In a thread over on The Battle of Alberta today, a commenter went to task on Oilers forward Georges Laraque and his behavior in Game Three against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. In the 3rd period, Laraque got into his second fight of the game with Todd Fedoruk, and on his way to the penalty box lifted his arms in the air, encouraging the Oilers faithful to make some noise. Of course, the place went ballistic. Adding apparent fuel to the fire, Laraque hammed it up for the camera in the penalty box, smiling and giving a thumbs-up to the crowd (this part was not seen by the television audience at home). After the game, Oilers coach Craig MacTavish was asked about Laraque's enthusiasm:
I'm never a big advocate of that," said Oilers head coach Craig McTavish. "That stuff always comes back to haunt you. Georges did that in the (Chris) Simon fight against Calgary, which seemed like a more appropriate time. But he's been around long enough to know you can look awful foolish and why give them that opportunity? So I don't foresee him doing that again."
Articles are now starting to pop up about the incident, and some analysts on Canada's sports channels have complained about it. Assuredly, Hockey Night in Canada's Don Cherry will discuss it at some time Thursday night (I have no idea if Kelly Hrudey and Ron Maclean did Wednesday night. I was at my son's baseball game). Towering bastion of integrity Teemu Selanne called it "a lack of respect," and part-time Olympic diver Joffrey Lupul called it "frustrating." Benched Ducks goalie J.S. Giguere, who had a giant hissy fit earlier in the season because Oilers forward Ryan Smyth was blocking his line of vision, said, "I don't think that has any place in the NHL."
Of course the Ducks are going to use any piece of motivation they can. They are down three games to none to the Oilers, one game away from elimination. Their top sniper (Selanne) had fewer points in the series than Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson going into Tuesday's game. And nothing else that they are doing, whether it is running the goalie, diving, or starting fights, has worked. It makes sense, then, that the Ducks would grab hold of this angle for dear life. What doesn't make any sense, however, is that analysts and Oilers fans are succumbing to what is essentially a lie. I have no qualm with anyone suggesting that Georges' arm-raising and thumbs-up were unsportsmanlike acts. I disagree, but I can understand where people are coming from. What I have a problem with is the assertion, first suggested by Mac T and now being picked up by others, that Laraque's act allowed the Ducks to get back in the game. This is what one of the commenters on BoA had to say:
And any game lost by the Oilers from this point in this series should be blamed in large part on Laraque, who woke up the Ducks.
The problem with this assertion is that it is at the very least impossible to prove, if not 100% false. Let's take a look at the Game Log from the 3rd period of Game Three between the Oilers and Ducks:
3:45–-Laraque and Fedoruk: Fighting (Major)
4:40--Pahlsson: High Stick
The second Laraque fight against Fedoruk came at 3:45 of the 3rd period, when the score was 3-0 Edmonton. Then Anaheim took three straight penalties, giving Edmonton extended time on the 5 on 3. At 4:40 of the 3rd, Chris Pronger scored another goal to make it 4-0 Edmonton. Two and a half minutes later, at 7:15 of the 3rd, Anaheim scored their first goal of the hockey game, on a broken play.
The dilemma this provides is obvious: if Laraque's play "woke up" the Ducks, and inspired them to come racing back in the 3rd, why did they take three minor penalties and get scored upon before they made their move? Were they so pumped up that they took over-aggressive penalties? Were they so determined to mount a challenge that two of their players moved out of the way of Pronger's shot, allowing him to score? And if they were that jacked, why didn't they overtake the Oilers and win the game? Surely if the Laraque play could motivate them to score four goals in one period, it could have gotten them two more, or at least one for the tie.
The reality is that Laraque's antics didn't "wake up" the Ducks. If it did, it woke them up on the wrong side of the bed, because they took three stupid penalties and were scored upon immediately after it happened. In fact, it would make more sense to say that the fourth goal by Pronger woke them up, because they scored three goals in four minutes after that event happened. Now, I am not saying that intangibles like focus, anger and momentum have no effect on the outcome of a game. I think they can and they do, even if they are very difficult to quantify. But I think it would be fair to say that, in this instance, two hand gestures did not cause one team to surge in its performance. If anything, the opposite might be true. Why isn't anyone calling Laraque a hero today? I mean, he caused Anaheim to take three minor penalties and gave the Oilers a 4-0 lead, didn't he?
There is in fact an odd parallel to this story from another sport. On July 24, 2004, Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek shoved New York Yankees 3rd Baseman Alex Rodriguez in the face, starting a bench-clearing brawl. At the time, the Yankees were winning the game 3-0 in the 3rd inning. Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo hit Rodriguez on the elbow, in what Rodriguez thought was payback for his driving in the winning run the night before. As Rodriguez was heading towards the mound, Varitek cut him off. As the legend goes, Varitek told A-Rod, "we don't throw at .260 hitters," and a melee ensued. The Red Sox came back to win that game against the Yankees, on an improbable walk-off homerun by Bill Mueller off of the purportedly unbeatable Mariano Rivera. As soon as the game was over, the Red Sox talked about it being a turning point in their season (they were out of a playoff spot at that time), and even after they won the World Series that year, players and managers still pointed to that moment as the time when their team gelled and turned things around.
Similar to the situation last night in Edmonton, however, the facts simply do not support this belief. First off, Varitek never said what he was reported to say to Alex Rodriguez. He said something, but unfortunately it wasn't as damning and poetic as "we don't throw at .260 hitters." Secondly, the Red Sox season did not dramatically turn around after the brawl. Going into that series against the Yankees, the Red Sox had been 4-6 in their previous ten games. Following the brawl, the Sox pulled off a 5-5 record in ten games. Not exactly a stellar change, playing one game below five hundred for ten and then an even five hundred for the next ten. It wasn't until about two weeks later, on August 7, that the BoSox went on a tear, compiling a 19-4 record for the rest of August.
Both of these incidents illustrate the human desire to mythologize athletic figures and events. It's a natural occurrence that happens all the time. Unfortunately, neither of these myths is supported by evidence. In fact, the evidence runs contrary to the myth in both cases. For the Red Sox, it does not matter. They made the playoffs in 2004, pulled off the greatest comeback in the history of sports by beating the Yankees in seven after being down three games to none in the American League Championship Series, and eventually went on to win their first World Series since 1918. But for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the myth may make all the difference. The Ducks now find themselves down and out in their series against the Oilers, and will assuredly do anything they possibly can to give themselves a chance at doing what only the 2004 Red Sox, 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders have accomplished: win a playoff series in seven after being down three games to none. And so, it appears, my own personal bias has come through in this post. Not only am I a believer in quantifiable analysis in sports; I am also a life-long Edmonton Oilers fan dying for his team to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. As such, I'd like to nip the Laraque myth in the bud before it becomes the stuff of hockey legend. Hopefully the Edmonton Oilers can do the same and put away the Anaheim Mighty Ducks Thursday night at Rexall.