Revolution: The Storming of the Gondola Continues

One of the things I didn’t know about  Ron Wilson is that he is, and has been for some time, a bit of a tech nerd.  Here’s a link to an AP story from four years ago, when Wilson was still coaching the San Jose Sharks.

“I’m the type of guy who’s always got to have the new thing,” he said.

And Wilson’s technological savvy is all over the best season in franchise history for the San Jose Sharks, who have reached the Western Conference finals in Wilson’s first full season as their coach.

Wilson and his assistants, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler, constantly invent new ways to make the Sharks better and smarter. They compile obscure databases, dissect game tapes and preach strategy with rinkside computers, personalized scouting reports and a wealth of digital, wireless gadgetry.

Constructive criticism: for those of you unfamiliar with the term, this is the kind of criticism that does not necessarily require use of either the word “suck” or “douchebag”.  It is to be encouraged, if only because in these troubled economic times, there has been a significant decline in research into innovative methods by which one might insinuate that a person is physically unable to distinguish his ass from his elbow;  as a result, non-constructive criticism can tend towards repetition and monotony.

As the Glorious Revolution continues, here’s my attempt to offer a little constructive criticism about the local mittenstringers’ coverage of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization:  instead of writing every other column about how the team’s fans are a bunch of gullible assholes whose offensive output, defensive liabilities and startling body odour have apparently produced, through natural forces too overpowering to resist, an Inevitable Vortex of Fail™ magically resulting in on-ice disappointments, columnists like Messrs. Berger, Cox or Simmons might want to consider mashing out a few monosyllables on the subject of the Leaf coaching staff’s use of computer technology.

According to a recent story by Mark Zwolinski, Ron Wilson, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler are playing a leading role in the integration of this type of technology into NHL coaching:

Tablet PCs, hard wired into a Sling Box streaming device, will be mounted at both ends of the bench, lending a bit of Bill Gates wizardry to Leaf games.

“It’s all about getting information into a player’s hands quickly and efficiently,” Leafs assistant coach Rob Zettler said, making it sound easy.

Zettler, along with fellow assistant Tim Hunter, and head coach Ron Wilson, integrated the technology into their bench area while all three formed the San Jose Sharks coaching staff between 2002-07.

Zettler and Hunter are able to access real time video replays and real time stats from the Tablets, and relay them to players during games. The information is basically quick hit knowledge – the kind of live information flow common to a stock market trading floor. But under this new Leafs coaching regime, there’s much more to the high tech approach than bench monitors.

The coaching threesome utilizes the OS-X computer operating system for their laptops. Much of the video and stats streaming they do is also available on a Smart Board – a large, touch-controlled screen – built into the video room, coach’s room, and dressing room at the Air Canada Centre.

The real cool tool, though, is a vast stats database compiled by Wilson over his 15 years as an NHL coach.

The database contains everything from where the most goals are scored from, to individual players’ on-ice tendencies.

The point is that Wilson, Hunter and Zettler seem to be blazing a bit of a trail in this way, continuing a process that the three of them began while with the San Jose Sharks.  Evidently – unless the trio are personally ponying up for the new hardware – MLSE has embraced the idea and is financially supporting its implementation.

Zwolinski’s story is good, as far as it goes, and it’s not my present purpose to criticize his article, but I would love to know more about exactly how and when the technology is used.   I would love to hear from either a current Leaf player or a former Shark, someone who has experience receiving the tutelage that Wilson, Hunter and Zettler are trying to provide.  I’d like to be given a concrete example about a specific situation in which the technology was employed and whether the immediate access to the information in question had an appreciable effect upon the outcome of a game.  Do the players find it useful, and if so what limitations do they see in it?  Tech nerds like myself would also love to see some discussion with the software developers and IT nerds who are physically implementing the system to get a sense of what they were asked to provide, where they feel they fell short, and what developments they foresee in the future as the hardware used to do the job improves in performance and accessibility.

It occurs to me, though, that these technological developments are the kind of thing that the brilliant columnists might want to consider.  They might want to discuss the fact that the Maple Leaf organization is taking steps to install the necessary electronics and to ensure that the coaching staff has the twenty-first century tools necessary to give them whatever competitive edge  they can thereby obtain.  They might attempt to evaluate what results, if any, were produced by this approach when the same coaching trio used this technology in San Jose.

They might examine the larger context within which this particular development is occurring and consider whether such initiatives are reflective of the way that – in a salary-cap environment – wealthy organizations can attempt to employ their resources to maximum advantage;  obviously, rich teams can’t just spend their way to success in the modern NHL by simply putting expensive players on the ice, but there is no limit on the amount of money that an organization can spend on other off-ice, management or player support and training issues.   They might see parallels  between this method of  trying to gain the upper hand on more impecunious rivals and efforts that a team might make to build and staff a professional, effective and co-ordinated scouting organization.  They might wish to examine what efforts, if any, have been taken within the Maple Leaf organization to pursue objectives such as these.

Of course it’s hard to discuss things like this technology initiative in the course of unwinding another cookie-cutter yarn about how management at MLSE is only interested in maximizing profit by minimizing expenditures and in serving up slop to the foolish sheep who shamble through the turnstiles year after year like characters from a George Romero film.  An angle like this doesn’t fit the narrative and the caricature of the penny-pinching suits cackling over their gold-plated success at selling tin-covered mediocrity to the local slackjaws like you and I.  It is confusing to them, because it doesn’t fit the conclusions they have already drawn.

It also takes some thought and a little hard work, so they don’t tell you about stuff like this.

Stanley Goes to Motown. Again.

Mike:  You can exhale, uncross your fingers and toes, uncover your eyes, put down the four-leaf clovers, and – for heaven’s sake – let the rabbit have his feet back.  The Wings’ Cup championship was well deserved;  they outlplayed their rivals from Steeltown, and it would have been an unjust result had they not prevailed.  There had to be a few million Maalox consumed in the Motor City, though, following the harrowing final seconds of the game, with Osgood down and a loose puck bouncing – like deja vu – to the right of the goal and a Pittsburgh attacker whacking away at it with his stick as the clock.  Ticked.  Slowly.  Down.

In other hockey news, the Leafs have apparently made Ron Wilson an offer.  The guy has put up some decent numbers with teams in the regular season, he was at the helm of the Capitals (failed) run to the final in 1998,  and he coached the U.S. team to victory in the 1996 World Cup, but it’s somewhat troubling to me that the Leafs – professing a desire not just to qualify for the playoffs each year, but to actually win the Stanley Cup – are hiring a guy that was just fired for, at least in part, not being able to get that job done.   I worry too that much of Wilson’s success came in the obstruction/holding era of the late 90’s.  On the other hand, Wilson’s teams have tended to be pretty good on both power play and penalty kill – two areas that were absolutely woeful for the Leafs this year.

Again I say, it’s almost impossible for an outsider – someone outside the dressing room – to really know whether a hockey coach is “good” or not.   So only time will tell, assuming Wilson takes the job, whether this was the right decision.  But Messrs. Peddie and Tanenbaum need to look over their blue and white clad shoulders – with 11 Cup championships now, the Wings are fast catching the Leafs in the “number of championships won” category.  I spent the early part of my life hoping that Mike Palmateer and Darryl Sittler would propel the Leafs past the hated bleu, blanc et rouge to the top of that list at some point in my lifetime;  now I just hope we don’t get passed by the likes of the cephalopod-waving juggernaut from Hockeytown.