One Thing to Reach the Promised Land—Another Thing to Stay There


Photo: NHL Via Getty Images

Fortunately for you, I’m a hockey fan. Not a quantum mechanics physicist. Nor a thermodynamicist. But I very well might be the first to apply one of the universal natural laws to explain, at least in part, why winning the Stanley Cup is hard. But also why defending the Stanley Cup is even harder. 

Said differently: it’s one thing to reach the Promised Land—another thing to stay there.

Bear with me while I try to not embarrass myself with this explanation.

Consider Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Few historians know he was the third line center for the minor league team located in Cambridge, England. Even fewer know that Sir Isaac “Zac” Newton” is generally credited as being the premier hockey analyst of the Renaissance Era. He was among the first to be interviewed on the old Sports Machine show (“Let’s go to the videotape”) prior to the dawn of ESPN and the modern era.

One day, Zac was asked to explain to why winning a Cup was so difficult, but keeping the Cup was even more problematical. He answered by providing the hockey community with a fundamental truth.

AZac’s First Law: The Law Of Hockey Motion

According to Newton, the first obstacle to back-to-back Stanley Cups is explained by his First Law of Hockey Motion, also referred to as the Law of Inertia. Although there is much more to this Law, simply stated, Zac’s First Law of Hockey Motion is “a hockey team at rest stays at rest and a hockey team in motion stays in motion.”

Application of the First Law to Champions

According to Sir Zac, this first law accounts, for all manner of reasons, why Stanley Cup champions often fail to repeat. As we witnessed this Spring, winners only emerge as winners following a protracted and grueling championship campaign. According  Zac, too often, the victors soon after winning and parading the Cup around the globe, prefer to rest and remain at rest at their own peril. This First Law helps to explain the difficulty of accomplishing a back-to-back.

Root causes for this bizarre impact are numerous:

• Myopias (“if it ain’t busted, don’t fix it”)
• Resistance to Change (“don’t tinker with line combinations, instead, stick to our game”)
• Complacency (“we won before, we can win again”)
• Entitlement (“the Cup is ours to lose”)
• Overconfidence (“we are big and we are bad”)
• Loss of Motivation (“I’ve had my payday. I protected my family. My future is set”)
• Unprepared to Defend Cup (players come to Camp overweight and out of shape)
• Over-emphasis on continuity at the expense of innovation leading to the element of surprise
• Fallacy of Recency (unrealistic belief that last year’s team chemistry can be switched on at will one year later)
• Reconstitution of the Core Team (“most of the puzzle pieces are back and just need to be reassembled”)

Application of the First Law to the Losers

On the other hand, Newton’s First Law also applies to the competitors, challengers, and runners-up (collectively all “losers,” at least for previous season). Far from being at rest—and remaining at rest—the challengers are more motivated than ever to be in motion and stay in motion. This is particularly so when careers of players and coaches are on the line.

According to Zac’s First Law of Hockey Motion, here is the typical behavior of hockey teams with the taste of failure still in their mouths:

• Return to the drawing board immediately
• Study videotape ad infinitum
• Breakdown in detail why the champ was victorious
• Use the loss as a catalyst for organizational change, sometimes wholesale in nature
• Engage aggressively in free agency, the draft process, and the pool of talent available for trade
• Rid themselves of unduly expensive players, inordinate salary cap hits, and those on the downside of their careers
• Experiment with various line combinations
• Adjust offensive, defensive, and special team tendencies and strategies
• Hire winning coaches who suddenly and unexpectedly are in the labor market

One more consideration.

There is a corollary law that also works to the disadvantage of the winner of the Stanley Cup. Although he did not discover this Law, Sir Zac would almost certainly agree that hockey is also bound by it. I refer to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Perhaps this law warrants a later article, but distilled to its very essence, this Second Law essentially says that, left to its own devices, any object, person, or organization, will degrade (disintegrate, dissolve, erode, collapse, unravel) by entropy. Everything in the universe—including a hockey team—is bound by this law as everything eventually moves from order to disorder. In hockey, this concept can be expanded to include entropy as it relates to roster strength and star power, the number of goals scored, shots on goal, length of time on ice, skate speed, puck movement, changes from winning to losing, degrading from high quality to mediocrity, and other considerations.

Are The Capitals Doomed by Newton’s First Law of Hockey Motion?

Fortunately, no.

Here is one formula for countering the effects of the First Law of Hockey Motion and for overriding the tendency for entropy. If the Caps (and by extension, their fans) abide by this formula, we have every reason for a parade in June of 2019.

• Avoid the Malady of “Cup-Itis”—dismiss any thoughts of entitlement.
• Guard Against Letdown—Take affirmative measures to calibrate the team, the fans, and the media. Set expectations high, but not so high that the team is overconfident.
• Accept There’s a Target on Our Back—Expect every Capitals’opponent next season to bring their A-Games. The competition will prepare itself to face the champs, not a group of schlubs. Expect the Caps to face extra effort. All teams want to knock off the Champions.
• Be Open to the New Coach—Welcome any tweaks he makes to the system. It’s a new year. Nothing stays the same. The team must be open to constructive fine-tuning.
• Occupy “Our Steps”—No encroachers or interlopers brazenly perched on our territory.
• Weave a New Safety Net Behind Holtby—embrace and empower our new backup goalie. His time will come no matter how well Braden plays.
• Compensate for Absence of Certain Seasoned Veterans—Beagle will be missed. Time for someone else to step up. Easy for me to say, but bring Orpik back, albeit at a reduced price.
• Try New Line Combinations—experiment for diverse mixes and matches. Also, anticipate that there will be an internal pressure for more time on ice.
• Players Returning in Less Then Optimal Shape—Nope. Not an option, no exceptions.
• Other Teams Have Improved Themselves—Undeniably so. Winning teams are already game planning for this phenomena.
• Remember: The Past is Past. As glorious as it was, only the future awaits. Ok to use the past as inspiration. But use the future for perspiration.

Maybe it is not possible to overcome the forces of entropy, although I will leave this for the scientists to debate. But one thing is sure: it is possible (at least for the short-to-mid-term) to postpone or delay entropic forces. To stall them. Render them impotent.

The formula: stay in motion. Stay hungry. Make it personal. Practice and then practice some more. Carry the battle to the opponent. Exert upward pressure always.

By Jim McCarthy

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His passion for the Caps has grown over the decades, which has included time as a season ticket holder, social media and community organizer, and most recently led to the founding of NoVa Caps in 2014. Jon earned a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering at Old Dominion University, and is a Systems Engineer during intermissions, which has been instrumental in supporting his Capitals habit.
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