It’s a Two-Way Street: Examining the Relationship between Culture, Performance, and Narratives

I am lucky enough to play college hockey, on a team that is reasonably competitive. Our most recent season, we went into the regional tournament as the highest ranked team in the South (the top two teams get a bye to the National Championships, and teams 3-10 play for the remaining two berths; we were ranked 3rd, so we didn’t get a bye, but were technically the top team at regionals).

After beating our first round opponent, we simply needed to win one more game in order to qualify for Nationals. We were upset by the 7th ranked team, and just like that, our season was over.

In the following weeks, I often found myself questioning the leadership and overall attitude of the team, as it seemed that several players simply didn’t care about the team, while others weren’t willing to put in a little bit of extra work in order to be successful. If you would have asked about the “culture” of the team at that time, my response would have been negative.

After the dust had settled, and I was no longer upset that my season was over, I realized that “culture” probably had nothing to do with our loss at Regionals, for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s Division III Club hockey. It’s for fun. So long as the player shows up to team events and pays their dues, who cares about their off-ice conditioning?
  2. Due to injuries and academic ineligibilities, we played the second half of the season with 13 skaters and two goalies.
  3. We lost the final game of the year 4-3, despite outshooting our opponents 52-23. Their goaltender stood on his head, and essentially stole the game for his team.

Only being able to ice half of a roster really restricts a coach’s decisions, and puts a massive strain on the entire team. We ran three lines and two defensive pairings in every game for a month and a half, and in Regionals, we simply ran out of gas; it’s a tall order to ask a team of 13 skaters to beat a team of 20, especially when there’s no massive gap in player skill. We still almost managed to get it done.

If you were to ask me about my team’s “culture” now, I’d probably give you a positive response. This most recent year was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey, and a large part of that is due to the sacrifices and commitments made by the coaches and captains of the team.

When looking at a professional hockey team’s “culture”, its important to remember that our assessments are often based on qualitative data; we’re often working with our own observations, or with observations that others (such as members of the media) have made. In the same way that context is key with statistics, context is key with qualitative data, and to treat it any different is asking for errors in judgement to occur.

On-ice performance and narrative are important to consider, with performance in particular being an important factor that goes into determining a team’s culture. Wins and losses on the ice can have an enormous impact on locker room chemistry, a fact that is often overlooked by many traditional media members. They often view “culture” as leading to on-ice results, like so.

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A more accurate representation of the relationship, however, would be this.

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A perfect example of this would be the 2014-2015 Los Angeles Kings, who were rumored to have issues in the locker room as they struggled down the stretch and eventually missed the playoffs. Though traditional analysts have suggested that their locker issues led to their poor performance on the ice, this version of events doesn’t quite add up. Which is more likely; that a group of players and coaches that had won two Stanley Cups together suddenly stopped communication properly, or that mounting frustration due to an never ending stream of losses in overtime and one-goal games drove a slight wedge between members of the locker room? Considering that the Kings bounced back in 2015-2016, my money is on the latter.

Narrative is another concept that must be accounted for, as our analysis of a locker room’s culture is often too dependent on narrative. The qualitative data collected is rarely directly observed and measured, and it is often given to us by players or coaches, who will not hesitate to mention concepts such as leadership and determination as integral to their success.

As Stefan Wolejszo has mentioned, these concepts are ingrained into hockey players from a young age. Here, he is discussing television analysts, but the gist of the paragraph could be applied to all hockey players.

So when television analysts refer to the determination of [Jonathan] Toews they are drawing upon a frame that makes sense to them and a large part of their viewing audience. They did not create this frame, and may not have arrived at it consciously. It is something that was already there and ready for them to draw upon when they first watched hockey, helped them to organize their experiences as they played the game, and is then reified when those stories and experiences are shared with an audience.

Because locker room culture is affected by how good a team plays, we often will find that the data we use to assess culture is severely biased. Returning to the example of my hockey team, imagine how different I would view the culture if we had won Regionals, and qualified for Nationals? To do so despite playing with such a short bench would have been incredible, and there’s no doubt that some of the credit for that would have been given to the locker room “culture”. The narrative surrounding the team would be different, too, and the idea of a captain and coach leading a short-staffed group of 13 to victory would be quite the story.

We can see obvious examples of narrative and on-ice performance affecting our perceptions of culture in the NHL, too. Everyone remember Sidney Crosby, coach killer? A terrible offensive system and a rough start to the season led to many questioning Sidney Crosby’s leadership skills, as well as his character and whether or not he had what it takes to captain a team to the Stanley Cup.

Mike Sullivan’s system takes hold in Pittsburgh, and the team starts to do incredible things in terms of puck possession and out-scoring the opposition.

Now that he’s playing a style of hockey that benefits him, Crosby takes off, and finishes the season as one of the best players in the league (again). He dominates during the playoffs, leads the Penguins to the Stanley Cup for the second time in his career, and wins the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Even then, it still took all the way to the Cup Final for the narrative surrounding Crosby to change. In the Eastern Conference Final, when the Lightning were up 3-2 in the series, it was written that giving Crosby the captaincy had been a mistake for the Penguins. The Penguins would come back to win the series, and then go on to win the Cup.

After the postseason he had, I can guarantee you that no one will be questioning Crosby’s leadership or his character for quite some time, and it would be ill-advised to call him a coach killer.

This just shows how the narratives can shape our concept of culture, as the Penguins “culture” was negatively influenced by Crosby early in the season, when the team was losing games and getting ready to fire head coach Mike Johnston. As soon as the team starts winning games again, Crosby’s leadership is a huge positive influence in the locker room.

There is reason to believe that players such as Crosby and fellow Canadian Jonathan Toews are excellent leaders, and that their intangibles due result in better on-ice performance. A player that is determined to improve will help a team more than a player who is lazy, especially if they have similar skill sets.

The relationship between “culture”, on-ice results, and narrative is a complex one. To assume that it is cause and effect is to falsely attribute players or coaches with intangible qualities they may not actually possess. Taking context into account, and understanding that the interactions between the three ideas are likely a “two-way street” should lead to better discussion and analysis of “culture” and intangibles in the future.

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