Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Outside Hockey

Hi. My name is Daryl Shilling, and I'm a hockey Outsider. I don't know any hockey players, I've never interviewed one after a game (or before, for that matter). I've never been inside the holy inner sanctum of the dressing room, and have literally spoken to one NHL player. A few years ago, I bumped into Andrei Kovalenko and we spoke shortly, where he told me (in between cigarette puffs) that he couldn't figure out why he was struggling that season. That's it. One NHL player, and it wasn't exactly an interview. Last year, when I saw Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom walk by me, I didn't pester them or even ask them for an autograph. It would have been a pretty memorable experience, but I figure they have enough people bothering them without my doing so as well. For somebody that is so interested in hockey, and spends as much free time devoted to watching and studying it as I do, I'm still an Outsider. Inside reporting is a huge business for sports TV, magazines, and numerous websites. There are sites that specialize in trade rumours, using references from ghost-like sources, telling us that the Team A's Coach is sick of Player B, and wants to trade him to Team C or D; anywhere but Team E (since they're bitter rivals in Division F). Almost every hockey message forum contains an entire section devoted to discussing the relative merits of these rumours, the hilite always being when one poster reveals his ace card: his neighbour's brother's wife is a receptionist in the Office of Team G, and they're also interested in Player B, as long as he's packaged in a deal that also includes Player H. This Outsider, for a few shining moments, now becomes the Insider. Sports television stations spend big money bringing in former players who represent the ultimate Insider: they actually played in the NHL, and as very often is the case, not very long ago. They sit at "the desk" on Trade Deadline Day, receiving surreptitious cel phone calls, informing us that their "source" has informed them that a certain club is likely moving a certain player to another club to fill a hole in the roster. They have, at times, even deatiled completed trades before they've been announced by the league office. Other Insiders from the former-player class are assigned the task of colour commentary, using their expert analysis to tell us which players are "playing with the most heart", are showcasing their "clutch ability", and who the "Monster Performer" was. That's alright, and it gives the player a chance to talk about something he knows about: hockey. Well, we know for sure they know about playing hockey. Analyzing it is another thing entirely. There are writers whose entire publishing careers have been made on their being an insider that's willing to "spill the beans". Stan Fischler comes to mind, primarily. His battles and wars with certain players and managers over the years have all been presented as reading material for the consumption of his customers. Through him, we learned that Phil Esposito can be a first-class jerk and how Fischler had a blood fued with Emile Francis. And that's fine as well. The real purpose that is served by all of these Insiders, the nudge-nudge-wink-wink media members and secret sources, the parade of former players now presented as experts, and the writers that "tell it like it is", is to keep us outsiders out. These people are the outer-most defence in the armour of the National Hockey League, because to them there is little chance that people at home can be extremely thoughtful, knowledgeable and astute observers of the game. They hold a prized position, and are not about to just let it go. This is an unfortunate stance to take, because it isn't a question of Insiders being worthwhile or Outsiders being uninformed or vice versa. This is a matter of the different group seach being able to provide different perspectives on the same issues. One thing the Insiders are asked to do at times, is provide us lists ranking (for example) the greatest players of all-time. They are meant to use their stance as NHL insiders to give us clarity and context on the history of hockey, which is a tall order. Being an Insider, and knowing which players is cheating on his wife or knowing what a certain player's favorite beer is, doesn't necessarily mean that he is also an expert in the field of hockey history. His Insider status doesn't necessarily preclude him from being an expert, but we have to understand that it also doesn't automatically qualify him as one either. Hockey Outsiders don't have that problem. By virtue of, for years, being told to sit down and shut up and watch the game, have really watched the game. Many Outsiders, sitting in their recliners have developed a deep understanding of the sport because they are not bound by the same restrictions and rules that the Insiders need to live by in order to continue to work. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe alot by watching. Outsiders, across the entire spectrum of hockey fan, have done that. I study statistics to provide a different perspective on hockey. That's my thing. I could never run a practice, or tell a player how to correct his technique. I could certainly never sit down with a player and get his side of the story (since I don't know any players). I'm the guy, that when the Insiders spout their superlatives, can try to use my methods to see if what they're saying is true or not. Actually it's not always easy to be the Insider and give an accurate appraisal. If you stand next to a man that six feet tall, he can still look bigger than the seven foot tall man that is standing 50 yards away. On the outside, we have a much better vantage point to determine this. We can study both separately, measuring to see who is bigger. We can check to see if one of them is wearing shoes with a bigger heel, or see if he's standing on a box that makes him look taller, or see if one is sitting in a depression, making him look shorter. The Outsider can literally strip the situation down and assess all the visible parts of the equation to derive an answer. We have a better chance to see if our eyes are tricking us, or if our own human biases are clouding our perceptions. That's a more difficult task for the Insider. He's standing right next to the first guy. "He's huge, he's a giant! Nobody's bigger than this guy!". Insiders have a different task than us. They have deadlines to make, taking away much opportunity to study issues more deeply. By virtue of their job, they need to develop relationships with players, as the players are the insiders source of information. Without those sources, the Insider is now an Outsider, most likely dooming his career, or getting him transferred to the city beat, local politics, or farm reporting. This is the minor leagues for Insiders. On the other hand, Insiders can be terrific, and inform about aspects of hockey that we could never get on our own. They help us identify with the players, and increase the enjoyment and vicarious thrill we get from the game. By all means keep reading, watching and listening to the Insiders. Never doubt a person just because they're not among the chosen few allowed to be among the club. Outsiders (you, me and everybody) have the means to completely redefine the understanding of our sport, if we take that role for ourselves, and free it from the sole jurisdiction of the Insiders. That's what sites like this and The Hockey Project are for. I look forward to posting my thoughts and studies here to share with you, and to hear what you, the educated fans have to say. We are Outsiders, hear us roar!


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