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.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS



  • Serious Gord

    Just wondering why you have Ference as your lead picture in this post jonathon.

    I don’t care for people who are known publically for one talent or another using that public position to make political statements. And without question Ference is making political commentary going on about his actions and positions on the environment. (I wonder how the lefty media in Edmonton and elsewhere would receive his opinions if he thought recycling programs were a pious waste of money and that AGW theories were veiled attempt at central command of the economy and society?)

    And I think it speaks to his character or rather lack of it off the ice. It is reprehensible and should be criticized by the media and fans alike.

    How he’s regarded in the room I have no idea, but I think it very likely in this poltically intolerant of centre-right opinions world that many players who don’t like him are afraid to make any public or even attempt off the record statements critical of him.

    On the ice for the oil he has been largely ineffectual and at his salary level a borderline bust. As a captain he seems to lack the emotion on ice to carry or rally his team (something hall would do I think).

  • Oilers21

    Messier’s leadership is overrated. In the series against the Devils where he guaranteed a win (and then admittedly had a tremendous performance), the Rangers were favoured and it would have been an upset if they had lost. He played 3 more seasons after that and the team made it past the first round once. Then he captained Vancouver in 3 straight seasons where their point totals declined every year and they never made the playoffs. And how come no one remembers his return to the Rangers where he guaranteed they would make the playoffs? They didn’t, or for the next 4 seasons while he was there. Look, Messier was obviously great, and and obviously he can’t be solely blamed for the disappointing performance of his teams, but it sure seems like he didn’t do much to raise talented teams’ performances much either

    • Serious Gord

      Very much agree. Also went several seasons not making it to the playoffs which helped his durability and thus his regular season point totals. Also he was a first line center during his best years who played many of those years on the second line behind Gretzky (which also helped Glenn Anderson pad his numbers all the way into the HOF).

      Messier at his peak was one of the top two or three forwards in the world, but for much of his Long career he was much less than that while still regarded as such.

  • Randaman

    Willis, your articles are the worst………..just the worst, it’s like watching paint dry. Is there not any fun in hockey anymore? But then again what do I know, I cheer for the third worst team in the league!

      • Sevenseven

        To a degree. Some very effective players have “attitude problems”. Yes most elite players have good character, but don’t kick a guy off the team cause he isnt a “model employee”. Souray-penner were legit nhl players who were dumped who could help in the stat that matters most. The win column.

  • 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.

  • Randaman

    Now how do we get the Captaincy to its proper place with Hallsy. Ference will no doubt throw a temper tantrum and Eakins already threw a towel. This is not going to be easy.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      ^this! he was past his expiry date when the Canucks signed him, but like it was all Messier’s fault on the Left Coast and not the other crappy players he had to play with as a result of crappy management and crappy ownership. i have to laugh everytime i hear a Canuck fan or media guy say it was all Messier’s fault.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Character would have to fall well down the list when it comes to attributes.

    1)Talent/skill

    2)Speed

    3)Competitiveness

    4)Size

    5)Character.

    Lowe has preached character and sought it out for well over 10 years now, and where has it gotten them….wandering in the desert, that’s where.

  • Sevenseven

    JW – I think to overcome these quite summer days, a hard hitting, in-depth article on the attributes and merits of the various ice girl teams around the league is warranted.

  • Figuring out character is easy.

    If a player gets along with journalists and gives a good quote, then he’s a stand up guy, good in the room, and has contributions you can”t put in a spreadsheet.

    If a player doesn’t care fore the media and doesn’t give a good quote then he has bad body language, is a locker room cancer, me first guy, and doesn’t put in the time.

    Easy.