Olympic Preview: the Smartest Men in Hockey

Hey, everybody! The Olympics are almost here! Let’s go to Sochi!

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If you’re playing Ticket to Ride: Europe, the Olympics are over there on the right, part of that frustrating Erzurum-to-Moscow corridor.

Soon we will visit the shores of the Black Sea through the magic of digital broadcasts with more sponsors than a fleet of NASCAR drivers. We will marvel at the beauty of Sochi, only a few hundred miles from the terrifying bloodshed in Chechnya. Our hosts will be the generous country of Russia, a land that provided forced free government housing to outspoken punk rockers. It’s a country that totally, not at all, what are you talking about, doesn’t hate the gays. They swear.

(In all fairness, Russia has clarified that it’s newer laws aren’t anti-gay. They merely prefer that, when in public, everyone pretends that homosexuals don’t exist. And anyone who breaks this illusion is summarily escorted to prison. There’s a difference, I’m told.)

… Sorry, I went on a digression there. Ahem. Anyway, let’s talk about the Olympics, where it’s all about peace, love, and Slim Jims.

Ooh, yeah! Snap in to the Olympics!

Despite governments, committees, and bureaucrats reminding us that they are vile, pustulant sacks of shit, I still love to watch Olympic athletes competing at the top of their games. And I’m not alone — a few of us here at the Recorder will be giving our thoughts about the stories around the 2014 Winter Games.

As much as I love the Winter Olympics (and I do), it also results in some of the most breathless narrative-creating ever up-chucked by sportswriters. Humanity loves to take random events and combine them into easily-digestible narratives, and the Olympics are the all-you-can-buffet of such stories.

Which is why the Recorder is starting its Olympic coverage by deconstructing the rollicking narrative presented over at ESPN. See, the 12 nations in the Men’s Hockey competiton submitted their final rosters in early January, and it was a cavalcade of snubbery. You couldn’t click more than two links without finding someone who could go into detail about a player that some country snubbed by leaving him off their roster. Bloggers put together “all-snub” hockey teams, rosters which actually looked like they could compete for a medal (were Snubdonia an actual country).

Snubs aren’t new, though, and they aren’t exclusive to hockey.

Just ask Mirai Nagasu, on the left.

Normally, fans and writers can only guess why certain decisions were made, and speculate as to the level of foolishness displayed by the decision-makers.

In the USA, however, we prefer to remove all such doubt.

That’s because two sportswriters, ESPN’s Scott Burnside and USA Today’s Kevin Allen, were given exclusive access to all the meetings, whiteboards, and decisions that came with the US Men’s Hockey team selection. Both are good reads, and this is no slight to Allen, but Burnside’s treatise is possibly one of the best pieces of sports journalism in the last year.

If you haven’t read it yet, do it. Read it. Go. Because we’re about to go all dramaturgical on this beautiful, absurd narrative bit of drama.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

The first character that Burnside introduces is The Board. It’s the flat surface where the decision-makers placed the likely and potential players for of the US Men’s hockey roster. And while it was an inanimate object, it was so much more:

“If it was a person — a living, breathing organism — The Board would have been afforded a seat of prominence at the long table where the men tasked with selecting the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team were seated.”

The “Board” might also refer to the men assembled around that long table — a veritable board of directors for US Olympic Hockey. But they weren’t directors, they were so much more: NHL General Managers (GMs), the brain-trust charged with bringing home the gold medal from Sochi for the U.S.:

  • David Poile (GM – Nashville Predators), the introspective leader.
  • Brian Burke (President/GM – Calgary Flames), the asshole in the room.
  • Dean Lombardi (GM – LA Kings), the clever one.
  • Stan Bowman (GM – Chicago Blackhawks), steward of the Stanley Cup.
  • Ray Shero (GM – Pittsburgh Penguins), the Coach’s boss.
  • Paul Holmgren (GM – Philadelphia Flyers), the Goal-Face Killah.
  • Dale Tallon (GM – Florida Panthers), that guy.
  • and introducing Don Waddell (ex-GM of the extinct Atlanta Thrashers).

There will be a quiz later on the cast of GMs. Extra credit if you noticed that most of them helm NHL teams of dubious quality.

Of that list, Poile and Burke have the most stage time in Burnside’s drama. One is the conflicted protagonist of the story, and the other is this narrative’s giant fucking dick.

POILE THE PROTAGONIST

At the top of the list is David Poile, taking on the role of our Olympic hockey team’s GM. He’s a thoughtful fellow, weighing every decision with more gravitas than it seems to need. Hockey is tough, the Olympics are tough, and his decisions are tough. Take this bit of decisive leadership:

“…if [a certain high-scoring forward] is going to be an integral part of the power-play groups, and if so, he needs to be pushed ahead. But if not, maybe they should be looking at two more well-rounded players.”

Get all that? It’s not as easy as finding the best players; sometimes you ought to take role-players who fit in a specialized role. Unless you are worried about injury, then you need a well-rounded player. And apparently “well-rounded” doesn’t include the ability to put a puck into the net a lot. What kind of silly hockey team needs to put pucks into the net?

Not his team, by gum!

 I kid, but it’s good to pause here and remind you that David Poile is the GM of the Nashville Predators. I love the Preds. They’re one of my teams. But their reputation is that of a well-run team which has trouble scoring goals. Not surprisingly, they don’t play many postseason games. Keep that in mind as we go through this exercise.

BURKE, HIS ANCIENT

If Poile is the conflicted hero, Brian Burke is our villain. Okay, “villain” may be a bit harsh, so let’s just go with “gigantic idiot asshole.”

This may seem hyperbolic, considering Burke’s resumé: Back in the early ‘00s, Burke built the Vancouver Canucks into a long-standing powerhouse. Then he spent three years as the GM of the Anaheim Ducks, in the middle of which they won a Stanley Cup.  How much influence did he have in that championship? Debatable, especially since the Ducks became pretty inconsistent after Burke’s run. Of note, though, might be this season’s Ducks, the top team in the NHL. Almost every integral piece of their team was either pre- or post-Burke. Take from that what you will.

In 2008, Burke then jumped ship to take in the crown jewel of NHL teams, as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. After an embarrassing half-decade of mediocrity, he was kicked to the curb. He now is overseeing the rebuild of one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Calgary Flames.

Oh, he also was the GM for the impressive US Men’s Hockey team at the 2010 Olympics. With all this experience, why do I liken him to an idiotic Iago?

It’s the hair.

If you read the Burnside piece, you know exactly why. Burke speaks in dreams & nightmares. He mocks another GM’s analytical and comprehensive approach. He’s fluent in sarcastic retorts, but insightful words are rare. He shit-talks players he drafted, even though he may support their candidacy. He’d rather play it safe than bring a risky but proven offensive power, because he expects shit to happen. He defers to coaches when they seem aligned with his thoughts, but when they don’t? “I think coaches see snapshots,” he pontificates, “and I think GMs watch the whole movie.”

Speaking of, we should talk about that Greek chorus of coaches, led by this photogenic man:

Dan Bylsma: coach of the NHL Penguins & US Men’s Hockey, BGSU alum, and a snappy dresser.

THE SHADOW COUNCIL

While the GMs take center-stage in this farce, the coaches of the US Hockey team slither through the script like a cabal of shadowy advisors. Heading up this group is the photogenic BGSU alum, Dan Bylsma. From behind their hooded cowls, the mysterious Coaches will appear without warning, dispensing their overflowing wisdom gained from hours of watching the sacred Film.

(The Coaches are identified early on: Penguins’ coach Bylsma leads the group, assisted by his NHL assistant (Tony Granato) and two NHL coaches – Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards, and Flyers recently-fired-coach Peter Laviolette. Aside from occasional insights from Bylsma and the out-of-work Laviolette, these men are usually referred to in Burnside’s article as a single entity: The Coaches.)

He may be without an NHL team, but his hair is perfect, and we all hate and despair and love that perfect hair in equal measure.

 The Coaches don’t just say that they really like T.J. Oshie, or dislike Keith Yandle. No, their preferences take on the language of men who read tea leaves. Yandle is a “lightning-rod player whom the Coaches were not enthused about having on the roster.”

Brooks Orpik, on the other hand, was a man “whom the Coaches are emphatic they want on the team.” Like the witches in Macbeth, they could see the future: they divined the exact amount of goals that the US Hockey team would need to win. That’s about the only explanation as to why they determined that “they had enough scoring and didn’t need [Bobby] Ryan for the power play.”

And we all know how things went for Macbeth when he listened to the witches, don’t we?

THE YANDLE DOSSIER

Burnside titles this part of the narrative, “The Letter.” The inked paper in question is a report that Kings GM Dean Lombardi has prepared for the rest of the decision-makers. Within it are pages upon pages of analysis that seek to answer the singular question: “why the fuck do we keep pushing Keith Yandle off The Board with this 10-foot septic pole?”

(For those unaware that there is an NHL team in Phoenix, Keith Yandle is a high-scoring defenseman for said team.)

Lombardi’s assessment boils down to a comparison with one of the best defensemen in the NHL this season: “[Yandle’s] right up there with Duncan Keith in terms of points over the past four years.” Lombardi makes an exhaustive case for Yandle, noting his skills as a skater, passer, and scoring-dude. He’s a monster on possession, meaning his team averages more shots when he’s on the ice than when he’s on the bench. And can we again point out the fact that he racks up a lot of points for a guy playing defense?

The GMs’ reaction is priceless. Truly, I almost doubt that this scene really happened, because it’s too perfectly scripted. How do they respond to Lombardi’s hard work and analysis, the scope of which resulted in a GM comparing it to the New Testament?

Mocking. Brian Burke couldn’t get past how many freaking PAGES this report had. He’s quoted as saying that he “thought it was ‘Gone With The Wind.'” Once the group gets past all those WORDS, it’s still obvious their reading comprehension is lacking. Though they initially end the meeting saying that Lombardi has convinced them, Yandle will be left off the team. Why? Because of dreams. And feelings. And because the whole world’s going to laugh at us if we put Yandle on Olympic ice, and opponents will score goals in droves against him!

… Sorry, this all gives me a headache. I’m gonna grab some non-descript pain reliever, and we’ll continue after the next sub-heading.

NOTHING BUT FEELINGS

That’s better. Now that the pain is dulled, let’s try to deconstruct that scene. A GM, whose team recently won the Stanley Cup, and whose team plays in the NHL’s toughest division — that GM provides meticulously-researched reasoning for why one of the top players in said division ought to, just maybe, be a little higher in their estimation.

Burke, and all the other men in the room — Burke is a smart man; so are they all, all smart men — all they can do is talk about their feelings.

But when provided with evidence, facts, and stats, these men — and they are all smart men, all of them — turn from the light of reason. It is too bright, and they must avert their eyes. Because they cannot look into the light, they fall back on the dark and murky “intangibles.”

Sure, Yandle may be one of the top-scoring defensemen in the NHL, and he may drive possession like a beast, but… like, OMG he’ll SO get eaten alive by opponents on the bigger ice used in Sochi. There’s no tangible evidence for this assertion, but both the smart men and their Shadow Council declare it to be so.

Likewise, Bobby Ryan may be one of the top snipers amongst U.S. forwards. But he was never a lock with The Board, and the biggest knock against him was his lack of “intensity.” You can’t measure it, but you can feel it when you watch game tape. By the time the cast list was posted, The Board apparently decided it needed intensity more than it needed goals. Ryan was left off the final roster.

DO YOUR DRAMATURGY

Thing is, there are advanced stats available to assist these smart men. Take for example, the choice in defensemen. Over at the Delicious Icing blog, the author did yeoman’s work making the case for some of the ‘snubs’ on the D-line. Based on his astute interpretation of stats, Yandle wasn’t the only name that should’ve probably made it — Erik Johnson and Dustin Byfuglian both had cases for inclusion, as well.

But it wasn’t just the advanced stats. Even the basic stats call into question some of the smart men’s “locks,” like Brooks Orpik. Burnside’s character description of Orpik is as a shutdown defenseman. His advanced stats are the least impressive of D-line candidates, but they back up the “shutdown” assessment — his numbers look like those of a penalty-kill specialist. And his NHL team, the Penguins, have one of the best penalty-kill units.

When you look at his less-advanced stats (goals, assists, +/-), though, Orpik’s selection to Team USA becomes questionable. He doesn’t score goals, and he doesn’t help put points on the board. His +/- is hovering around neutral this season. What does all this data tell us? It says that US Hockey left better all-around players at home, just so they could take a specialist who fills a niche role.

This is a theme that is repeated throughout Burnside’s narrative. You don’t need to see the stats to figure out that the smart men aren’t taking the best players available, or even the best players that fit their system. After the easy choices, they’re padding the roster with specialists who provide “intangibles” that they “feel” will give them the advantage at the Olympics. Which is why Kyle Okposo or Brandon Saad barely missed selection, while T.J. Oshie seemingly gets picked because they like his shootout move. Or why Ben Bishop, who is statistically one of the top goalies in the NHL this year — and who has kept his NHL team in contention through the injury of its star player — was little more than an afterthought.

These two men are reason the Lightning are near the top of their division. Naturally, the USA and Canada left them off their Olympic rosters.

 (Granted, Bishop did struggle at Worlds last year. Then again, the guy who got the roster spot over Bishop has struggled mightily for most of the 2013-14 NHL season. I’ll take the hot goalie who has something to prove over struggling goalie who was hot shit last season.)

EPILOGUE

Honestly, the US Hockey Men’s roster is, for the most part, solid. I can’t tell you that this isn’t the right roster to grab a medal. I can only tell you about the story that Burnside wrote, a salacious tale of how and why this particular roster was selected. And the “how” is a ridiculous comedy that threatens to veer into tragedy. The smart men tried to to build the best NHL team for Sochi, even though Olympic hockey rosters shouldn’t be built with NHL constraints. Sarcastic assholery held more sway than rational discourse. Whenever anyone did their homework, they were mocked and the analysis ultimately discarded in favor of dreams and nightmares.

Thing is, the USA isn’t alone in some questionable decisions; not all hope is lost for the boys in stars & stripes. We were, however, the only team that decided to let someone peek behind the curtain. And thanks to that strange but awesome decision, we have Scott Burnside’s beautiful bit of Olympic farce.

 

 

-J.

-J.

The entity known as -J. would be at home in a place like Carcosa or Night Vale, but instead lives near a far more dreary place -- Wrigley Field. He is the patron Addisonian of whisk(e)y and tabletop games, and is often adorned with a waistcoat & his ridiculous mustache.

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