The term “Leadership” is grossly overused and misrepresented in hockey. It’s a cute buzzword for the media to use to oversimplify complicated situations and place blame. “The Toronto Maple Leafs are struggling. It’s time for a change in leadership.” See how easy that is? You can take a complicated situation and just throw a generic term at it and everyone just nods their heads.
The concept of leadership isn’t ridiculous or without importance in the game. Leadership is one of the key driving forces to success in any venture, sport or industry—hockey chief among them. But, where does leadership come from? Can we tap someone on the shoulder and say, “You are THE leader of this team”, and just stand around and wait to be inspired and led into the breach? No.
Leadership in sports has always been ahead of the game, in comparison to other industries. True leadership in sports comes from within. It’s a culture, a “leadership-based culture”. Within that leadership-based culture, everyone has a particular role as a leader. Coaches contribute by providing structure and accountability and players each play their specific role, collectively contributing to the culture.
The key to leadership-based culture is that everyone plays a key role in developing the culture and driving success. This promotes empowerment and engagement. This fosters the “buy-in”. Based on popular opinion, supported by the media, most people think that coaches bark out orders and the captain says, “Ya guys. Do it”, and everyone snaps to attention like minions shuffling along an assembly line.
This is an old, outdated view on how teams are assembled and operated. Another thing this does is create the illusion that all blame or praise can be heaped upon one or two individuals. It’s classic story-telling. Every great story, whether tragic or triumphant, needs a clearly defined villain or hero.
Using an example to illustrate how this works, let’s look at the developments surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. On the back of two embarrassing losses in January, the Leafs faced the wrath of the infamously ruthless Toronto media. Stories were churned out calling for a drastic change in “leadership”. Torches were lit and mobs gathered, all calling for head coach Randy Carlyle’s head and the captaincy to be stripped from Dion Phaneuf.
It is a much bigger sell to craft a story of tragedy and pin the blame on obvious scapegoats. It fits the mould of classic storytelling, and quite honestly, it’s what people secretly want. When times are tough, we want a place to direct our anger.
Based on the following fictional headlines, which article would you be more inclined to read: “Embarrassing: Carlyle and Phaneuf Need to Go”, or, “After Two Tough Losses, 9-8-1 Leafs Refocus”? It’s a no-brainer. Controversy sells; always has and always will. In this sense, the media has directly altered the perception of leadership in hockey. It’s not the Leafs organization as a whole struggling together. It’s Carlyle and Phaneuf screwing everything up. It’s a “leadership” problem.
The reality is leadership comes in all shapes and forms. Leadership is expressed and embodied verbally, physically and through behaviour and attitude from every level within the hierarchy of a team, from management all the way down to 4th line call-ups. It’s in everything that you do and there is no perfect recipe or manual for success.
A large portion of leadership has to do with human interaction and chemistry. Teams bond or don’t bond together over everything imaginable. It isn’t always logical, either. Sometimes players fight in practice and oddly this can strengthen the bond between team mates. Media members and analytics buffs will often downplay the effects shot-blocking, winning faceoffs, or finishing checks have on the success of a team. From a straight statistical standpoint, you can’t directly link a blocked shot or finished check to success in hockey. However, the courage it takes to sacrifice your body to block a shot or take a hard hit to make a play can often inspire a team to elevate their game to another level.
The same can be said about a purposeful, well-timed fight (another illogical event in the eyes of modern-minded analysts). Sticking up for your team mates is still a well-respected act in hockey, barbaric or not. Whether you win or lose, it’s the warrior mentality—going to battle for one another—that fosters camaraderie and strengthens bonds. This all feeds into the definition of what leadership means in hockey. It’s about doing whatever you can to promote engagement, cohesiveness and elevate the level of play of your team mates.
Leadership can come from the strangest places. A large percentage of true leadership is fostered and displayed off the ice and away from the public eye. As mentioned in an earlier article, “Hockey to the Workplace: 10 Transferable Competencies”, one year, one of my team mates, who barely said a word, came into the dressing room after the second period of a game during a terrible losing streak, put his dress shoes in the shower room and set them on fire. He then turned to a bewildered dressing room and declared, “I knew those fuckin’ shoes were bad luck.” We went out that third period, came back and won the game and then rattled off six wins in a row. After the game, we took the mangled remains of the shoes and glued them to a plank of wood. The charred trophy became our good luck charm and was handed out to the hardest worker after each game the rest of the season.
This was a quirky form of effective leadership. It didn’t come from the team president, head coach, or captain, and it doesn’t have to. The types of things that turn a season around for teams often come from out of left field when you least expect it. It all adds to the culture of a team. It’s fitting for a sport like hockey where anything can happen on any given night, and often does.
All that being said, is it fair to blame Randy Carlyle and Dion Phaneuf for the perceived woes of the Toronto Maple Leafs? Probably not, but we are mentally engineered to seek and place blame when things don’t go the way we want. By default, it’s easier to direct blame towards the people with the most polarizing titles. That’s just the world we live in.
Understanding this reality, coaches will direct the blame of failure towards themselves in order to protect the greater whole of the team, like a lion protecting his pride while the hyenas pick away his limbs. Players respect this and will in turn play harder for someone who has the courage to “take one for the team”. Consequently, this makes coaches easy targets for when enough is enough and the mob is screaming for the guillotine.
As for the captain—usually the face of the franchise and a well-respected member of the team—they speak for the players and usually will deflect blame from the coaches and direct it towards “the players”. It all works to strengthen the bond within a team—the brotherhood, as it is. It’s a partnership that helps to control public perception while keeping the order of things intact.
The media gets their juicy story complete with defaulted villains, the coach protects his culture by steering blame and minimizing in-house turmoil, and the captain shows the coach respect and gratitude by redirecting blame towards the rest of the pride. It’s the circle of life.