There are so many ways to approach the post mortem of the Toronto Maple Leafs' self-inflicted termination of their 2013-14 season, last night.
Facing a steep climb from behind, after losing either straight games, they continued to play "shinney" as if they were demonstrating how the game was played back on the ponds and the outdoor rinks of their youth. Passing the puck consistently to the sticks of opponents ready, willing and able to take possession and make something happen, like goals for their team, seems so easily diagnosed and yet, for this team, so difficult to correct.
Call them give-away's, turn-overs, mental lapses, failed concentration, lack of anticipation of what the opponent is about to do, or even mis-judgements, these gifts to opponents wearing shirts of various colours, emanating from various cities, irrespective of their standings in league statistics or their reputations as winners or losers, this year's version of the Toronto Maple Leafs has inflicted to many mistakes on itself (themselves) as to make one wonder about the wisdom of the new president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Tim Liewicki's pointing to the "pecking away" by the Toronto media as the principle cause of the self-inflicted outcome.
To be sure, there is a giant microscope focused on the game wherever and whenever the Maple Leafs take to the ice, poised with open and energized keypads, ready to eviscerate these players whom the scribes and fans love to hate, and also hate to love. Scrutiny under a public microscope, however, in an age dominated by social media when anything and everything nasty, vitriolic and even scurrilously libelous can and is broadcast throughout the twitter-verse, ought to have given rise to some basic principles of how players are to filter these barbs.
And while there have been several unfortunate injuries, (Bolland, Clarkson, Bernier and Lupul all come to mind) the barrage of some 50 shots at relatively competent goal-keepers every game for nearly all 80, would tend to point to a burn-out component with both Bernier and Reimer. Defence, like editing, or practising, or the daily grind of physical training out of sight of cameras, fans, media and even coaches is the "grunge" part of the game, necessary but certainly not generative of anything close to applause. Scoring after having let your opponent get a one or a two-goal lead, and demonstrating "character" to bring the team out of such holes, in some Cecil B. deMille fashion, may be good for a few ego strokes, but it is not a strategy for consistent success. It is analogous to studying for a few hours immediately prior to a substantial examination and 'getting lucky' on the choice of questions and "skimming through" to a pass grade. Homework, including the building of good work habits, and bringing a solid and unreserved commitment to one's own improvement linked in demonstrable ways to the development of each of one's teammates, will always trump last-minute histrionics, no matter how successful they may look in the short run.
Sometimes, coaches, too have to develop their skills and their techniques with different personalities in different cultures, in different social climates, in order to engender their players' respect, even their commitment to the style of play preferred by the coaching staff. Unfortunately, from the outside, (and none of us really knows what goes on behind the closed doors of the team dressing and meeting rooms, on the team planes and buses), it appears that there is a disconnect between the current head coach and the team. Randy Carlyle, a former Norris Trophy winner when he played defence for the Maple Leafs, in another era, has had success coaching in previous assignments in the NHL, even winning a Stanley Cup in Anaheim, under then General Manager Brian Burke. Born and raised in Sudbury, Carlyle, however, seems to have been 'in over his head' with this group of players. Does he fail to grasp a more complex regime than "sticks and carrots" to execute his "classical conditioning" model of learning? That kind of teaching and learning system may have worked when he was a player, but today's players are much more sophisticated, more nuanced, even more evolved than to be programmable with "sticks and carrots", as players in a time when coaches could be and were dictators, potentates and even both good and bad cops. There is a gap between the learning strategies that worked over the last half century and what can and will work today. While most of his public comments have been restrained, when he has been disappointed and/or angry with the performance of his players, so too has his praise and support of those who demonstrated exceptional leadership, creativity and superior motivation been muted, even arguably neutral. In private, he may be the most supportive coach many of these players have had, (doubtful!), yet in public he has been typically "Canadian" in his reserve of applause.
And this is not only Carlyle's choice. It, unfortunately, is a Canadian trait, to restrict praise, and to inflict critical judgement on those for whom one is "responsible" and over whom one has authority.
We are not merely a parsimonious nation of money-pinchers; we are more seriously a "Fort-Knox" of emotional and psychological reserves, never to be dispensed lest we appear to be favouring the American model of excessive and effusive praise. The line on "Last Man Standing" from Tim Allen's character, just this week, expressed the American realization that American kids don't know much, but rank highest in the world in "self-esteem".
However, clearly, withholding compliments in order to generate "character" is, by definition, a self-sabotaging strategy of leadership, coaching and the development of what in the male world is known as "bonding". While males have and will continue to build relationships through sarcasm and irony and even some cutting "dissing", there has to be a foundation of trust, respect and reciprocity in that exchange. Unfortunately, using a self-sabotaging method of "sticks and carrots" to generate performance, as is done in too many corporate workplaces, (given the serious paucity of both learning and experience with diverse methods of generating performance among leaders in the corporate world, given the high premium placed on generating profit in the short run) has been replicated in so many periods and games in the hockey season now ending for the Maple Leafs.
While "X's" and "O's" on a white board are important, linked to curved lines of pre-planned plays, in specific situations, these instructions too will fall on deaf ears when the trust and credibility and mutual support of those expected to carry out the designed play has been marginalized throughout the relationship.
While it is not a specifically hockey "critique", this little blurb is intended, not as a "sop" or a pandering to the "left" as it will be inevitably judged by the likes of aardvarks like Don Cherry, it is intended to recognize the implicit truth that men also need encouragement, support and compassion from their leaders and their executives and that when that is a "given" in any relationship, including those between professional sports coaches and their players, the results on the "playing field" whether of hardwood, grass, clay or ice, will inevitably improve for the professional reputations of both players and coaches.