Wednesday, March 07, 2007

When Heart No Longer Matters

There is a truism widely held in the sports world that a team with character will always beat a team with talent. It's been a theme of sports movies from "Knute Rockne, All American" through "Rocky" to "Invincible" and imbues the best moments of my favorite series of this season, "Friday Night Lights".

Anyone who's played organized sports at any level might have learned certain skills from their coaches, but what they really gained and carried forward were the far more important character traits that make not only a great athlete but a great person. For the most part, those traits can be summed up by something we call "Heart".

Every good film or series I've ever worked on has had to go up against competition with more talent, bigger money and better connections. But they all survived and prospered because someone either chose to be or evolved to be their Heart.

When CBS picked up "Top Cops" they put us up against "Cosby" and "The Simpsons", saying they believed in us. To which our Executive producer shot back, "What do you do to shows you don't believe in?"

But we had some guys with Heart and for four seasons we more than held our own, sometimes beating one of them and on the rare occasion beating both. Being passionate about what we did shone through and made us a success in spite of the odds.

Sometimes that person with Heart has been me, sometimes it's been someone else. You always discover who it is very quickly and innately understand that whether you like them or not, they are the reason for your success. You support them, give them all of your talent and energy and invariably things turn out well.

I've walked from a couple of projects where I realized I could not overcome the corporate culture or would not be allowed to do my best work. It's a wrenchingly painful and difficult decision. You're always turning your back on the chance to ply your trade, friends who have no choice but to stay and a shitload of money. But I've always known that you cannot place your passion somewhere its not wanted. Not understood or not appreciated can be a given and you live with that. Not wanted is something else entirely.

Because I also believe that "nobody wants to do bad work", I've always struggled to understand why some people work so hard to do just that. They're not usually bad people. They're certainly far from stupid or fanatically addicted to a particular creative vision. But for some reason they have an aversion to Heart and it invariably leads to failure.

Recent case in point -- Ryan Smith of the Edmonton Oilers.

I acknowledge up front that it is sacrilege for a Toronto Maple Leafs fan to show any admiration for any dog ass player for any other dog ass team. But with the Leafs going nowhere for their 40th consecutive season, you tend to change channels somewhere in the second period of their games and a few years ago, I discovered a player with an astonishing Heart -- Ryan Smyth.

Ryan grew up adoring the Edmonton Oilers. They were his home team and the only team he ever wanted to play for. When he was a kid he landed a job as their stick boy and while attending a charity event for the team, one of the star players accidentally backed his car over him. Ribs crushed, he was rushed to the hospital, where the doctor later showed him the tire tracks across his shirt. Ryan's response, "That's Glen Anderson's tire. Make sure my mom doesn't wash my shirt."

Ryan made the NHL and the Oilers, becoming their shining star for 12 seasons, earning the moniker of "Captain Canada" by playing with unbelievable courage and determination. Last season, he led his last place team to within a goal of the Stanley Cup. This is how his local newspaper described Game Three of that series...

"The maintenance crew came out with scraper and shovel to pick up the pieces Ryan Smyth left on the ice. Blood, mostly, but also three teeth. His teammates had stood over him as he lay there clutching his mouth, then sprang up suddenly and skated to the bench.

No one was in the least surprised as Smyth had needles shoved into his lip and gums, was stitched up where his mouth had exploded, and returned for the third period.

He took his regular turns and put in 20 minutes of the 42:24 of overtime -- setting up the triple-OT winner that merely saved the Oilers' playoff lives."

The Oilers owners rewarded several of Smyth's teammates with fat new contracts for their spectacular playoff run. But they allowed the one for their star and hometown hero to languish. Some said it was in the hope he would have a less stellar season and be cheaper at season's end when his contract expired. But despite having less talented players on the ice beside him, Smyth did not have a less impressive season. Even though the owners had traded away or sold most of their finest assets, Smyth remained the team's Heart and Edmonton fans loved him for it.

And yet, twenty minutes from the NHL trade deadline, the Oilers decided they could live without their heart and traded him away.

Greater hockey minds than mine say this was an astute move by the team. It saved them money they would have had to spend on a star who will certainly soon begin to fade. It earns them some young players in return, one of whom it was later revealed, the son of one of their scouts. And it gives them the salary cap space to go out and buy a new star come summer.

But I'm willing to predict this is the end of the Edmonton Oilers current ownership. Since the trade happened, the team has lost ten straight games. Oiler fans have been barred from their arena for carrying signs or wearing T-shirts denouncing the move. There are already $2 Million dollars in lost ticket sales (far more than they would have had to pay to upgrade Smyth's contract) and significant cancellations of future season tickets. Far more important, the message sent to both star players and ones with Heart is clear -- what you do is not respected in Edmonton.

I still don't know why a team or a show would cut out its Heart but I think it comes down to a confusion about what's important in such endeavors. Like your own body, there is a heart and there is a brain. The brain knows it's in charge. It runs things, makes all the big decisions and handles the money. It gets so caught up in its own importance, however, that it forgets that it can't survive on its own.

The Heart is the one that beats, not the one that can administer a beating.

Best of luck in your new city, Ryan. You'll soon be their Heart. And being imbued with the character you have, I know you'll never forget your old body in happier times.


wcdixon said...

Remember Dougie Gilmour?

jimhenshaw said...


The Leafs traded Dougie and Wendel and went further into the toilet each time!

And all those owners are gone now.

I rest my case.

Juniper said...

Thanks Jim, as someone who only watches hockey when the t.v. is turned to that channel, I didn't know what the fuss about Ryan Smith was about. On that clip he never sounded bitter, only terribly crushed to stand again. I want to watch his career continue for many years.... Mario Lemiux comes to mind.