Leadership Lost, at What Cost?
October 25, 2021
By Blain Potvin
Professional sports franchises face pressure to perform, and that pressure forces them to constantly seek out new talent to compete. Yet with the parity in the NHL sometimes a team that has an abundance of skill can’t compete with one that demonstrates a deeper desire for victory. The old cliche of “hard work will beat talent when talent fails to work hard” applies to those skilled teams that lack the leadership that would motivate and guide their team.
Quantifying leadership is very difficult as there are no direct statistics that can be used to help improve in that area. There can be no improvement without measurement, feedback, and learning. Direct measurement of leadership is difficult but not impossible. The Canadiens 2021-22 Stanley Cup playoff run should be an example of what leadership can do to elevate a team to become more than the sum of its parts.
Led by veterans such as Carey Price and team captain Shea Weber, the Habs were able to reach the SCF for the first time since 1993. They made it despite having an interim head coach in Dominique Ducharme who had to try and implement a new team system on the fly, and who also missed significant playoff time due to a positive Covid-19 test. They were also the clear underdog in each series.
Despite all the obstacles, the desire and vision of the leadership core were the constant in the room that helped to rally the team and convince them all to buy into their individual roles that in turn, aided the collective. While the team failed to win the Cup, what they accomplished was impressive and will be cherished by the fanbase.
The Next Chapter
This season, that touchstone, that direction, those voices are missing. Shea Weber was placed on LTIR and according to general manager Marc Bergevin, may never play again.
Then, the sudden unexpected loss of Carey Price, who entered the NHLPA’s player assistance program and will be on LTIR for at least 30 days, compounded the loss of leadership. I know everyone wishes him a speedy recovery as Carey is a kind man who has decided to focus on healing so he can be a better husband and father, which is far more important than hockey.
As mentioned, the losses of Weber and Price hurt the Canadiens on the ice. Yet, their absence from the dressing room hurt just as much. Both players were key leaders for the Canadiens.
“It will be impossible to replace Shea Weber. What he brings to our team, on and off the ice, we’ll try our best but I know deep down that we can never replace Shea Weber.”– Marc Bergevin (Canadiens GM Bergevin says Shea Weber probably won’t play again, Emily Sadler, 22 July 2021, Sportsnet)
This is one of those intangibles that keep getting mentioned, but is rarely quantified. A leader is one that can convince a group to work towards a common goal, which in team sports should be easier to do. Yet, a team is built of a variety of individuals, with different skills, from different backgrounds.
This adds significant difficulties in forming those team bonds. Leaders like Price and Weber approached the team by forming personal bonds and creating a family atmosphere. They organized team functions when on the road, they hosted gatherings with everyone’s families, all of it designed to create those familial bonds needed to feel a sense of belonging. This made them the touchstones for the team’s family bonds. Even as players came and went, the collective group had that formed bond, centered around their leadership core.
With the team’s captain now gone, the group has lost some of that cohesion. This has a trickle-down effect on the team on the ice as they lack that security, it creates an imbalance that affects preparation which in turn affects performance. Also, without that known leadership in the room to turn to, it can leave a team off balance when facing adversity as they must now find a new voice to rally around. This is something that takes time to achieve, and the Canadiens don’t have that luxury this season as they have not started off well.
Building a New Culture
Team culture isn’t what draft picks are being made, or who is the general manager or coach. It’s how the players interact, they are the ones that create and impact that culture. When players or coaches refer to what’s “in the room”, the team culture is what they rely on to regroup in times of need. Leaders have a major impact in building that culture. They help to not only define it, but also perpetuate it. In the Canadiens’ case, there is currently no continuity. The losses of the major voices have left a void that the remaining players must find a way to fill.
Teams take on the persona of their leaders. Under Weber, the Canadiens had a quiet confidence, even when struggling. The outward demeanor was that of a group that knew where they made errors and what they needed to do to correct them. Now, they lack that outward show of modest confidence, in its place there is more show of emotion. They have been more like Brendan Gallagher, playing based mostly on emotion, working as hard as they can. However, they haven’t learned how to control those emotions yet.
There was no passing of the torch from Weber to his successor. There was no official naming of a captain by the Canadiens that would give the players or fans a visual of the new leadership. This leaves the veterans in the room to try and fill Weber’s shoes.
“I think Shea’s presence means a lot, says a lot. Lots of times just his look, the way he looked at the team or the players would send a message and that’s hard to do from Kelowna (where Weber is now). I have a plan in mind that I’m trying to play out for Shea. Until I do that I’m going to keep that with me. But if something comes up I’ll let you guys know.”-Marc Bergevin (Press Conference, 21 October 2021)
Like any skill, for most people, it takes practice before it becomes second nature. Just as no two people are alike, neither are their leadership styles, which is why it is a mistake for any leader to try and copy their predecessor’s style or approach.
This is where the “plan” that Bergevin announced he is preparing for Weber could have an immediate impact. Having him return to the room, even behind the scenes, would be beneficial not just in the immediate term, but also in the long run.
Weber’s presence can settle his teammate’s nerves, but also, he could legitimize the new leadership group. His open acceptance of them and their leadership would make the acceptance for them by the collective happen almost immediately. His presence could also be used to help in further mentoring the next generation of leaders, who had been learning from him since his arrival, but hadn’t expected to have to take up his mantle this soon.
While this season has been seen as a transition year on the ice by most pundits, it has as much to do with the loss of leadership than any change of personnel. Taking a step back, in a season where the expectations are lower while the younger generation of leaders learn to balance the demands they face not only as players but also as the patriarchs of the most storied franchise in hockey could be beneficial.
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