On Hockey and Higher Ed
Higher education has a lot to learn from professional hockey.
I have no specific memory of this, so it’s possible that the story is apocryphal, but supposedly, one day, I came home from kindergarten clutching a flyer for “hockey class,” declaring that I wanted to "do that."
History has not recorded why my parents consented. It’s possible whining was involved. Or perhaps, my dad, who was usually tasked as the parent present for the children’s sporting competitions had had enough of watching my older brother backstroking up and down the YMCA pool and needed some variety.
Mr. Quinn was a kind of hockey evangelist - who else would volunteer to teach a hockey class to kids too young to play in the organized league? Most of my classmates spent more time on their ankles than their blades, so the fact that I could skate a little bit and used the stick to feebly swat at the puck, rather than keep myself upright made me the star of the class. Mr. Quinn declared to my parents that I was a prodigy.
This was not true, but Mr. Quinn’s class did start me on a lifelong love affair with hockey that continues to this day, occasionally to my wife’s chagrin as I arrive home limping following one of my men’s league games.
“What is it this time?” she says.
“Groin,” I reply. “Minor.”
Most of what I know about right and wrong and the proper balance between individual and team needs I learned from hockey, even though I never proved better than high school varsity.
I recently had occasion to return to Chicago and watch the Blackhawks clinch the Western Conference title with a heart-taxing double overtime victory against the Los Angeles Kings. After the game, I was so weak from my effort of willing the Blackhawks to victory, that I almost couldn’t descend the steps from my nose bleed seats.
The clinching goal was scored by one of the Blackhawks' superstars, Patrick Kane, a “one-timer” off a pass from another superstar, Jonathan Toews. It is almost impossible to express the degree of skill underlying this play. Toews executes what is known as a “saucer pass” (aka flying saucer) launching the puck several inches above the ice in order to avoid the defender’s stick in a way so that at the end of the puck's airborne journey, it once again lays perfectly flat on the ice just in time for Kane to launch the puck without stopping it, just over the goalie’s glove and just under the crossbar. If there’s a physicist in the house, maybe we could get some definitive proof on the improbability of the vectors.
It was Kane’s third goal of the game, a hat trick.
Toews and Kane, though not quite generation-transcending talents like Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby, are vital to the Blackhawks’ success, except – and this is one of the things I love most about hockey – so is a player named Marcus Kruger.
By normal standards, Marcus Kruger is a superhuman athletic specimen. Listed at 5’ 11” and 181 pounds, if you were to watch him skate, stickhandle, and shoot at ice level you would be stunned by the strength, speed, and agility on display. But by NHL standards, Kruger is ordinary, or even slightly below. Kruger is fast, but as part of a very fast team, he’s only average. His shot is one of the weakest on the team, and not particularly deadly in terms of accuracy. In the 48-game regular season, Kruger had 13 points (4 goals, 9 assists), while Kane, who is listed at exactly the same height and weight as Kruger, led the team with 55 (23 G, 32 A).
Also, based on unscientific personal observation, Marcus Kruger leads the league in getting stapled to the boards by an opposing player in such a way that you want to look away from the carnage.
Kruger is valued because he is known for “doing the right things.” We see it even in the above linked footage of Kruger getting “crushed.” Off of that faceoff, Kruger’s job was to clear the puck out of the defensive zone. Kruger knew that a Vancouver Canuck would be coming after him physically with malintent, but a job needed doing, so he did it.
Kruger is also one of the Hawks’ top penalty killers, an important, but unglamorous job that requires him to willingly stand in front of 100mph slap shots, quite possibly risking season-ending injury.
If you think this is an exaggeration, consider the case of the Boston Bruins’ Gregory Campbell who blocked a shot, fracturing his fibula. Though, note that he played the rest of his shift on essentially one leg.
While Kruger’s and Campbell’s sacrifices are admired, within hockey they are not viewed as extraordinary, but are instead expected. While everyone agrees that there is a hierarchy of talent within the league, the ethos of hockey is resolutely egalitarian, and “doing the right thing” is valued above everything else.
Earlier in the playoffs, another Blackhawk, Viktor Stalberg, who does have a rare gift, breathtaking speed, was benched for two games because of his failures to do his job on the defensive end. Kruger is far more likely to find himself on the ice in crucial moments than the bigger, more talented Stalberg.
In hockey, no one is bigger than “the organization” which is a term you’ll hear in just about any interview with a player or coach. In hockey, each individual, regardless of status, is part of the organization, and as soon as they appear to put their needs above those of the organization, they usually aren’t long for the team.
Unlike the NBA, where games are essentially pre-determined by which team has more talent, “doing the right thing” is absolutely necessary for success in the NHL. Despite having two generational talents (Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) and other superstars (Chris Letang, Jarome Iginla), the Pittsburgh Penguins were waxed by the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals because they didn’t do the right things.
You’re wondering how I’m going to tie this paean to hockey to issues of higher education. Here it is: in hockey, there are no adjuncts. Everyone on the team matters when it comes to the team’s ultimate success, and more importantly, the team values them in return.
As evidence, I offer this footage from Marcus Kruger’s rookie year, where he is victimized by a dirty hit by the Penguins’ Derek Engelland. Following the cheap shot, John Scott, the Blackhawks’ “enforcer” at the time, approached Engelland and made it clear that such liberties were not to be taken, even with a rookie, by pummeling Engelland bloody. (Notice, though, the hockey code of “doing the right thing” at work, as Scott could’ve pounded Engelland indefinitely, but stopped immediately once it was determined that the appropriate message had been sent.)
If it wasn’t Scott, it would’ve been another player coming to Kruger's aid. If someone had taken a run at Scott, and Scott was unable to deliver his own pummeling, a teammate would’ve stepped in for him. This is violence, but it is not senseless. It sends a message to the opposition (don’t mess with our players) as well as one’s own team (you matter to us).
Loyalty and sacrifice is reciprocal, a recognition that without Marcus Kruger, Patrick Kane’s hat trick wouldn’t mean much.
Except that unlike hockey, higher education does not often recognize this principle. Academia has its Patrick Kanes, the tenured faculty who are recognized as all-stars, the people we think of when we think of an institution, but without the less well-known faculty teaching freshman writing, or introductory Biology, there is no room for the superstar. Sometimes it seems like we’d rather pretend this isn’t the case, and we blame the Marcus Krugers for not being as talented or successful as the Patrick Kanes.
But Marcus Kruger is not made to fly coach while Kane enjoys the team charter. He is not tasked with washing his own uniform. While his salary ($900K) does not approach Kane’s ($6M), by the organization, he is equally valued and in turn, he is willing to risk his own well-being for the team, and because of this, they are all winners.
Who would have imagined that professional hockey displays a superior model of ethics than higher education?
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