Of Course Culture Matters

There seems to be a recent trend among some NHL followers to dismiss the importance of a strong team culture. Some people simply suggest that it doesn’t matter. But this way of thinking just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Of course culture matters. Everything matters to some degree.

Should building a good team culture form the sole basis of all your decision making? No definitely not. Can you make an argument that some managers have overvalued building a team culture and as a result made some poor decisions? Absolutely. Not to mention the managers who attempt to overhaul their team culture and just don’t execute it very well.

But to say culture doesn’t matter is silly.

First, what is culture? Culture is essentially the combined attitudes of all the individuals that make up your team.

So the individual players on a team have an impact on the overall team culture. However so does ownership, management and coaching. And to a lesser extent even the attitudes of the media and fans can permeate a team culture. Naturally some individuals will have a larger effect on team culture than others.

Culture is an intangible feeling you get when you associate with the team. Intangible is kind of a bad word right now in hockey circles because intangibles can’t be measured very well and the league is trending in a way where people are very focused on things that can be measured. But it matters.

Here’s just one example. Would you prefer a team that has a culture where the players obsess about going to the gym or a culture where the players would rather just spend their time partying at the bar?

You might say you don’t care what they do off the ice. That your only concern is their on-ice performance. You might say that talent is the only thing that matters.

That’s fine. But the problem is that way of thinking assumes off-ice habits have no impact on-ice performance.

Is Jonathon Toews a superstar simply because he’s stronger, faster and can shoot better than everyone else? Not really. He’s definitely has above average skills in most measurable categories.  But there are plenty of stronger, faster and harder shooting players than Toews. But what makes Toews special- what makes him stand out- is that he combines his on-ice skill with leadership, work-ethic and a good attitude. That’s what separates Toews from being a good NHL player to being a great one.

These attributes are not separate from Toews’ talent. They are part of his talent.

So logically a team that has more players with; leadership, work-ethic and a good attitude will outperform an identically skilled team that lack in these qualities. That’s the impact of culture.

Saying culture doesn’t matter also assumes that players are not impressionable. Some are.

Some players are almost always going to do the right thing no matter what- these are the leaders. Some players are generally going to do the wrong thing more often than not. In between are a bunch of players that will go either way depending on what everyone else is doing. Professional athletes are humans just like everyone else.

Late in the third period, with a one goal lead, some players are going to panic in that situation. Some are going to play with composure. The player’s emotions will feed off each other. There will be a mood on the bench. That’s culture. Do you want a team that panics in that situation or one that plays with composure?

Late in the season, five points out of a playoff spot, some players are going to mentally quit. They’ll give up. Some are going to be more determined than ever to fight, scratch and claw their way in to the playoffs. Again the player’s attitudes will feed of each other. There will be a mood in the dressing room. That’s culture. Do you want a team that quits or fights?

Will acquiring a 4th line player with strong character from a Stanley Cup winning team magically transform the culture of your dressing room? Of course not. Could it help in a small way? Maybe.

Would adding the captain of a Stanley Cup winning team transform the culture in your dressing room? It would certainly make an impact.

Certain individuals have the leadership and clout that they command the respect of the rest of the team. That’s what leadership is. They can help the team be mentally and physically more prepared for the game.

Physical talent is necessary for success. You won’t win without talent. But you won’t win with a bunch of players with bad attitudes either. Mental and physical preparation are vitally important. Do you want a team culture that promotes preparation? Or a bunch of guys who show up and simply rely on their talent to get by?

Does this mean that every team that wins the Cup has a dressing room full of guys with positive attitudes? No. Does it mean that every team with a great group of guys will certainly win? No again.

But it’s like anything else in hockey. Consider goaltending. There have been teams that have won the Cup with average goaltending. Does this mean that goaltending doesn’t matter? No. It just means that particular team was built in a way that they won with average goaltending.

Some teams can have one of the best coaches in the league and still miss the playoffs. Does that mean coaching doesn’t matter? No again.

There are many different factors that go into creating a successful team. There isn’t a magic formula. Having a group of players with good character and creating a positive dressing room culture isn’t everything. But it’s definitely a piece of the puzzle. It certainly matters.

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