Intangibles: Character

21-Ference-2

One of the comments I get a lot runs along the lines of ‘character wins championships, and stats don’t measure character!’ It’s true, to a point, but it glosses over a lot of important nuance.

Since it’s August, and every day is a slow news day, this seemed like a good time to talk about it.

How much does it matter?

Character might be the most important thing, beyond a certain level of athletic talent.

Reaching the top level of any profession is incredibly difficult, with numerous pitfalls and hurdles along the way. Just getting to the NHL requires years of dedication and hard work; staying there and excelling is an order of difficulty above that. It doesn’t take much in the way of brains to know that a guy without endurance, dedication, and drive is going to flame out along the way.

More Captain Obvious: It doesn’t stop there. Does a player have the self-control to put in a high-level performance when he suddenly gains fame and fortune at a young age? Is he humble enough to take direction from coaches but also strong enough to tune out external criticism? Does he work well with his teammates? Can he handle the extra pressure created at critical moments of games or seasons? Is he the kind of guy who is haunted by past mistakes, or does he have the short-term memory so essential to rebounding from a poor run? And on and on the questions go.

So, yes, character is critically important. But despite that critical importance, stats people tend to ignore it. There’s a good reason for that.

Eye of the Beholder

Consider three different pieces of information on a hypothetical player:

  • A complete statistical workup: goals, assists, points, underlying numbers, etc.
  • A complete scouting report based on watching the games: speed, strength, hockey sense, etc.
  • A report on character based on body language and talking to people who talk to people.

The first bit of information is absolute. There is no argument that Player X scored 13 goals or posted a 54% Corsi on a middling team with a tough zone start; those are facts, and while there is room for interpretation 10 out of 10 people are going to be working from the same template with the same iron-clad facts.

There is a little more variance with the second bit of information; some people see more when they look at the game than others do. If we have three scouts grading a player’s speed on a scale of 1-10, one might say 5, one might say 6 and one might say 4. But all three can agree that he’s an average skater, and will likely be in the same general range when they talk about his shot and how strong he is in the corners and so on. We have some room for disagreement, but for the most part everyone will be working from a template that captures a particular skillset.

We’ve talked about the numbers, and we’ve talked about the eyeball test, but our third piece of information is an entirely different kettle of fish. Let’s consider some examples.

Messier, Mark2

Is Mark Messier, revered as the captain of two Stanley Cup teams and one of sport’s greatest leaders, a character guy? The Vancouver Canucks thought so, which is one of the reasons they signed him, but it didn’t end well. The Vancouver Province’s Wyatt Arndt, summarized his time with the team on one sentence: “From taking Wayne Maki’s number without talking to the family, to taking the ‘C’ from Linden, to missing the playoffs every year he was in Vancouver, to suing the Canucks for $6 million years later, it’s no wonder Messier’s time in Vancouver is referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’ by many fans.”

When a player like Messier can be alternately regarded as the best captain in hockey history and a cancer who helped author one of the darkest eras in the history of the third team he led, we know there’s some subjectivity involved.

Krueger-6

It’s an easy game to play. Let’s try it with some recent Oilers coaches. Was Pat Quinn a motivational genius or an outdated relic who couldn’t be bothered to research his team before he joined it? Was Ralph Krueger a compassionate and inspired leader or way too soft on his players? Is Dallas Eakins an open-minded innovator or arrogant and self-satisfied? It works for players, too: Was Ryan Whitney a character guy for the Oilers?

Character is in the eye of the beholder. It’s why Mike Richards went from being the best choice for Philadelphia’s captaincy to a partier and locker-room problem who had to be traded lest he ruin the team, to an alternate captain of the Stanley Cup champions.

We catch glimpses of character on the ice, but even that tends to be highly subjective. Consider an example: if a player takes a cheap shot from an opponent and doesn’t come out swinging, is that a sign of the presence or absence of character? Was he a savvy and disciplined skater, refusing to take a retaliatory infraction? Or was he timid and incapable of standing up for himself? Does that opinion change if he draws a penalty?

Another example: a skater behind the play has a chance to take a cheap shot of his own on a dirty opponent, and does so. Is he a dirty player himself for taking advantage of the opportunity, the kind of thug who should be run out of the game and who will hurt his team with selfish penalties? Or is he a fiery and competitive personality, the kind of guy every team wants because he’ll do anything for his club? Does that opinion change if he takes a penalty and/or seriously injures the opponent?

These are things that, like speed and hockey sense, are part of a player’s makeup. But unlike skating, where we can say a player is fast or slow, there aren’t firm assignments of good and bad here. One man’s ‘fiery competitor’ is another’s ‘undisciplined fool who will kill you with offensive zone penalties.’ Another man’s ‘cerebral, disciplined player’ is another’s ‘soft, uninvolved skater who needs to work on his give-a-damn.’

The Lamoriello Solution

Lou Lamoriello

New Jersey Devils G.M. Lou Lamoriello summed his approach up for the book Behind the Moves:

I don’t believe in hearsay. I don’t believe in going on what other people think – ‘This player is a bad character’ or ‘This player is this.’ I want to make sure I know. If you’re a scout, don’t come and tell me he’s a bad person, unless you know he’s a bad person from your own experience – not because you heard it from somebody else. I’m from that school. I give the benefit of the doubt unless there’s no doubt. Shame on you the first time; shame on me the second time.

That’s what makes sense to me. No divining of body language, no ‘I heard that a guy on the team said’, not even any ‘he scored a high percentage of his goals in games that didn’t matter!’ There is no witchcraft, no taking one part of the picture and extrapolating it far beyond reason.

Painting somebody with the ‘lacks character’ brush is an awfully nasty thing to do, and both media and fans should be way more careful of it than they actually are. The last time I quoted Lamoriello was with regard to Kyle Quincey, who had his character slammed by one of the biggest reporters around on the basis of comments from unnamed sources. Teammates quickly stood up for the maligned defenceman, and the negative tweet disappeared.

I respect that people with knowledge of the individual sometimes make decisions based on character; in their shoes I would, too. Everyone who has ever commented that character matters and that analytics can’t measure character is right (well, to an extent; the results of a player on the ice are certainly influenced by his drive and determination, and we can measure those results).

But for our purposes, it almost doesn’t matter, because we’re limited to the knowledge we have. We can look at the on-ice stuff and use it effectively, as long as we’re aware that a positive can be a negative and vice versa depending on the situation. The off-ice stuff? It has the same limitations, but with the added problems that a) there are a very few people who have the right to a firm opinion and most of them don’t talk and b) the slimiest off-ice character can play critical minutes for a championship team if he brings enough on the ice.

Lamoriello has it right.

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  • Bi-Curious Gord

    There are two types of skills and different levels in each . The individual skills and the team skills . Team skills often trumps individual skills in most sports . Right now we really lack the team skills necessary to carry us forward .This is a team sport not a linear discipline like tennis or track basically . Individual skills only carry you part way .

  • Bi-Curious Gord

    Does anyone else think we can be 20 points better this year? I mean we had the worst start possible. Let’s just say we get back 5 of those from the poor start. Then with more consistent goaltending I think we can win 10+ more games from last year, that’s a 67 to 87+ points. I don’t see playoffs but 10 more wins than last year seems reasonable.

  • Ference should not be captain. He accounts for his lack of skill by promoting himself as a master of fitness, the environment or supporting social issues such as the gay pride parade.

    He should stick to becoming a better hockey player. I will decide myself which social issues I want to support whether they be environmental or the gay pride parade.

    He will probably continue to trash the Alberta oil Industry (he doesn’t appear to know that the California oil Industry produces more pollution than the Alberta Oil Sands).

    He should He stick to hockey.

    • Joy S. Lee

      You said… “I will decide myself which social issues I want to support…” Ference has clearly decided which he will support.

      So, it’s okay for you to decide, but somehow, it’s not okay for him? Just because you don’t agree with all of his choices doesn’t make him wrong, but it does make you appear to be extremely judgmental and a little bit unfair in saying he shouldn’t be vocal about his social issues. At least he’s stepping up and making those choices public, in an age when wealthy players avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as controversial.

      Interesting dynamic. I think you need to examine your side of it more than he does his.

  • Serious Gord

    In my opinion the best teams have a little bit of everything when it comes to character types and personalities. The required chemistry doesn’t happen if everyone is cast from the same mold. The quiet reserved guy is often drawn out of his cacoon by the overtop dressing room clown. And the chiselled hard nose fighter can increase confidence and competitiveness in his teammates. His willingness to mix it up in defense of his team is valued as an important contribution. Not everyone in the room can be shouting or no one’s voice is heard. Team chemistry happens when players genuinely care about each other and are committed to success as a group. The water bottle incident involving Hall and Eakins was no big deal because that type of thing happens on teams and guys react in the heat of the moment. Thankfully they get over it quickly because they realize winning is more important than nursing their personal egos. The biggest cancers on teams are the guys who just don’t buy into the team concept but are focused on personal selfish priorities or for whatever reason just don’t want to be there. Players with a very poor work ethic are undesirable as well. I believe the Oilers have done a good job weeding out these types.

  • Czar

    @ Serious Gord:

    This is what I found when I googled character: “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.”

    I’m starting to question yours now as I do Claude’s.

    • Serious Gord

      Lol. So you wouldn’t have these players on your team:

      Ty Cobb
      Reggie Jackson
      Mark messier (suspended several times – likely would have been run out of the league in the modern era)
      Ted Lindsay
      Rocket Richard
      Bill lambert
      John McEnroe
      Leo Durocher
      Roberto alomar
      Bobby Clarke

      It’s a good thing you don’t scout or manage for a pro hockey team.

  • Czar

    Great example of Character when looking at the Oilers? – Look no further than Hendricks. That man may not have the most skill in the world, and he certainly isn’t vocal to the press, but he is the best example of a borderline NHLer that never takes a shift off. And because of that, NHL teams make room for him on their roster.

    Take the heart and drive out of that man, and he may never have played a shift in the NHL.

    Character = Drive + Determination. Skill has NOTHING to do with Character.

  • Gumby

    This article rules. You rule. The Canucks and stats geeks who discount character drool.

    Seriously, I really enjoyed this intelligent view on character in the game. You’ve stated in a short article the gist of what can’t be shown by numbers.

    Keep it up, between pension plan puppets and some other bloggers I sometimes lose faith that there are real hockey people out there writing.

    You have temporarily restored that faith sir.