Are the San Jose Sharks “Chokers” and Patrick Marleau “Gutless”?

The media is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to sports. Sports writers and announcers get to write or say virtually anything they want, and rarely take responsibility for the repercussions of negative articles. In fact, some of them are like Rush Limbaugh: the more outrageous the statements, the less logic or intelligence there is behind them, the more impact they have on the public. Thus, the controversial pundit gets attention (accompanied by a fat salary), and the media outlet increases sales. Who cares if the poor team or player is slandered in the process?

When the San Jose Sharks won the first three games against the Detroit Red Wings by one goal, everyone in fin-land was ecstatic. When they had come-from-ahead losses and evened the series, many commentators pointed to the Sharks history of “choking”, claiming they had a reputation for failing in the playoffs. Let’s look at a little of that history.

In the first place, the team players change from year to year. While Patrick Marleau was drafted in 1997, most of the current players, including both goalies, have been with the team for less than three years. Todd McLellan is the eighth head coach, but who knows how many assistant coaches have come and gone? The Sharks have only one player in the Hall of Fame, Igor Larionov, so perhaps the general managers must shoulder some of the blame? So, when each team is unique, how can a writer say that these separate entities have some inherent viral quality that promotes “choking”? Is it hereditary in a sports franchise?

Speaking of history, the Sharks only started play in 1991. In that twenty years, they’ve been to the playoffs fourteen times, including the last six years in a row. Before winning it all last year, the San Francisco Giants would have loved to have boasted such a record of success. But, in spite of being to the World Series a few times since going coast to coast, there are many other good, determined baseball teams that prevented the Giants from winning for 56 years. Were the Giants chokers? Believe it or not, there are some pretty darn good hockey teams, some with very old and revered records, that want to throw ice in the faces of the Sharks when they reach the playoffs. It’s a rule of sports that only one team gets to win the finals each year; I guess all of the rest choked.

So, if a team can be dissed with impunity, what about an individual player?

A few days ago, Jeremy Roenick called Patrick Marleau’s game-five performance “gutless” on a Versus broadcast, and strongly implied the Sharks’ center had no heart. Some have suggested Mr. Roenick has a personal grudge against Marleau from his time on the team (he had singled Marleau out for criticism before), but this is far from the first time a talking head has done such a thing.

There are several possibilities that would explain poor performance. First, Marleau really is timid when facing pressure situations. But he had a pretty good series against the L.A. Kings, and has had many good playoff performances over the years. He does not have a “history” of playing soft in all playoffs. Second, like a baseball player, he might have been in a “slump” against the Red Wings. He had some good moments, and certainly broke through in game seven. Isn’t it supposed to be a team game with everyone contributing and no one relying on the stars to carry them?

Which brings us to a truism in team sports: when it comes to crunch time, many teams decide they will not “let the best player beat them”. Marleau and Joe Thornton, who has also had some pretty quiet series, are two of the Sharks’ top players. Not being a hockey expert, I couldn’t tell if the Red Wings were putting undue pressure on those two players, but it’s not unusual in basketball or football to double-team or put a “spy” on the opposition’s best player. In baseball, they “take the bat” out of a slugger’s hands by walking him constantly. Sure, that puts a burden on the team to cover the rest of the players, but it’s a risk teams take.

So, my final question: when the Red Wings lost game seven, did they choke? After all, they had the momentum, and it’s not much more difficult to win four games in a row than it is three. But the series was close all the way, and hard fought, and both teams gave it their all. Isn’t that what sports is supposed to be like? A coach or manager will tell you the games mean just as much at the beginning of the season as at the end. Well, the Sharks won the first three, the Red Wings the next three, and then the Sharks got another one. Who the hell choked here?

This may be the year the Sharks win it all. Or they may not win the Stanley Cup for 56 years. Either way, it’s absurd and insulting to everyone’s intelligence to make such sweeping generalizations and accusations. But that’s what talking heads do. They try to gain attention. They try to build an audience, who may love them or hate them, but they tune in. And that’s why morons who use those tactics should be disdainfully ignored.