Complexity, Causes, and a Championship

Time to use some hockey to make a point about complexity and causes.

Here is a replay of the triple-overtime championship-winning goal in the 2011 Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. In that game, Eden Prairie defeated Duluth East, 3-2. (Sorry for the grainy video, but it’s the best I can do.)

This is about as straightforward as it comes in a sport: the puck goes in the net, one team wins, the other one loses. So, what caused that goal? What decided the 2011 championship?

At the most basic level, you have the excellent effort by the goal-scorer, Kyle Rau, diving to swat the puck into the net. There are also two Duluth East miscues: the goaltender letting the puck squirt through him, and the defenseman, Andrew Kerr, fanning on his attempt to clear it.

Others might point to luck or fate, too: as later replays showed, after Rau made contact with the puck on his dive, it hit the goalpost, bounced out, and deflected off Kerr’s skate before sliding into the back of the net. It was a great play by Rau, who was the state’s best player that year, but not even he could have planned something like that.

But why stop there? Let’s rewind this play a bit: you have the initial shot from the Eden Prairie defenseman, and the sequence of events from both teams that led up to that shot, of which you see only a fraction in this clip. And for Rau to even be in this position in the first place, countless other events had to fall in line. Both teams had scoring chances throughout the three overtimes, and in regulation as well. With East up 1-0 after two periods, one of their best defensemen went off with an injury. The second East goal was fairly soft—one the Eden Prairie goalie would have normally saved. The referees also played a role; they called only one penalty in the entire game, much to the chagrin of Eden Prairie fans—Kerr put together a complete highlight reel of vicious checks on Rau before the fateful play at the end. Any little change in a play, and this moment doesn’t happen. And that doesn’t even touch the months and years of preparation that led up to this game.

Keep in mind that hockey is, conceptually, fairly straightforward. It follows set rules, has a limited number of actors involved, and the goal is obvious: put the puck into your opponent’s net more often than they put it in yours. It has been studied by enough people over the years that we now have a reasonably good idea of what it takes to win a championship. We can know what to look for in individual players, and how they fit within the coach’s scheme; computer models can weed through the flood of information and statistics and predict outcomes with commendable accuracy. We can correlate many things with success.

But nailing down a precise cause; the exact catalyst that left Eden Prairie dancing in delight, and Duluth East flat on the ice in dejection? That’s an entirely different story.

And if it’s so difficult to do in hockey, how can it be any easier in any other realm of human affairs; ones with more actors, less clear goals, and fewer sets of rules we can all agree on? From politics to warfare to those mundane events that pop up in our daily lives, how can we pin down a sequence of events with any degree of accuracy?

Now, this train of thought could easily lead to a sort of causal nihilism. I don’t want to go there. The point here isn’t that it’s impossible to label a single cause. It is that finding these causes is a lot harder than it may at first seem, and that anyone who looks to study this sort of thing needs to go at it with a proper dose of humility. Any sort of analysis or study that tries to end the conversation, whatever the merits of its arguments, suffers from a conceit that does its audience a disservice. At some point, of course, we need to make a decision and move on. But social science, for all its explanatory power, is not a hockey game. Anyone who approaches it with the intent to win or lose has missed the point, and that can be a serious problem.

So, what does this Duluth East alumnus think caused that goal? My philosophy is that one has to boil it down to what one can control, which in this case means pointing out the two plays the East players could have made, but didn’t. There is no shame in taking that responsibility, especially for two otherwise rock-solid players who had fantastic high school careers. They were minor mistakes, but in a game that was so dead-even that it almost had to end on a fluky play, those two in tandem made the difference. Hockey can be a cruel sport, but, well, so can life. That’s my opinion, and while I doubt I’ll change it, it doesn’t invalidate the many other accounts of this game.

At any rate, this is the mindset I hope to use on this blog. Tomorrow, we’ll add some politics to the discussion.


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