Narrative, Contingency, Interpretation, and Assessment

Every spring the attention of the Simpson family turns to the Stanley Cup playoffs, which to our mind remains the best postseason in professional sports.  Two nights ago, the Vancouver Canucks faced off against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, with Vancouver holding on to a 3-2 series lead after taking the first three games and dropping the next two.  The story line of the series from the Vancouver point of view was whether this talented team of skaters and their goalie, Roberto Luongo, would finally be able to realize their promise and make a serious bid for the Stanley Cup (this same narrative holds true for the San Jose Sharks).  Canucks coach Alain Vigneault decided to shake things up for Game Six, naming backup goalie Cory Schneider to start in net.  This was a controversial decision, drawing differing commentary from various broadcasters and analysts.

By the second period the tone had changed.  Although Schneider’s shaky puckhandling had contributed to Chicago’s scoring, Vancouver was out in front, and the decision to start him was celebrated as bright and daring, and ample attention had been paid to the claim of the Vancouver coaching staff, including goalie coach Rollie Melanson, that it had been in the cards to give Schneider a start all along.  Indeed, Melanson recalled that New York Islanders coach Al Arbour had started him over playoff hero Billy Smith several times during the Isles’ run of four straight Stanley Cups.

This was true, but not quite as Melanson made it sound.  Although he appeared in seventeen games over four playoffs (1981-84), he was only the goalie of record seven times, suggesting that most of his appearances were in relief (or as a temporary replacement to give Smith a breather between whistles, for at that time goalies were entitled to a warm up period).  Nor was a Melanson start an indication of a loss of faith in Smith.  So there was a little warping of history in an effort to justify a decision.

Still, all was fine as Vancouver held a 3-2 lead in the third period.  Then disaster struck for the Canucks.  The Blackhawks were awarded a penalty shot, and on the ensuing effort (which was successful), Schneider fell to the ice in pain.  It was obvious he would not continue, and out stepped Luongo, who was visibly fighting the puck, and never more so than when he gave up the winning goal in overtime.

The narrative immediately changed.  Now the coach had made a tremendous mistake, and had invited all sorts of controversy by making a move born out of panic.  Yet the move also indicated a loss of faith in Luongo, which frankly seemed justified given how he manned his net … unless one was going to argued that his substandard netminding was the result of a lack of confidence caused by the benching.  What people will make of all of this in the end will be determined tonight, when the two teams face off in a decisive Game Seven.

Now, what does this have to do with the Civil War, you may ask?  Plenty.  The crafting and recrafting of the narrative of this game was based largely upon the results of the decisions.  However, had the puck bounced differently … the roll of chance, the fact that many outcomes are rooted in probabilities, not certainty, and at times going against the odds pays off … are also present when we write about political and military decision-making during the Civil War.

Even Melanson should have known that.  Back in 1982, in a best-of-five first round playoff encounter versus Pittsburgh with the teams tied at two games apiece and Pittsburgh up in the third period, Arbour had Melanson take the ice to replace Smith in order to buy time for his team to rest while Melanson warmed up.  But what if a rusty Melanson had surrendered a goal?  Good bye dynasty.  The Isles were fortunate that they could put Smith back in at the next stoppage of play without any damage, and when the Isles went on to win, 4-3 in overtime, Arbour was celebrated as a genius.  We do the same thing when we compose narratives, offer interpretations, and render assessments.

People are in the practice of “live blogging” or Tweeting past events as if they were happening.  Imagine setting yourself up above the field at Gettysburg and doing just that.  What assessments would you make as the battle unfolded?  Would they change as the results came in?  Yes, it’s true, we know the historical result, but what if (as in the case of broadcasting a game) we did not?  After all, if we assess the wisdom of a decision simply by its result, we set aside a great deal that we know operates in life.  How many times were you sure something was going to happen, only to be surprised or disappointed?

Yes, yes, sometimes we can sense what’s going to happen.  Last night in the second period I turned to my wife and daughter and said that it seemed to me that San Jose and Los Angeles would go into overtime.  There was plenty of time left–half the game, in fact–but I sensed that overtime was likely (although not certain).  When the game went into overtime, ESPN’s NHL twitter asked for predictions on who would score the game winner.  I immediately sent back the name of Joe Thornton.

Yes, I have proof.

And what happened?

Of course I was lucky.  Keep telling yourself that.

3 thoughts on “Narrative, Contingency, Interpretation, and Assessment

  1. John Foskett April 27, 2011 / 8:11 am

    Brooks: You’re a stronger man than I, making that prediction. Jumbo Joe, in Civil War terms from a Boston perspective, is “McClellan”. It looks great, there’s the “C” on the chest (with a brief interlude), and (as usual) he’s surfaced with a nice effort at Williamsburg. But now the boys march on to the Gates of Richmond. (I suppose that’s a hint about what I think is going to happen). Or maybe I’m just distracted because Gettysburg, Day 3 is scheduled for tonight at TD Garden. And I am making no predictions – until it’s over, of course.

  2. Ray O'Hara April 28, 2011 / 5:31 am

    Joe was a disappointment here.

    the Bs-Habs was a tremendously exciting series

    there is nothing like playoff hockey.

  3. Commodore Perry April 29, 2011 / 7:54 pm

    You know, the interpretations really do change as events happen. After game three, I came to bed and my wife asked, “Did they win?” I responded, “They won the whole thing last year, and that will have to be good enough.” I felt disparaged, down, and done with hockey for the year. But then game 4 happened, and game 5, and the Frolik/Smith/Crawford show in game 6, and suddenly, hope returned. In the end, the ‘Hawks lost the series, but it was perhaps the easiest playoff exit this Chicago fan has ever suffered (maybe because I’m a Sox fan, not a Cub fan, but still). I know the year was over, and I certainly don’t feel victorious, but it still feels like they didn’t really lose. Was Chicago therefore more valiant because they almost won and fought to the end? Would they have been totally forgotten (at least in the sense of the 2010-11 season) had game 4 gone the other way? Perhaps the series serves as a good study not only of how our narratives change as events happen, but also the kinds of narratives we are prone to writing for certain archetypes, including the “lost cause”.

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