Intangibles

Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009 03:06PM

"I love the physical intangibles he brought to the game." – Pierre McGuire, explaining why Ed Jovanovski is A MONSTER!

That quote is lifted from this rather amazing Covered in Oil post from April 2008, which does a great breakdown of Pierre McGuire’s 2008 Monsters of the Year list. It’s a good read, and taken in conjunction with this rumour it just makes me smile.

Anyways, Covered in Oil responded with the dictionary definition of intangible: "not tangible; incapable of being perceived by the sense of touch, as incorporeal or immaterial things; impalpable."

As a guy who likes statistics, I get knocked a lot as not caring about intangibles. That’s not true. Obviously, things like leadership, guts, heart and the like can be important things in team-building. The psychological side of the game exists and undoubtedly influences outcome, but it can’t be measured by us. A coach may have a good grasp of these qualities in his players, but of course that’s biased by his own experience and perception. We can guess at the character of players, but it’s only a guess.

Physicality is not an intangible. Aside from the fact that certain aspects can be measured (size, strength, total hits) physicality is obvious to anyone who watches the game.

Even defensive ability, which isn’t easy to measure, doesn’t qualify as an intangible. A competent observer can grade any player’s positioning after a sufficient period of time; and count battles won and lost. On the statistical end of things, NHL teams have been counting scoring chances for years (and over at mc79hockey.com, Dennis has been tracking scoring chances all year), and other statistics like QualComp, ZoneShift and Corsi are helping us craft a better picture all the time. But I digress.

The point of this article is that intangibles really don’t belong in the conversation. We don’t know them; if we knew them, they wouldn’t be intangible. When someone says, ‘yeah, but he has/doesn’t have intangibles’, they’re arguing from a position of ignorance – effectively saying: ‘well, I think there’s some other, unmeasurable quality that makes X a good or bad hockey player’, and that’s simply wrong. X is a good or bad hockey player based on what he does on the ice. Saying something to the effect of “X doesn’t win puck battles” or “X doesn’t go into traffic areas” may be accurate or not, but a competent observer can watch the game and confirm or deny the statement – and that makes all the difference.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Twitted by jonathanwillis
May 08 2009, 03:13PM
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[...] This post was Twitted by jonathanwillis - Real-url.org [...]

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#2 sittingatmydesk
May 08 2009, 03:15PM
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Hello anyone there!!

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#3 Ogden Brother
May 08 2009, 03:16PM
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Horcoff bashers everywhere celebrate.

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#4 Archaeologuy
May 08 2009, 03:32PM
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@ Ogden Brother: When Horc said that people in his pay scale are paid for their intangibles I almost lost my mind. If i was there in person when he said that I would have been caught on camera laughing innappropriately at him and calling him an idiot.

I'm with Willis, Intangibles is a BS thing to bring up and shouldnt be used unless discussing Character/Attitude, and even then how are we supposed to know? I mean I cant exactly put "Intangibles" on my Resume.

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#5 Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009, 03:33PM
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Ogden Brother wrote:

Horcoff bashers everywhere celebrate.

Why? His defensive ability is pretty obvious to anyone with a clue.

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#6 Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009, 03:33PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

@ Ogden Brother: When Horc said that people in his pay scale are paid for their intangibles I almost lost my mind.

How did I forget that quote?

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#7 Librarian Mike
May 08 2009, 03:39PM
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Maybe it's not terribly manly, but a more appropriate term may be 'mystique' to talk about players who have that ... how you say? 'I-don't-know-what'.

I guess it means different things to different people. For someone like Brian Burke, it's a player who has a bit of a mean streak. For Don Cherry it's a Canadian passport...

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#8 Archaeologuy
May 08 2009, 03:39PM
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From Gregor Discusses Season With Horcoff April 9:

JG: That contract doesn’t start until next season. When you signed it, was the expectation to be in a situation where you could live up to it? Do you need to be put in a situation where you will be given an opportunity to live up to it?

SH: I didn’t get that contract just off my offensive numbers, though, I think that’s what people need to realize. What puts me in that type of pay scale is a lot of the intangibles that I bring, the situations that I play, the minutes, the face-offs and the defensive minutes. But you are probably right, in order to put up 65 to 70+ points a year, you have to play offensive situation and pure offensive minutes. Without those minutes, it will be tough for anyone. But I have to finish better, that’s obvious.

What a douchebag.

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#9 Quinn
May 08 2009, 03:40PM
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When I told the NHL draft I was filled with intangibles that made me a good player, they refused to pick me for a team. So I picked up my invisible intangibles and went home.

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#10 Archaeologuy
May 08 2009, 03:40PM
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@ Jonathan Willis: The Princess Bride is a wicked movie by the way. Good Call.

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#11 Quinn
May 08 2009, 03:43PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

From Gregor Discusses Season With Horcoff April 9: JG: That contract doesn’t start until next season. When you signed it, was the expectation to be in a situation where you could live up to it? Do you need to be put in a situation where you will be given an opportunity to live up to it? SH: I didn’t get that contract just off my offensive numbers, though, I think that’s what people need to realize. What puts me in that type of pay scale is a lot of the intangibles that I bring, the situations that I play, the minutes, the face-offs and the defensive minutes (italics mine). But you are probably right, in order to put up 65 to 70+ points a year, you have to play offensive situation and pure offensive minutes. Without those minutes, it will be tough for anyone. But I have to finish better, that’s obvious. What a douchebag.

I don't think Horc realised that he was actually giving statistical categories as examples of intangibles. Which tells me that when an insider speaks of intangibles they are using a simple word to speak of some of the advanced category stats they keep track of in their head.

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#12 Chris
May 08 2009, 03:45PM
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@ Willis:

Funny. And fair comment. Many people (myself included) are guilty of misusing the word intangible... Maybe buzz words like "dimension" or versatility are more accurate. Or then again, maybe not. When reading scouting reports I always have to smile when the analyst lays down the KING-DADDY: "hockey sense"!

~Knowing when, and against whom to throw a big hit is often more important than the number of hits thrown... this important brand of "hockey sense" is a key component of a player with physical dimension... It's difficult to statistically measure an intangible quality like hockey sence...~

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#13 Robin Brownlee
May 08 2009, 03:45PM
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"The psychological side of the game exists and undoubtedly influences outcome, but it can’t be measured by us"

"We can guess at the character of players, but it’s only a guess."

I don't think you can speak for me or anybody else who spends a lot of time around the team when it comes to these two points. People who spend years and years close to the team in the position of a beat writer or any number of other positions know what makes each player tick, or should if he or she is paying attention. Having a grasp of intangibles and the character of players is the bread-and-butter of a good beat writer and provides an advantage over people who cover/comment/blog on the team from afar.

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#14 Ogden Brother
May 08 2009, 03:54PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Ogden Brother wrote: Horcoff bashers everywhere celebrate. Why? His defensive ability is pretty obvious to anyone with a clue.

Read one quote above this one of yours.

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#15 David S
May 08 2009, 04:03PM
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Jonathan, just because you yourself can't quantify intangibles doesn't mean they should be dismissed as irrelevant. Anybody with a background in high-level sport knows that the higher the level of the athlete, the more psychology plays in their performance outcomes. By saying something like that, you show a disregard for sport in it's truest sense. I can't speak for the beat reporters like Robin, but I can speak from a high level sport point of view. Many an elite athlete's value (especially in team sport) is derived exactly by the intangibles he brings to the table. Maybe Horcoff wan't expressing himself correctly, but he isn't wrong either.

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#16 Ducey
May 08 2009, 04:06PM
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Gee whiz guys. You are getting a bit silly here.

Intangibles in a sports context almost always refer to positive aspects of a player that can't be measured but nevertheless exist. Did Messier bring something to a team outside his statistical measurements? Of course he did, you just can't measure them.

Intangibles would include leadership, tenacity, courage, passion, ability to get along with others, ability to play through pain, etc.

Willis, seeing you seem to be running out of topics :-),

I would be interested in your analysis of the two chubby NHL Dustins (A tale of Two Dustins). One seems to be a "monster" in Chicago, the other seems to get treated like a "mobster" in these parts. Penner is making about a million more next year but in my mind that seems justified. What do you think? Feel free to take into account "intangibles".

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#17 Chris
May 08 2009, 04:10PM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

Having a grasp of intangibles and the character of players is the bread-and-butter of a good beat writer and provides an advantage over people who cover/comment/blog on the team from afar.

Is this why you think Gilbert is on the move?

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#18 Ogden Brother
May 08 2009, 04:12PM
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Ducey wrote:

Gee whiz guys. You are getting a bit silly here. Intangibles in a sports context almost always refer to positive aspects of a player that can’t be measured but nevertheless exist. Did Messier bring something to a team outside his statistical measurements? Of course he did, you just can’t measure them. Intangibles would include leadership, tenacity, courage, passion, ability to get along with others, ability to play through pain, etc. Willis, seeing you seem to be running out of topics :-), I would be interested in your analysis of the two chubby NHL Dustins (A tale of Two Dustins). One seems to be a “monster” in Chicago, the other seems to get treated like a “mobster” in these parts. Penner is making about a million more next year but in my mind that seems justified. What do you think? Feel free to take into account “intangibles”.

Awesome question, I think the way our chubby Dustin was aquired is a big part of the reason for all the hoopla about him. If we had drafted him/traded for him/signed him as a UFA, you wouldn't hear 90% of the non-sense that you do.

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#19 Archaeologuy
May 08 2009, 04:18PM
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@ Quinn: You read it as if he says Intangibles: faceoffs, situations, etc

I read it as if it was the first item on a list of things that later inculded faceoffs and situations.

I wasnt there in person, but perhaps that's what he meant.

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#20 Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009, 04:20PM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

I don’t think you can speak for me or anybody else who spends a lot of time around the team when it comes to these two points.

I'm sorry, I should have made it clear that I was referring to the fans. On the other hand, even as a beat writer, how much do you see outside of practices and games? I'm guessing Moreau and Souray don't go drinking with you afterwards, though I'm just guessing.

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#21 Taylor
May 08 2009, 04:21PM
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@ Jonathan Willis: His offensive ability is too.

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#22 Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009, 04:21PM
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David S wrote:

Jonathan, just because you yourself can’t quantify intangibles doesn’t mean they should be dismissed as irrelevant

Jonathan Willis wrote:

I get knocked a lot as not caring about intangibles. That’s not true. Obviously, things like leadership, guts, heart and the like can be important things in team-building. The psychological side of the game exists and undoubtedly influences outcome

Please, try and make your criticisms accurate.

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#23 Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009, 04:24PM
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Robin Brownlee wrote:

People who spend years and years close to the team in the position of a beat writer or any number of other positions know what makes each player tick, or should if he or she is paying attention.

For long-term players I do tend to agree. On the other hand, the team has lost two-thirds of its players in two years; do you really have a great depth of knowledge as to what makes a guy like O'Sullivan, Kotalik or even Penner tick? I'm not trying to slam you, just asking.

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#24 Robin Brownlee
May 08 2009, 04:36PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Robin Brownlee wrote: I don’t think you can speak for me or anybody else who spends a lot of time around the team when it comes to these two points. I’m sorry, I should have made it clear that I was referring to the fans. On the other hand, even as a beat writer, how much do you see outside of practices and games? I’m guessing Moreau and Souray don’t go drinking with you afterwards, though I’m just guessing.

You see everything on the beat. Time on the plane. Time on the the bus. Sharing a cab on the way to the rink. Having a coffee in the hotel restaurant. And, yes, a beer or three here and there. I once went for a 40-minute walk with Marty McSorley in Washington one crappy morning and found out more about him as a person than I knew from years covering the team. Same thing one time in Ottawa when I went shopping for shoes with Roman Hamrlik. You talk a lot and observe more.

You see how guys respond to defeat, fatigue, good and bad breaks. You find out who wilts a bit when things get difficult and who gets stubborn when the chips are down. You find out who gets rattled by losing a fight badly and backs down just a bit and who vows to get 'em next time. It's really no different than getting to know people in any walk of life. The more you know, well, the more you know.

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#25 Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009, 04:52PM
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@ Robin Brownlee:

Fair enough. And thanks, both for that comment and your work in general; I know I appreciate having a glimpse into what a beat writer's life is like and I'm sure that most everyone else here does too.

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#26 David S
May 08 2009, 04:57PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote: I get knocked a lot as not caring about intangibles. That’s not true. Obviously, things like leadership, guts, heart and the like can be important things in team-building. The psychological side of the game exists and undoubtedly influences outcome. Jonathan Willie wrote: The point of this article is that intangibles really don’t belong in the conversation.

Maybe it's that I'm a bit unclear as to what side of the fence you're sitting on. How can something that influences income not belong in the conversation? It does exist and is a factor, despite the fact that it can't be quantified precisely.

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#27 David S
May 08 2009, 04:57PM
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Sorry. Not sure how that "e" got in there.

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#28 Andrew W
May 08 2009, 05:00PM
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So basically you're asking for us less knowledgeable writers to bang out "X brings a quality to the game that I find hard to define, probably because I don't have the technical ability to analyze his QualComp, ZoneShift and Corsi numbers, nor the know-how to accurately discuss his d-zone positioning. There's something that he's contributing outside of the traditional stats of hits, points, or faceoff %, though, I just don't want to call them 'intangibles' because Willis told me not to."

Seems like a bit much for the passionate yet less technical fan like me. I'm going to rebel and keep using the scarlet letters unless another less offensive (yet simple) word is proposed. Would this whole article be simplified if you simply asked us to use the words 'elusive qualities', or is that still lacking specificity for you?

Besides, if even Horcoff is using it to define himself, how inaccurate can it be?

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#29 spOILer
May 08 2009, 05:02PM
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Intangible, the noun, is fairly recent to the English language, the word spending most of its life as an adjective before being "nominally" promoted.

And as a noun, it means difficult to measure, not impossible.

And the adjective, in its strictest meaning, means "not able to be touched"... which does not mean not able to be seen, perceived, surmised, speculated, smelled, heard, known... etc.

Seems like you have an entire post on splitting semantical hairs, JW.

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#30 spOILer
May 08 2009, 05:04PM
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Sorry, the word "something" should appear between means and difficult above. Gotta be careful if the grammar Nazis are out, lol.

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#31 spOILer
May 08 2009, 05:20PM
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What is the importance of quantifying the more intangible qualities anyhow?

Is it important to know who has more leadership among Sakic, Trottier, Messier, Brind'Amour? Or is it important to know they have something that the Nilssons of this world don't?

Who is more tenacious, C Lemieux or Tonelli? Not important. But they got a thing going on that perhaps a Czerkawski does not.

These things tend to be a more of you have it in spades, or you don't, sorts of types of things. No?

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#32 David S
May 08 2009, 05:21PM
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David S wrote:

How can something that influences *income* not belong in the conversation? It does exist and is a factor, despite the fact that it can’t be quantified precisely.

Should be *outcome*.

I wonder if this beta version of FireFox is autocorrecting or my mind is melting. Probably the latter.

Man. It's time to go home.

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#33 Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009, 05:23PM
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@ spOILer: @ Andrew W:

It's hardly a grave sin to make the mistake McGuire did above; what does bother me are certain statements hinging on intangibles. I'll give you an example:

"Craig MacTavish can't motivate." How the hell do we, as fans, know that? By the expression on his face during the game? It's an argument made out of ignorance and since there's nothing too it shouldn't be in the conversation. Or, for another example:

"Sean Avery destroyed the Dallas Stars this season because he's a cancer." Sure, he's probably a distraction. But I'd lay heavy, heavy money on Dallas' record having more to do with Turco's sieve impersonation than anything else. Arguing that Turco can't stop pucks because Sean Avery is a jerk should hold no weight.

"Ales Hemsky wants to leave town because he can't stand playing with Horcoff." "Rob Schremp's lousy year in Springfield is because he knows MacTavish won't give him a fair chance."

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#34 Quinn
May 08 2009, 05:26PM
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@ Archaeologuy:

Actually I agree with you that he was putting it first on the list but I think he meant his list are intangibles. Not really realising that he is giving a bunch of quantifiables as non-quantities.

I think the quote proves that he was trying to justify why he is making so much, when he knows that he is making more than he feels is fair. But I can't think of too many situations where a guy is willing to ACTUALLY say that, just his conscience makes it come out in other ways.

Although, I could be reaching in that interpretation too.

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#35 Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009, 05:31PM
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Sorry, I realize this post comes across as petty, because I used the McGuire example without clarifying that it wasn't the primary focus.

I just hate completely unsubstantiated arguments - arguments that are tossed around with incredible frequency here and elsewhere.

It's one thing to say, for example, "I think Horcoff shies away from traffic areas" and it's a completely different thing to say "Horcoff's a pansy". Or "the whole team is lacking motivation"; it's a lazy way to chalk things up to something invisible, uncontrollable and scapegoat whoever rather than actually thinking about things.

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#36 Harlie
May 08 2009, 05:51PM
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the best part of that linked article on McGuire was the fact that Horse Racing takes in 10X the amount of viewers the NHL does. Anybody else think that the NHL brain trust is a blubbering lying mess? They treat us like mushrooms. They keep us in the dark and feed us shit.

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#37 Jonathan Willis
May 08 2009, 06:00PM
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Harlie wrote:

Horse Racing takes in 10X the amount of viewers the NHL does. Anybody else think that the NHL brain trust is a blubbering lying mess?

I wonder about the NHL brain trust. They inevitably suffer by comparison to Paul Kelly.

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#38 Andrew W
May 08 2009, 07:10PM
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@ Jonathan Willis:

Thinking about your article in the context of Pierre McGuire's juvenile commentary puts it in perspective. Being harsh on fans for discussing intangible qualities is one thing; holding a professional analyst responsible to a higher standard is another.

He has a lot of passion for the game, and I can understand why he would be appealing for less educated hockey fans (read southern American), but why TSN employs him for Canadian coverage is baffling. The saturation of his persona is quickly surpassing Don Cherry's, and he's one of the few I find more annoying.

When will the networks figure out how to clone Ray Ferraro?

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#39 Ogden Brother
May 08 2009, 07:16PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Sorry, I realize this post comes across as petty, because I used the McGuire example without clarifying that it wasn’t the primary focus. I just hate completely unsubstantiated arguments - arguments that are tossed around with incredible frequency here and elsewhere. It’s one thing to say, for example, “I think Horcoff shies away from traffic areas” and it’s a completely different thing to say “Horcoff’s a pansy”. Or “the whole team is lacking motivation”; it’s a lazy way to chalk things up to something invisible, uncontrollable and scapegoat whoever rather than actually thinking about things.

Without that, internet forums every where would be dead :(

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#40 Harlie
May 08 2009, 07:47PM
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I love this nugget from Pierre Maguire during the last Car-Bos game.

"Tim Thomas unathletic. NO! Very athletic."

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#41 Harlie
May 08 2009, 07:56PM
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Samsonov with an absolute beauty.

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#42 ~Steele
May 08 2009, 08:16PM
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Euphemism.

~Steele

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#43 SumOil
May 08 2009, 09:25PM
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@ Andrew W:

However old he might be, Don Cherry is still sharp when it comes to hockey and related manners. His assessment on coaching mistakes is something that makes Coacher corner a far superior analysis section than many on TSN and even CBC.

Now regarding the intangibles, I agree with Robin Brownlee that there are many things that us fans cant know unless we spend time with the players. However, I agree with your view on Peirre Mcguire. He has a tendency of overrating many players. As fans on HF boards put it, he has a lot of 'Homerism' in his commentary. Even after such a poor season Jovanaski has had, he will tend to render positive comments about him. He is one person who annoys me and I don't like watching his analysis over Mckenzie. Even Jeff Marek and Scott Munroe of CBC are more objective.

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#44 RossCreek
May 08 2009, 10:33PM
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Scott Munroe? I think its funny that people dislike Pierre. To me, ya he's over the top at times, but he's among the best there is in that position. Ray Ferraro, although improving, is far from being as good as Pierre IMO. I'd like to see him get a GM post somewhere, though I'd miss him on TV.

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#45 Andrew W
May 08 2009, 10:37PM
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@ SumOil:

If Cherry stuck to straight hockey analysis, he might be more palatable. Unfortunately, his commentary is all too often slanted with covert discrimination towards players who's native language isn't english. If this wasn't problematic enough, his political tangents, whether you agree with them or not, have no place on a Saturday night hockey show called "Coaches Corner". If he wants to sideline as a political commentator he should try to find a gig like Rex Murphy's, not force us to listen to his diatribes on the wrong platform.

Please note that I'm not disagreeing with your assessment of him as hockey commentator, which can be insightful when he keeps on topic. Still, the CBC should have found a way to muzzle his inappropriate content decades ago. (And this isn't a matter of censorship because my issue isn't whether or not he voices his opinion, it's where he is allowed to voice it.)

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#46 RossCreek
May 08 2009, 10:39PM
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Robin's comments above is exactly why I put a lot of stock into what guys like he, Jim Matheson and others "in the know" have to say. Spec too.

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#47 SumOil
May 08 2009, 11:03PM
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@ RossCreek: Sorry I meant Morrisson

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#48 James Gunner
May 08 2009, 11:20PM
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"As a guy who likes statistics, I get knocked a lot as not caring about intangibles."

I don't think you ever got knocked for this. You got knocked when the numbers made you dismiss players you hadn't even seen play yet that much.

It's a fine line between reading the numbers and actually sizing up someone you never met and trying to predict their future.

Needless to say, you do it 'gooder' than anyone. Keep up the good work, but stay grounded as well. Let's not repeat the scouting staff from Mexico debacle.

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#49 Andrew W
May 08 2009, 11:23PM
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@ RossCreek: I'd be curious to read exactly what you feel McGuire brings to broadcasts outside of entertainment value for his outlandishness. Telling me that Rick Nash or Alex Ovechkin are "monsters" isn't helping my understanding of the game much.

Ferraro, on the other hand, points out flaws in defensive positioning or power-play structure (or other details) that I wouldn't have been able to identify on my own. Besides, his commentary of Patrik Stephan's infamous empty net miss is both one of my all time favourite Oiler plays and calls. Anytime I need a pick-me-up, this clip is bookmarked to warm my soul:

hxxp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uI0CFWPxdss&feature=PlayList&p=3761103BC0A2CE84&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=15

The passion and articulation of his statement was out of this world. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. Patrik Stephan, you should be embarrassed for what you just did - that does not belong in the National Hockey League."

Fantastic play, fantastic call. Ferraro will be in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday, mark my words. McGuire, well, only if he buys a ticket (to paraphrase Brownlee).

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#50 James Gunner
May 08 2009, 11:32PM
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And yes, maybe dismiss was too strong a word. This is why I never became a writer or a politician.

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