Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Words Are Hard

I want to change the world.

Truthfully, I don't plan on this change being anything important.  I'm far to lazy for that type of change.  However I do want to add my one-and-a-half cents to the now raging debate over "what makes a sports team a dynasty".  The Chicago Blackhawks are the best team of the last five years.  They have accomplished more in this decade than any other team all while under more constraints than any of the pre-salary cap era championship teams.  This is not the debate.  They are the elite team of their era.

They are not a dynasty.


I stay away from piping hot takery every chance I get, but this debate isn't part of the usual inane click-bait-fueled cesspool.  Somehow, it's mostly a respectful discourse between two sides who - gasp! - acknowledge the other side of the argument, even while disagreeing wholeheartedly.  My assumption is that because there's no real moral ground to stick a self-serving flag in on this topic, those who wish to save their debates for "serious" issues tone down the rhetoric.  So here we all are, civilly deliberating an interesting topic about a positive event in the sports world.

I'm here to fuck that all up.


The full definition of dynasty, according to Merriam-Webster is 1) A succession of rulers of the same line of descent or 2) a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.

The talk of a sports dynasty should start at consecutive championships.  Personally, I think three is the tipping point, but I would at least entertain the thought of a team that wins back-to-back titles as historically significant and worthy of the discussion.  Winning continuously is really the whole point, no?  Debating this makes no sense to me.  The Blackhawks fail this basic touchstone immediately.  Peter Botte of the NY Daily News summed this up perfectly:

"Dynasty" is about succession.  An unbroken period of time.  One can't use the term while making excuses for gaps in the history.  You either reign as the champ uninterrupted or...you are not reigning.

This point being lost on those on the other side is reason enough to drive me a bit crazy.  Even the folks who understand this nuance ignore it and try to go around the roadblock.  Writers will simply equate the difficulty of what the Montreal Canadiens of the late 70's and New York Islanders of the early 80's did in winning four consecutive Stanley Cups to what Chicago has done in the cap era.  This is understandable.  There is not much debating the difficulty of the accomplishment in a time of forced parity.  The great FiveThirtyEight.com outlined the historical significance of their span of non-continuous championships.  Deadspin argued that this stretch by Chicago is better than any of the "fourpeats" of the past because of how improbable the results seem.

My issue with these arguments is that they inevitably undermine themselves.  It is widely understood that the modern Stanley Cup playoffs are more of a crapshoot than ever before due to rules changes and the aforementioned parity (again, there's that "parity" that everyone refers to when declaring Chicago a dynasty).  Most series are a coin toss.  Seeing the Blackhawks overcome that is very impressive, but it works both ways.  For every clutch play made by one of the core Chicago players, there was a lucky bounce that went their way instead of against them.  Of course, there's been plenty of unlucky bounces during these last few seasons, just ask Chris Campoli:

My point is that if you want to say how much harder it is to win consistently because the teams are so close together in talent-level, then that also means it's just as easy to lose.  To me, that argument simply states that the Blackhawks might not have always been the best team.  Sometimes they were simply the luckiest.  To me, that hurts the argument more than backs it.  If Chicago wasn't always one of the best teams, how could they be proclaimed a dynasty?

When it comes to those Canadien and Islanders teams, the 90's Chicago Bulls or late 90's New York Yankees, no one really talks about them "getting the bounces".  I'm not naive to think that those teams went through all that winning without being lucky.  Of course there was luck involved.  But in a time when front offices could pay out whatever was necessary to keep elite players on the roster, most historical accounts simply accept that these teams were miles better than most of the other teams in their respective leagues.  The luck factor was crushed under the competitive imbalance.  The front offices found the best talent and made sure to overpay for it in order to destroy the other teams.  Sure it was easier for a small amount of big market clubs to do this in a "rich get richer, poor get poorer" power structure, but it's not a slam dunk that spending the most money wins a damn thing (ask pre salary-cap Glen Sather about that).  The people who put together these legendary teams had to also be very good at their job, same as Blackhawk's GM Stan Bowman.  All these teams, Chicago included, were built to win.  The difference is that the dynasties actually did.  Consecutively.  For years.

Isn't that what a real dynasty should be?  A group that figures out how to crush everyone else not just regularly but every time?  I can't look at these Chicago Blackhawks and not also see the Los Angeles Kings being in the same position.  There is no single team in power.  There is no dynasty.


Is a word all that important, though?  The essential Kevin Allen of USA Today swept away the use of the term and simply called the Hawks one of the best teams ever (and he's right). The NHL's web site maintained their usual middle ground also without rubber stamping the term (even though Commissioner Gary Bettman did).

Words are usurped and given newer, modern connotations all the time.  After a word has been re-purposed, however, it should maintain the original principle.  Otherwise, you've supplanted the wrong word.

Those proclaiming the Hawks a dynasty usually provide their own definition for the term in their argument.  Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo's Puck Daddy wrote his take, complete with a bulleted outline of his personal criteria.  When you have to give the word a new definition in order to fit the usage, you're using the wrong word.

If we're all using the wrong word, then we need to find a new one.  Nate Silver used the term "modern dynasty" in the FiveThirtyEight piece, as did Sports Illustrated.  I appreciate the effort, but that's not a solution.  And we really do need a solution.  There's plenty of teams in the history of sport that may not have won three straight championships, but have won a few and competed for a trophy regularly.  The San Antonio Spurs come to mind. (Please do get me started on those "dynasty" debates.)  These cases are common enough that I'm not surprised a word hasn't been wrested from the dictionary already.  Something to describe the powers of their era.  A word that can denote that (unlike Highlander) there can be more than one at a time while maintaining the rarity of their respective accomplishments.  "Elites"?  "Nobility"?  "Powerhouse"?

None of these sound all that good.  I like "nobility" the best but that has as much chance of adoption as calling the Blackhawks the NHL's latest "Targaryens".  What I do know is the word "dynasty" needs to be reserved for those teams that actually, you know, rule their sport without interruption.

Maybe we're all stuck on "dynasty" because this language stuff is really, really hard.  Just like winning the Stanley Cup.