Monday, January 4, 2016

Outrage about Outrage

In the world of hockey and the National Hockey League, there is quite a bit to be excited about. The league is healthier than ever, expanding at a great clip and some great teams are playing great hockey. The crop of young players coming into the league is also better than ever which is even more evident watching the World Junior tournament from Finland.

But, as always, there's something to be angry about. John Scott voted into the NHL All-Star game as a captain is an outrage for a variety of different reasons, so says so many with opinions to shout. There's a new Cinderella team to latch on to and get excited about, and to make it even better, it's the Florida Panthers, a moribund, staid, waste of a franchise that for so long was bereft of money and anything remotely valuable to the league they played in. But, in the spirit of the advanced analytics and #fancystats, they must be bad because most of the recent Cinderella teams have actually been bad. Why all the outrage? Can't hockey fans just enjoy the sport they love and cherish so much?

This season hasn't been all positive. The Patrick Kane mess is still one that has left a sour taste in the mouths of many hockey fans, and for good reason because the situation still lingers over his head and the league's head. There was good reason to be outraged about the way the league dealt with that situation, and one hopes they deal with Evander Kane's situation better. But a goon in the All-Star game as a joke? A listless franchise that was only used as the butt of attendance jokes is now good again and so many people feel the need to tear it down because they are a slightly worse possession team than the Isles, Devils or Capitals? No wonder this sport can't catch on in the US; no one wants to see something funny or heart-warming turned sour in no time flat.

John Scott is not a good hockey player. He really doesn't serve any purpose in the modern NHL where fighting has almost completely vanished and the role of the enforcer has shrunk to the size of a dust-mite. He is also a man who, when he scored for the Sharks last season against Washington, immortalized that Haley's comet moment with a shirt. He is a funny, affable character that unfortunately doesn't really add much to his team with his play on the ice. So, some media members and hockey fans decided to start a campaign, as a joke, to put John Scott into the new three on three All-Star Game format not only because he's the most likable of the pluggers available, but to show how broken the voting process is for this exhibition that most players would rather avoid. And it worked. But, as is the culture, there has to be outrage over this because this is "an insult to the glamour and pageantry of the All-Star Game" or, "so many good players are being denied a chance to go because John Scott is going". There was a campaign to send Zac Rinaldo, a similarly useless but eminently more loathable hockey player, to Nashville but that campaign crashed and burned.

Is it silly that someone like John Scott is going to the All-Star Game and not a burgeoning star from Arizona like Max Domi or Anthony Duclair? Yes. But the idea of the campaign was rooted in the whole notion that the campaign was itself, silly. The All-Star Game is still a joke, and most everyone knows that. Yes, parents will have to explain to their kids why Scott is there, but Scott is going to make the most of his moment in the sun and so should we. There's a time for debate about the merit of All-Star Games in general, and that discussion is coming, but there's no need to have it now. When the geek gets elected Prom King, sure people laugh, but the geek is likely having the time of his life and more than likely knows he's the butt of a joke and embraces it. Why can't hockey fans do that with John Scott, or even Jaromir Jagr?

In most sports, Cinderella stories are the most heart-warming and wonderful examples of why so many of us have dedicated our lives to watching more talented human beings pull of feats of athleticism that most of us could only dream of and pay hand-over-fist to do it. They're more like us, and so we connect with those stories more than any other. But in the NHL, particularly with the crowd that is affable to advanced stats, the immediate thought when there's a hot team or a new kid on the block, the immediate thought is to find out why the run will die. It happened with the Leafs, the Avalanche, the Flames and now it's happening with the Florida Panthers. Advanced stats did correctly predict the fall of all of those teams to an extent, particularly with Toronto, but it is a wonder why those teams successes immediately get dirt thrown on them. Is there merit to the criticism? Often yes. But do the criticisms need to be militant? No.

The Florida Panthers are a bottom third team in the NHL in terms of possession throughout the season, although recently they've been in the top 10. Their PDO (shooting % + save %) is very high. That is a recipe for regression, and there is little doubt that the Panthers will have a dip in form at some point, because every team does. But as soon as new teams rise, there is a segment of people who are bullish and abrasive in their criticism's. Are they right? Their observations have merit. But the way those observations are presented adds to an air of negativity and tension that doesn't bring in new people to the sport. And in what other sport are Cinderella stories dispatched with little discussion like they are in hockey with some in the analytics crowd?

Yes, this column/rambling is outrage about outrage, something that often draws outrage. But it's worth mentioning why in hockey there is a culture among some fans that spawns a first reaction of anger above any other emotion. Everyone has their own view on how to grow the game, and here's a simple one:

Instead of anger, callousness and pettiness, try embracing the silly, sublime and ridiculous instead. That is what makes sports great, and hockey certainly has its fair share.

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