Monday, March 10, 2014

The Placebo Effect

In 1941 Walt Disney Studios released the animated film, Dumbo. In it, a floppy-eared baby elephant turned his biggest flaw into his greatest asset when a friend gave him a magic feather. Dumbo believed the feather would allow him to fly if he held it in his trunk and flapped his over-sized ears. It worked. The belief he could do it was strong enough to make it happen. Today, Dumbo may be the world's most well-known beneficiary of the placebo effect.

In a lab at McGill University in Montreal, Dr.Amir  Raz  conducts experiments on the human brain. More specifically, he studies the brain's ability to make the body to react, simply because the brain is convinced it should do so. Recently, he invited university students to his lab and told them the purpose of the experiment was to study the effects of alcohol on brain activity. He had a bartender prepare several mixed drinks for each participant, complete with ice, straws and fruit slices, then scanned their brains as they drank. The scans showed a fairly low level of brain activity at the beginning of the test, but as the students drank more, that activity began to light up the screen. Their brains were processing the idea that they were consuming several alcoholic drinks, and told their bodies to react accordingly. After four drinks, the students were slurring their speech, having difficulty walking a straight line and giggling. At that point, Dr.Raz sat them down and questioned them about the way they felt. The students said they felt a bit dizzy and happy. They looked and acted drunk.

Then, Dr.Raz told the students the drinks had contained only water. The participants' resposes were remarkable. The minute they processed the new information, their drunk symptoms disappeared and they seemed a bit bewildered that they'd felt that way without consuming any alcohol. The experiment confirmed Dr.Raz's theory that the brain, given the right stimuli...even a false belief...will convince the body to produce the appropriate behaviour. He's not the only one discovering similar results about the power of the brain.

At Harvard University, Dr.Ted Kaptchuk heads up the Placebo Studies program in the school of medicine. He recently tested 270 people dealing with chronic arm pain. He gave half the patients pain-reducing pills, and the other half had acupuncture treatments. He warned them they could experience possible side effects.Within days, some of the patients were calling in to say the pills stole all their energy away, and the needles caused swelling and pain at the injection sites, just as they'd been told might happen. The majority of the subjects, however, called in to say the treatments were working and their pain was either reduced or cured. Both reactions were amazing because the pills were made of nothing but corn starch, and the needles were retractable and never actually punctured the skin. Still, there was no denying the redness and swelling at the alleged injection sites in those who expected side effects and whose brains then produced them. And there was no medical explanation for those who felt better after the fake treatments.

This powerful placebo effect, which many scientists like Raz and Kaptchuk are studying right now, could have significant applications in the world of sports. Researchers first began to consider the idea in the 1970s, with a study of superstition in sport. They discovered some of the best performers in high level athletics were those who firmly believed a particular t-shirt worn underneath a jersey, or a particular game-day routine was essential to how they fared on the court or field. Those results were a curiosity, but not considered a usable strategy for athletes or coaches. In recent years, however, examination of the placebo effect in elite sport performance is really taking off.

In 2011, Hungarian scientists conducted an interesting study of high-level athletes. They gave some of the group small pills and others larger pills the athletes were told would improve their performance (legally.) Those who took the large pills saw a measurably greater improvement in performance than those who'd taken smaller pills. In another experiment, the researchers gave part of the group a green drink and others a red drink, also supposed to be performance boosters. The group who took the green drink did better.

An interesting note in the Hungarian study is the athletes were from various sports, and they were measured against their own previous results. Those who participated in strength-based activities like weight-lifting saw a more marked improvement in performance than those in endurance activities like long-distance running, which would seem to indicate a reduction in the power of the placebo effect over time. In subsequent tests, without the pills or sports drinks, the results weren't as good in either group.

Also part of this study were medical reports from coaches and doctors. Some athletes were told their bodies were in phenomenal shape and they should be able to achieve a particular result. Others were told their oxygen levels were lower than usual. In more than half the cases, the athletes responded exactly as they would be expected to, if the medical reports were real. (They weren't, of course.) Nine out of 12 cyclists studied showed dramatic improvement when told they were in top shape.

In the NHL's age of parity, any advantage a team can muster should be used to gain an edge. Considering the proven power of the placebo effect, it could conceivably make the difference between a close win or a loss. Take the Canadiens, for example: The same group of players can perform like world beaters in shutting down the Cup-champion Blackhawks one night, then look like an outclassed Junior B squad in getting owned by the struggling Capitals a week later, as they did back in January. The question that drives everyone nuts is why consistency is such a hard standard to achieve.

Some will point to health, scheduling, motivation and intangibles like chemistry between players. All of those things certainly play a role in how a team performs, but since science is proving their actual belief in whether they can win could play a significant part as well, teams need to pay more attention to it. If Lars Eller can take a pill or a green drink he thinks will improve his ability to find the net, the Habs need to give it to him. If Rene Bourque can swallow a gel he believes will increase his energy level, bring it on.

The regular NHL season is a long grind, and even a placebo effect might not work every night. The playoffs, though, are different. That's when words like "belief," "magic," and "intensity" are flying around and players are more inclined to believe in anything they think will push them ahead of their opponent. Back in 1993, the Habs lost their first two games against the Nordiques and hope was waning. Coach Jacques Demers told the players he didn't think they'd come back...he knew it. Something in that speech spoke to athletes who wanted a reason to believe they would win, and they did.

The Canadiens today are a middle-of-the-road team with some good pieces and a lot of deadwood. They aren't contenders on paper, but sometimes all it takes is a good friend with a feather to make you believe you can fly. If they can harness the placebo effect and turn it to their benefit, you never know what might happen. Science says a little belief can go a long way.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Resigned to Re-Sign

The Scene: Marc Bergevin's dream. Amidst the scrum of beautiful women showing him samples of designer suits and hair gel, Bergevin hears the voice of The Almighty.

God: Marc! Marc Bergevin! Hear My voice!
Bergevin: Stan Bowman! Is that you?
God: It is I! The Almighty Creator. Father of the Universe.
Bergevin: Scotty?!
God: (impatiently) It's God, you heathen!
Bergevin: Of course! Sorry. I'm so sorry, Lord.
God: That's better. Now, I have a bone to pick with you.
Bergevin: What's the matter, Lord?
God: I have given you dominion over My holy and chosen team. Yet, I am swamped by prayers from Canadiens fans begging for help. Do you have ANY idea how many Canadiens fans there are, and how much they pray?! Sheesh!
Bergevin: But, Lord, I've been doing my best. I'm trying to build through the draft and not make any major moves until our young guys are ready to contend. That's what I'm supposed to be doing, for Your sake!
God: Yeah, yeah. That's fine if you're LA or St.Louis. You're the Canadiens, Me help Me. Your fans are nuts and they're getting on My last nerve. It's time to make a move and get them off My back.
Bergevin: But, Lord...
God: You don't have to do anything, Marc. Just listen: You shall find your salvation in snow.
Bergevin: (hesitantly) I have to dig somewhere? Or follow footprints in the snow? Or...
God: (exasperated) Do I have to spell it out?! You will find salvation in Snow. Garth Snow.
Bergevin: Really? That dummy? He's an old goalie, You know.
God: Of course I know. Now, this is what will happen: On trade deadline day, you will call Snow and you will offer him Sebastian Collberg and a conditional second-round pick for Thomas Vanek.
Bergevin: Wha...hahahahahahahahahahahaha! (gasps for breath) can't be serious...
God: I am ALWAYS serious. Except when I go to Tommy Tiernan concerts. Then I just laugh all night. will call Snow. The most important part is, you must call him at exactly 2:58 on deadline day.
Bergevin: But, Lord, that's too late to get a trade through.
God: You need only to call, and Vanek shall be yours. Do you trust the Lord, your God?
Bergevin: Yes, Lord. But, can I have Tavares instead?
God: Don't push your luck, pretty boy.

The Scene: Habs dressing room, the day after Marc Bergevin traded for Thomas Vanek in deadline day high drama.

Bergevin: Okay, guys. I want you to know I believe in you. This is why I have brought Thomas Vanek into our family. My work is done for now. It's up to you guys to take the next step. I have a plan, and you need to be part of it. Vanek is a Canadien, but you have to help him want to stay in Montreal. Everyone in this room has to play a part.
Brian Gionta: What do you want me to do, Marc? As captain, I'll do whatever I can to help the team.
Bergevin: Thanks, Gio. Well, you can give up your spot on Pleky's line. Thomas will need a creative centreman to play with.
Tomas Plekanec:  Ano! Děkuji ti, Bože. Slyšel jsi mé modlitby. Nevěřil jsem, že předtím, ale teď jsem to!           
Gionta: Sorry, Pleky?
Plekanec: Oh, uh...I said, "Damn it...I've been having great success with Gio."
Gionta: But I didn't hear my name.
Plekanec: Czech, your name sounds like "Bože."
God: Pleky, you're pushing it.
Gionta: Oh, okay. I'll miss playing with Pleky, but I'll do what I can.
Josh Gorges: LET'S GO RED! LET'S GO RED!
Bergevin: Thanks, Josh. We want you to give up your number and let Thomas have it. It's a warm gesture of welcome because it's the only number he's ever worn.
Gorges: But...that's my number. I've worn it since I came to Montreal. I feel a bit...entitled to it.
Bergevin: LET'S GO RED!
Bergevin: Thanks, Josh. Now, Carey. You're the one Thomas said he was most impressed with when he found out he was traded. Your job is your job.
Carey Price: If this guy can actually give me some goal support, I'll carry his hockey bag. Seriously, finding a goal on this team has been like finding water on Mars.
Bergevin: (clears throat) Thanks, Pricey. Okay. I want Prusty and P.K. to show the guy the town. I want Boods to speak to him in Slovakian...remind him of his dad. I want anyone with a stylish wife to wine and dine Mrs.Vanek. We have to work together on this.
Markov: Where is all the money to come from, to sign all the players you want?
Bergevin: Well, Marky, we'll talk. Right now, it's about Thomas.
Markov: (looks up agents' numbers on his phone) Okay, Marc. Excuse me, I have to make a quick call.
Bergevin: George? You took economics in college, right?
George Parros: Yeah?
Bergevin: Great. Your job is to tell Vanek taxes in Montreal are great. Danny? You played with Thomas in Buffalo. Tell him about how we're a big, cultural family and don't say anything about your time on the fourth line. Lars? Take him skiing. All you guys have a job to do. We want to win, and this guy can help us do it.
Michel Therrien: Yeah! Great speech! What can I do, Marc? How can I help keep this guy?
Bergevin: Well, can just...shut up. Don't give any speeches. Don't tell the guy he needs to be more defensive. Don't put him on the third line if he costs an O-zone penalty. Just shut up. The less he sees of you, the better.
Therrien: But, I'm the am I supposed to do my job if I can't talk to him?
Bergevin: He can do his job. Just give him a playmaking centre, and you have no worries.

Thomas Vanek enters the rooom: 

Therrien: Welcome, Thomas. Now...let's find a place for you...
Bergevin: (shoots Therrien the evil eye) Have you met Michel? Good luck, and we hope you love Montreal.
Gorges: LET'S GO RED!
Vanek: Okay, here we go.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Captain's "C"

There are many things we know about Brian Gionta. First, he's achieved more in hockey than his size would have allowed without a tremendous will to back it up. We know he's got blazing speed and enviable hand-eye coordination. He takes whatever physical punishment he must as he screens the opposing goalie, which demonstrates courage. He rehabbed a pair of bizarre injuries at a time in his career when it might have felt easier to pack it in, which shows perseverance. We know he's been a well-liked and respectful captain of the Canadiens. And we also know there's a good chance he won't be back in Montreal next year.

His is the last big contract left from the Gainey/Gauthier 2009 housecleaning that gutted an underachieving roster and restocked it with expensive free agents. In his time in Montreal, Gionta has mostly earned that money. He recorded two of his best three career goalscoring seasons during this contract and, in the magical 2010 playoff run, he put up 15 points over 19 games in his first year as captain. Unfortunately, at age 35 and with a couple of rebuilt bicep tendons, the goalscoring touch that has always been his bread-and-butter seems to be deserting him.

When Gionta isn't scoring goals, he's admittedly still a smart defensive player who's developed a new value as a penalty killer. The problem is, low-scoring penalty killers are available in models both younger and cheaper than Gionta. And, considering the current construction of the Canadiens lineup, they come in bigger sizes too. Aside from his age and the inevitable decline in his skills, Gionta has the misfortune of being part of a lineup that also includes three other forwards who are 5'9" or smaller. David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher are still producing points. Daniel Briere has another year on his contract and is untradable. Therefore, if the Canadiens are to get bigger and younger on the wing, something's got to give and Gionta's contract is up.

Assuming Gionta's not back, the Canadiens have two choices when it comes to the captaincy. First, they could leave it empty like they did in the wake of Saku Koivu's departure. Second, they could name a current member of the team to the post. If they choose the second option however, the candidates are limited.

A captain in the NHL must be someone with experience in the league. He should be someone with an unquestioned work ethic and someone with enough skill to command respect in the room. He has to be an adaptable personality who can get along with as many of his teammates as possible, and a good communicator who can translate the coach's messages to the room and player's feelings to the coach. Most importantly, he should be a leader who knows when to rouse the room and when to glare, when to call a team meeting, when to yell and when to have fun. He should be the face of the team and the guy his teammates can approach when they have a problem or a question. It's a big job.

Among current Canadiens, the experience criterion is fulfilled in Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec, Josh Gorges, Carey Price, Daniel Briere, Travis Moen and Brandon Prust. Of those guys, Markov didn't want the "C" last time it became available, so he's probably not heading to the front of the line this time around. Briere is a first-year Canadien who spends most of his time on the fourth line and isn't producing what he contract says he should, so he's not a realistic candidate. Prust is certainly a heart-and-soul kind of player, but his reckless style of play leaves him on the injured list more often than most. Also, there aren't many grinders who become their team's captain. Ditto for Travis Moen.

Tomas Plekanec has seniority, he's the best two-way player on the team, he works hard every time he's on the ice and seems to get along with his teammates. He's also well-known to be a quiet guy who doesn't say much and chooses to lead by example. That's fine for a veteran, but whether he's comfortable with the inevitable times a captain must rip his teammates a new one is debatable. His national team believed he was the right choice for captain at the Sochi Olympics, but it's a different matter to captain a tournament than it is to captain a pro team through an 82-game grind plus playoffs. Maybe he'd have no problem yelling at a slacker who needs it, but it's hard to imagine.

Josh Gorges has no problem talking in the room. Anyone who's seen 24CH has seen him earnestly telling his teammates to finish their checks and not get beat on the wall. Anyone who's seen this has also probably rolled their eyes or laughed. Gorges has heart, no doubt about it. And he's got a tremendous will to win. He agreed to let a rookie share his home for two seasons, which is the kind of thing leaders do. He's also a guy who, like a too-serious coach, is easy to tune out when he says the same things every night and his on-ice performance is too mistake-prone for better players to respect.

Carey Price might be the best choice for captain, if he weren't the goalie. He fits the bill in every other way. He's got the experience, he's got the respect due the best player on the ice, he busts his butt to make sure he's always at the top of his game, he's funny and articulate, but he's got the kind of temper that can make guys who aren't pulling their weight cringe. He's the only guy on the team right now who can give a slacking teammate "The Look" and make it stick. He'd be the perfect captain...but, he's the goalie. Once, that wasn't a big deal. Bill Durnan was Habs captain, and managed to put together a Hall-of-Fame career at the same time. Now, though, captains are expected to give more of their personal time at appearances and charity events. For a player like Price, who likes his privacy, that's not an appetizing trade-off. The Canucks tried to go back to having a goalie as captain with Roberto Luongo, but the appointment lasted only two years before he stepped down, citing the need to focus exclusively on goaltending. With that in mind, it's unlikely Price would either be asked to take, or accept, the captaincy in Montreal.

Other potential captains in Brendan Gallagher or P.K.Subban don't have the experience to be convincing in the role. In three years, either of them could take the "C," but not now. So, if Plekanec or Gorges aren't suitable captains for whatever reason they or management might have, and, assuming Marc Bergevin doesn't bring in the second coming of Mark Messier this summer, the team might be better off with leadership by committee. The question is whether a team is better off with no set leader than with one not quite cut out for the job.

In Montreal, if Brian Gionta is finishing his last year as a Canadien, the answer is, captain is better than the wrong captain. We know a lot about Brian Gionta. We just don't know who will be perfectly suited to fill the hole he'll leave when he goes.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Head/Heart Debate: The General

The NHL trade deadline is approaching and Canadiens fans are embroiled in the hot debate over whether to keep or trade Andre Markov. The team's assistant captain, loyal veteran and most reliable defenceman is running out of contract and now, says the Head, is the time to move him.

Let's look at the hard facts, the Head argues. Markov is 35 years old. He's sustained serious injuries that cost him a big chunk of his prime, and he's never going to get that back. At the same time, he's still a top-ten point producer among NHL defenders, he's playing 25 minutes a night...tops on the team...and he's got the kind of vision and creativity that can revitalize an ailing power play. Right now, he's worth more than he'll ever be worth again. A playoff contender with a need to improve on special teams would love to have him, and, Head tells the Heart, you know how these Cup-drunk GMs are wont to overpay at the deadline. Just imagine an extra first-rounder and a solid prospect ready to jump in next year to join the young core. Someone might pay that much if they think their championship window is open. With that kind of return, it's hard to justify holding on to a guy who might walk in July anyway.

Yeah, but there's more to the relationship between Markov and Montreal than hard facts, argues the Heart. This is a guy who came to Canada as a scared, Russian-speaking kid fourteen years ago. Making that choice to get on the plane and fly off into the unknown took tremendous courage from a young man who was naturally shy. He did it, though, and he managed to build himself a home and a life in a new country. At the same time, he was a rare bright light on a team that struggled to even make the playoffs half the time. He got better every year and, before his knee injuries, he was a two-time All-Star who was so vital to his team that their win/loss record with/without him was shocking. He's regained a lot of that form since he got healthy. Twice, he could have tested the open market and made a hell of a lot more money than he got in Montreal. He didn't do that, even when he could have played in a city that would have let him enjoy his precious privacy and taxes wouldn't have taken so much of his contract away. He chose to stay, even became a citizen, and he honoured the team by doing so. The Canadiens owe him the same kind of loyalty.

Ha! Oh, come ON, Heart! He was comfortable in Montreal, he wanted to stay in Montreal, and he gave up money to stay there. All of that was his own choice and it had less to do with loyalty than with his lack of interest in starting over in another city.  The Canadiens paid him very well for his service, including the nearly two years he missed after knee surgery, and they don't owe him more than that.

I don't buy it, Head. He loved the team. He stayed even when he could have done better elsewhere, and he did great things for the Canadiens. He's quietly become one of the all-time best Habs defencemen. Seriously. He's seventh all-time in points for Canadiens defencemen. He's fourth in goals, fifth in assists. The people ahead of him are Doug Harvey, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard. Notice, Head, that all of those people are Hall-of-Famers.

Oh, come on, Heart. The league these days is not the league they played in. This is business and the team needs to get younger and tougher. Markov is old, slowing, not exactly a physical presence, and he'll never be any better than he is now. Marc Bergevin has a responsibility to the team and the fans that has to outweigh sentiment. Andrei Markov isn't Larry Robinson...he's an asset that can bring value to the team for the future. The only question Bergevin should be considering is whether the gain down the road is worth short-term pain. Oh, and Heart? Harvey, Robinson, Lapointe and Savard were all traded out of Montreal toward the ends of their careers.

That's true, Head. But the Canadiens want to return to being something special...something better than the run-of-the-mill NHL team. They want to have class again. If the Devils can let Marty Brodeur finish out his career in New Jersey and the Red Wings held onto Yzerman and Lidstrom, the Habs can show similar loyalty to a career Canadien. The team lowered itself when it let Saku Koivu walk, so giving Markov a new deal could help it redeem itself. Anyway, Markov isn't exactly Methuselah. He's looking good out there, and he's helping the team. He could certainly continue to do that while some of the younger guys are maturing. If they trade him now, who's going to take his place?

Does it matter, Heart? The Habs aren't a contender. Their window, if they have one at all, obviously is two or three years away. Markov isn't going to be part of that in any case. Who cares if he helps them get a few extra points in the regular-season standings between now and then? The return the team gets for him might just be the difference between eventually winning a Cup or not.

But, Head, should fans have to watch the team lose for two or three years before it's strong enough to make a Cup run? I don't think so. It's management's job not just to build a contender, but to make sure the fans who pay the bills get their money's worth every night. Nobody wants to watch the home team get trounced because still-useful veterans were dumped for picks and prospects.

Heart, fans just want a winner. They don't care how that happens.

No, Head. They do. They invest emotion into these players and they want to see them treated right. Who knows if anything they'd get in a trade would even pan out in the end? I say Markov should stay and finish his career in Montreal. It's the right thing to do.

Okay then, Heart. I'll play along. Markov supposedly wants three years. There's no way Bergevin can commit to that much term on an over-35 contract. I wouldn't take the risk on more than one year and neither should the Canadiens.

What about splitting the difference and giving him two years at his current salary, Head? Two years will fly by and, in the meantime, Markov can really help the team. If he's done after that, well, he'll have helped a guy like Beaulieu grow into the job. I'm not saying this just for sentimental reasons...they'd re-sign Francis Bouillon in that case...but because he's still good enough to earn his money.

Well, Heart, that's an argument I can support. One thing, though: Bergevin should sign him now. The only thing worse than holding on to a veteran after he reaches his peak value is keeping him at the deadline and then losing him for nothing in July. If Andrei Markov is still in Montreal on Wednesday night, there had better be a contract announcement before the season ends.