Behind the NHL’s endless search for natural born winners

"[McGrady] was one of the most talented players in the league, very popular, but I came to the conclusion he didn't have the internal fortitude to win a championship." - John Weisbrod

The easiest way to describe an executive's duty in hockey (or any sport for that matter) is to "find winners": determine through whatever means necessary which players and which coaches can deliver championships. It's a deceptively simple description of a process that is, in fact, hopelessly complex.

Forget the tables of numbers and results executives pour over. Forget, even, the hundreds of nights each year faceless scouts spend trudging through small towns, drinking cheap coffee and madly scribbling notes about a guy's stride or his battle level along the boards.

Sure that stuff is integral. Can this guy score? Can he get around the ice at the NHL level? Is he worth a damn behind his own blueline? Those are some basic questions asked of every possible prospect or trade target.

But the questioning rarely ends when a player leaves the ice. In the ceaseless scramble to find the next franchise cornerstone or the final piece of the puzzle, GM's, coaches and even fans search for clues about a man's character in corners outside of the rink. Aside from the visceral, observable and obviously relevant physical tools and resultant statistical results they evoke, the hockey evaluator turns into both psychiatrist and prophet in an effort to divine whether a player is the type of man who can will his team to victory.

The search for winners obviously begins in the rinks and gyms where players are evaluated on everything from the mechanics of their movements to their raw physicality including height and body fat content.

Weisbrod's quote above makes it clear that the question of ability, or raw skill, is an altogether different one than whether a player can be considered a winner. History has taught us to be suspicious of pure athletic prowess or eye-popping offensive totals as perfect predictors of future success.

The road to the NHL is a difficult one, congested with barriers and obstacles. Sometimes even the best, most promising kids fall by the wayside during the journey.

The keys to winning a championship in the pro league even when a player makes it are also hard to pinpoint. Let's face it — the Stanley Cup is a really difficult trophy to win. An 82-game schedule and four hard fought post-season series, complicated by officiating, schedules, opposition, line mates, goaltending, injuries, variance — a lot has to go right for even great players to win a cup (particularly in the modern, 30-team league). Wayne Gretzky played another 11 seasons after he was traded out of Edmonton. He never won another championship. Ray Bourque would have retired without a cup ring if had not been dealt to the juggernaut Colorado Avalanche at the end of his career. Being an outrageously good player is clearly no guarantee of anything. Even being surrounded by a great team doesn't make winning the cup a certainty: JLikens of Obejective NHL once calculated that the best team in the NHL actually wins the cup around 22% of the time — roughly once every five seasons.

This uncertainty of future success, even despite great talent, is likely why people attempt to peer beyond a player's physical talents and define those intangible characteristics we imagine separate winners from losers. Weisbrod calls it internal fortitude. Others call it swagger. Or confidence. Some guys are winners because they hate to lose. Others seem to inspire their teammates with quiet determination. The list of qualities is often vague and shifting, a subjective, gut instinct that varies from observer to observer. A kind of "I know it when I see it" charisma, bestowed upon and exploited by natural leaders but also pick-up artists and con men in equal measure (although for different purposes).

Whatever that something is, be it a single, inscrutable factor of the Winners persona — or an alchemic combination of attitude, perspective and will power — it is often considered a necessary piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a roster.

After all, winners win. The obvious corollary of which is: losers lose.

The trick is tell one form the other.

The catalyst for this search is a couple of cognitive short-cuts which make us think that such fuzzy, ephemeral concepts are not only readily identifiable, but predictive and predictable as well. The first of them is known as the fundamental attribution error.

Personality versus Circumstances

Have you watched a car blow by you on the highway or on a busy road? Did you guess he was late for a meeting? Maybe she had a plane to catch? Or instead, was your immediate gut reaction to assume the driver was stupid, reckless or inconsiderate?

If you're like most people, it was the probably the latter. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to overestimate dispositional or personality factors relative to circumstantial influences when explaining the causes of other's behaviors. So while there may be obvious but transient reasons why someone might speed, the usual tendency is to assume the behavior is a fixture of the speeder's personality: it's a clue to who he or she is, rather than something incited by the situation.

This works in both good and bad directions. People exhibiting behaviors we judge as good or favorable will likely be described as inherently good by us later and vice versa. This also works in terms of outcomes as well. In an experiment by Teresa Amabile, Lee Ross and Julia Steinmetz, participants were randomly assigned to a "questioner" or "contestant" role in a mock "game show". A third participant was asked to watch the game show and rate both the questioner's and contestant's general knowledge.

The questioners were tasked with coming up with difficult questions while the contestants had to try to answer them. Because almost everyone has store of unique or relatively trivial knowledge, contestants were often stumped by the questioner's challenges. As a result, observers often rated the questioners as more knowledgeable than the contestants…even when they knew participants had been randomly assigned to their roles.

The circumstances of the simulated quiz show mostly dictated both the outcome of the game (contestants frequently wrong) and the perception of the people involved (questioners are smarter than contestants). The perception is an intuitive one because of the fundamental attribution error, which is why even when observers knew the roles were assigned at random; they still couldn't shake the sense that it wasn't the situation but a personal aspect of the contestants (their intelligence level) that caused them to fail.

In some ways, this is how the perception of "winners" is conceived and perpetuated: That a player wins because of something innate, perhaps even beyond his athletic ability. There's a fire to succeed, a force that bends circumstances to his will. And if not, then not — losers lose, after all.

Or at least that's how we intuitively judge people on either end of the score at the end of the night.

Karma Theory

Parallel to the fundamental attribution error is the just-world hypothesis — a bias that causes people to naturally assume their world is naturally governed by an enduring and universal force of justice.

Because of this tendency, people often assume or even reinterpret events and outcomes to conclude that others usually "get what they deserve", be it bad or good, win or lose. Blaming the victim can be a result of the just-world hypothesis: instead of confronting the conclusion that an event was unjust, people will decide the victim was actually partly or wholly to blame for their victimization.

So again, winners are winners not only because of some inherent quality of the play or characters, but they also deserve their successes because that how's we figure the world works.

Too Much Information

Of course, humans are socially adroit creatures and we don't merely look for the Winners gene in a players outcomes or performances. Those certainly help justify and perpetuate those kind of assumptions**, but the quest often goes wider and deeper.

The supreme leader, that alpha male phenotype would express itself in ways other than a nice play or a few points. Lots of guys manage stuff like that, but they aren't all winners.

So we scrutinize other potential sources of information. Does the player engage the press? Is he confident or withdrawn during his interviews? Are his eyes downcast when he talks to reports? Does he have sloppy posture? How does he hold his shoulders? Does he walk with purpose? Does he arrive early for practice? Stay late?

In short, is there evidence of swagger in his character? Does he express internal fortitude in whatever it is he does, however trivial or banal the activity might seem?

We judge people we meet based on these subtle, often non-verbal qualities everyday. And when it comes to professional hockey players, who can cost millions of dollars and upon whom GMs and coaches can sometimes bet their careers, it seems sensible to gather as much information as possible, however minor or irrelevant it might seem to actually playing hockey. We're looking for winners here, after all.

Unfortunately, mixing relevant and non-relevant information can actually weaken judgments. This is called the dilution effect — and it means non-diagnostic data can actively change and undermine your judgment or perception of a person, even when, logically, it should have no effect whatsoever.

Ales Hemsky Doesn't Win Hockey Games

With these various cognitive biases in mind, the ebb and flow of a player's reputation is interesting to track. A cup ring adds years to a career, even when a guy's performance is consistently mediocre forever after. Others are perpetually dogged despite outstanding individual feats if they "can't win the big game".

Perhaps the most interesting recent example is Ales Hemsky in Edmonton. Although he has been one of the team's leading scorers for years (in good times and bad), the 28-year-old was struggling through a brutal season despite being in line to become an unrestricted free agent this coming summer before being re-signed.

The popular explanations for his lackluster output this season mostly ignored the circumstantial stuff: that he was coming off of recent shoulder surgery, that he often played against other team's best players and that his shooting percentage was a career low 5.5% (versus career average of 11.3%).

What wasn't ignored, however, was his assumed character flaws: His penchant for leaving practice early for instance. The fact he doesn't hit hard or fight. Ales Hemsky doesn't win hockey games was digitally uttered by a member of the Edmonton press (beyond the fact it's a little silly to credit wins and losses to a single player in a team sport - follow the link for evidence to the contrary).

Similar dramas no doubt play out in other cities with other players, and even in other sports, all the time. And although defining a guy's true talent level is a prime goal in player evaluation, the distinction is not necessarily between good and bad players, or even good and elite players, when it comes to establishing if a someone is a natural born Winner or not.

Rather, the difference is considered binary (winner/loser) and intractable (inherent to the players personality).And, somehow, wholly separate from how good a guy is at actually playing the game.

**(You can observe daily fans struggle to determine if their favored team is a collection of "winners" or "losers" on message boards scattered around the internet, depending on recent winning or losing streaks).

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Kent Wilson it the managing editor for Flames Nation, who has written for Hockey Prospectus and Houses of the Hockey. We're honored to bring his intelligent and thorough analysis of the NHL to you here on Puck Daddy.)

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