19 June 2014

Eyes up here, pal.

Hey, did you ever have a sort of revelation that strikes you as so right, you can't help but finally post on the blog you've been woefully neglecting for half a year?

Well, humor me anyway.

One of the things I've enjoyed so much about getting into Hockey Twitter, besides the dick jokes (and hey, let's not underestimate the value of dick jokes), is that it gives me the chance to interact with people who are both passionate for the game and have a great thirst for knowledge. This, in turn, has made me more knowledgeable about the game; I genuinely learn stuff between all the bouts of swearing and caps-lock and drinking and drunken caps-lock swearing. I feel like these opportunites, all the information available for me to read, analyze, and digest, have made me a better hockey fan, a smarter hockey fan, and yes, an even more passionate hockey fan.

It's at this point that I should probably note that yes, I was a mathlete in high school. And I was in quiz bowl. And on the newspaper. And in the A.V. club and hey hey guys what are you doing guys there's no way I'm going to fit in that locker owwwwwwww.

So yes, I'm a nerd. How incredibly dismissive and reductive, but true. I like numbers and figuring stuff out. The fact that I'm able to do so while following a sport I was already nutso about is a bonus. The increased spotlight on, and accessibility to, advanced hockey metrics, or "#fancystats", via resources like Extra Skater or Shift Chart, has made what a fan shouts at their TV or bemoans on their blog quantifiable, and more easily defended or picked apart. These numbers help a fan see that yes, not only did Kris Versteeg look like an open sewer in Stickney during that game, the Hawks were getting out-attempted on shots 5-1 every moment his skates hit ice. And yes, you were completely justified, as a fan of the Sharks, Ducks, Blackhawks, or Rangers, in your feelings that the Kings were basically a fleet of Panzer tanks, methodically and unflinchingly plodding toward your inevitable destruction in a way that still gives you night terrors, oh God, the sheets are drenched in sweat again, at least most of it's sweat. And yet, seemingly whenever a post or a tweet is made about relative percentages, performance at 5v5, or anything involving a graph, a subset of hockey fandom responds in short order with the inevitable exhortation:

"Just watch the games".

Time and again, that's the volley from the crowd that doesn't want you grousing about a player's possession percentages, the over-valuation of a "character guy", or why that goon at the end of the bench is a physical manifestation of cap space being flushed down the toilet. Even when people like the incomparable Jen LC livetweet through a game, or explain that they do watch the games - carefully, and sometimes repeatedly - to compile the numbers contained in all those spreadsheets and graphs, they still hear it, as if it had all fallen on deaf ears.

What I realized, though, is that maybe the smart guys and gals aren't quite listening to that dismissive plea. Maybe the anti-statisticals aren't imploring the nerds to "just watch the games"; maybe they're demanding that we "just watch the games". Just watch. Go completely passive. Turn your brain off. Just listen. Let it all pass through you, and embrace the warming glow and pretty colors. Stop trying to think for yourself, challenge yourself, or challenge what's being presented to you; didn't you do enough of that at work today? Good God, this is supposed to be your downtime, your recreation; what on earth would compel you to think for fun?

The fans demanding your unflinching viewership take their cues from those with a vested interest in a lack of engagement. On TV, maybe it's a marginal cementhead turned talking head, or an all-star with a set of rocks glasses where his brain once was. Behind the keyboard, maybe it's a troll of a columnist measuring out his life 800 words at a time, praying that he can call it a career on his own terms before the inevitable buyout or change in ownership, or a schlub homer who will submit literally anything for publication with the belief that his editors will make it into something readable, while he gets paid for the privilege. These are people used to speaking from on high, from the position of deigned authority and access, and none too comfortable with having to compete with 60,000 voices in the modern media age as opposed to 60 in the traditional era. The more you think, the more you question, the more you explore, the less likely you are to take what they say as gospel. That's bad for business, so stop thinking about it. Just watch.

I mean, Christ, even avowed dipstick Mike Milbury started dropping knowledge on-air about shot attempts during the playoffs, and correctly called out hit totals as a counterproductive stat, saying what the statheads preach; the more you're hitting guys, the less you have the puck, and you can't score without the puck. I mean, if someone whose previous smartest professional decision was turning down a foursome with his fraudster boss now shows inklings of siding with the pocket-protector crowd, I'd say the tide is turning a bit.

Of course, this battle of mindsets isn't just happening between fans and/or pundits. It's happening between, and sometimes within, actual teams. The Maple Leafs, amidst chortling over nerds and their "CORSI Hockey League", fell flat on their faces while proving to everyone that no, it's not the 1980s anymore, and by the way, you only made the playoffs 60% of the time in that decade, when 76% of the league qualified for the postseason every year, so bang-up job the first time around on that, too. But just as telling as the Leafs' inevitable, yet still absolutely hilarious, regression, was Scott Burnside's documentation of the U.S. Men's Olympic Team selection process.

As the piece was written, Flames executive Brian Burke, a man no doubt exponentially smarter than me, but still dedicated to old-school notions like "the eye test", "grit", and "locker room guys", held an immense amount of sway over the decision-making. Kings GM Dean Lombardi, a reputed forward-thinker, was depicted as sitting at the far end of the table with fellow nerdlinger and recent Cup-winning GM Stan Bowman, kept a safe distance from the cool kids. Burke didn't like the idea of rookie Seth Jones on the team, specifically because of a dream he had of Jones costing the team a game by botching a crucial play. Off the board goes Jones. He doesn't think perennial 30-goal-scorer Bobby Ryan has "intensity"; enjoy your staycation, Bobby. Dean Lombardi lobbies long and hard for scoring Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle, to the point of compiling a lengthy report and presenting it to the committee. Burke pays enough attention to the report to compare it to the New Testament and "Gone With The Wind" on length. There will be no Yandle on the blue line for the Americans, though in a strike against Burke's intuition, no Erik "Sam Bowie" Johnson, either

Team USA couldn't score a single goal against the world's other truly elite teams and came home from Sochi with invisible medals. Brian Burke's optometrist-approved team has the 4th pick in the upcoming draft, and unquestionably earned every bit of that position. Dean Lombardi has his name on the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons.

Sorry, guys. We watch the games. We check the scoreboard, too.

We're winning.

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