Making the case for character - An Introduction

Brendan Gallagher was often singled out by Marc Bergevin as an example of what character can accomplish in the NHL. - Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto

Recently frequent commenter VVV offered to share his experience in dealing with things like leadership and character as a professional, and I felt it was a necessary topic to discuss at stats-heavy Eyes on the Prize. Though my name appears on the header, this post was written entirely by VVV, as well as all the subsequent posts in this examination.

"We got talent and character and to me those are the most important things."

-Marc Bergevin, General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens commenting on his team's 2013 draft results.

Introduction

While there probably isn't a coach or general manager in all of sports who does not extoll the benefits of ‘character', it can be easily deduced from his public statements that Marc Bergevin truly considers it an essential ingredient to the success of his players and team.

It is said his own strength of character forged the foundation of his 20-year playing career, and you only have to look at the reputations of Mike McCarron (drafted), Brendan Gallagher (promoted) Brandon Prust,(free-agent) and Christian Thomas (trade) to see he is prepared to use any and all means available to acquire it.

Even more importantly, he appears to be willing to take a hard line on players he feels don't demonstrate enough of it. There were sound business reasons for Bergevin to hold out for a bridge deal with his team's best player P.K. Subban earlier this year, but public comments from both the GM and the Coach hinted that better performance and a big pay-day were partially contingent on further character development.

Clearly, if you want to play for these Montreal Canadiens, character is a defining factor. It's not the only thing, but it certainly has to be one of the things. So if character's this important, EOTP thought we all should be clearer about what it is and isn't. And to that end, starting today and over the next few months we will periodically make the case for character and, hopefully, gain a deeper and shared understanding for what it means.

Key terms

We will start by getting clarity about some key terms: talent, skill, character and leadership. For many of us, this will be redundant, but for others, these terms can be easily confused, so a quick review will help in later articles.

At an individual level, talent is generally considered to be the capacity you have to successfully fill a specific role that is required for the team/organization to reach a desired goal. The level and type of talent you need in an individual and the overall organization depends on a variety of things, including:

  • The environment the team/organization operates within - It takes more talent to play in the NHL than it takes to play in a local beer league.
  • The team/organizational goal - If the goal is to win the Stanley Cup, you'd better have more talent than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
  • The team/organizational strategy - Once goals are set, the best strategies for achieving those goals are identified. Often, organizations look at their talent and decide the best way to win is to play in a way that makes the best use of the talent they have. This is a short-term, knee-jerk approach. More successful organizations think about how they want to play over time - they examine their current and future environment (competition, regulatory and financial constraints, etc.), consider their team's culture, market, etc., and systematically recruit and develop players that best enable them to play the way they want to play. This is a longer-term, more strategic approach to developing organizational talent. It is rare because it really demands a complete shift and commitment in the way the organization invests in the recruitment and development of its talent. (We will have more on this in a later article.)
  • The individual goal - In order to reach team/organizational goals, individuals need to achieve a number of personal goals that together contribute/align to the team/organizational goal. It takes more talent to consistently score 20 goals in an NHL season than it takes to score 10.
  • Your role - Roles that add the most value to the team/organization are key roles and the talent required to play a key role (high-scoring center, head coach) is usually greater than for a non-key role (low-scoring checking winger, assistant coach).

I have been using the term team/organization because the talent an organization needs to win consistently extends well beyond the team on the ice. Inferior talent in the front office - President, GM, head of scouting, coaches, etc., will inevitably lead to inferior talent throughout the organization, and especially on the ice. Going forward, when I refer to the team on the ice, I will say team, and the organization is the team on the ice plus everyone else in the organization.

A closer look at talent - skill and character

Your individual talent level is generally considered to be the aggregate of two things: skill and character. Let's look at skill first.

Let's say you have to skate into the corner of an NHL rink against someone else and come out with the puck. Your skill level will depend on how well you skate, orient yourself relative to the boards, anticipate the other player, position yourself effectively against them, use your stick, etc. Some skills are more easily developed than others so skill level is primarily dependent on physical and cognitive attributes you have inherited and the quality of practice and coaching you have used to develop those attributes. All other things being equal, your chances of coming out with the puck are better if your skill or ability is higher.

But all other things are not equal because each player has a different character. Character is often defined as, ‘the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of a person'. But that's not what Bergevin means when he talks about character, because if the aggregate of your features and traits means you are lazy and unassertive, you probably don't come out with the puck very often unless your ability regularly compensates for your lack of character.

When Bergevin talks about character, we think he means the willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve desired goals. This means the willingness to do the hard practice required over time to increase your abilities, to align or even subvert individual goals for team/organizational goals, to behave in a way that is most conducive for team effectiveness, the willingness to take a fist in the mouth and turn the other cheek for the good of the team, etc. So clearly, in our puck in the corner scenario, the guy with the higher ability and willingness - the higher level of ‘getting the puck in the corner talent' will have the greater probability of success (more talent only increases the probability of success; there are no guarantees).

Top talent refers to those people who have the greatest ability and willingness in those key roles that most contribute to the achievement of organizational goals. Typically, these are people that are exceptional in one key role or very good in a number of important roles. This is why even the best fighters in the league are not top talent - their role, while important to the strategy of some teams, is not a key role. On teams where the fighting role is important and the player can also score, they begin to approach top talent status.

Leadership

One final thing as it relates to talent. When we look at hockey players, we mostly see what is readily visible - the outcomes of their effort on the ice. These can be measured with stats. What is less readily evident (less measurable without direct access to the individuals) is something that is very valuable - leadership ability. Leadership is the ability to mobilize others towards organizational goals. It is a critical role in group endeavors and the skills and character required to be an effective leader at an elite level is quite rare. So, in addition to the ability and willingness - the talent - required to be effective in the NHL, some individuals also have the talent required to excel in a leadership role.

It is difficult to know much about the leadership ability of hockey players based on what the average fan sees. First, it is not readily measurable without access to the players, although it is fair to say that teams that consistently come close to achieving their ultimate organizational goal - winning the Stanley Cup - have lots of it to along with the ability and willingness of people in key organizational roles. Second, there is significant confusion about the capabilities most required to be effective as a leader - so fans see a player do something they believe contributes to sound leadership and it actually doesn't.

But something we can know - players who demonstrate exceptional talent in key roles and are very effective leaders are the most rare form of top talent. They excel themselves and they mobilize others to bring out their best - their full strength of ability and willingness - to reach key organizational goals. Jean Beliveau immediately comes to mind. And because this level of talent is so rare, smart organizations do everything they can to identify the pool of prospects and players who can, with the right development over time, lead their teams in a similar way ... which is why the Canadiens have begun to invest so much more in the development of talent, starting with one P.K. Subban.

In the next segment, we will look more closely at the elements that contribute most to character.


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