Friday, March 28, 2008

Leadership: No magic wand.

Our old friend Rob Ray has caused quite a stir in Ottawa after questioning during the Buffalo Sabres broadcast the leadership of Senators Captain Daniel Alfredsson. Ray is the former NHL tough guy who played very briefly for the Senators twice during the twilight of his career. Rob is a very engaging and entertaining guy and perfectly suited to be the rinkside analyst on the Sabres broadcast. He is a former Buffalo fan favorite and still lives in the chicken wing capital of the world.

I was intrigued by his comments on several levels. A statement like that is loaded when it comes from a former player and (briefly) former team mate because many assume he would be the type of person who would know. Or maybe Rob falls into the everyday trap broadcasters all around the world fall into. You are the expert and yet you have no explanation as to why you think Ottawa is not the same type of team with the same type of record it had last year. Maybe just maybe Rob dropped the leadership bomb because he had nothing else insightful to say and needed to say something. It’s an easy crutch for those of us in this business because its one of those things that can never be proven or disproved.

What I have found over the years covering the NHL is that anyone who doesn’t live in that locker room with the players has no clue as to what is going on inside of it. Though many of us are often asked to comment on the “state of the room”. We all come up with our best guesses when asked. We all despise admitting we don’t really know because that deflates the impression that we are insiders. It is at its base, a personal ego motivated answer because the reality is, no one exect the players in that room know what the state of that room is. That includes former NHLers and former team mates.

Many other things popped into my mind when thinking about Rob’s comments. His Sabres are out of the playoffs right now after winning the Presidents Trophy last year. Injuries and free agent departures are the reasons and everyone knows it, but if Gord Wilson or Garry Galley on an Ottawa broadcast were to propose that part of the problem in Buffalo is leadership, is that not valid? After all it appears they might not have any or they may have too many. I don’t know since I am not a player in the Buffalo room.

They have a rotating captaincy each month. Does that mean they have so many great leaders it would be unfair to designate one as the leader of all leaders? Or is it a matter of having no true leader and simply auditioning several over the season to find a good one or at least a passable one. Or is it Lindy Ruff’s way of trying to thrust the leadership role on several players whether they want it or not. I also don’t believe I have ever heard Rob question the leadership in Buffalo yet it appears their internal leadership situation seems far more muddled than most other teams.

Is that one dominant leader the key to pushing a great team to become a championship team? I believe it is one of the key components, but is not a magic wand. Mark Messier is thought of in many circles as the best leader in the history of hockey although I am not sure who invented the machine which gauges that. If that singular leader can will his team to victory and change or manipulate the behavior of every team mate so as not to allow any team distractions, then why didn’t Messier win more. He won 6 Stanley Cups, but he was also on 19 teams which lost and many of those teams were of a high enough quality to be able to win. So did Messier fail? As the best leader in the history of hockey he actually lost more than he won in games that matter.

The fact is the best power plays in the NHL fail about 80% of the time. The best batters in baseball fail about 65% of the time. Mark Messier’s winning percentage is fantastic and his leadership skills are above questioning and that makes my point. Declaring Daniel Alfredsson a poor leader is farcical. The team he captains has made it to the playoffs for 11 straight years. He led them to the final last year. In fact Daniel Alfredsson’s individual and team inspiring play led the Senators to an Eastern Conference Championship win over those Sabres last spring. Oh, did I mention his game winning goal in the deciding game of that series.

Leadership in any team sport is of huge importance but it is not a magic wand that fixes every problem. Rod Brind’Amour won the cup and was a great leader and his team missed the playoffs the next year. So is he a terrible leader now? Ray Bourque rarely said a word and I am told by players who were there, that when there were internal locker room problems which sometimes involved physical confrontations, Ray was not a part of that. Is Ray a poor leader? The story is the same for Lidstrom, Sakic, and Sundin. If a leader’s credentials rested on his ability to physically intimidate or verbally negotiate with every teammate who didn’t grasp the team concept then the top leaders in the NHL should be Derek Boogaard, Georges Laraque and Brian McGrattan.

To make a long post even longer, let’s also talk about what the letters on their Jersey’s mean. In Ottawa’s case Alfredsson is the captain and is the leader of this team. For several other clubs it’s the same. But for many teams that “C” is a marketing tool to sell jersey’s and designate a player as the face of the franchise for marketing purposes and for his future ascendancy to his team’s crown as the clubs most important player. But this does not mean he is the leader. When managers and coaches seized the selection process away from the players, automatic assumptions about whom the players actually followed often became a guessing game.

For example, when Alexi Yashin was the captain of the Senators no players followed his leadership. He was given the captaincy because as a self interested ego driven player the mangers knew they would get a higher performance level out of him if he wore the “C”. The actual captain (although he had no letter) of those teams was probably its least talented player Lance Pitlick.

For Rob Ray or anyone else outside the Senators locker room to question the leadership of Daniel Alfredsson is easy to do and impossible to prove. Maybe the leadership qualities of every captain in the NHL should be viewed as a simple switch. If they win, he’s a great leader. If they don’t he isn’t. Maybe there aren’t 30 magic wands, but actually only one which just gets passed around a lot and we just haven’t figured that out yet. Lets make that the new rule in the NHL. The captain of the Stanley Cup championship team is the best leader in hockey. The rest are bums...unless they have the wand next year.

See you at the rink.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No cheering in the Press Box

On Tuesday, March 11th Earl McRae wrote a column in the Ottawa Sun entitled “Hey guys you’re not on the team”. Earl chastises some of our Team 1200 talk show announcers for using terms like “we, us, our” when talking about the Senators. At least I am assuming he’s talking about talk show announcers since Dave, Gord, Garry and I don’t use those terms on our play-by-play broadcasts and if we did I am sure Earl would have pointed that out specifically.

I should tell you right off the bat about my bias here. Earl is a friend of mine. We have known each other for over 20 years. He is a brilliant writer and there is very little he writes that I don’t enjoy simply because I like the way his mind works. He is a non-linear thinker and there are very few of those around anymore. Earl and I have had this exact conversation many times and we feel the same way. Maybe it’s our vintage and the way we were schooled in the ways of broadcasting.

But I must say I have come to change my opinion over the years as the broadcast business has changed. I believe there is a place for biased opinion and commentary as long as it’s clear that it is biased. I believe you have to be who you are while behind the mic. Listeners now are much more savvy and educated as to the workings of our business and they can smell a phony a mile away, so just be who you are.

Joe Bowen is the voice of the Leafs and is a good friend of mine. Joe is employed by the Leafs and makes no effort to hide that. He is a Leaf fan and makes no effort to hide that. Yet when you listen to his broadcasts he is routinely critical of poor play and sub par efforts by Toronto players. Do we believe his analysis or should all of it be dismissed as homerism?

Do you believe less about what a talk show host is saying if he uses the words “us, we, our” or is that announcer simply letting you know he feels a civic tie to the team. He is obviously not on the team, but feels apart of that team because that team is such a big part of his community. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Earl points to journalistic standards set forth by famed writer Jerome Holtzman in his classic book “No Cheering in the Press Box” as the standard we all should live by. This book was published in 1974. I believe a great deal has changed in our business both good and bad in the last 34 years, which Mr. Holtzman could not have foreseen.

That standard has not and never has been universally applied even by the most ardent journalists. Writers and broadcasters have never held amateur athletes to the same standard as professionals for obvious emotional reasons, but using the Hotzman standard that is a breech of journalistic ethics. The hardest of the hard core writers and broadcasters use the words “us, we, our” during each and every Olympics yet we are not on any Canadian Olympic team, but we understand that the young athlete is representing our country and that gives all of us a sense of pride and a sense of being on the same Canadian team simply because we all carry the same passport.

That is why I believe sports now can include those writers and broadcasters who choose to expose their bias within the mix of opinions out there. There is no singular, antiseptic standard because sports journalism is different than other forms of the industry. It deals with the guttural and internal feeling of inclusion that only sports can muster. It is the single biggest reason why Hockey Night in Canada’s ratings are far greater than those of CPAC. One deals with our heart and the other broadcasts to forward our knowledge of the internal nuts and bolts of how our country is being run. Your head tells you CPAC should be more important but it’s your heart that sends your clicker finger back to HNIC every time.

Let’s not start burning broadcasters at the stake each time they fail to live up to each of our individual self anointed standards. Listen to them if you like them, or don’t listen if their bias bothers you. As always the listener has the ultimate vote.

When writers begin writing columns about other writers who don’t meet the standard it’s a worthwhile discussion. It seems the stones only get thrown in one direction most of the time.

See you at the rink.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Ducks are the right kind of dirty.

I want to start by saying something I have said over and over on both radio and TV. I have great admiration for the way the Anaheim Ducks play the game. I believe their philosophy is not new but it is brilliant. It plays on the one constant in NHL officiating. That is the official’s internal calculator. No matter how many changes to rules and their interpretation officials rarely drastically over penalize one team compared to the other. Just look through the box scores each morning and you will see that in a great many NHL games each team had about the same number of power plays. Does that mean the teams both committed the same number of fouls both called and uncalled? Usually it actually does and that is the balance that NHL referees try to maintain.

What happens if you as a team try to use that proclivity to your advantage? The late Roger Neilson once explained their philosophy when he coached the Florida Panthers. They didn’t believe their team was nearly skilled enough to have a chance to win it all. So what would the game plan be? The Hall of Fame coach’s idea was brilliant. What if you flood the game with fouls? Commit 100 fouls per game on purpose knowing the officials are only going to nail you for 6 or 7 or 8 because calling much more than that would slow the game down into un-watchability. Does the avalanche of fouls not somewhat level the playing field? It’s like death by a thousand cuts. There is no one egregious foul that changes the game, but rather a constant, numbing, frustrating dripping tap of continuous fouls which keep the opposition from ever feeling settled and in control of the game. It worked for the Panthers and it works for the Ducks.

Anaheim is the dirtiest team in the NHL and all the stats prove that. But what fans miss in their anger because their team was the victim of the Ducks “thousand cuts” game plan is the excellence Anaheim has achieved in executing this type of game plan. Getting everyone to play this way. Getting your skill players to play this way. Not an easy thing to do, but they have. It is not the type of hockey you can do half way. Everyone has to play that way to create a general look to the game that nothing is wrong or different from the way other teams play. But it is very different and believe me it is neither incidental nor accidental that the Ducks are the most penalized team in the league and have been shorthanded the most of any NHL club. In fact that is a benefit for them. When the league is criticized for not cracking down on the Ducks they just point to their penalty totals. How much more can you penalize the team which is already the most penalized team? The answer is yes you can. If a man convicted of murder is given a 3 year sentence one can certainly say he was punished but common sense tells you the penalty was not appropriate for the crime. If you are the Ducks and intentionally commit 50 or 60 fouls per game but on average only take 6 or 7 penalties per game is that not a light sentence which only encourages them to play the same way and in fact proves how effective a philosophy it is?

It is too convenient for those who think this is just whining from the guy who calls the Ottawa games. This exact same conversation goes on all around the league. It is especially prevalent in Detroit, Dallas and San Jose. Not surprising since there is a good chance one of those 3 teams will face Anaheim in the Western Final. Their talk shows are also filled with “how do those guys get away with that” the morning after each game against the Ducks. It’s a hot topic in Ottawa today because the Senators got more of the same in Orange County last night in their 3-1 loss and nobody should be surprised.

I repeat again, I am not complaining but rather just pointing out a reality. I think its brilliant managing and coaching. If I ran a team I would try to duplicate everything they do and how they do it. The Ducks know how much of a competitive advantage it is and they are experts at it. They should be applauded not persecuted. It’s the same conversation when talking about Chris Pronger. He is the dirtiest player in the NHL and I would have him on my team any time. It is a great strength not an indictment to have a player with a skill level so high play with that kind of edge. He breaks the rules all the time and gets away with a ton but that is what makes him one of the toughest opponents in the NHL. Who would not want that on their team? Pronger should carry the badge of “dirtiest player in hockey” with pride rather than getting upset when people say it, thinking it’s a shot of some kind. Most of the best players over the history of this game have also been some it’s dirtiest. Mark Messier, Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard are the first names which jump to mind.

It has taken me a great deal of time and space to get to my main point, but here it is. The only thing about this whole topic which I find distasteful is the disingenuous way the NHL treats people who point it out. It is intellectually insulting to have someone at the league level claim that home broadcasters are trying to incite fans to become negative towards the officials by simply showing plays, some of which were called and some were not. The implication that it is homerism has no credibility since Garry Galley and I on our Sportsnet broadcast also showed replays of Ottawa mis-deeds which were also uncalled. Garry and I also spent much of the first period and into the second criticizing the Ottawa forwards. While Anaheim was punishing the Senators defense with the body, the Ottawa forwards were taking fly-bys on the Ducks defense. Broadcasters on a homer telecast don’t mention those things. We do.

There is also an implication that we are bag men for Bryan Murray and his staff. Believe me Bryan is not sending us text messages during the game telling us when to start criticizing the officials on the air so it corresponds with his bench tirades. This broadcast was not an attempt to embarrass the officials, but rather on some nights the officiating and what they call and more often what they don’t has a major impact on the game. Last night was one of those nights.

The 2 biggest deciding factors in an NHL game on most nights are player error and officiating. Both are completely understandable. Hockey is a game of mistakes and officiating is always a no win situation since you are trying to manage the fastest non-motorized team sport in the world.

When we set out to broadcast a game we don’t sit down before hand to plot out ways to publicly erode confidence in the consistency of NHL officiating. But it’s pretty difficult to contend this is not a major problem in the NHL. Steve Yzerman was on Hockey Night in Canada after his induction into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame and was asked what the number one issue facing the league was and he responded “officiating, nobody knows what a penalty is”. Is Yzerman a whiner? Is Steve plotting against the officials? No! Steve like all of us loves this game and that’s why it’s an emotional issue. But pretending it doesn’t exist is insulting. Berating and implying anyone who brings it up has a bias based on homerism is insulting.

While I applaud them for it and respect how well they do it. The fact is that Anaheim is the dirtiest team in the NHL and has the lowest foul to penalty-called ratio in the NHL and that gives them a distinct advantage. Every game is video taped. The evidence is there for anyone who wants to look at it but please don’t tell me I don’t see what I see or that I don’t know the rule book. My eyes work and I can read.

See you at the rink.