On Silence

by Ryan

There is a theory in the field of Communications called the Spiral of Silence. The theory is as follows: people who feel they have the minority opinion will either not voice that opinion or change it for fear of ridicule or scorn from the majority. It’s a pretty simple concept, but one that guides a lot of how we communicate.

In some ways, I think the Spiral of Silence theory has a lot to do with blogs; starting with this one in particular.  Many people are still unsure about the role blogs play in the media and the culture of opinions, but I think what many of us try to do is pretty clear.  I don’t have any illusions that we are journalists when we write here.  I’m a fan who watches games as such, and in turn writes as one. 

What bloggers like us do is offer another voice in the crowd, and hopefully a well thought out, reasoned opinion on things.  That’s it, nothing more or nothing less.  The larger goal is always to be a part of the discussion, and maybe bring a few new ideas to the table that people may not think about. 

On the big scale, I think that’s what is so frustrating about the Lindy Ruff debate (or lack thereof).  The discussions I’ve had with people in private over the past two-plus seasons haven’t matched up with the larger discussion, and I never understood why that was the case.  I’ve had dozens of conversations about the role of a coach, the immediate impact of a coaching change, and the concept of “losing a locker room”, but until recently all of it was blasphemy in public. 

The arguments were always the same: Lindy Ruff is likable.  He’s doing the best he can with what he has.  We can’t handle change.  We need different players.  Darcy Regier messed something up.  Lindy is the face of the franchise.  There aren’t better coaches out there.  Things will get better in a couple of years. 

The overwelming opinions in the above paragraph killed any discussion of the head coach’s job security.  A wave of support drown anyone who differed, killing the mere conversation of a head coach’s responsibility in missing the playoffs 4 times in the last 6 years.   As the few that objected were silenced, less and less even cared to bring it up. 

Down and down we go.

spiral

That’s why the last week has been nothing short of shocking. Suddenly the complete lack of a discussion has exploded into a chaos of demands from a frustrated fanbase. It started with Harrington on Sunday, then Sullivan weighed in on Monday. All of a sudden talk radio had its differing voice in Mike Schopp, who has criticized Ruff all week and has let callers do the same.

A competing voice dared to appear, and a minority spoke out. The silent opinions found their voice because an example was there; the spiral broken. It’s deafening, really, to hear the “climate of opinions” shift so dramatically. People are angry, and crowds of anger cause change one way or another.

To be completely honest, I think it’s pretty fantastic. No matter what you feel about the topic you have to admit that, at the very least, the discussion should be there. I give Kate a lot of credit for putting an opinion out there and defending the hell out of it, to the tune of 56 comments and two more posts on the topic. To change the climate you need people willing to say what’s on their mind, and as someone who simply wanted to start talking about this months ago, it’s been nice to have someone agree.

This isn’t about any one person, but when I wrote this back in December there were four comments. Today we’re looking at 50+ comments on just one blog. Think about all the phone calls to WGR, the message boards, the water coolers and text messages. Ladies and gentleman, we have a dialogue.

Whether the discussion is pointless and nothing will change is irrelevant. In a sports franchise no single entity should be immune to criticism and blame. No one in a position to decide is infallible, especially the head coach. Hockey is the one sport where a head coaching change affects a team the quickest, and that should be kept in mind here. Whether it is the popular decision or not, it is an option, and an option that can’t be dismissed simply because Lindy Ruff is a nice guy.

Kate made a great point that I can’t stress enough:

On one hand, this attachment to Lindy is incredibly moving. It’s loyalty, it’s gratitude, it’s respect, and in an interesting way, I think it’s a tribute to how we as a community want to be viewed. We love Lindy, and we want him to represent us. I think that’s beautiful. I can think of very few people I’d rather have representing Buffalo than Lindy Ruff.

But on the other hand, I also think our attachment to Lindy Ruff is a symptom of a deeply rooted problem. It’s a city-wide inability to let go of some romantic notion of how we want Buffalo to be, and meanwhile, we’re neglecting a whole host of other serious problems. It’s as if the entire city is enchanted by some mirage, and because of that glimmering illusion, we won’t settle for anything less. It’s a symptom of whatever it is in our makeup that makes it so difficult to build a much needed new bridge, or a fishing mega-store, or to downsize the government to match the actual size of the population.

I think there is something going on here that runs much deeper than sports.

There isn’t a problem with liking Lindy Ruff, but there is a problem with the inability to discuss Lindy Ruff not being the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. There was a time before Ruff, and there will be a time after him. The Buffalo Sabres are the 20 guys in uniform, not the guy standing a foot higher pacing behind them. I can name a half dozen replacements for Lindy Ruff right now, and that’s not hyperbole. There are head coaches in need of a job, and the Buffalo gig hasn’t been free in some time now.

I was talking about this with my girlfriend a few days ago and she mentioned Scotty Bowman. Here’s a short and sweet summary of his time with the Sabres:

For the 1979–80 season, he moved to the Buffalo Sabres as coach and general manager. He served as the team’s general manager until 1987, doubling as coach on three separate occasions. During this time, he missed the playoffs for the only time in his career, in the 1985–86 season.

Bowman joined the Sabres around the same time that their stars were growing old. While the Sabres remained competitive for much of his tenure , he was unable to build them into anything approaching the powerhouses he’d coached in Montreal. He quit hockey temporarily in 1987 to become an analyst for the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. He left the Sabres as the most successful coach, in terms of wins, in the club’s history.

That’s right, the greatest coach in the history of the NHL couldn’t hack it in Buffalo. He came off four straight Stanley Cups in Montreal, came to the Sabres and missed the playoffs just once. He left as the best coach the Sabres ever had, but couldn’t get it done.

But his definition of “getting it done” was the Stanley Cup, not making the playoffs. Stacked up against that, is Lindy Ruff hacking it these days? I know we’ve gone way off topic here, but to paraphrase Erika, “What the hell is Lindy doing behind the bench while Bowman babysits Pat Kane in Chicago?” If you ask me, that’s a damn good question.

The point is, that’s something I’ve never, ever heard until this week. Suddenly the top has blown off the issue, and we’re not just whispering about head coaches behind closed doors. Honestly, that’s the way it should be. Lindy Ruff is a good head coach, but he’s not the best we’ve had here, and he certainly won’t be the last.

There is a lot of anger out there, and that in turn brings out a lot of the crazies. That tends to happen when people lose their illusions, especially those with the illusions that the Sabres always make the playoffs, no questions asked. For a lot of people the idea of firing Lindy Ruff is still crazy, and in turn those that disagree line up on the exact opposite of the spectrum.

Still, in due time what we are going to regress back to is the original discussion, and hidden somewhere in that is going to be a well-reasoned collection of opinions on both sides. There isn’t going to be a winner or a loser, and some people will never be happy, but there will be a byproduct of this little meteorological event, and it will be good.

This is only the first step, but this is most certianly progress.

6 Comments

  1. The problem here is, that Darcy won’t get rid of Lindy. Its his decision. And if upper management puts pressure on, Darcy will probably go and then the new GM will bring in his own guy. Its not one or the other its either both stay or both go.

    I agree something has to be done. But the real answer lies in the players. This team has done well with this combo, and they have done awful. What has changed over the years? The players on the ice.

    Is it Lindy isn’t getting everything he can from the players? Or is it the players just aren’t as good as we think they are?

    Its going to be an interesting offseason. Because we can all agree, nothing happening will be unacceptable and the box office will prove that.

  2. I have no problem with the topic being discussed, but firing Lindy Ruff would be short sited and dumb. Ruff is still one of the best coaches in the league and replacing him would be a mistake…

  3. Mark B

    Ryan, this might be the best written piece on this topic, and there’s been some really good ones in the last week. I admit that my attachment to Lindy is purely emotional at this point and it’s good to look at the facts. If the Sabres miss the playoffs 5 out of 7 years then Lindy’s standing as the untouchable saint of Buffalo coaching has to come under question.

    I don’t think anyone: Lindy, Darcy, Quinn, Golly, the players, should be above criticism here.

  4. Dave in Syr

    Ryan, You may not be a journalist but you write better than a lot of them! Jonathan’s point that it’s the players on the ice is a good one.Unfortunately in the sports business the way that you find out if it’s the coach or the players is to fire the coach.As the age old expression goes,you can’t fire the players.At least not all at once. There is a good reason for the seemingly endless carousel of coaches being fired and rehired elsewhere. It has less to do with the quality of their coaching and more to do with human nature…get a new voice and approach,get the players out of their comfort zones and find out if they can get it done. Anyone who thinks that Lindy isn’t an excellent NHL coach is goofy. Whether he is fired or not.

  5. I think I may have waffled on the idea of firing about fifteen times in the last week. I really do think that the players on the ice have to be more accountable than Lindy in this case because the players on the ice are pretty terrible. Is it Lindy’s fault that Hecht and Pominville are having their worst season in their careers. Not really. Is it Lindy’s fault that the Sabres are still really, really, really young. Not really.

    Many of the problems with this team can be pinned on the GM rather than the coach. This team is a roster of overpaid third liners. This team overcorrected when Drury and Briere left town and overpaid players that shouldn’t be overpaid. This roster is just a bunch of crap. Lindy has shown he take a bad roster and make them good, but he can take a good roster and make them great.

  6. Correction, Lindy has shown he can’t take a bad roster and make them good but can take a good roster and make them great.