ll stick with my day job of teaching…and my night job of writing for “Below the Belt”.

Lastly, I want to make one tangential commentary.  Only in hockey do announcers talk in every game about “what a great effort a team is giving”.  Usually, the announcer is talking about the losing team in this case.  (OK, usually it’s Ken Daneyko talking about the Devils…)  Again, in no other sport is this a discussion piece.  The Mets play 162 games every year, and I cannot think of a single time that Gary, Keith, or Ron praised the Mets’ or their opponent’s effort.  Granted though, that is baseball, and hockey is a much more grueling sport.  Therefore, let me discuss football.  All I remember are times when announcers criticize teams for a lack of effort (see “Giants vs. Rams”).  You do not hear NFL announcers saying, “The Bills might be losing, but they are really playing hard today.”  Of course, they are playing hard!  That’s the norm.  That’s the expectation.  In any pro-sports game, players are supposed to be playing hard all the time! That’s why the get paid.  That is not praise-worthy, but only in hockey do people render that praise.

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