Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The new new math

This weekend, I played in a hockey tournament sponsored by Heineken beer. The chief drawing card for my friends who invited me to play with them was a souvenir Heineken key chain and complementary Heineken beer after each game. Isn't that impressive! On Saturday night, after we lost our final game of the tournament, 4-2, against a team that consisted of our friends from another league, which makes them our semi-hated rivals, Heineken failed to provide beer for reasons that are not yet clear, and, as far as I can tell, being investigated by an angry posse of middle-age men.

Compounding the gloom created by the absence of beer after Saturday evening's loss, which came after Saturday afternoon's 2-1 loss (in the last minute), which came after Friday night's 1-0 loss (in the last minute) was the sad realization that our team finished last in our tournament bracket. In three games, we scored three goals, not very impressive. I certainly did not help matters on Saturday night when, on one crucial shift, I was -2, meaning our team gave up two even strength goals when I was on the ice. Most guys, with myself at the head of the class, don't really care about winning or losing as long as the games are close and competitive. But there are always one or two guys, usually towards the bottom of the skill distribution, who get amped up about these games, exhorting the rest of us "not to take a fucking shift off," or "get in the fucking game," or "get a fucking clue," or "skate fucking harder," or make some other demand involving the word "fuck." Sometimes, we're urged to "get our fucking shit together, right fucking now, goddamnit!"

I felt bad about our poor showing in the tournament, especially since I was brought in to beef up the offense and ended up having a team worst plus-minus rating. I felt bad because the beer drinkers did not get their free Heineken after the last game, and had to wait 20 minutes until they drove home, in the rain, to drink their post-game beer. I felt bad because I really didn't feel bad about losing the tournament or having the team worst plus-minus rating. I felt bad because during a crucial offensive zone face-off towards the end of the last game I was thinking about Steve Gadd's approach to inverted paradiddles. I felt bad because as I watched a player skate up the ice and score a goal in one game I was thinking about questions to put on my constitutional law final that I will give next week, and whether I was going to fly or drive my son to military school if I came home to find the trash cans still on the side of the road.

And then . . . and then . . . I realized that we didn't lose the tournament at all. We actually won.

The outcome might have been three losses in three games over two days. After our second loss we were eliminated mathematically from playing in the championship game on Sunday. But measuring our team's success by the outcome of our games and other such dated metrics as the number of goals scored on each side and the number of goals each team gave up didn't really tell the true story of our team's strengths. Even though we appeared to have lost, we really won.

In our first game, neither team scored a goal until 45 seconds remained in the third period. That means for the first two periods we tied our opponent, which means we didn't lose. Although we lost the third period we didn't really "lose" the game because we were tied for the first 14.15 of that period. The reason we lost is because our goaltender was left alone and he was unable to stop a breakaway that our defense gave up because of bad positioning. But that wasn't really the issue. The real question was (and is) this: which team was better positioned to beat the team that was cruising to the finals in the other division? Us or them? Yes, we lost to a better team in the preliminaries, but, as I told the tournament directors in a post-game protest letter, we should have been allowed to play in the final game because we thought we were better than the team that beat us. And since we hung in until the end we should get credit for our fighting spirit, especially since our opponent rigged the game by playing better than we did. Had the rules been different, say, for example, that we received an extra point after each period we didn't lose, or that we received two points for each shift where we didn't give up a shot, or that we had more offensive zone time than our opponent, we would have won each game by a score of 7-1 or 13-2.

I pointed out in my protest letter to Heineken and USA Hockey, which I leaked to the Washington Post in hopes of publication on its editorial page, that the officials decision to permit the other team to have face-offs in our defensive zone after the goalie froze the puck was just one interpretation of the rules. Had the referees decided to enforce the "street rules," our goalie should have allowed to throw the puck down the ice so that the other team would have to start over. I also pointed out that several of the players on the other teams were better than players on our team, a blatant violation of the rules that require all teams to have the same talent level yet still lose to our team because we wanted to win and drink a celebratory Heineken beer after the game. In the parking lot, I noticed that several members of the opposing teams had cars with all four doors on them, and some even drove cars that appeared to be made in other countries, including Japan and Germany. One car had matching hubcaps, another had a bumper sticker that read, "My Money and My Child Go to Johns Hopkins," which is a private school in Baltimore that trains students to enter elite fields like medicine, law, corporate business and sociology and Mrs. Fields franchise ownership. Our team consisted of guys driving working-class cars like Fords, Geos, Fisher-Price Big Wheels, Go-Karts and Schwinn bicycles. One guy took public transportation to the games, hauling his equipment with him on all three buses he had to take to complete the route.

Later, as I pointed out to the Howard County Sheriff's Department when I wrongly detained for allegedly disrupting the awards' ceremony on Sunday, the tournament's decision to award the Championship Cup and the Heineken mini-keg to the winning team was unfair because the competition committee failed to allow Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby to play for us on Saturday even though we told them they could. Although we agreed three months ago when we entered the tournament to abide by the rules prohibiting the use of NHL players in our games, we changed our minds when we realized they could help our team and, in my case, improve my plus-minus mating. The rules, I argued, were unfair to us because they benefited the teams that played by them and won. Our team was really the better team, and we tried really hard, and, as far as I know, all the players on our team were Christians, except me and six other guys, meaning that five guys were Christians, although not the kind of Christians that believe America has ever done anything wrong or that God unleashed Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans as punishment for the country's wicked ways. One guy on our team is an accomplished bowler and competitive skeet shooter, even though he hasn't bowled in 34 years and no longer owns a skeet rifle or enters tournaments. Another guy on our team died on the way to the first game in a 13 car pile up on the Washington Beltway, suffered 45 degree burns and took six bullets in the left ear, which resulted in him missing the first period. We also took showers at the rink after each game, whereas our opponents took their smelly selves into the lobby and parking lot. Perhaps it's a cultural thing with our team that we believe in hygiene and cleanliness, so I won't suggest that our opponents, who have every right not to bathe or comport with societal norms, hate America or, because of their peculiar racial background, are out of touch with mainstream values that make adult recreational hockey the revered institution that it is.

So, when you modify the rules to reward close losses, factor out the better players on the other teams, take into consideration that the starting times for our games were inconsistent with a number of our players' biorhythms, when you disregard conventional scoring, subtract a goal per game from the other team for not wearing American flag patches on their jerseys (we didn't either, but that doesn't matter) and acknowledge, however painfully, that one guy on our team has a rabbi who thinks there is such a thing as a blueberry bagel, we win.

By any measure.

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