“No one is above the team.”
How many times have we heard that from various owners, GMs, coaches, and management representatives over the years? It’s a nice concept, isn’t it? The idea that, no matter how valuable any player is to the team, the team is most important. It would just be nice if we saw the concept in practice a little more often.
Team goals are supposed to be more important than individual ones. We learn that from the youngest levels of youth sports—do your best for the team and help the team win. That’s supposed to be the goal. Team statistics are supposed to be more important than the individual’s numbers. Team awards are supposed to be more important than individual recognition. Because at the end of the day, it’s the contributions of 20 individuals that are supposed to add up to the team’s success.
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Instead, in all sports, we see management and coaches look the other way when a star players act selfishly because, well, they are star players that produce. But it’s always a hard sell when the same actions from a role player would be met with stiffer consequences.
It sends a simple message: “This guy is more important to our team than you are. Yes, we want you to contribute to the team’s success, but we need his contributions much more than we need yours. Thank you for your daily sacrifice, but we can survive without you—we can’t survive without him.”
Of course, they’d never say anything like that to a prideful player’s face. But as parents tell their kids, actions speak louder than words.
It should be an easy decision. Players do something wrong and they suffer the appropriate (and expected) consequences. But real life is never that easy. When the players are important and the games are even more important, it’s commonplace for the judge, jury, and executioner to all look the other way.
That brings is to Nashville—the HockeyTonk capital of the world and the second round of the 2012 NHL Playoffs.
Everyone from every corner of the blogosphere has turned their attention to Nashville over the last few days. As most people know, the official word from the Predators organization is Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn broke a team rule and were suspended for Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Phoenix Coyotes. That’s the official statement.
Reports outside the organization say that Radulov and Kostitsyn broke their curfew the night before Game 2 in Arizona. There were eyewitness reports that placed the two in Scottsdale at 11:30pm the night before their playoff game. For those who are wondering, Scottsdale and Glendale (where Jobing.com Arena is located) are on opposite sides of the greater Phoenix area and are 30-45 minutes apart.
That’s the background for one of the biggest decisions of the David Poile era in Nashville. But the reason this is an important report has nothing to do with Alex Radulov, either Kostitsyn, or any other Russian player in the NHL. This isn’t a “Russian” thing—and we’re not about to go there. (That’s been done.) No, this story is about the Nashville Predators, the way they handled this situation, the way they always conduct business, and the secret of their success for everyone to see.
The secret to Nashville’s success over the last handful of years is identical to the secret the Phoenix Coyotes possess across the hallway in this series. Team first. Everyone scarifies for the team. Everyone plays a team game and helps their teammates in every position on the ice. Defense is everyone’s job. Scoring is done by committee. And in recent years, winning is also done by committee.
So when two individuals’ actions threaten to put themselves ahead of the team, it’s even more important for a general manager like Poile—who represents a team like the Predators—to take action. And just as expected, Poile delivered. Just like he expects from him players, he put the team above any individual.
Here’s how Poile addressed the media:
“I’ve been a general manager for 30 years and I’ve always tried to treat each, individual player with care, but never put the individual player above the team… It’s very disappointing, obviously any time something like this would happen it would be disappointing, but in the playoffs it’s even more so taking out two of arguably better hockey players. But, again, pretty easy decision. Again, our creed has always been to try to do the right thing. I try to do that in my personal life, so I should certainly do this in my business life. We’ve just done the right thing. We put the team ahead of a couple of individual players and we’ll see where we go from here.”
What’s on the line for Poile? For the first time, the Predators and their ownership are “all in.” (his words, not mine). They acquired the best pieces available at the deadline that fit into their team concept when they gave up significant assets for Paul Gaustad and Hal Gill. Ownership has made the financial commitment to spend to the cap in hopes of success—and retaining core players like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber in the near future. If teams have short windows for success, the Predators may never see the window as wide-open as it is today.
Could Poile have done this if he was in a hockey crazed market where every small move is analyzed and overanalyzed? Would Leafs or Canucks fans be willing to trust Poile when the market is so desperate for success—at any cost necessary?
Regardless, Poile put the team above players who are instrumental to said team’s success. Because if he doesn’t, how can he expect the other 18-20 guys to put the team first? Not only did he make the bold decision to sit two of his most talented players—he did it without hesitation.
“It’s never difficult when you just go down to ‘let’s do the right thing.’” GM Poile said about his decision. “If you have standards and have rules, you have to maintain the rules. If you let these things slide, it’s never going to work. Again, in the big picture, this is way more important that where we are. If we’re up 2-0 vs. down 2-0, the same decision would have been made. It’s just about doing the right thing for the team and not the individuals. You CAN NOT put an individual, no matter how important they are, ahead of the team. Again, what they did, their behavior, was not committed, not focused, not conducive to allowing the team to be successful…”
It might be surprising to hear an organization take this kind of stand for the most important game of their season—but not for the Predators. When we hear Poile say something like: “what they did was unacceptable and the coaches and myself and to come to the plate and do the right thing for the team,” it’s just par for the course. This is the organization’s way. It has been since Day 1 when David Poile was announced as General Manager and Barry Trotz was announced as the team’s first head coach. It’s always been like this and it’ll be like this until they’re replaced.
This is the Predators family that the two men have created.
“…This team is not a perfect team. Family is not a perfect family. You have to support your family at different times and you sometimes at different times you have to have your child sit in the corner for a timeout—because it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t mean we don’t love our children any less—or these players any less. We’re disappointed in their behavior and we hope by what we’re doing it’s the right thing for our organization and all of our other team members. And we hope that going forward, something like this would never happen again—especially in such an important time.” –Preds GM David Poile
But it’s not just the coaches and management. The players embody the same approach. Alternate captain Ryan Suter explains:
“As a leadership group, we talked with Trotz. We said [to him] whatever you decide, we will stand by you. We’re in the playoffs, and we don’t need distractions…”
That’s coming straight from an impending unrestricted free agent that knows this is the best shot he’s ever had at the Stanley Cup.
The stage was set for Game 3. The organization had taken an admirable stance in the face of a desperate situation. The players on the team openly supported the decision. So this was one of those times when the Hockey Gods would prove that doing ‘the right thing’ would be rewarded, right?
The Hockey Gods delivered as they were supposed to.
If there were ever a game where “truth” was shown for 60 minutes, it was Game 3 in Music City. Nashville used a true team effort—the same kind of team effort that has made them successful over the last few years—to climb back into the series.
The Hockey Gods are infallible.
Martin Erat showed that they still had world-class talent on the ice when Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn were in the press box.
Mike Fisher showed a dominant two-way effort that made him last year’s key acquisition and a perfect representative of “Predators’ Hockey.”
Sergei Kostitsyn showed that he can perform just as well as his much more appreciated brother—and has a better grasp of curfews.
Jordin Tootoo showed in the third period that he knows what it takes to help his team win in the playoffs. For anyone who has followed his battle with his substance abuse demons, it was gratifying to see Tootoo succeed when given a chance in the second round (and ironic that he’d get his shot because two guys were out drinking too late).
And to tie a bow on the evening, Pekka Rinne showed that when the team-effort in front of him started to bend near the end of the game, he was still capable of bailing his teammates out when needed. Should we really be surprised that Rinne earned his first career shutout victory on a night when the team was asked to perform as one?
It’ll be interesting to see what Barry Trotz decides to do with Radulov and Kostitsyn for Game 4. Judging by the Predators’ performance, there’s no guarantee the pair will be back in the lineup when the Preds try to knot the series at 2-2. After the game, Trotz strongly hinted that Radulov and Kostitsyn may be headed back to the press box for Game 4:
“It’s a privilege to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs, to play for the Cup, and those guys took advantage of the privilege of playing,” said Trotz. “That’s a sacred part of the playoffs. It will be very hard to change a lot from that group.”
And to think, some people thought the team knew about the players’ actions before Game 2. Again, the team comes before any individual.
Why is this story such a big deal? Sure, it’s a big deal that a team with Cup aspirations would bench two important players for a vitally important game. That much is obvious. But there’s something deeper to the story that has captured people’s attention. It’s because the Predators are acting with the integrity that everyone hopes their team possesses. When given the choice between doing “the right thing” and compromising their values for a playoff win, we all hope that our team would do the right thing—and would be rewarded for it after the fact.
Today, Predators fans know their team did the right thing and they were rewarded for it. As a fan, that’s more important than any victory on any scoreboard.