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I Don’t Wanna Play the Head Games

During the 2011-2012 season, I probably watched more NHL hockey than any year before or since. I watched nearly every Wings’ game that season, something around 75 of them, plus a good 15-25 others. I remember a lot of those games, too, like Detroit’s regular season series against St. Louis. It was so good! After getting waxed the first two games against them, and going down 2-0 in the third game, the Wings pulled a rabbit out of a hat and stormed back to win the game 3-2, and to take the regular-season series 4-2.

Or this tilt in March, against the LA Kings, with Big Mac in net (remember the Mackinaw Bridge on his helmet?) Detroit was getting absolutely smothered by the eventual 2012 cup winner. Somehow, after two periods, the teams were still tied 2-2, but the shots and tilt of play were not in Detroit’s favor. With just under six minutes left in the third, LA potted a go-ahead goal. I swore. I whipped the remote across the room. I went over, picked up the remote, and turned the game off. I couldn’t stand to watch any more of this shit. After all, the Wings had struggled of late, and I was watching the Wings’ promising season, and likely Lidstrom’s last, slip away. I wasn’t going to watch any more of the game since the game was making me feel terrible.

Of course, Filppula came back a minute later and scored his 22nd of the season to tie it and Darren Helm mucked it up in the crease shortly after that to score the dagger late in regulation. 4-3 win for the Wings, but I missed it.

I also couldn’t find any decent work in the still-recessed Michigan economy. It was my first year out of college and I was thrown to the employment wolves. My college athletic career was over, leaving me both physically and mentally adrift (adjusting back to “normal” can feel really strange on the body.) And my love life? Well to keep with the 2011-2012 theme, my love life was Shea Weber.

Turning off that game against the Kings wasn’t just about the game. I was a bit of a headcase.

It was a label I’d had at different times up to that point in my life, mainly late in high school and early on in college on my cross country and track teams. It just comes with the territory when you spend those years boxing with your mental health. But I guess that’s why I loved Ilya Bryzgalov in HBO’s documentary for the 2012 Winter Classic. I’d wondered “what’s the point?” too, more than once during my time as an NCAA athlete. These thoughts punctuated a career where I helped rebuild a team to respectability, if not prominence, and earned some very nice recognition and awards along the way, despite my lack of natural talent.

Bryzgalov’s comments about the relative sizes of the universe and a hockey puck were considered cute until he didn’t play well enough, then he was promptly labelled a headcase and run out of town (granted, Bryz had some on-ice disputes with teammates, but I’ve always been curious to know the full story there.)

A few years later, Dougie Hamilton got pushed out of Calgary for being “too different” as well. And do you remember all the scrutiny Ovechkin was under until he won a cup? Now everybody loves him, but each promising Washington Capitals season throughout the 2010’s ended with the usual media autopsy on “What’s up with Ovechkin?” Most of the blame for Vancouver losing in 2011 was placed at the feet of Roberto Luongo and his brain. Tyler Seguin got this treatment in Boston. And, of course, there’s Anthony Mantha. Apparently, no 4th liner or bottom pairing defenseman has ever had a problem with their mind.

Anthony Mantha has had a growing reputation as a “headcase” for at least a few years now. We’re a far cry from 2015 when Red Wings Senior VP Jim Devellano called Anthony Mantha “very disappointing.” The rush of defenses to Mantha were considered admirable at the time, but what if Devellano just knew then what we’re damn sure we know now? Anthony Mantha is a basket (he sometimes hesitates on the play) with confidence issues (he doesn’t celebrate enough) and low motivation (his legs don’t move as fast as his shorter teammates’ legs.) Despite the anger at Devellano’s comments in 2015, that’s where a lot of the analysis around Mantha feels like it’s at right now in 2021: it’s taken a while, but Jim Devellano was right.

That notion makes me uncomfortable. But is it accurate? Jim Devellano could have handled that situation in a cruel way but could have also been basically correct. Or is the rush to condemn Mantha too quick and too simple?

Let’s take the last game as an example, that humiliation against the Blackhawks. Anthony Mantha was the most responsible for Chicago’s third and fourth goals, which are what allowed Chicago to run away with the game in the third period after Detroit woke up in the second. Prior to that, he was having himself a good-but-not-great game. He had two of Detroit’s three best chances in the game, ringing a shot off the crossbar in the first and being forced just too far to the outside on a fast break in the second. If Detroit was going to have a chance of winning that game against Chicago, it was going to go through Anthony Mantha, which I suppose is the second reason why so much blame is placed at his feet.

This brain-blame also forgets that five regulars were out with COVID and that much of the team played poorly. Again, a checker can have a bad game and nobody is analyzing their brain for its flaws. Mental inadequacy is reserved for goal scorers, goalies, and top defensemen.

And it’s really hard to understand why a star player like Anthony Mantha would appear mentally unengaged. He’s living the dream, after all. He’s got the sexiest job in the NHL: goal scorer. He gets to be the hero, the guy everyone looks up to, the Red Wing that all 10-year-old hockey players in Michigan want to be like. He’s The Guy! The best job in the world! Why would he ever hesitate?

So if Mantha doesn’t have a great game, it has to be dissected, cut apart, and evaluated. His stride is too slow, his goal celebration isn’t extravagant enough, he passed instead of shot that one time. (Fun thing to experience when your life and identity are the thing under the microscope 82+ nights a year.) Glendening has a bad game? He’s a grinder! Nielsen? He’s old, just wait for him to retire! But if Mantha has a bad game, and it is difficult to understand why, then something has to be wrong with his brain.

And therein lies the fault in the logic. A normal person wouldn’t struggle in Mantha’s role. Except to be in that role, to be The Guy, fundamentally means Mantha (or any player on the Wings) is not normal. It’s a fool’s errand to speculate that NHL players are “just like us, but good at hockey.” No NHL player is like that. That’s why they’re in the NHL. Even with their NHL talent level, and even with some luck, they’ve all made the decision to be different than the average person. That is what greatness requires. And that is why psychologizing another human is a trap.

One of the first rules of psychology is that you don’t diagnose people from afar. Their experiences cannot be known when only a very selective snapshot can be seen. As a “headcase” who has fought with his mental health during various stretches of my life, it’s a notion I can appreciate, especially because we’re all unlucky for certain stretches of our life even if our mental health is fine, and in those cases that fixed label of “headcase,” once applied, is difficult to get out from under. But it’s convenient for those who apply the label because it is quick and reductive. It’s simple. We don’t have to think too hard about the headcase, which is especially nice when thinking about them and whatever problems they may or may not be experiencing is uncomfortable or inconvenient for the labeler.

“Sonder” is a pretty wonderful word. It is the realization that everyone’s life is as vivid and complex as one’s own. It’s an easy thing to forget when NBCSN’s crew breaks apart players coldly on national television. The rising star of advanced statistics is also at play here. If you were to see me on March 9, 2012, it would be easy to tell that I was very into that game against the Kings and I was very frustrated with its progress. What couldn’t necessarily be seen were a number of other factors, but they certainly did exist. I felt them very hard that night. That also doesn’t mean that I was feeling the same thing a month later when the Wings bowed out in five against the Preds, even if a remote may have also gone flying that night as well.

People are complicated. Many of us rage our whole lives against being reduced to one thing. Let’s put the term “headcase” to rest because if we’re being honest, it translates as “they’re weird and I don’t understand them, so something is wrong with their brain.” At best, it’s lazy analysis because it doesn’t respect that experience of sonder that we all come across at some point, a recognition that players have complicated and intricate lives. At worst, it’s a flippant remark at the expense of those who suffer from mental health issues.

Let’s recognize the strengths and weaknesses of Mantha’s game. He’s a smooth skater with soft hands who has one of the best shots in the league, plus a knack for finding the quiet areas of the ice. He also suffers from some positional issues of defense. It’s also important to recognize the fact that he bears the cross of a franchise, a city, a state, and millions of fans. That’s what you get when you’re The Guy. On Sunday, he consistently had good positioning for most of two periods and came two inches from tying the game midway through the first. Also, his grave mistake on goal 3 turned into a worst-case scenario with goal 4 when Blashill sat him and then demoted him to a checking line. It’s a type of pressure that most will never experience, and it deserves acknowledgement.

Let’s let go of the anger and desire for simple answers and scape goats and “headcases,” and just get on with it.

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