Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard ... but it will in playoffs
Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard, so the T-shirts and motivational posters tell us. It’s an inspiring sentiment - we can do this, guys! - and it’s not without its glimmer of truth. Unfortunately, it also calls to mind the scene in “Liar Liar” when Jim Carrey’s son finds out dear ol’ dad can’t lie.
“My teacher tells me real beauty is on the inside,” his son says.
“That’s just something ugly people say,” Carrey responds.
While slightly less crass, the sentiment about hard work really is just something us under-talented people tell each other.
Of course, in sports, that doesn’t mean it’s best to simply not try. We love our Rudys, our valiant underdogs who rise up to vanquish their more talented foes (look around the league - even some General Managers do). These less-skilled heroes accomplish this by pushing themselves to their limits, making life as hard as possible on their opponents and hoping to get them on an off-day, or that a few bounces go their way. It’s a common occurrence in hockey’s regular season, as evidenced by talented teams like the Kings, Sharks and Bruins missing the playoffs.
Also, by the Sabres winning ever.
The problem with building any sort of team identity around the mantra of “outwork the talent” is that no one is out-working anyone in the playoffs, so the whole best-of-seven thing means the better team usually prevails. Expand that to four best-of-sevens, and we see very few under-talented, but “lucky”, Stanley Cup champions. In fact, we’re approaching a decade straight of uber-talented teams taking the title.
This year’s Calgary Flames were a team that built a tremendous regular season on the backs of hard work. They were told they were going to struggle to win games from the preseason on, so they knew their only hope at success was to outwork opponents, which, to Jack Adams nominee Bob Hartley’s credit, the boys in red did.
But that success is really only possible because the best teams genuinely do take nights off in the regular season, as unintentional as they might be.
Spending as much time reading about hockey as I do, I often come across the argument that all professional athletes work hard and that players don’t become pros being lazy, and so on. Which, frankly, is pretty naive.
The regular season is a grind, and many players have long contracts and guaranteed roster spots. Think of it like running from a hungry cheetah: if you’re in a big pack of people, you only need to out-run the slowest in the pack. Those are the people who want your job, your opponents who want to beat you. If you can stay ahead of them without running your fastest, it wouldn’t make sense to run your fastest. You’d just coast in neutral and stay ahead.
Humans do whatever they can to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs (whassup, rational choice theory). In hockey terms, if a talented player can coast his way to a win AND avoid the cost of taking a thundering crunch in the corner, he’s logically going to pull the 'chute on the race for that puck. If a team thinks their opponent isn’t good, they’re more likely to pull said ‘chute more often to minimize their personal damages, which gives our scrappy underdog a better shot at success ... in the regular season.
The herd thins as teams move through the playoffs, and the cheetah keeps picking off the teams who can’t run as fast, which means the best of the best need to start pushing the throttle farther and farther down.
Unfortunately for hockey’s “hard work is the key to success” teams, they’re rarely catching anyone sleeping in the playoffs. The most talented runners remain at this point, and buddy, they’re sprinting.
Luck and health and bounces will start to play a larger role as the talent gap narrows. Hard work was a nice concept for about eight months, but surprise it be to no one that it’s the talent left out there working hard.