We’ve Created a Narrative Box, But it’s Just a Box
One benefit of following and rooting for any particular sports team is that success is a matter of objectively quantifiable fact. Sure, you can quibble about the way points are allocated, or suggest that those points are an inaccurate reflection of the true quality of a team – and you’d be right. But with the agreed-upon calculus of points being assigned to teams on the basis of wins resulting in a hierarchy we call ‘standings,’ there can be no doubt about who is ahead.
Knowing who is ahead creates a singular objective, fed by two, binary narratives that are the twin, propulsive forces behind most hockey writing: generally speaking, either you want to get the most wins, which will award you a championship, or you want the fewest wins, which will award you a high draft pick, which you might be able to use to draft a star, which will contribute to the accumulation of wins at a later date.
In other words, you’re either competing, or you’re rebuilding. This is an easy narrative to understand.
Though the strategy to accomplish either of these tasks can differ, the narrative of the competitive window v. the incremental rebuild remains pretty static, and it’s against this static, linear conception of success that we, fans and writers of hockey, project our expectations thusly: a team gets about 3-4 years of rebuilding before they’re expected to make the playoffs. Then 1-2 years of increasing success in the playoffs before they’re expected to compete for a championship. Then 2-3 years during which their window to win a championship is open. After that, the team is likely top-heavy with big contracts and 30+-year old players, the farm team is starved for good prospects, and it’s time to start selling off. At this point, a baboon lifts a baby lion cub up to the sun and Elton John provides us all with perspective.
Though there are myriad examples of teams not adhering to this tidy, linear map of what success should look like, it’s the Ur language of hockey journalism. Even those who want to be controversial will make statements relative to this easily understandable norm.
I say all of this in order to explain why the Ottawa Senators’ financial situation, and thus placement outside of the binary, has been so disruptive for fans and writers alike. Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has enough money to own and operate a hockey team, but not enough liquid cash on hand to spend on salaries or front-office staff to contend, or to sustain a multi-year rebuild without playoff revenue. Melnyk makes the Senators’ adherence to the Ur narrative impossible. But it also doesn’t make sense for Melnyk to sell, as the franchise continues to accumulate underlying value and the team is due to relocate downtown in the coming years. So here we are, in narrative purgatory.
One wrinkle: the team is having a successful season. A few savvy contracts to players like Kyle Turris, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Clarke MacArthur, Craig Anderson and, oh yes, the greatest player of his generation Erik Karlsson, has led to the team being competitive for a playoff spot despite these disadvantages, and now here we are in the Eastern Conference Finals, playing the defending champs and Exemplar of The Traditional Rebuild, the Penguins.
If the team was unsuccessful, it would be easier to write about them. At least then they would receive a higher draft pick and to some small degree be rebuilding, even if it would be despite themselves. This is what leads to such hot takes as “this current run of success is only leading to the Senators worsening their draft position,” as if there’s no enjoyment to be gleaned from watching one’s team make a deep run into the playoffs, or hoping for the unlikely to come true. For some, the narrative of “win it all” or “rebuild to win” is bigger than the game right in front of them.
It’s not uncommon to find fans and journalists alike bemoaning the team’s lack of a plan. But what we say when we say, “There is no plan” is that we’re unable to discern the direction of the Ottawa Senators on the spectrum of our dominant narrative of What Hockey Teams Do. And that leaves fans and journalists alike casting about for ways to talk about the team, with no easily accessible point at which to say, This is where I believe the team is relative to expectations. Silver Sevens had a nice piece about how few articles were written about the Sens this year, with many blogs, including this one (and me in particular) going dark for long stretches of time. This isn’t for lack of interest. We all still like hockey. But we’re having to learn new ways to talk about hockey.
People want, first and foremost, a story. This is us – the city, the player, the hero – and this is what we want to accomplish – to get better, to go further, to win. We can get together and drink beer and hope for the puck to go in the net, but the binary of compete/rebuild is the answer to the question What does the puck in the net mean? Not being a part of that binary means asking ourselves the scary question, What if this success doesn’t mean anything?
Becoming Ethnographers of Hockey
Though Melnyk’s financial situation denies us the easy narrative framework of compete/rebuild, we can also acknowledge that that binary is only one framework through which to view the progress of a hockey team. Of course, hockey means what we decide it means. We, as fans, can socially construct any narrative we like and assign it value. We don’t need mainstream media, the league, or marketing to do it for us.
There are so many other ways we could be talking about this Senators season, from the personal – what does this season mean to you, the reader or writer, and your family? – to the big-picture – what does this season mean in the context of the franchise, your community, the city, the country?
We could be writing about the individual events of each games. We could be telling the stories of the Clarke MacArthurs and the Craig Andersons and even the poor Chris Neils, he of 1000 games, the longest-serving veteran on the team and an anachronism, healthy and ready to play and never asked, the last man standing from those regular season juggernauts of the mid-aughts. We could be talking to other fans, and telling their story. We could challenge ourselves to find interesting and creative ways to describe what it means to be a hockey fan. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to previews, reviews, and letter grades. (Though those are fun, too.)
The foundation is already there. Ian Mendes does this all the time, covering the incredible story of Jonathan Pitre, or Kyle Turris’ involvement with the Capital City Condors. We need only decide to make those stories as foundational as the compete/rebuild narrative – to change our emphasis to storytelling rather than the pretense of continuous, objective measurement.
In other words, we could treat writing about hockey the way we treat other types of journalism, which is to start digging without necessarily knowing what the end point will be and to tell the story of what we discovered. More interviews, more discussions, more art and photography about hockey.
When ‘Anything Can Happen’ Becomes ‘It Happened’
First and foremost we should remember that even if “Get in and anything can happen” is not exactly a plan, it’s also true. We are experiencing the validation of a concept about hockey success that fundamentally acknowledges just how much variation there is in this sport. Shooting percentage, save percentage, scoring effects, match-ups, injuries – there’s a lot of noise surrounding the core quality of a team’s lineup. This season does not validate “Get in and anything can happen” as the ascendant model for dynasty building, but it does validate that…well, anything really can happen. This is going to present an increasingly big challenge for both Type A fans who want to see their team tell the story of a methodical build to contention and league marketers who’ve relied on “wicked prospect!” or “let’s get the Cup!” as the only two modes of story.
The league has introduced a number of mechanisms that make the road to a rebuild increasingly subject to variation, including weighted lotteries, RFA rights, and salary caps. I listened to a podcast the other day where it was suggested that Edmonton’s window might already be closing; McDavid’s RFA deal is up next year, meaning they’ll have to shed salary to sign him long-term. This, after 11 years out of the playoffs and four first overall picks in five years. Increasingly, teams are going to rely on the unpredictable happening knowing that the unpredictable comes for us all whether we like it or not. We may even see more teams adopting systems like Coach Guy Boucher’s, which stymie offense and capitalize on mistakes but can bring success even with a lower payroll.
In any case, we’re going to need to find a different way to talk about hockey, something more spontaneous, organic, and refreshing that reflects the randomness with which the NHL now contends.
To put it unkindly: look at Ottawa’s attendance this year. If the NHL can’t answer What does winning a hockey game mean? then people won’t pay to hear that story told. Each game is its own, small story, but each game is also a chapter in a larger epic. We get to choose what that epic is. Is it winning a Cup and that’s it? Or can we do more to talk about what’s happening, right now, in our hometown? How do we talk about hockey success once we acknowledge that luck and variation is the perpetual background radiation of the hockey universe?
What will happen when more and more teams understand success is the outcome of a series of fortunate events – winning a draft lottery, a goaltender getting hot at the right time, a favorable playoff matchup? Parity has brought more teams into the competitive fold, like a capricious grantor of temporary joy, but people like to understand how things work and see them unfold as projected. What the league needs to understand, and get out of front of, is that this Ottawa Senators season is what the future of the league looks like – surprising teams succeeding against the odds in a chaotic world. I think we can do a better job of telling that story.