The discussion that will never die keeps…not dying. This time we can blame Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens for lighting the cigarette near the gas leak by trading P.K. Subban for the probably washed up Shea Weber. (Special shout out to the man who traded Tyler Seguin for also trading Taylor Hall at almost the exact same time. What a stroke of good fortune for Peter Chiarelli.)
Today’s choose-your-own-adventure is built around the word “culture.” Culture is important. Culture isn’t important. Maybe culture is important, but overrated. You can’t measure culture, so leave the narrative-building to the neophytes. Narrative, analytics, culture, character, suffering, hammer, thumb, pain: the rabbit hole has no recognizable end point.
What do we actually know about culture?
We know culture as this mysterious “other” dimension that somehow dictates the inner-workings of major organizations. It’s often portrayed as something that just exists. “Hey the culture is here guys. Wait…you. You’re messing it up. Go away.” Culture is grossly oversimplified or misunderstood often, I think, largely because most people will never have to actively think about how to establish or tweak an environment for a large group of rotating people.
Often the discussion centers around the players. This vague notion exists that links players to culture. To a large degree, the link makes sense: the players are probably 90 percent of the culture, but the problems often identified when a player is shipped out the door or brought in for “culture” aren’t just about individual players.
The leader(s) set the tone and establish the culture of a room and have to crack the whip from time to time to make sure everyone is in line. Any number of approaches can be utilized to carry out those tasks, but when we’re talking about poor culture in other professions we generally go right to the leadership group that allowed the culture to take root in the first place.
I teach high school. My job would be a million times easier if I could simply blame my students for a poor classroom environment. Half of my yearly evaluation comes from my ability to establish and maintain a good environment and my evaluation also comes halfway through the year, specifically because it takes so much time and effort to maintain and establish that environment.
The other half of our evaluation is the actual teaching. Coaching isn’t much different. The two components, managing people and actual hockey, are both vitally important to the job. The discussion that never dies is how important the first one is since it can’t be quantified, but from the perspective of a coach it has to be important. On an individual level, player-to-player, it may not be as significant, but from the coach's view it certainly is.
This is why Mike Babcock is the highest paid and quite possibly the best coach in the league. And go figure, he’s also a former teacher with a background in sports psychology. The man seems to establish a wonderful environment, and no one except Babcock will ever fully know everything he does to establish it.
And because of coaches like Babcock and my own experience I always wince when players are moved for culture concerns. My first thought always ends up being, “how did the leadership group allow this situation to get so far out of hand?” It isn’t always that cut-and-dry for sure, but from my view there are many warts you can work around to keep superstar players on the ice (though obviously there are limits).
Certain players are always going to be worth more work than others in leagues where superstars carry the water. We have the notion of replacement-level players for a reason. The amount of nonsense you can reasonably get away with is basically a 1:1 correlation with your distance in either direction from replacement level.
In other words, how does Tyler Seguin get traded for partying too much? How many levels of intermediary steps have to be blown through before you decide to trade a young budding superstar scorer who likes to have fun? What did P.K. Subban really do to get traded, and why does Bergevin even open the culture can of worms if he isn’t going to say what happened?
Nothing good comes from that.
These guys could literally make up any reason for trading a player that isn’t inflammatory, but still we come back to culture. Why do they do this to themselves? It sounds silly and impotent every single time it is cited.
Then again perhaps that’s the point. If you focus on culture and character as a motivation for making a trade it’s much easier to sell to fans that you had to make a move so that when they realize you got fleeced there’s a ready-made excuse. Seguin had to be traded because he was out of control. Subban had to be traded because he did something so bad we can’t even repeat it.
“While you’re focused on that though please ignore that the second and third best players we got for Seguin were Joe Morrow and Matt Fraser.” “Shea Weber shoots the puck really hard and hits people. You’ll love him.” These snake oil salesmen are just treating their fans like babies as they shake keys in front of their faces to distract them.
Culture is a convenient justification for a garbage trade, and maybe Bergevin has legitimate reasons for needing to get rid of Subban. Who knows? But culture isn’t a good enough reason to give up a great player like Subban (or Seguin) without getting an equal return. The leadership groups establish the culture so unless these guys are wielding knives or making every single member of a franchise uncomfortable how much longer do we have to go before we point the fingers at the leadership groups and ask “what the hell are you guys doing?”