High Tide Hockey: Why Leadership and Chemistry Are (Sort of) Real


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High Tide Hockey is a weekly column offering insights on various issues and events as well as consistent content. The writer, Arik Knapp, is a member of the USCG and currently stationed in Virginia Beach, VA.

 

Leadership. Chemistry. Locker room presence. These are the things with which sports stories are filled. Some praising it, others yelling about the lack thereof.  Recently a few writers around the internet have been talking about how these things don't really exist, or if they do, affect the games. Two of my favorite writers in particular, Derek Zona of The Copper & Blue and Manager Emeritus Kent Wilson, now at Flamesnation have written two particularly solid pieces on the idea of leadership- Kent focusing more on how it's talked about by management and players and the origins of it, and Derek Zona going into why the media loves it so much.

 

But with all due respect, I disagree. Sort of. Let me explain. On the ice- they are absolutely correct. At the level of the NHL and near it, you pretty much have to be engaged and playing your heart out. "Chemistry" is not going to directly affect play or points. Just because two players don't necessarily get along in the locker room doesn't mean one will choose not to make a perfect pass for a goal to the other. And as far as leadership and chemistry are presented in the media, they are also absolutely correct. So where do I disagree?

 

Well, just because the media presents it incorrectly and fans often perceive it incorrectly doesn't mean that none of it exists. I'm going to ignore the entire concept of "The Captain", because as Zona mentions in his article, it's basically a bunch of All-Stars with a special letter on their jersey, with the exception of the Atlanta Thrashers who made the smart choice of putting it on Andrew Ladd.

No, leadership isn't about on-ice play. It's about the off-ice preparation, the time spent in the locker room before and after practice. The outside events. To make my point, let me link one more solid piece, this one seemingly having nothing to do with leadership or chemistry. In that last piece, J.T. Bourne's excellent article on the hardships of a player being traded on his family he mentions one thing in particular "My worst college season was directly linked to off-ice struggles. It's not like you're thinking about those personal issues during games; it's that they take away from your ability to prepare"

And that's pretty damn close to the crux of my argument. How often do you hear about or see players from the same team getting in fights during games? Extremely rarely. During a game, no matter what, you're teammates and you stick together. There is a common enemy, this keeps the team together. For all teams, despite "chemistry or "leadership".  But during practice? It's rarely out-and-out spoken of, but often heard in whispers and murmurs. And this is where leadership and chemistry matter.

Imagine trying to prepare for a presentation, an exam, or in my case an operation when two guys on your team are fighting. There's tension, it's uncomfortable. Maybe people are yelling at each other. If I'm stationed aboard a ship (or "cutter" in Coast Guard parlance") and we're running drills for boarding that keep getting interrupted by arguments and fights- guess what, we won't be prepared for successfully boarding a go-fast.

Like wise, if players are fighting, getting into shoving matches, unable to focus during practice, they won't perform well during a game. Not because they're still thinking about it, but because they didn't prepare properly.

"Chemistry", or as I call it, "not being a dick", prevents those problems. You don't have to like the guy next to you on the bench, you just can't cause problems about it. And if the dislike gets out of hand, that's where leadership comes in. Going back to my cutter drill analogy, if fights during drills are a recurring issue, then it becomes a person in a leadership position's responsibility (technically anyone who's a petty officer or higher, but really a chief or an officer) to stop the issues and resolve them.

In the NHL locker room, if a young first line forward is getting in a fight with the goalie (this one is just made up, not a reference to any actual issue I'm aware of) it's the responsibility of the veterans who've been around the block a few times. The guys who know the amount of preparation to succeed. Likewise, if the team isn't focusing just because they don't know how to focus, those are the same people who should step up and guide the practice in the right direction.

At the end of the day, leadership and chemistry don't exist as the media likes to describe it. Derek Zona links to one particularly terrific piece at Royal's Review, the SBN Kansas City Royal's blog and references a quote I'm going to quote as well.

It's all silly. It's all a fantasy land of unprovables and reasoning that never gets verified. Sometimes leadership is being funny, being "loose", keeping the guys relaxed. Two days later, it's acting insane, starting a brawl, calling a players only meeting. Unrelated events happen, we create a false narrative, everyone forgets all of it anyway, and we move on. 162 games. Day after day. Nobody ever goes back and writes about the losing streak that wasn't stopped by a fiery speech, the slump that didn't end with a toxin-releasing brawl, the comeback that never came after the manager was ejected.

The game can never just be about the game, because we've all got to imbue an essentially meaningless activity, really no different at its core than an episode of Real Housewives or any other form of entertainment, with all manner of emotional, cultural, political, and psychological importance. For some reason we have to pretend that it actually would make sense for a baseball player to be "a warrior" or whatever else we want to call him. All that myth, which has seduced just about every supposedly literary account of sports, is hands down my least favorite aspect of being a fan.

What we often assume is leadership is generally random actions that fit a story that doesn't actually exist. The real leadership? The real chemistry? You never hear about them.

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  • My weather. The worst days I have to deal are 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit. The rest of them? 70 to 80 degrees. Be jealous.
  • The Dustin Penner trade for the LA Kings. Teubert projects to be a 3rd pairing defenceman at best, and a late first round pick in a weak draft? The Oilers got robbed. It's not like Dustin Penner is over 30 and on the decline.
  • Even though I'm pretty average in both height and build, for some reason I love seeing small guys succeed in the NHL. Today's favorite? Matt Calvert of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
  • Jay Feaster more or less standing pat at the deadline is a) exactly what I expected and b) smart thinking by him. I wish he would've/could've traded expiring UFA's for prospects or anything with future value really, but being in the position he's in, I don't blame him for waiting until the offseason to start the move towards youth and speed.

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  • Apparently the Oiler's GM didn't know Colton Teubert had been having troubles in the AHL this year. Hilarious.
  • This was a horrible horrible Trade Deadline, though at least it contained a few deals with actual valuable players.
  • How about that return the Blues got for Boyes- a legitimate top six player? A single second round pick? Oof.

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 While not technically a Flames prospect, I really like the possibility of Sven Bartschi falling to the middle of the 1st round- I think he's a solid player and the Flames would do well to draft him if at all possible.

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DUDES I GOT A CASE OF NATTY- WHO'S IN FOR A POWER HOUR?!

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