Calgary Flames: Why We Should Pause Before Criticizing their Character

Before we knock the 2017-18 Calgary Flames for a lack of character, we must at the very least agree on what that term means. So far, that hasn’t happened.

It’s a hard truth: When a talented roster fails to meet expectations, as did the 2017-18 Calgary Flames, almost every fan, analyst and journalist out there will attribute the collapse to a lack of character.

That’s probably the hardest thing for a player to hear. I’ve never played pro sports, but I imagine most athletes would rather be called talentless than be told they don’t have enough character.

Those of us who are outside of the Flames’ organization, whether we’re fans or journalists, should avoid lightly throwing around assumptions about character whenever the team starts losing. We owe it to both the Flames’ players and staff to really consider what “character” means before suggesting the team needs more of it.

I’m not a sports psychologist, nor do I want to split hairs on what amounts to subtle differences in terminology. The purpose of this article is to analyze whether those giving the criticism and those receiving it actually agree on what “character” means.

Spoiler alert: It sure looks like they don’t.

From the Inside Looking Out

General Manager Brad Treliving has made his emphasis on character quite clear. He mentions it every time he adds a new player to the roster, even going so far as to say “the type of people is just as important as the type of player” in a statement before the 2014 draft.

In a tough interview following this year’s late-season collapse, the GM questioned the team’s “emotional investment” while simultaneously defending its character. That’s telling. In Treliving’s mind, character ≠ emotional investment.

But perhaps his clearest statement about what “character” means comes from the summer of 2017, when he talked with the press about the acquisition of Travis Hamonic. Via NHL.com:

“I’ve never seen a team run into trouble because they’ve got too many character people. So what does it mean? It means they’ve got their priorities in order. They come to work every day and work.

We’ve got a lot of young players on our team. I think they’re a great influence to them, not just because they’re involved in the community. But to me, it’s how they live their lives, the lifestyle they have. And it shows. They put their profession No. 1, but they’re also adamant there’s more they can do in the community helping others.”

In short, character comes down to two things for Brad Treliving: A hard-working dedication to hockey, and being a good person off the ice.

Former head coach Glen Gulutzan has an almost identical take. In his highly-publicized “That’s BS” quote, he pointed to Mark Giordano’s Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award as evidence that there was no shortage of character in that Flames locker room. The award goes to “an athlete whose continuous, demonstrated leadership created a positive impact on their community through sports.”

So Gulutzan is implying that character is about leadership, and being a good person and humanitarian off the ice.

Whether or not being a “good person” helps you play hockey well is worth asking. But there’s no doubt Treliving and Gulutzan think it’s important.

Then there are the players. In unison, they made it clear that a lack of character was not the reason they missed the playoffs.

Given that Treliving and Gulutzan associate “character” with being a good person, is it any surprise that they, as well as the players, were so adamant to defend the team’s character despite their poor record?

From the Outside Looking In

Down the stretch, both Flames fans and hockey beat reporters were highly critical of the team’s character. The talk of the town throughout March and April was essentially that the Flames had enough talent, but not enough character, to be competitive.

In two separate articles, Flames journalist Eric Francis cited Mike Smith’s comments about “emotional engagement” as evidence that the team lacked character. Via Sportsnet:

The frustrated goalie said it was “sad” that veteran call-up Tanner Glass was the only one to step to Smith’s defence by fighting the Oilers tough guy.

It spoke to a belief leadership and character are in short supply in the room, especially after Smith added how refreshing it was to be part of a game in which his team was “emotionally engaged.”

Remember that Treliving said “emotional investment” was missing but character was not. Here’s Francis, implying that “emotional engagement” and character are basically the same thing. That’s a fairly sharp contrast.

Perhaps his sharpest criticism about the Flames’ character came from this Calgary Sun piece after their late-season loss to the Arizona Coyotes. Francis refers to the team’s “character” using no less than 8 different terms — stones, heart on your sleeve hockey, will, resolve, intestinal fortitude, professionalism, rectitude, and emotional engagement — essentially arguing that it doesn’t matter what term you use.

“Call it intestinal fortitude, professionalism or whatever you want, what’s missing here is what Mike Smith was alluding to when he pointed out “how sad” it was that a veteran call-up like Tanner Glass had to step up to fight a battle that needed to be fought with Milan Lucic.”

I could go on, but suffice it to say that other reporters like Wes Gilbertson and fans on social media have expressed a very similar take to that of Eric Francis: “Character” is just a general term used to describe all those intangibles that help you play hockey well. Mental toughness, grit, heart, everything comes down to “character.”

Everything, that is, except a key ingredient of character according to Gulutzan and Treliving: being a good person and humanitarian. That’s where the huge discrepancy lies.

When you look at all of the quotes in context, one thing becomes clear: When discussing character, those inside the organization emphasize what’s happening off the ice, while the critics point to what’s happening on the ice.

A Word of Advice

In my opinion, this is why conversations about character don’t go anywhere and are essentially meaningless. Critics will always say there’s not enough of it, and teams will always dispute that claim. Done.

The only way to move this conversation forward is to agree on the terminology.

Although I’m quite confident they won’t read this, I have some advice for Flames staff and players. Don’t take critiques of your character as attacks on your personality. When someone outside the organization (AKA fans or reporters) questions your character, they’re referring only to what they can see: the on-ice elements of your game.

We’ve seen the PR pieces of you guys sharing your favourite movie or visiting children’s hospitals. I don’t think anyone who says you lack “character” is saying you’re a no-good scoundrel who hates humanitarian work. You don’t need to defend something that was never in question.

On the flip side, my advice to the critics is to avoid using “character” as an umbrella term to describe a whole group of nuanced intangibles. There are a lot of elements that contribute to success in hockey — mental toughness, heart, hockey sense, leadership, and more — and I think it’s fair to say the Flames have some and lack others.

To simply say they need more “character” hinders the conversation, it’s irresponsible and lazy. We can be critical, but let’s not be vague.

Man, the off-season is feeling long already.

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