Saturday, December 18, 2010

Culture and History

Cal Botterill is a pretty fascinating guy. He spent three years in the 60s with the Candian national hockey team. After his playing days ended, he got a PhD in psychology and began teaching courses in sports psychology at the University of Winnipeg. He spent eleven years as a sports psychology consultant for several NHL teams and wrote a book called Human Potential, about developing mental skills like focus and perspective. He's got two children; daughter Jen plays for Canada's national women's hockey team and his son Jason is the Penguins assistant GM. Botterill knows hockey, and he knows psychology. So, who better to ask why the NHL culture drives established players to criticize rookies who dare to be outstanding?

He's been as fascinated as the rest of us by the reactions of guys like Mike Richards and Don Cherry to P.K. Subban's flamboyance, and to the Lightning's criticism of Oiler rookie Linus Omark's fantastic spinerama shootout goal.

"I think it's against the grain of the traditional culture of hockey," muses Botterill. "Historically, on the negative side, my God, there was hazing to no end. There was real oppression of rookies. I think this is changing as we're seeing more and more exceptional rookies; more and more Sidney Crosbys who come along and can clearly make an impact on a team right away and are pretty much welcome because they're recognized for their talent and what they can do. So I think the culture is changing."

Botterill thinks self-preservation on the part of players who already see the end of their own hockey road, or who've been around long enough to know time at the highest level of the game is fleeting, plays a role in the criticism of guys like Subban and Omark by veterans.

"They're protecting their turf. If too many cocky good rookies come along, some of their positions will be lost," he says. "So, if you look at it kind of cynically, they're promoting humility and a super-high respect level partly to make sure young players don't become a threat to their own culture on the team. I don't know how much of that is still the case, but historically, that was a big part of it."

Botterill also sees a link between military culture and that in the NHL. Both have long histories and a tradition of hierarchy.

"They're protecting that hierarchy. I had to go through it, so you have to. I always thought that was about the worst reason to do anything. The biggest thing that perpetuates this is the history of the game. Whether it's appropriate or not, it's gone on much longer than it should have. Hopefully, it's changing."

One of the things he thinks should happen to make that change is a more focused approach to mentoring young players by veterans.

"One of the guys I thought was an amazing mentor was Chris Chelios," he recalls. "He'd be the first guy to take a rookie out to lunch and kind of educate him on the realities of the game and show some support for him, but also warn him about the risks he needed to avoid. He was a pretty good influence on the young players when I was around. He helped a lot of them deal with the pressures and the temptations of the game.

"On the good side of what a culture has done," Botterill continues, "if you look at the Dany Heatley story where a kid is killed when they're racing cars through town, clearly there were no senior character players on that team. And here were these kids, young stars with their egos totally out of control, and in the end risking civilians and costing the life of one of his teammates. In the NBA, and they've got a bigger problem than hockey, they're trying to institute a program where they align every young player with a veteran character player, just to mentor them and educate them on the realities of the game and avoid some of these problems with egos getting too big too early."

So, from the sports psychologist's perspective, is P.K.Subban doing anything wrong?

"I think he's doing a great job. I was kind of surprised that Jacques sat him for a couple of games. I think he was probably protecting him from a more serious barrage along those lines," he opines. "I haven't heard anything from the kid that's problematic. I think that the extent of the attacks by Mike and Don were a little overboard. We talk all the time about giving kids the confidence to be able to play and admiring those that have it, and just because a kid is confident and, in this case, pretty articulate, why are we chastising them or imposing that much negativity on them?"

Botterill is convinced the future of hockey is in the hands of young entertainers, not in the staid methods promoted by the veteran hierarchy. In that regard, he thinks Subban and Omark are pioneers for the kind of game the league is slowly moving toward.

"I hope the idea of embracing confident young players becomes a bigger part of the culture," he explains. "Whenever there's change, this is usually the way it happens. There's a dramatic case, and then after a while people start to say, hold it, he's not a bad kid. He's trying to be as confident as he can and doing what he needs to do for his team, so let's back off. We need more players like this. It's good for the game. But cultures don't change overnight, so it might be a little while.

"I think there's an element of what the game needs in that creativity and in the confidence to try things that other people haven't tried before, so the quality of the product gets better for everyone involved," he continues. "Right now they're not doing that. They're kind of clinging to this old school idea of pecking order and hassling the kids a bit. This is a dynamic process and I think these things are part of what will change it. Hopefully sooner rather than later."

Cal Botterill's opinion is, of course, just that of one man. So is Don Cherry's. Of the two, one might argue that the person who believes young, creative players should be embraced rather than vilified has the better credentials.


DV8 2XL said...

One might argue?

Ian said...

Excellent insight. Throw in that Cherry, Milbury and Stock all have Boston Bruins tatooed in their hearts...well, no wonder they are such biased buffons!

Ian said...

Of course, I meant buffoons. Hate when I make a typo. Feel like an illiterate Laff fan, then.

Anonymous said...

The Montreal Canadiens had a sports psychologist within their system. Wrong end of the pipeline is all.

dishonest john said...

An excellent article. It would be nice if PK could read this, what a boost it would be to his confidence. And how sad is it to see dinosaurs like Cherry and Milbury and the bitter Stock endorsing the idea that a clean hit has to be followed by a fight. That is the real "pansificastion" of the league Mr Milbury.

Pierre pas Pierre said...

Another great, insightful, well written article. Love the interview and the research behind it. This blog is in my humble opinion one of the best hockey blogs around, if not THE best. Keep up the good work, we want more please.

Anonymous said...

Love these new style rookies. Has Fisher talked to Subban yet?

Ellis, a career backup, gets to trash a rookie for scoring a beautiful goal but a rookie should shut up and show respect. Hilarious! Respect must be earned Dan and a save percentage of .880 won't do it. Glad TBay got him not the Habs.

Anonymous said...

There's some "lord of the flies" in every organization -- it's human nature. If I were Martin or Subban, I would not let 'sit down, son' attitude of veterans of opposing teams (and maybe his OWN team?) rattle him. Nip it in the butt by not obliging.

I also like how some rookies live with veterans and their families in the first years (by God they're still kids, no?)therefore lessening the likelihood of them loosing discipline, partying too much or getting a big head. It's very sad that we don't see a lot of veteran taking on the role of a mentor in that way. Look at Crosby living with Lemieux (still?) what a positive influence that has been for him.

Lastly, I wouldn't worry about the likes of Milbury or Cherry. Anyone who dresses in pink, wears makeup and who uses a vocabulary equal to my ten year old should not be a threat. Stop listening to them, period.

MC said...

I can't resist playing devil's advocate to some of the comments. Botterill argues that a lot of the criticism of young players is motivated by veterans protecting their jobs. That may be true, but that does not explain Cherry's criticism as rookies are no threat to the pressbox. There is a fine line between confident and cocky, and Subban walks along that line. Nobody likes a cocky rookie, plain and simple.

Botterill implies that Martin sat Subban because he was over-confident which was not the case. He had a bad game and Weber deserved a shot, that's it.

The Omark situation is a tempest in a teapot, but I completely understand why people didn't like it. As Botterill said, organizations protect the hierarchy and resist change. It is not just about resisting innovation, it's about protecting the things that have made the organization successful. The problem I have with the Omark move is that it was a great display of skill, but it was not a hockey play. It was a high risk, no-reward play, so he jeopardized the success of the shoot out to entertain the fans. To me this threatens the integrity of the sport and competition. If entertainment is the goal, why not script plays and outcomes? Rig the entire playoffs - what a script you could right. Sports is the original reality TV, and people know what is real. I'll watch figure skating if I want to see spins; I would rather have the artistry of Cammalleri's Penalty shot move any day. Football got rid of the big celebrations even though fans liked it because it was not football. Omark's situation is similar. That move was not hockey.

J.T. said...

@MC: If you're going to take that tack on the Omark goal, you might as well take it on the whole shootout. What other professional team sport decides games with such a sideshow? It's like deciding NBA games with a dunk contest. Those things belong in the all-star skills competition, not in real games.

Make no mistake, the shootout has nothing to do with the integrity of hockey. Bettman's crew introduced it to entertain fans, period. The tie was a part of the integrity of hockey. If two teams battled to a draw, there was nothing wrong with conceding that, on that night, they were even. Blaming a kid for taking an already exhibitionist sideshow one step further and dressing it up a bit is kind of silly.

R.N said...

I agree with MC for the most part, but IMO, PK's showy moves are no better or worse than what Omak pulled. And he does it almost every game. Sometimes those fancy little spins create opportunities. Sometimes they create problems.
At the risk of sounding like a horrible person for not joining the ranks of Habs fans who think Subban is a hero, I have to say, for a defenseman, I think he takes too many chances and leaves his goalie out to dry way too often. He's not a bad kid, and he's got tons of potential, but he's got to learn a little more team play. I think Martin did the right thing. He treated PK like any other player, which is exactly what the rookie needs.
As for that sweet hit and the not fighting after, he couldn’t have played that better. He had no reason to fight and he showed a lot of discipline and class playing against Boston, with just the right amount of spunk. If he keeps that up, I might just start waving his banner too.