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

  • 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.

  • vetinari

    Let’s see if we can reduce it to a mathematical formula:

    Character = C
    Heart & Grit (i.e. “give a damn”) = H

    Teamwork = Tm

    Effort = Eff

    Consistency = Con

    Trust = T

    Leadership = L

    Reliability = R

    Experience = Exp

    Let’s assume that all values can range from a low of 1 (minimal) to a high of 10 (fantastic).

    Character matures over time and is linked to the product of Experience.

    C = ((H + Tm + Con + T + L + R) x Eff) divided by Exp(squared)

    There. Now where’s my job, Oilers????

  • 24% body fat

    We can all agree that steve simmons has no character right?

    I hope he reads this article and quotes his credentials and how it gives him a right to judge character and ‘saw him good’ abilities.

    One thing $hittier than the hockey teams in Alberta is his writing.

  • Well said. It probably even goes beyond that – in that no one really knows what character markers truly predict future performance (or those that do aren’t telling us).

    Some supreme jerks and messed up individuals over the years have been great at this game. Many great guys have been fairly lousy. The intersection of talent, circumstances, opportunity and personal factors (perseverance, positivity, humility, etc) is a tangled mess of causality as well as subjectivity.

    • Serious Gord

      Lemieux was arguably the biggest PIA on the ice in the history of hockey. But that tells us nothing about what he was like and how well he was liked by his team mates. Tikkanen and linsman were two PIA guys who were liked by their team mates (perhaps not the latter – it was a long time ago)

      • Czar

        Lemieux was a gutless puke! After what he did to Draper and biting Peplinski in 86′ I don’t need his team mates or you telling me anything about the guy,I know more than enough already.

        Tikkanen was an agitator or a pest,whatever you want to call him but in no way was he in the same category as that d-bag.

        • Randaman

          You can say what you want about Lemieux but he made his team better and he helped win Stanley Cups. You can hate him all day but if you wouldn’t have him on your team then you are a complete fool!

        • Serious Gord

          I would have Lemieux on my team any day. As Leo Durocher said “nice guys finish last”. Lemieux was a winner and every team he played on seemed to be better than without him.

          And I bet you would rejoice if a player of his ability was aquired by MacT.

          Edit: found this factoid on wiki:

          “When the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 1996, Lemieux became only the tenth player to win back-to-back Stanley Cups with different teams. ”

          And he won cups with three different teams and a Conn Smyth. As good as Tikk was, Lemieux was a far better player and agitator.

          • Czar

            “And I bet you would rejoice if a player of his ability was aquired by MacT.”

            His ability was never the question but his character is a completely different matter. My original comment was to the effect that Lou was willing to overlook a lot in Claude’s case. Do you think his team mates looked forward to wading into another scrum or coming to the rescue of that d-bag on a daily basis?

            With regards to Tikkanen I’ll put this another way for you, he was never the scum bag on the ice that Lemieux was. Claude took it to a level Esa wouldn’t have lowered himself to.

            from wiki:

            Lemieux also had a reputation as one of the league’s dirtiest players; in fact, a recent TSN special entitled “The Top 10 Most Hated NHL Players of All Time” ranked Claude second, behind only Sean Avery

          • Serious Gord

            I care about only two associated things when it comes to character in pro hockey players – are they winners and do the teams they play for play better with him than without him.

            Lemieux did both in spades. And his team mates didn’t refuse the cup rings they won with his help and leadership.

          • Joy S. Lee

            Claude Lemieux:

            Czar is right, he was a dirtbag. Serious Gord is right, he was absolutely clutch… a winner.

            Interesting that those who supported the winner aspect get trashed a lot. Doesn’t make it less true, but it reveals a predominance to hatred and dislike; sports continues to be a polarizing social issue in itself.

  • 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.

  • vetinari

    Here is a fun example of that. This guy, http://www.edmontonjournal.com/MacKinnon+Oilers+captain+Andrew+Ference+march+Edmonton+Pride+Parade/9904573/story.html the Oilers’ captain, the guy who volunteers his time to help people get in shape, is also this guy. http://themackreport.com/did-andrew-ference-flip-off-the-montreal-crowd/ I have no Idea who Andrew Ference is as a person, but you could form two very different opinions based on reading isolated stories about who he is

  • Craig1981

    I think personality’s on sports teams, or any other team, need to be matched together. Michael Jordan was notorious at pushing his teammates as hard as he could……it worked great with the All-stars on the Bulls and lead them to many championships, but might not of worked well with a so so team.

    A player might be considered a loner on one team. might be a quite calm on another.

    The people around you decide what you are as much as you do, be it a sports team, work team, or friends. Its up to the GM to gather the right mix and coach to mold the team.

      • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • Anyone who’s played knows that it’s only really the guys in the room (players, coaches & mgmt) who know what effect, good or bad, player X’s character has on the team. Some of the biggest on-ice & in the bar jerks I’ve known were hands down some of the best teammates I’ve had and guys you were thrilled were on your side.