Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Myth-Busting

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:

3rd Period

3:45–-Laraque and Fedoruk: Fighting (Major)

3:58--Vishnevski: Roughing

4:11--Niedermayer: Hooking

4:40--Pahlsson: High Stick

4:40--Pronger: Goal

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.

20 Comments:

At 11:43 PM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

You're preaching to the converted! Or rather, I've been converted.

Thanks for the reality check, and the bit of history. Good reminders as we head into Game 4.

(I was a sucker for Laraque's whirly-bird act. It was great.)

 
At 12:02 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

I loved it, too. It wouldn't bother me in the least if he did it again. What would be better, of course, was if he scored a goal. Maybe even the series winner. Just imagine how the crowd would react then.

I love Le GG.

 
At 1:27 AM, Blogger Nathan Muhly said...

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.

This must have been written by an Oilers fan, who being a contemptible little snot, is creating an excuse for the downfall of the Oilers before it even happens.

Laracque is what he is. One of the last true goons in the sport. Any and all actions he performs are typically of little consequence, including raising his arms, fighting in important playoff games, pretending to be a hockey player and generally acting like a bit of a knob.

If the Oilers nearly let that game slip through their fingers it was because they lacked focus, had pylon-like defense and couldn't clear the puck out of their own zone. Laracque's little act did nothing more than to allow a scapegoat for any future losses (or at least for those moronic enough to mention it). In the end the Oil didn't lose game three and Anaheim sucks.

Selanne was entirely wrong when he made his comment about "this is the team to come back from four down, ketchup bottle etc."...umm no, this is the team that took about eight penalties when they were down 4-1 in the third period, probably eliminating any chance of winning the game through sheer stupidity. They also lost the chance to come back in that series, btw. Even the best teams of all time would have to defy any and all odds to come back from a 3-0 deficit.

Laracque, Oil fans, Mighty Sucks, just go away, I hate you all.

 
At 8:12 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Spoken like a drunken Flames fan. Well said, sir.

 
At 8:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a team that has guys like Perry and Lupul flopping all over the ice if an Oiler even looks at them the wrong way, the Ducks sure like to talk about having respect for the game and what actions should or shouldn't take place at a hockey game.

Ian

 
At 8:51 AM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Yup. As I have said elsewhere, I have a real hatred for the Ducks now, after watching them on Tuesday. Selanne, Lupul and Perry in particular.

 
At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Karina said...

Heh.

Why do people always forget that, in the end, the NHL is really just a form of entertainment?

"Doesn't belong in the NHL"? Huh?

'Cause you know what, I sure found that entertaining.

And great insight into how it's completely irrelevant in the overall series.

 
At 11:53 AM, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

Yup. As I have said elsewhere, I have a real hatred for the Ducks now, after watching them on Tuesday. Selanne, Lupul and Perry in particular.

Gosh, imagine if they actually won something, your head might explode.

I do take a little issue with your Selanne quote-bashing. Stupid quotes from players usually result from stupid questions from reporters, especially in the case when English isn't his first language.

Meh, he said what he said, but really, what is a guy to say at "What are you going to do now, down 0-3?" I suppose you'd prefer the response (as an Oilfan) of "Oh, we're throwing in the towel."

But let's not get overboard that he's being cocky. He's just filler, pretty much, putting the spin on the question that Ryan Smyth or anyone might pose down 0-3 in a closely-played series.

 
At 12:24 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Cmon, Earl. Don't blame me for an exact quote from a Ducks player. You are making excuses. The guy has been in North America for 14 years. You are trying to tell me he doesn't understand the language? I have heard Selanne in interviews. The guy knows what he is hearing, and he knows what he is saying. He is a smart guy, and actually gives good quotes. He should have said what his less whiny teammates said, is all. Fedoruk didn't mind. Neither did O'Donnell or Neidermayer. And the question wasn't what he thought about being down 3-0. It was about what he thought about Le GG's actions.

 
At 12:56 PM, Blogger Kevin Kimmis said...

Ummm, Andy, I love this piece, I really do. But when you say Selanne "is a smart guy, and actually gives good quotes" in this comment, and I can go back to the main page, scroll down two posts, and find you quoting Selanne verbatim and indirectly calling the quote both 'self-delusional' and 'homoerotic'... then I have to call bullshit on this one.

The fact is, the same steaming pile Selanne says is the same steaming pile most players say when their backs are against the wall. It's like interviewing Ryan Smyth; you already know what he's going to say no matter how smart/dumb the question is.

Thank goodness for Barkley and Big Aristotle; otherwise interviewing sports celebrities would be boring.

 
At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Zanstorm said...

HAHAHAHA! I'M the one who posted the Laraque statement! And look at all the shit I've stirred up now.
Muhly, I am NOT an Oilers fan, nor am I a contemptible little snot.
You guys can preach how Laraque is 'entertaining' and how this stuff belongs in hockey, and you know what? It DOES. But like Mactavish said, it DOES at the RIGHT TIME.
Hey, I enjoyed the showboating as well, I was pointing out that (even though the Ducks took 2 penalties after the incident) they played with much more intensity afterwards. Coincidence? You want to blame the Oilers turning into pylons for the last part of the 3rd? Laraque's antics rallied the Ducks. If the Ducks had won the game, all you Zanstorm-naysayers would be tooting a different horn!

 
At 1:49 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

I was pointing out that (even though the Ducks took 2 penalties after the incident) they played with much more intensity afterwards. Coincidence? You want to blame the Oilers turning into pylons for the last part of the 3rd? Laraque's antics rallied the Ducks.

I am speechless. What can one say to someone who is willfully ignorant? Um, does someone else want to help me here? Apparently overwhelming evidence countering an untenable thesis isn't enough. Zanstorm, do you also think the world is only 4004 years old?

If the Ducks had won the game, all you Zanstorm-naysayers would be tooting a different horn!

Um no, because it would still be a crock of shit.

As for the Selanne quote, why is everyone going after me? He said the damn thing. Just because hockey players speak in cliches doesn't mean we shouldn't hold them to the same standard as everyone else. He went on the record as saying that Laraque's antics were disrespectful. So now I'm supposed to let that go because he maybe/probably/sorta didn't really mean it?

And Kevin, there is nothing inconsistent with saying that Selanne is smart and give good quotes while calling one of his quotes self-delusional and homoerotic. I mean, the reason IT IS a good quote is because it is self-delusional and homoerotic.

The fact of the matter is that Earl is trying to divert the main thrust of the post by picking at a secondary issue. The reality is that Laraque's antics didn't "wake up" the Ducks, and the guy should recieve zero blame or criticism for doing so. It is impossible to quantify an event like that. I could throw out the argument that it pumped the Oilers up as much as it pumped the Ducks up. We did score another goal after that, and maybe the residue of that event kept the crowd alive enough that the Oilers mystically sapped the fans energy into their bodies so that they could score the fifth goal and hang on to the win. Who knows, right?

And yes, the last sentence was entirely sarcastic.

 
At 1:54 PM, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

The fact of the matter is that Earl is trying to divert the main thrust of the post by picking at a secondary issue.

That's more because I'm with you on the first. I posted something similar.

My 'secondary issue' is that if you think Selanne is cocky for what he said in a crummy situation, that's OK, I guess. But you should recognize at least that players typically give stupid responses to stupid questions in tough situations.

 
At 2:03 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

I never said he was cocky. I said he was a towering bastion of integrity. Obviously I was being sarcastic, but the opposite of having integrity is not cocky. I meant a guy who flops at the touch of a feather shouldn't be saying other player's antics are disrespectful.

 
At 2:13 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

P.S. anyone wanna put out some odds on Cherry making an issue out of this tonight? And consequent odds on me putting my Blair MacDonald bobblehead throught the t.v. screen after I hear it? It's the sort of thing that makes me desire above all else to be a sports journalist, just so I could put out this article tomorrow calling bullshit.

 
At 2:13 PM, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

Oops. I was talking about your earlier post on Selanne, didn't realize you re-quoted him here.

 
At 2:25 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

I thought so! I couldn't figure out where you were coming from. Okay, it all makes sense now. Let's go back to beating up Zanstorm and whoever else buys into the Laraque b.s.

 
At 5:36 PM, Anonymous Zanstorm said...

Grabia, I won't start a pissing match with you, but someone like yourself who thinks he is so bloody intelligent is more prone to willful ignorance! I can keep an open mind at least!
I'm having fun here....and obviously you aren't! Relax
Laraque's actions played a role in the Duck's intensity level, it's my opinion and I'll keep it, regardless of what pompous, biased attitude you throw at me!

 
At 8:30 AM, Blogger Sheamus Murphy said...

Anyone claiming that Laraque has reignited the Ducks should look into the Oilers playoff record since Laraque started playing regularly. In fact didn't they start dressing him to give some bite to the line-up when we were down 2 games to nil to the Sharks?

For a playoff run in which the fans will play no small part, the player who most resonates as a fan favorite has got to be worth something.

Worth every penny of the $1 million we pay him. Long live Le GG.

 
At 10:09 AM, Anonymous Zanstorm said...

I'm not saying Laraque is useless, or hasn't been valuable, he has been great. I'm just saying he woke up the Ducks....QUACK QUACK!!!

 

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