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.

On Fanhood

I happened to be watching the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada while milling about more or less aimlessly in a “live” game thread on the Pension Plan Puppets site.   Basically, I hung out in a virtual basement (I don’t know if it was Chemmy’s or P3’s house) with a bunch of my fellow Leaf fans and we watched the game together.   None of us knew what was about to unfold:  after a spirited but unlucky opening two stanzas, and trailing 2-0 going in to the third, Toronto seemed more or less resigned to their fate throughout the first ten minutes of the period.  Then, boosted by a terrific performance by rookie John Mitchell, they scored five goals in five minutes and twenty-two seconds to win the game 5-2.

Folks in the virtual rec room were pretty excited, and I could see on TV that the fans at the Air Canada Centre were stoked too;  they gave the Leafs an enthusiastic standing ovation in the final minute of play.  It was great to see the folks in the building – which is often a monument to corporate reserve, especially in the platinum seating area close to the ice surface – get up and wave their arms, pound their hands together, and generally scream their fool heads off because they were excited by their team’s performance.

The events of last night, along with the official commencement of the Revolution of the Barilkosphere earlier this week, have gotten me thinking a little bit about the nature of fan-dom. The Revolution was provoked by the most recent cut-and-paste, written-with-a-crayon-and-little-or-no-forethought, blame-the-fans for the hockey team’s problems article.  Here’s a sampling of Berger’s most recent instantiation of this “argument”:

Arguably the worst team in the National Hockey League since the lockout continues to be the most lucrative commodity on skates. Even the tall foreheads at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment have seemingly thrown in the towel on their annual dissing of Forbes Magazines’ NHL value rankings. Normally, by the evening of the announcement, CEO Richard Peddie is on record suggesting that no person outside the hallowed halls of the Air Canada Centre could possibly have a line on the Leafs’ monetary worth. This is either an effort to keep the tax people at bay, or to avoid laughing out loud at the sheep that form the lifeblood of the company.

Yes, that is YOU, Leafs Nation.

An insatiable willingness to accept whatever garbage is tossed your way each year lines the pockets of the executives you purportedly “hate” [I see that word a lot in my e-mails]. No form of indignity is powerful enough to dissuade you from the uncontrollable love of your Blue & White. You bitch… and moan… and go insane over the always-accurate appraisals of the team in the media. Depending on the hour of day, you either castigate or lionize members of the hockey club — often the same player. The familiar disappointment of missing the playoffs on April 8th is washed away with delusional fantasies by April 9th. And, always, you are there to buy every ticket; purchase every jersey; watch every game on TV; lose your mind over every word written and spoken about the team [the part I like best], and generally cradle the habit you have no power to temper, let alone break. You are, by any measure, the most easily placated fans in all of sport — rivaled only by the zombie-like baseball fanatics on the north side of Chicago.

This line of thinking (is there such a thing as a “line of ranting”?  That seems to me a more apt comparison) suffers from a fundamentally flawed premise in terms of its economic reasoning – as Sean at Down Goes Brown has ably pointed out.  It also attributes certain behaviours to Leaf fans that don’t bear any resemblance to reality;  to say that anybody who follows the team this year is having “delusional fantasies” is itself (ironically) a delusional fantasy; to say that expectations for this year’s team are low even among Leaf fans is a massive understatement.  Heck, even the Leaf-o-centric media gadflys at Cox Bloc picked them to finish “at or near the bottom” of the entire league.  I haven’t heard a single person of any persuasion opine that the Leafs would challenge for the Cup.  I can’t even think of anyone I personally know who’s been willing to wager that they’d make the playoffs.   Quite the contrary, I think the general perception – at least around the Barilkosphere – was that the Leafs would lose a LOT of games this year;  this would happen because the team was thought not to have much talent, and what talent it possessed was believed to be trade bait for prospects and draft picks as part of a quest to rebuild, and maybe to draft John Tavares next June.