Struck by Lightning

Sports Review: With youthful suspense, I wait eagerly in the cavernous darkness as blue neon streaks dart above me in all directions. Hearing the apparent crackle and sizzle of electrical arcing, I crane my neck up to the left and right to observe streams of sparks from what could be large Van de Graaff generators suspended 75 feet overhead. I hear the increasingly enthusiastic oohs and aahs of a large crowd all around me as the light and electrical show unfolds with great drama. Thumping music fades in gradually while roving searchlights briefly illuminate random swatches of revelers in what transpires to be an eighteen thousand strong gathering. “Na na na na na na na na na,” is the growing chant and it’s hard not to join in. I went to my first AC/DC concert in Glasgow, Scotland decades ago as a teenager and that Australian rock band has certainly demonstrated staying power. The song playing tonight,  Thunderstruck, is a recording, however, and the crowd is not here to party with Angus Young and Brian Johnson. We are at Amalie Arena to watch Tampa in the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs. Nevertheless, the show is more grandiose than most rock concerts.

Tampa has a pretty good hockey team, and in my opinion, one of the better named: Tampa Bay Lightning. Lightning connotes irrepressible power, heavenly streaks, electrical arcing and sparking, and it annexes pyrotechnics and thunder while channeling the very best of AC/DC. Lightning gives the fans a satisfying array of choral and brand messaging options; for example, let’s go bolts, let’s go light-ning, be the thunder, and we are lightning. Not all hockey teams have such creatively powerful monikers, for example the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Pittsburg Penguins. There is only so much that can be done with foliage or small flightless birds to capture the imagination and evoke vigorous human emotions.

Like a lot of sports, hockey is a mega-business in America, with 30 teams playing a total of over 1,000 rock show games per season to reach the playoffs—which in Europe we would call quarterfinals, semifinals and the final. Except, in America each of three playoff rounds has up to seven games against an opponent, pretty much assuring a most devoted fan may spend every waking hour following the action. And action it is—the puck is played rapidly up and down the full length of the field, even behind the nets, while fighting and brawls between players are customary and encouraged. Players will punch the living daylights out of each other, and in contrast to the World Wrestling Federation, hockey fights are authentic. In UK soccer, if a player punches another he will be red-carded, sent off, suspended for a number of future games, and may be charged with violent conduct by the Football Association and the local police. In U.S. hockey, the offending player receives a two-minute timeout—the same punishment meted out for nefarious misconduct, including tripping, hooking, high sticking and interference. Oftentimes this two-minute relegation is considered too severe for the hockey fighter as he sits out his chastisement angrily banging on the glass and recklessly spilling Gatorade on those around him.

Contrastingly, In UK soccer there can be too many faked player dives or feigned injuries during a game. Oftentimes, one player will bump into another and the roughed receiver topples conveniently amid great drama, while writhing, grimacing and holding a limb or other body part. Milliseconds later the perpetrator falls over too while applying clear and High-Definition observable pressure to some appendage. Both victims lie wincing on the field for what seems longer than a standing ovation at a Lady Gaga concert while waiting for some formal expression of sympathy. The offending player feels he should stay down as long as the traumatized recipient, should the referee feel the need to dole out some color-carded punishment. Then the recipient starts to feel a bit awkward having squirmed in fake agony for so long that he needs to make a good show out of it and be helped up by others. Not infrequently two guys that weren’t really hurt in the first place cause a situation that forces them to follow through with Shakespearian performances. This does not happen in ice hockey—bloodied players get up promptly and unassisted, gather their belongings and put on an ice pack while the game continues all around them. For this reason alone, as amazing a soccer player as he is, Ronaldo could not succeed in hockey, although he would make a fabulous prince in Disney on Ice. On the other hand I could envisage Wayne Rooney or John Terry suited up in a hockey outfit.

With religious-like zeal, the vast majority of ice hockey fans exhibit allegiance by sporting official shirts, hats and various emblematic accessories. As a testament to true American marketing genius, each team may have multiple uniforms on sale at any one time—the standard, the away, the Winter Classic, playoff versions, and other must-have special editions. Each adaptation carefully mixes genuine team tones in a variety of hues and shades that don’t stray too far from the original. Since most cities have only one team, any side playing at home is guaranteed a sell-out crowd clad in a sea of conforming club colors, much like a big bathtub filled with compliant M&M’s.


Eager fan sporting a matching playoff cap and T shirt

As with American football, soccer and basketball, hockey has an exclusive compendium of drop-dead gorgeous cheerleaders. In America our angelic advocates are flawless, stunning young ladies equipped with bubbly personalities, celebrity-white teeth, luxuriant flowing hair and original Barbie doll physiques. Their main occupation appears to vary a little by sport, but seems to be principally presence, and not exclusively to manage cheering activities as the average American sports fan is generally capable of raucousness without the need for guidance, instruction or other visual cues. Like a gift presented in pleasing wrapping paper with an affixed flower crafted from self-adhesive ribbon tape, cheerleaders enhance our overall experience.

In Washington DC, for example, home-team cheerleaders are driven around the street outside the arena in an open top double-decker bus before the game, fervently brandishing tinsel pompoms at the local populace. While cheerleaders in other sports have well-rehearsed, coordinated dance routines, in hockey they seem mainly relegated to lobbing free tee shirts to noisy supporters or pizza coupons to the loudest fan sections in the arena. I’m not sure why they don’t don skates and give us a few little party ice numbers, as the dance pageantry in basketball and football is fabulous.


Some guys go to games just to meet women

In addition to the snow bunnies, the regular ice hockey fan is treated to a varied assortment of entertaining skits every time the puck stops soaring. Waiting for repeated face-offs each time the game restarts, we enjoy 20 seconds of our favorite rousing songs, which stop precisely at the good part when the puck drops. And what is it with that pipe organ that sounds like a maniacal church organist at a carnival in hell? Oddly you become accustomed to it over a long period of time, just like the other forms of torment in Dante’s Inferno. Then, of course, for visual celebration and audience reaction there is the kiss cam, the dance cam, the decibel meter to record crowd cacophony and a variety of other product and service-sponsored entertainment acts. The diversions are, however, way better than watching Zambonis make interminable rink loops or reading innumerable unsolicited emails on your phone.

Of course, the national anthem is an integral part of the framework for the evening’s spectacle. It is a solemn almost funereal affair in the UK and is sincere and ceremonial in the USA too; however, with two main differences: US fans know the words and they join in for some parts. For example, in unison the 18,000 strong crowd will loudly yell “red,” in the “rocket’s red glare,” denoting the Washington Capitals team colors. At this time in the tournament both Tampa and Washington are playing well with the Lightning leading the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs. With any luck the God of Thunder will continue to abet. Let’s go Bolts!

Bridling Brilliance: Triumph of the Red Shirts

Book Review: Alex Ferguson’s brilliant account of team management documents Manchester United’s journey to the top of their game, worldwide, while he managed scores, if not hundreds of players over a 26-year period. Although Ferguson’s My Autobiography does not directly lay out strategy or tactics per se—indeed he seems to focus much more on the individuals, their skills and behavior—there is no requirement to be a soccer “expert” in order to follow his book. Since Ferguson discusses many personalities, including key players, staff and competitors in varying levels of detail it is useful to have some a priori knowledge on most characters in order to fully enjoy his work.

As he is not, by vocation, a writer I assume Ferguson had a ghostwriter do some of the heavy lifting in the manuscript; however, it is hard to tell and his “meat-and-two-veg” esthetic seems entirely appropriate and is undoubtedly reflective of his no-nonsense management style. For example, had Stephen Fry assisted with the prose we might expect to find mythological descriptions of Ronaldo akin to the sensitive Apollo, the younger Rooney as violent Ares, all under the custodianship of Sir Alex Zeus Ferguson. But that is not the case and Ferguson’s chapters read easily, flow well and can be consumed in any order, which is useful if you have a particular interest in some players over others.

While I am an ardent fan of captivating competitive football, I make no claim to expertise in game strategy or tactics; however, I was struck by some relatable comparisons stemming from Ferguson’s work to the business world. In particular, I thought of Jim Collins, who spent over fifteen years conducting extensive research culminating in several books on corporate performance. His books include Built to Last (1994), Good to Great (2001), How the Mighty Fall (2009), and Great by Choice (2011). Each of these volumes can be considered incrementally in describing Collins’ general approach to 1) identify successful companies, 2) assess traits leading to their success, and then 3) ascertaining and categorizing leadership qualities exhibited within those companies.

Successful companies are relatively easy to pinpoint, as are successful football teams. Instead of winning most games and collecting silverware, businesses significantly outperform their competitors over a protracted period of time leading to over-performance in the stock market. One of the directly analogous traits is the team; as Collins’ puts it, get the right team on the bus and the wrong folks off the bus. Undeniably, great soccer is the result of great teamwork. The regular long-distance Fergie bus service offered only two planned stops—mid-journey for transfers and the terminus. However, there were some unplanned breaks along the way to drop off unruly passengers (e.g., Roy Keane). A connecting stop for transfers to another service is inevitable as no manager can prevent the truly gifted from leaving (e.g., Ronaldo and Beckham), while the most loyal remain seated all the way to the destination (e.g., Scholes and Giggs).


Getting The Right Team on the Bus (photo courtesy of Rahul@forevrutd)

Which brings me to the subject and substance of loyalty. Ferguson wrote extensively about player talent, skills, experience and loyalty. While he did not prioritize, one was left feeling that he valued allegiance and faithfulness above all else and his shining examples were Giggs and Scholes. Those who left did so for the next personal challenge and presumably for financial recognition of their contributions to success, while those who stayed were loyal. In business, loyalty is an admirable yet elusive attribute. Skeptics will say that there is no such thing as loyalty, where in practice it does exist—though seldom. Employer loyalty programs for the most part simultaneously reward and penalize. By providing continuance incentives, employers tend to make it difficult and impractical for employees to quit at their convenience (e.g., end of year bonus, retirement benefit vesting and matching dates, and so on). This also applies to our partaking of ubiquitous travel rewards programs—continue with our spending allegiance and reap the benefits, or commit treason and lose them all. While Giggs’ and Scholes’ loyalty is warmly commendable, some of us are curious as to their potential ultimate achievements had they gotten off the bus earlier.

Like any autobiography this one starts in the early years of the subject’s life including where he grew up, and it goes on to say various nice things about his wife, but the hard-core football fan can skip all that fluff. Overall, a highly recommended book not just for Man U supporters but also for fans of top class soccer players and those seeking a privileged insight into the nitty-gritty wheelings and dealings of club transfers and acquisitions.

fergie image

Autobiographies Provide Little Latitude for Imagery

For those interested in further critical unbiased analysis of the English Premier League, you are advised to take a Hackney taxicab from London’s Liverpool St. Station. After, “so where you from, guvnor?” and “you ‘ere just for ‘oliday or bizniss guv?” tell the driver, in a heavy touristy accent, that you are in town for the Chelsea game. The ostensibly easy-going charioteer will then go on to provide a complete rundown on the main London clubs, both Manchester clubs, and quite possibly, Crystal Palace. You will then be systematically tested on your detailed football knowledge, faulted and mocked accordingly.