Over the past decade, sports and specifically hockey, have been trying to find a way to quantify everything. Understandably so, teams always are looking for an edge over their opponents. As you may have noticed, I am a big believer in analytics and think they have immensely advanced the level of the game. However, there is a tendency among the analytic community to scoff at such things as intangibles, myself included. It’s understandable. Hearing the same old cliches on hockey broadcasts night after night can get tiring. But there is one intangible that decides hockey games that will never be quantified or measured, grit. Angela Duckworth wrote an entire book about grit and why it helps make people successful. As she talks about here, grit isn’t a short-term thing. It isn’t something you can create overnight.
Contrary to what many hockey fans may think, grit isn’t about laying a big hit or fighting the other team’s biggest guy. Grit involves perseverance and building to something over time. It is overcoming whatever shitty thing comes your way. For NHL players, it’s about staying focused on your ultimate goal and not letting anything get in your way.
Everyone knows that old saying “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard,” but what exactly does that mean? While I think you take a look at the last 3 Stanley Cup champions, the Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning, you’ll start to understand it a bit better. There was no doubting the talent on each of those teams. All 3 of those rosters were littered with Olympians and All-Stars. You need the skill to win in this league, but. Teams that knocked them out had talent and had what it took to win. In the years they won, though, there was a different feeling around each group. Instead of letting a bad bounce or a brutal call ruin their season, those teams were not going to let anything get in their way of the ultimate goal.
In terms of having the grit factor, look at what each team had to overcome to reach their goal. For the Capitals, it was years of underachieving, being criticized for not being able to step up their game when it mattered most. It wasn’t because they didn’t have enough skill, and it wasn’t even because they weren’t trying; Of course, they were. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it took them so long, but you could feel the difference in that 2018 team compared to the prior years. They persevered through being down 2-0 in the first round to the Blue Jackets, losing both games at home. Then they finally dug deep enough to beat their arch-rivals, who had knocked them out of the playoffs countless times before, the Pittsburgh Penguins in round 2. Then winning a road game 7 to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. They stuck to it; almost 10 years of trying to win the Cup and just continually getting kicked in the teeth. But they stuck to it, and eventually, they broke through.
The Lightning’s case is similar. We all ridiculed them profusely for having one of the best regular seasons of all time and then dropping the ball when it really mattered. Not just dropping the ball, but getting downright embarrassed and outworked.
No one doubted their skill, but it was clear to everyone that when the going got tough, they weren’t ready to fight back and say, “We are not letting our season end like this.” In the 2020 NHL playoff bubble, the Lightning was there for one reason and one reason only. When everything got serious, they got down to business, and they steamrolled just about everyone on their way to the Cup. They decided they weren’t going to be stopped.
The last case, the St. Louis Blues cup run in 2019, is an excellent example of how quickly things can change if you are passionate about your craft and are resilient. We all know the story. The Blues were dead last in the Western Conference in January before turning a corner and making a run all the way to the Cup finals. The team could have decided in January that the 18-19 season was over, and they would all regroup and come back next year, but they didn’t. For some on that team, they didn’t know how many more chances they would get at a cup, the one thing they dreamed about as a kid. Against all odds, they not only made the Stanley Cup Finals but won game 7 in TD Garden against the Bruins to make it that much sweeter. Not to mention the countless years of playoff heartache for many players on that Blues team, much like the Capitals and Lightning.
On the other side of the coin, look no further than teams like the San Jose Sharks or the New York Rangers to see what it looks like when you lack the grit needed to win. Of course, the reasons for those teams’ playoff failures over the past decade are much more nuanced than only the lack of grit. But to say it isn’t a factor would be silly. The Sharks specifically, you just never got the sense that they could handle whatever you threw their way. It is unfair for me to sit here and criticize a group of individuals who are far more successful than I will ever be. Still, I think if you asked the group of players who continuously failed to reach the pinnacle of the sport why that was the case, they’d give you an answer along the lines of “We just didn’t want it enough.”
Looking at this season, there is no bigger adversity test for the league’s players than a 56 game season amid a pandemic that has killed millions. The player’s passion for the game will be called into question. Just like the bubble playoffs, the winner of this year’s Stanley Cup will be the team that deals with all of the mitigating factors the best. Intangibles and culture will be on center stage this year. Which teams will be responsible, and which teams will be out at clubs or restaurants, putting themselves at risk of catching an easily transmissible virus? People will get COVID. That’s inevitable, but which teams have the depth and organizational identity to deal with it the best? Most teams will play the entire season with not a single fan in attendance; how will that affect players’ performance? These questions may seem silly or unimportant, but I assure you, they matter.
Players take games off during an 82 game season, it may be hard to hear as a fan, but it’s true. It’s a necessity for most. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to move come playoff time. You just cannot put that much of a physical toll on your body consistently and get away with it in a regular year. But in 2021, players won’t have that luxury. Some teams haven’t played hockey since March, but they won’t have the preseason or the first 10 games to get up to speed. You will need to be ready out of the gate. These games are going to be sloppy. Players are going to need to stay grounded and dedicated. They’ll need to persevere through the first few weeks of the season and keep their team within striking distance of the playoffs. I really think we will start to see who separates themselves from the rest of their divisions after around a month. The NHL season is going to be a circus, and the team that is standing at the end will be the one that jumped through the most hoops, and I, for one, cannot wait to watch it unfold.