Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fan vs Athlete: The Lessons of Patrick Roy and Jason Spezza

I don't necessarily want to revisit the worn topic of Senators fans booing Jason Spezza, which boiled over to the point where a mutually agreed trade out of town became a very real possibility this past summer.

But there's more to this story than the local skirmish it caused. Something that goes to the heart of all spectator sports and the increasingly strained relationship between fans who feel entitled to express themselves freely (believing that money has bought them that imaginary right), and the athletes who feel entitled to work in an environment that's free from constant hostility (believing they've worked all their lives for that right as well).

It's extremely rare to hear an athlete admit that the reaction of the crowd has gotten to them. Modern athletes almost unanimously claim that booing fans don't bother them, that their inherent professionalism acts as a wall against any negativity thrown their way by the beer soaked inhabitants of the upper stands.

They almost always trot out the tired line that "fans pay good money so they have the right to do what they want".

But anyone with an ounce of logic can see the defense mechanism a mile away. Athletes are just as sensitive as the rest of us. Don't buy the line for a minute.

So do fans really have the right to say anything they want? How far does that extend?

The first relevant quote here is from Ken Dryden's famous book The Game:
I am a professional, paid to do my job no matter the circumstances. ... I do only what I can. And by buying a ticket, does a fan acquire a right that a fan in the street has not? Opportunity, yes; access, yes; but any greater right? Does he acquire license to abuse me any way he likes, to say what he won't say to anyone else, anywhere else? Is that what I'm paid for, like a lightning rod, to stand in the place of everyman and attract and purge the resentments from his life? Am I supposed to take it and feel nothing? Is that all part of the game?
Maybe, the author quoted below, Michel Roy, father of Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, puts it more plainly, but no less importantly:

There's a difference between criticizing an athlete's poor quality of play and vilifying the athlete. Some spectators, for whom hockey is a release, fail to make that distinction. They take revenge on a third party for frustrations they are suffering at the hands of a boss, a spouse, a teacher, a colleague, a friend.

The context of Roy's quote (taken from his excellent book, Winning: Nothing Else)  is from the 1995 trade of his son Patrick, from the Montreal Canadiens to the Colorado Avalanche. During that season, inexperienced coach Mario Tremblay seemingly had it out for Patrick from the beginning, which culminated in Tremblay embarrassing the goalie by not pulling him during a 9-1 drubbing at the hands of the powerhouse Scotty Bowman-led Red Wings (Tremblay also had a near hysterical hatred of Bowman from when he toiled under the legendary coach as a player for the Canadiens in the 70's). When Tremblay finally pulled Roy (and after the goalie had stood up to the jeers of the hostile fans by raising his arms after a routine save), all hell broke loose on the bench as the goalie marched up to Team President Ronald Corey and said he had just played his last game for Montreal.

The Montreal fans and the rookie GM Rejean Houle were all too happy to comply with Roy's impulsive wishes and the club even hired a public relations firm to skew the media message, making Roy out to be the bad guy, similar to what Peter Pocklington tried to accomplish with the Wayne Gretzky trade less than ten years earlier.

The fans, despite having watched Roy deliver two near-miracle Stanley Cups in ten seasons that were totally dominated by either the Oilers or the Penguins, had a love/hate relationship with the goaltender and opinion at the time was largely supportive of the trade, logic and loyalty be damned.

Of course, we all know how that turned out for the Habs and their fans (many of whom would be loathe to admit supporting the trade in a revisionist history lesson, much like Senators fans won't admit to wanting Daniel Alfredsson out of town during a slump early in the 2006-2007 season).

Roy went on to win a Stanley Cup that very season in Denver and added one more for good measure in 2001. The Habs meanwhile, never really recovered from the disastrous trade and the even more disastrous hirings of Houle and Tremblay (neither of whom had any experience in their jobs prior) to run the franchise. They are only now getting back their respect around the league after a Cinderella-like playoff run thanks to another red hot goalie, Jaroslav Halak, who they then turned around and traded to the Blues this summer. Oops.

The Montreal fans seemed to have learned their lesson and likely know what got away from them this time.

Perhaps down in Ottawa, the fans have pulled themselves back from the brink of running their best offensive player out of town, and maybe saving themselves ten years of grief looking for another one to replace him.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Love it when you mix hockey with an off the board topic. Keep up the good work.

I agree with you. I love the Dryden and Roy comments. I agree completely. I think that fans often project their own life dramas and frustrations on players.

If their boss is tough and unforgiving, they want the coach to be tough and unforgiving with the players. If they hate their job or their life, they don't want the players smiling too much when they're working either.

The best players are the easiest targets. The curmudgeons resent the players' success. That's my personal opinion.

The thing is, most high performance athletes, and over achievers in general, are very diligent and conscientious. Often they'll take criticism personally, and be affected by it. The problem is that there is nothing constructive about curmudgeon criticism, it's just hate.

Add to that, that a lot of these players are in their twenties. Often, they don't have the life experience to deal effectively with the curmudgeons. I don't think that many of them know the difference between constructive criticism and curmudgeon hate.

Look at Mike Keenan in the 90's. It seemed that he consistently ran good happy players off his teams for no real reason. Curtis Joseph, Brendan Shanahan, and Trevor Linden were all victims. He didn't just trade them, he ripped them apart first.

I loved Cujo's quote at the time.

"You just couldn't please him."

I got the strong sense that Cujo understood. Keenan was a curmudgeon and there was nothing that he could do. It wasn't his on-ice performance that was the problem.

Your comment about Alfie is so true. There's been an Alfie love-in the last few years, but as recent as 2006-07, some people were trying to run him out of town. Even Don Cherry got into the mix and suggested that a change of scenery would be good for Alfie.

Finally, I gotta address one thing that gets on my nerves. I hate that common criticism that goes:

"So and so player is making $7M a year, they should shut up and take the criticism, because I would do the job for league minimum."

Bullshit ... plain and simple.

You don't have to take my word for it either (I saw some dude on TVO explain it pretty good). There's actually academic research in this area. If you give someone consistent negative feedback, you destroy an individual's intrinsic motivation to perform their job a a high level. This is especially the case, if the person is already self-motivated and IS trying their best.

Think about it. You go to work, you're trying your best, and the feedback you get is that you suck. Initially you may be motivated to prove them wrong, but if you keep giving your best, and keep getting negative feedback, at some point, you lose some motivation.

My point is that, ya sure anyone would do the job for league minimum and take the criticism. But, the consistent negative feedback will eventually get to anyone, and as a human being, you won't be giving a peak performance. You'd just be showing up to collect the paycheque.

Pierre said...

"Perhaps down in Ottawa, the fans have pulled themselves back from the brink of running their best offensive player out of town (...)"

Don't bet on it.

Until Spezza produces a Stanley Cup or a Selke trophy or at least greatly rounds his two-way game, until he stops giggling in post-games...he will be shat on, if you'll forgive the language.

The people in this town want a winner. They look at Spezza's resume and see no championships and become quizzical. Can a guy that has never won make a team win? Especially with ingrained bad habits and the big-time salary?

Make no mistake Mr. Milks, this town will continue to piss on Spezza for the foreseeable future. He may get a reprieve early on if he produces points, but at the first sign of a letdown or first turnover that ends up in our net, the knives will come out.

And if Spezza leaves?

Come on down Erik Karlsson, you're the next contenstant on "The Whipping Boy!"

(Post-game show excerpt, Nostradamus like)

(Irate fan calls in after a 5-3 win)

"Yeah, that Karlsson kid. He's really soft in his own end. Doesn't seem he plays defense."

(Stunned Scott MacArthur)

'But sir, he was the catalyst for the power play goals that put us ahead of the Hurricanes. He is very much the reason we won this game.'

(Idiot fan)

"Winning is nice but you need to take care of your own end. One of these days that fancy stuff is going to lose us a hockey game. Look what happened with Jason Spezza last year, these guys hate playing defense."


I don't even think it's frustrations being projected Jeremy.

It's just Ottawa, we're cynical and we turn on our own and eat our young in this town. Heck, every Saturday I get together with some friends and we discuss who'll be the next whipping boy. One of them works at SBP and he's sure it's Spezza:

"Arrogant guy", he says. "Doesn't say hi to the workers. Alfredsson and Neil all say hi."

It's not frustration, it's not transference, it's none of that stuff. Spezza just isn't liked here. And Karlsson won't be liked either, mark my words. It's the product of having these guys pushed down our throats by the media as being stars in a city that is very much uncomfortable with stardom (Where are you Alanis Morrissette, Tom Green, Paul Anka, Rich Little, etc...) and extremely cynical and jaded because of that big set of buildings on Wellington.

Spezza and Karlsson will either endure and blossom despite the idiots and haters or they'll skip out of town. I'd wager that a portion of the discontents just want to see how far they can push Jason.

I'll leave with an anecdote. I was at that game where he got booed. I asked one of the guys that booed.

"Why are you booing Jason? He's a really skilled guy."

'Bonehead play, he needs more awareness, he's always like this. Wimp too.'

"But mistakes happen..."

'Don't care, complaining is fun. It's fun piling on a guy to see what happens. Guy's making 7 million so who gives a shit about his feelings.'

No kidding here...

Ange said...

The fact of the matter is Spezza has been averaging a point a game since the lock out, no other player other than Alfie and Heatley has been doing this for Ottawa. You move that kind of point production and you'll have some REAL unhappy fans. Sure you move his salary and you may be able to pick up some talent and make up those points. Just like the Heater deal.? Maybe Ottawa fans do kick the cat when they get home from work. Should they bring that to the rink? I don't think so.
As far as Karlsson is concerned... this kind of player is the future. Smart, quick, heads up hockey sense. You can coach kids like this to be more responsible in their own end and be NHL caliber. Big stay at home, shot blocking defencemen can't be taught to have softer hands.

Pierre said...

Ange, those point a game stats are very, very, very misleading.

If you look more closely, you'll see the following:

Spezza had only one goal through his first 20 or so games and only 16 or so points in that period. Toward the end of the year, he piled on many multi-point games (he did the same in the playoffs) to make himself look better.

Want more examples? In the playoffs, Spezza had 0 points in game 1 but then had a multi-point game in the blowout loss. In 2005-2006 playoffs, he had I think one even strength point, but in 2007 he had 23 playoff points. In 2008 I think he had all of one point in the playoffs...but his playoff ppg is 46 in 46 games...and his regular season ppg is 475 in 464.

Of course, those regular season numbers are quite inflated by the Pizza line days, no? Remember when we used to roll the leafs 8-0 and Heatley got 4 goals and so on?

That's the thing with Spezza, he's an enigma. You know he'll produce points but...will he do it game in game out? The answer to that is probably not. On top of that, he's not the best in his own end.

I see Spezza this year as playing 75 games and getting 70-78 points.

As for your point about softer hands for big defensemen...Scott Stevens was most definitely a stay at home guy and he developped the hands. Chara was a 3rd pairing D with the Islanders and rounded himself into an excellent all-around D.

Karlsson needs to become bigger and steadiers in his own end. Right now Ken Warren said it best...the Senators will score more goals but they'll likely be allowing a fair bit more too. People say you can learn "D" but Spezza's beein in the NHL almost 10 years and he's still a slow learner. I'd hate to have to see Karlsson struggle in his own end for 10-15 years even if he does contribute offensively. Phil Housley was fun to watch but he never did anything of note. Coffey did but that was a wacked out hockey era.

When you look at Cup winning Ds of late, Chicago had Seabrook and co. who were steady defensively and moved the puck. Pitts had guys like Orpik, Gonchar etc, nice mix of steady and fancy. We're probably a bit too far on the puck-moving side for my taste, but I'm not the GM.

One thing is for sure, if the Senators don't get out of the first round this year, Murray should be let go and a new vision and GM need to come in here. If we're not true Cup contenders then let's start the youth movement.

Pierre said...

Sorry for the double post here, but fans pay hundreds of bucks for their tickets. If they want to piss on the players, that's their right. Is it immature? Sure it is. Is it justified? Nah. But hockey players make multiple millions a year, they need to have a thick skin if they're going to be winners.

Anonymous said...


I disagree with your post except for the part where you say Murray should be let go.

The "point per game" critique is weak at best.

Gretzky averaged close to two points a game over his career. People talk about him in that context.

Is that misleading? He had a ton of three, four, and five point games. He had several six, seven, and I think even an eight point game.

He also had a ton of games, during the 1990's, where he didn't get a point. He was dominant in the 1980's, but there was a sharp drop off in the 1990's.

He averaged two points a game over his career. Spezza averages a point a game.

We're not talking a 20 game sample size. He's got close to a 500 game sample size. He's accurately described as a point a game guy.

As for the comment about the stats being inflated due to the Pizza Line, I don't think inflation is the right word.

It's more like that's his potential when you surround him with guys who can finish his passes. To get the most out of your players you need to surround them with other players who complement their strengths.

Gretzky had Kurri, Kariya and Selanne had each other, Getzlaf has Perry, Thornton has Heatley, Ovechkin has Backstrom ...

The criticism surrounding his giveaways is misinformation. He's no different than most other top offensive talents around the league. Look it up on

Tops in giveaways last year ... Tyler Myers (Rookie of the Year.

The top four forwards in giveaways ... Joe Thornton, Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, and Alex Ovechkin. Coincidentally, they're all first overall picks.

Two other first overall picks makes the top 10 in giveaway ... Roman Hamrlik and Chris Phillips.

So, six of the top ten in giveaways last year, were drafted first over drafted first overall.

Kovalchuk is at 14th on the list. If he had one more turnover he would have been 11th. He'll make it next year.

I guess the conclusion is that if you are a good player, you'll be on the ice a lot, and you'll probably have the puck a lot, and you'll probably give it up a lot.

I think a better way to look at things, if your a forward, may be your giveaway to takeaway ratio. Pavel Datsyuk is 11th on the giveaway list. But, he leads the takeaway list by far.

If you look at the giveaway to takeaway ratio, Spezza compares favourably to the others. In fact, he's much better than Crosby in that area.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with Anonymous (the first one, not me).

And I like the article, but... don't really think Spezza leaving town this off-season was a "very real possibility" do you? In retrospect, it seems almost ridiculous that I briefly saw that headline and worried about it for more than 5 seconds. I just can't see him going anywhere anytime soon. I think it was just totally blown out of perspective by a few eager sports writers...

Anyways, nice post!

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