On Narrative, Turning Points, and Hindsight

I knew that when I put up a post that contained the phrase “turning point” that it would provoke discussion, including conversation about what constitutes a “turning point” and the usefulness of that concept. To illustrate some of my thinking about this subject I take you to last night’s NHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal game between the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins and the upstart New York Islanders.

The Penguins entered the series as heavy favorites, and rightly so. Their lineup is sprinkled with superstars, including two of the best forwards in the game today. Aside from John Tavares, the Islanders have some quality forwards and solid puck-moving defensemen, but as a team they are far less experienced that the Penguins, who have retained a number of players from their 2009 Stanley Cup championship roster. Most predictions had the Penguins winning the series in 5 or 6 games, although here and there a few brave scribes offered up scenarios where the Islanders might do some damage.

That, of course, is why they play the games.

In the opening game of the series the Penguins dominated. They jumped out to a big lead, drove Islander goalie Evgeni Nabokov to the bench, and smothered Tavares … all this without enjoying the services of injured center Sidney Crosby, who suffered a broken jaw courtesy of a teammate’s errant shot in a regular season meeting between these two clubs. The 5-0 final score was decisive and seemed definitive: the Islanders didn’t stand a chance if Pittsburgh played as it could.

Last night the two teams met again. This time Crosby was in the lineup. The Penguins opened the scoring early, with Crosby tallying his first goal of the postseason to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead. Even a momentary surge by the Islanders (a power play goal) could be dismissed as a fluke (the puck deflected off a Pittsburgh defender into the net), and, when Crosby scored again from a nearly impossible angle just eighteen seconds later, it looked as if the Islanders were in serious trouble. Yes, they were playing better hockey than they had in the opening contest, and yes, Pittsburgh seemed to be taking their triumph for granted, or so television studio analysts claimed between periods, but you had the feeling that everyone was clutching at straws in an effort to make things seem more interesting than they were.

Note: Connie Chastain seems to have a soft spot for the Penguins captain: “Poor Sidney. I hope the broken jaw doesn’t permanently disfigure that pretty face….”

In the second period, a Penguins defenseman stood up Islanders forward Matt Moulson at center ice and delivered a solid hit. Fellow Islander forward Kyle Okposo took exception to the check, and went after the Penguin, with the following results:

Did the fight inspire the Islanders? Well, look what happened fourteen seconds later:

The Islanders added a second goal just over five minutes later, and the second period ended with the teams tied at 2 goals apiece.

The Penguins picked up their game in the third period, but so did the Islanders, and then a lucky bounce and a misplayed puck resulted in this:

Kyle Okposo received credit for the goal. The Islanders hung on to win, 4-3, tying the series at a game apiece.

Analysts after the second period and at the conclusion of the game cited Okposo’s fight as a “turning point” in the contest. But was it? After all, after the first period television analysts were crediting the Islanders with playing a more inspired and intense brand of hockey. Maybe that simply paid off. Maybe Pittsburgh’s goalie was simply exhausted by the hail or rubber directed at him off Islander sticks and got sloppy. And would it have been nearly so much a turning point had Pittsburgh scored in the third period? Or would it have been a momentary shift in momentum?

The fact is that we construct narratives in retrospect, taking full advantage of hindsight. In constructing those narratives, we create order and fashion causal links because we know what happens next. Okposo’s fight becomes important because of what followed, and because we choose to draw a connection between the fight and what followed. Thus, the wounding of Stonewall Jackson and his subsequent death in May 1863 becomes even more important because of what we know came next. Had Robert E. Lee prevailed in his invasion of Pennsylvania or had Richard S. Ewell and A. P. Hill performed well at Gettysburg (as we define “performing well”), Jackson’s demise would be seen as tragic but not especially consequential (see John F. Reynolds or Charles F. Smith). Had Ulysses S. Grant found himself checked at Champion Hill or had John C. Pemberton extracted his garrison from Vicksburg in timely fashion, Grant’s decision on May 3 to strike at Pemberton would remain important in explaining the course of the campaign, but it might be viewed as far less important (or criticized as a sign of mindless rashness if the campaign did not work out as it did).

One of the real challenges of constructing a historical narrative is to evade these traps. You may know something the actors at the time did not (for example, in making the decision he did on May 3, Grant had in his hand Banks’s estimate that he would be outside Port Hudson by May 10: he was off by a week and a half, days that Grant could not have afforded to waste … but Grant didn’t know that). But you can’t let that show. You have to judge Ewell’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill on July 1 in light of what he knew, not what you know. Yes, things might well have turned out differently had Ewell attacked, but who’s to say how they would have turned out? Maybe Hancock’s inspirational leadership and the artillery present cut down the attacking Rebels, who are already hot and tired from a long day’s work. Maybe Lee then pulls away from Gettysburg and follows Longstreet’s advice to seek to turn the Union left. Maybe Ewell prevails, but Meade simply retreats to the Pipe Creek line, and Gettysburg becomes nothing more than a preliminary meeting engagement, sharp, bloody, but ultimately less important than we might suspect, depending on what happens next.

And so it is with the Penguins-Islanders series. Perhaps the Penguins storm back in Game Three and overwhelm the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. That would reduce Game Two’s Islanders victory to a gallant stand against tremendous odds that halted, but only for a time, the inevitable. Or perhaps the now-confident Islanders, inspired by the moment and cheered on by a raucous crowd, win Game Three. Whichever narrative prevails will be modified again by what happens in Game Four. And so on and so on. Just ask any NBA fan about how the story was shaping up for the Knicks-Celtics series after Game Five (a Celtics win that reduced a one-time New York lead of 3-0 to 3-2) … and then see what happened to those narratives after Game Six (where the Knicks hung on to defeat the Celtics in Boston).

In truth, sports have a great deal to teach historians when it comes to narrative, interpretation, and explanation, if only historians would listen.

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8 thoughts on “On Narrative, Turning Points, and Hindsight

  1. It is similar to getting all worked up about a referee’s call or player’s mistake at the end of a game that determines the outcome. But there were dozens of referee’s calls or players’ mistakes from earlier in the game that no less determined the outcome. A winning goal at the end of the third period is only a winning goal if both goalies make a bunch of saves earlier in the game so that it is tied towards the end.

    I think part of the quasi-romantic attachment of the Civil War is that the “what if?” game can be so personal. I used to be willing to play it a lot more than I am now.

  2. Except that the moment you chose as a turning point may not have been a turning point at all. Grant had plans to proceed against Vicksburg without McClernand, and as we saw against Port Gibson and Champion Hill, McClernand’s men could be an asset but McClenand himself could be a serious liability.

    • Except that Grant said differently. So what you are saying is that he was not being candid about what happened on May 3. As for McClernand versus McClernand’s men, that’s another topic.

      • Grant said in his report that he would wait at Grand Gulf for supplies and men before moving, and “in the meantime, detach an army corps to Banks.”

        That, plus Sherman’s letter to Steele hinting at an intimation by Grant that he planned to proceed against the railroad without McClernand. Would have been more risky, but in the end Grant never brought to bear more than two army corps against the Confederates in the field … and then Grant wouldn’t have been sitting at the Champion house wondering why half his army had failed to engage.

  3. While I would love to see the Islanders beat the Penguins even though the Caps usually have the Penguins’ number, I am not holding my breath. Question — are the Rangers done?

    • We’ll see how both teams come out in Game 3. The Isles should be pumped, but I think the Pens will now take this seriously. As for the Rangers, it’s hard to win when you don’t score.

      • I think you’re right about the Pens’ mentality. Not taking anything away from the Isles’ effort (and you know that Id accept Tavares, Moulson or Strome as payment for that ersatz goalie you have somewhere in Colorado :) ) but I think that Friday night got Pittsburgh’s attention. Orpik is supposed to be back, so they’d only be missing Neal – a big deal for lots of other teams but not these guys. The wild card is that “Flower” in the blue paint – but then youi’ve got your own questions back there.

  4. I was a big fan of “turning points” in historical theorizing when I was young. That changed after taking an undergrad course from a certain professor quite some time ago. I now realize that the only turning point that matters is the one that happened last (and that one only matters once time runs out). I qualify all this by attaching it only to things with a clearly defined ending, such as sports (and decidedly unlike modern American warfare).

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