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.

Parity Doesn’t Always Make the Game More Exciting

Parity is something that the major sports leagues in North America all strive for. Conventional wisdom suggests that a league with parity is a good thing.

And that does make sense. Nobody wants their team to be out of contention of a playoff spot by the midpoint of the season. That isn’t good for TV ratings and it isn’t good for keeping the fans attention in a sporting market that has a lot of competition.

But what doesn’t get talked about often is how parity affects the actual gameplay.

In the NHL you could make the argument that we have as much parity as ever before in the modern era. There are a few reasons for this. The obvious one is the salary cap. According to the owners one of the main goals of the salary cap was to create a level playing field for all teams. A league where the rich teams can’t just outspend and therefore consistently outperform the smaller markets. So far the salary cap seems to have helped achieve this.

But there’s another big factor in the league today that contributes to parity that gets ignored. The three point system. That is the system that awards an extra point to a team that loses in overtime or shootout. This system creates a form of artificially parity.

Typically if you were to recreate the standings with the extra points removed, and simply awarded 2 points for a win and 0 points for a loss, you would see a bigger disparity in the standings. The three point system bunches teams together.

The reason it could be described as an “artificial” parity is that it can make it appear like teams are closer to a playoff spot than they really are. Regardless of how closely bunched the teams are in the standings 12th place is still 12th place. 10th place is still 10th place.

When talking about the playoff race we typically only talk about how many points back a team is. But with eight teams making the playoffs there is a huge difference between being five points out of a playoff spot and being in 12th place or being five points out of a playoff spot and being in 9th place. Although both teams may only be five points back, the 12th place team has to outplay four teams to jump into 8th. That’s a huge longshot. Meanwhile the 9th place team only has to outplay one team which is much more possible.

So what does any of this have to do with hockey in the 1980’s?

We all know that hockey in 1980’s was much more wide open than it is today. There was a lot more scoring and it was a style that is often described as run and gun. There are lots of theories as to why this was but something that never gets talked about is how the playoffs worked.

Back then there were five teams in each division and all of them made the playoffs except one. As long as you didn’t finish in last place, you made the playoffs. There were 21 teams in the league and 16 of them made the playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs in 1988 with the second worst record in hockey 21-49-10. Try to wrap your head around that for a second.

How does that affect the on-ice product? Well for one it’s pretty clear that if you lose a game in a system like that it’s not really a big deal- you’re probably still going to make the playoffs. Some of the games were like glorified exhibition games. There certainly was not as much accountability.

Compare that to the league today. The teams are bunched so closely in the standings that a single bad week could knock a team down four spots in the standings and out of a playoff spot. Everything is magnified.

The theory of loss aversion suggests that people’s tendencies is to strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains. It has been suggested that losses suffered are twice as powerful psychologically as gains achieved.

What this means is that teams often don’t play to win- they’re playing not to lose. It’s human nature.

Coaches and management are not nearly rewarded as much for winning as they are for not losing. This manifests itself into the ultra conservative style of game that we see being played right now. Run and gun today hockey gets coaches fired.

In the 80’s if you lost a game- no big deal. Probably didn’t put a dent into your playoff hopes. Today if you lose a game two teams might jump you in the standings.

So much is at stake with each loss that a players mistakes are magnified. Think of a game where a player scores a goal but then later commits a bad turnover that leads to a goal. The end result is essentially the same but what do you think will be talked about more the next day on all the radio shows and internet forums? The goal or the turnover?

This mentality partly explains why when the Leafs had one of the highest scoring teams in the league, and were in a playoff spot, people were screaming for the coach’s head. Meanwhile when they play a more conservative style and finish in 30th people are happier with the result because “at least they kept the games close”.

Now you could argue that the Leafs are in a better place today because of Auston Matthews, better coaching and management, more organizational depth etc… and you’re absolutely right.

But, ignoring that, there are many people who will actually tell you that they played better hockey when they finished dead last in the entire league than the type of hockey they were playing when they were leading the league in scoring and sitting in a playoff spot. Think about how silly that is for a minute and that will tell you everything you need to know about why NHL hockey is so conservative now compared to the wild west style of the 1980’s.

Structure is a term we hear a lot and sometimes it seems that playing with structure is valued more than actual results. But there are 30 teams in the league. You need to do something different to stand out. Perhaps it’s time for a team to throw conventional wisdom to the side and bring back the run and gun mentality of the 80’s. It might give some coaches, managers and fans grey hair but hey- it might be fun to watch!

The Game Doesn’t Change- People Do

A refrain that is often heard in the hockey world is that the game has changed.

But, aside from some tinkering here and there, the rules haven’t changed substantially in almost a century.

It’s not the game that has changed. It’s the people that have changed. More specifically it’s the attitudes that people have about the game that have changed.

The point of the game always has been to put more pucks in the net than the other team. It doesn’t matter how you do it. What makes hockey such a great game is that there are a number of different ways you can attempt to outscore your opponent. You can try to beat them with speed and offense. You can try to out-defend them. You can focus on dominating special teams. You can try to intimidate and wear your opponent down physically. Ideally you want to do a combination of everything well.

What we’re seeing in the NHL right now is a game where offensively skilled players are highly sought after. Particularly ones who can skate well and control the puck.

We’re also seeing a league where teams aren’t afraid to dress smaller players on a regular basis after years where it seemed anyone under 6’0 tall was considered a long shot to make it.

There is a perception that we have a style of play in the league today that allows smaller players to thrive where they couldn’t have in past decades. But smaller players could always play in the league. They just often weren’t given the chance because people had biases about size.

Skating, puck handling and offensive skill were always important factors to winning. This isn’t a new thing. However teams in previous eras had a bias towards size that just didn’t make a lot of sense.

And, to be clear, that’s not to say smaller players are generally any faster or more offensively skilled than a taller player. Because that is a bias within itself. Skills such as skating and scoring don’t generally correlate with a players height. But in decades past we had a situation where teams would often dress a bigger player over a smaller more skilled player just because of an unjustified desire to have a taller player in the lineup.

But ten to twenty years ago, when NHL general managers valued a players height to an inappropriately high degree, shorter players were still often some of the best performers. Looking back over the couple decades prior to the current era, the NHL’s top ten scoring list regularly featured plenty of players under 6’0 tall. Think names such as; Fleury, Oates, Hull, Mogilny, Gilmour, Bure, Naslund, Sakic, Yzerman, Recchi, Kariya, Gagne, Alfredsson, Savard, St. Louis, Palffy, Briere, Gomez, Sullivan, Weight and Datsyuk.

The difference is, in those days, those players were considered the exception to the rule. They were considered the players who succeeded despite their small stature. But that just isn’t necessarily true. If you look at the numbers you might be surprised to find that after being drafted players made the NHL at virtually the same rate no matter what their height. The myth that a tall player had a better chance at making the NHL than a shorter player isn’t necessarily proven by the facts. If anything a lot of the biggest draft steals were shorter players while a lot of the worst busts were taller ones.

Large size and positive results never did correlate to success as much as people thought. Once teams started figuring out that you need the best players, not the biggest, those teams started winning.

There are other size biases we’ve seen over the years. One that gets repeated often is that big players take longer to develop. They don’t take longer to develop- they were given longer to develop. A big player was often irrationally given chance after chance to succeed where a smaller player would have been buried in the minors long before.

Another one is that smaller players are more prone to injury and to suffering from the wear and tear of a long season. This is something that still gets repeated but who knows why? Has any piece of evidence ever been presented to suggest that smaller players are more prone to injury than larger players? Being large men didn’t seem to help Eric Lindros or Mario Lemeiux avoid the infirmary.

And of course any time a smaller player failed to make the NHL, invariably the reason given is that he was “too small”. No one seems to consider that maybe he just simply wasn’t good enough. But when a huge player like Jason Bonsignore or Hugh Jessiman busts does anyone say they were “too big”?

One of the big advantages that we’ve seen with advanced stats is that the hard numbers help to eliminate some of these biases that existed. But there are still biases that exist in today’s game. There always will be. And the teams that figure out what those biases are, and exploits them, will usually be a team that has success and then becomes emulated.

While teams in the past overvalued size we’ve now seen the pendulum swing in the other direction. And sometimes the pendulum can swing too far the other way. Teams now might now be overvaluing offensive skill and undervaluing the impact of physical play. If you think a big, physical team couldn’t succeed in today’s NHL remember- the game never really changes that much. It’s people’s attitudes about the game that change.