Wednesday, June 29, 2011

the ballad of John-Michael Liles (part i)

The Avs are a nightmare. They are a team committed to nonsense. The most recent nonsense that has come to light involves the way they are interested in negotiating contracts: as is well-known, they alienated and insulted 2009-10's singular hero Craig Anderson by making one offer and refusing to negotiate. This ended well: they traded him for Brian Elliott, who has shown zero signs that he is an NHL-caliber goaltender, and watched Anderson go on to play outstanding hockey for a team not much better than the Avs. More recently, they have been playing a rousing game of "dangle in the wind, asshole" with a free agent who was intensely productive for the Avs before he got hurt. Their announced reason for this "oh, we're dealing with the draft right now."

The core problem with going about things in this way is reasonably transparent: it's a category error.

By that I mean simply that while professional sports is a Real Big Deal, with unfathomable quantities of money moving around, any given franchise is actually no more than a medium-sized business; furthermore, the actual labor force for an NHL squad is well under three dozen men.*

*(Sure, there's lots more putative revenue-generators: merch guys, ticket sellers, parking lot builders, TV-right-negotiation law-talkers, blah blah woof woof, but--all of these revenue-generators are meaningless without the people who play the games. If you don't believe me, start your own shadow franchise and see how many of your beautifully-designed jerseys you sell.)

In essence, then, professional hockey is a collection of medium-sized businesses. The Avs have mistaken themselves: they believe that they are an actual institution, something like say a governmental or military bureaucracy, with top-down rules that apply to everybody equally, rules like

  1. we don't negotiate contracts: we make offers that are fair and if you mislike our offer, you are free to pl(a)y your trade elsewhere
  2. we only negotiate contracts at specific times of the year

These aren't unreasonable rules per se. Contextually, however, they are intended to apply to a small and psychically (emotionally/mentally) group of people about whom few generalizations can be made, save for

  • Any of them you want on your team are gonna be competitive like motherfuckers
  • This competitive drive:
    (a) is more emotional than rational
    (b) manifests itself crucially in what Thorstein Veblen identified as invidious comparisons
    describing a comparison of persons with a view to rating and grading them in respect of relative worth or value ... and so defining the relative degrees of complacency with which they may legitimately be contemplated by themselves and by others. An invidious comparison is a process of valuation of persons in respect of worth.

Not to belabor the point, but comparing the bulleted list with the numbered list yields the following scenario: a small group of incredibly competitive men staring at the way each of them is treated and knowing--absolutely knowing--that they deserve to be treated better than any of those other guys; a smaller group of men saying "we are going to treat you all exactly the same because...well...them's the rules.".

In a pride-based business like being a hockey player, it's hard to see why anybody would want to deal with a self-defined institution so deeply devoted to ignoring and denying precisely the things most important to identity and importance (an institution like the goddamned fucking idiot Colorado Avalanche). To issue a pointless and likely inadequate rule:

the only guy in hockey management who can pull off treating everybody the exact same is the coach, because that's how the sport (nominally) works: the rules of the game apply to everybody exactly the same; everybody practices or they don't play; everybody backchecks; hit the open man; blah fucking blah.
All other members of management must devote themselves to the proposition that everybody in labor be made to feel that they are special, specially unique, better and more important in their own way than anybody else anywhere. Because the rules of life are bent and broken for such special men.

All of which is a long and dull way of advancing the argument that if your business depends on people then you'd do well to understand them and do everything you can to put them in a position to succeed.

I claim that the Colorado Avalanche as an organEYEzation does not understand this argument.

On Twitter, the redoubtable radio voice of the Avs has of late been doing yeoman duty defending the franchise, beating the rebuild drum, saying again and again that the team is run by smart men, that the process is going well, in specific that the next big priority is finding a goaltender.

But that's a mix of exactly wrong and simply missing the point.

Even if smart people are in charge, and I surely do hope they are, they're in charge of a small demesne: their smartness has little bearing on matters like

  • Whether or not the resources they crave exist in the marketplace
  • Whether or not the resources that do exist are accessible to them

Which means: no matter how fucking smart Sacco + Sakic + Sherman + Whoever McGillicuddy may combine to be, (a) that doesn't mean there's a good goalie on the market or (b) that a good goalie who might be on the market will have any interest in negotiating with a team that (1) explicitly doesn't negotiate except on their terms (for which, see above) and (2) has hockey personnel who are fucking terrible at playing hockey (for which, scoreboard).

They don't negotiate contracts, so they alienated a guy who is, when his head is right, a Vezina candidate, capable of playing as well as any goalie in hockey. They're desperately weak on the wings, but they were focused on the draft, so they refuse to negotiate with a winger who put up 20 points in 21 games with them last year: All-Star numbers on a team short on All-Stars like Wall Street is short of ethicists.

Now they're ready to play the game of negotiation. But they've at least arguably fucked over two proud men in a very small community of proud men. Who's to say anybody wants to negotiate with them? Who's to say anybody wants to work for the Avs? There's one goalie on the open market who's worth a fuck, and that's Tomas Vokoun. He's a Czech, like Fleishmann, who just got fucked; he's a goalie, like Anderson, who just got fucked. Somebody explain to me why he's supposed to want to take a job with that company.

Tommorow: love ain't nothing but a score in tennis OR the ballad of John-Michael Liles (as sung by Avs GM Greg Sherman)

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