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Victory: In the Eyes of the Beholder

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With the Stanley Cup Final, the Triple Crown and The Memorial all converging, its a good time to look at this whole "victory" thing.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend was remarkable if you have even a passing interest in the world of sports.  On Saturday, we watched American Pharoah's epic performance win the Triple Crown (no e-mails please, this is the correct spelling of the horse's name, even though it is the incorrect spelling of "pharaoh") .  That was followed almost immediately by the Tampa Bay Lightning posting a gutsy Stanley Cup Final win in a raucous Game 2 that featured speed, skill and intrigue (What happened to Ben Bishop?) all in a taut 60 minutes of hockey.  Finally, on Sunday we watched David Lingmerth and Justin Rose wage an equally epic battle in The Memorial.  All heady stuff, and it got me thinking.  (No groans please.) What is it about this thing called "victory" that we find so compelling?  How do our perceptions of victory -- and the way we treat it -- differ, depending upon our perspective?  What is the net impact of how we respond to victory and defeat?  (No worries -- I'll try not to get too metaphysical with this)

The topic crystallized for me watching The Belmont Stakes.  As American Pharoah started down the stretch, Frosted provided a quick challenge.  We've seen this act before -- would American Pharoah fall back, or resist the charge? The answer was instantaneous, as the horse found another gear and rode into history by 5 1/2 lengths. That's approximately twice the margin of victory that the last Triple Crown winner -- Affirmed -- had in all three races combined. As the horse crossed the line, anyone who had played any sport at any competitive level had to feel just a hint of that visceral release that is unique to the competitive realm.  It is that strange brew of  of emotion, adrenaline and relief that combines to prompt things like jockey Victor Espinoza's spontaneous "Holy S**t!" after realizing that he had finally exorcized the demons in his third attempt.

The Belmont Stakes, of course, is one extreme, where literally decades of pent-up effort and frustration are focused and released in just two and a half minutes.   In the ensuing Lightning -- Blackhawks game, that energy was only slightly diffused over a 2.5 hour span, but was only somewhat less raucous when it was all over.  The next day at Muirfield, we saw the culmination of four days worth of effort focused into a tension-packed playoff, where the intensity was somehow magnified by the utter silences and the stoic faces, which were then supplanted by roars when a shot was executed or a putt dropped.  Even as victory was in hand, Lingmerth managed only the briefest of smiles, evoking the image of Ben Hogan in decades past, while those around him cheered.

So, what is this "victory" thing, and why do we care so much?   Psychologists will tell you that athletics are merely a proxy for war, and that the games amount to nothing more than ritualized combat, complete with uniforms and commanders, which provides the athletes and fans with a relatively harmless outlet for some relatively violent primal instincts.  That's probably true at some level, but I'm not prepared to dismiss things so blithely, nor to be that cynical.  I think it's more complicated than that, and that our perceptions, definitions and reactions to "victory" have changed over time, and vary depending upon your point of reference.

Before going further, it's important to note that this sense of victory or accomplishment is by no means limited to the athletic field.  We all experience our share of victories and defeats on a daily basis in our varying roles as students, workers, spouses and parents.  Those triumphs are infinitely more important than anything we can stage in the sports arena, but simply lack the money, scope and media attention of sports.  Since this is a hockey blog, we'll focus the discussion on the athletic endeavor, without in any way denigrating those other journeys, which can fire competitive juices just as much as a Stanley Cup Final.

In my view, the concept of "victory" varies significantly, depending upon your point of view.  The athlete's perception of victory (or defeat) is unique.  That athlete is totally invested in the effort, and that win represents a validation of not only the effort in those minutes, hours or days, but a validation of years of effort.  The athlete cannot divorce the victory or loss from the effort that produced it, and recognizes . . . albeit reluctantly . . . that there is not always a perfect correlation between the two.   This is particularly true when you remove money from the equation.  Until Arnold Palmer hit the PGA, there was little money for a touring professional, and virtually all had to work as club professionals to make ends meet.  The victory was all there was, and Palmer was the poster boy for the concept of victory being the quintessential goal (but not at the expense of sportsmanship or fair play).  Ditto in professional hockey, where only a precious few players were able to carve out truly comfortable livings prior to expansion in 1967.  Victory was the sole measure of success.  If you didn't win, you gave credit to your opponent, then leveraged the experience to try better next time.

Many argue that the advent of big money in sports has denigrated the athletes' aspiration for victory, I take a different view.  While it is certainly true for some athletes, who are content to cash a check and move on to the next tournament, meet or game, I think those are the exceptions, rather than the rule.  Whether these guys shoot 64 or 85 on the course, are in the Stanley Cup playoffs or sitting on the couch in the post-season, they care. Look in their eyes and you can see the disappointment, bordering on hatred, when they fall short.  Most importantly, in my mind, is that the athlete's reaction to a win or loss is almost equally divided between the result and the quality of the effort that produced it.  Listen carefully when players are interviewed after a game, tournament or meet, win or lose.  Chances are you'll hear many times when they temper their enjoyment of the victory with what they perceive to be a poor effort, and sometimes mitigates the sting of defeat with the quality of the effort.  If you shoot a 63 at Muirfield, and you lose to a guy who shoots 62, you just have to tip your hat to him and move on.

The point is that victory is -- or should be -- equated with excellence.  When I spent 20 years as a competitive swimmer, that was the mantra.  Work hard, do your best, and if you swim your best time ever and come up short, get back in the pool and keep working.  By the same token, if you managed to win a race with less than your best time or because an opposing swimmer was disqualified, that visceral satisfaction was muted.  Sure, you wouldn't give back the medal, but it was just not the same.  Victory and defeat were teaching moments, counseling athletes not only that both process and result mattered, but that when the quality of the process and the quality of the result diverge, it was simply one of those life moments to be accepted for what it was.  Victory or defeat, by itself, was not a value judgment on the individual.

Of course, as you move perspective away from the athlete, views change.  Focus moves less to process, and ultimately almost exclusively to result.  If you watched trainer Bob Baffert at the Belmont -- a guy who was a close as possible to being on the track with Espinoza, and had tremendous personal and professional investment in the result -- his reaction was exuberant, but a step more measured than Espinoza.  As invested as he was, he did not have that unique combination of adrenaline, effort and focus that only the athlete can experience.  When the Stanley Cup is hoisted this next week, listen to the players vs. the coaches.  That same difference in reaction will be there -- again attributable to that subtle distance from the actual effort.

By the the time you reach the fan,  a win is universally good, a loss is universally bad, and any attempt to cheapen the victory or provide a rationale for the defeat is treated with vehement disgust. Sure there are exceptions, but it is more the rule.  Such is the luxury of having little investment in the actual process, short of the purchase of a team sweater, hat or related paraphernalia.  The fan is not compelled to be rational, does not have to be concerned with rules or quality of effort, and has no accountability.  That combination allows unfettered, emotional reaction, positive or negative.  It's neither a benefit or a plague, it is just a fact of life today.   For the fan, it is truly not the excellence of the effort, but the pure vanquishment of the opponent, whether by hook or crook. Sports are intended to be a release for the fan, so all's fair in the grandstands.

The problem, from where I sit, is that we've somehow transitioned that fan perspective of victory onto the playing field for our kids, and in the process have bastardized the real value of the victory/defeat paradigm. On the one hand, we counsel the kids to win -- sometimes to almost absurd lengths -- but too frequently forget the importance of the process.  At the same time, we have cheapened the concept of victory by functionally eliminating the concept of losing.  The problem with "everyone getting a trophy" is unfair to all concerned.  Those who have put in the time, effort and work into achieving victory should be entitled to celebrate and enjoy the fruits of their labors -- hopefully recognizing that it is transient, and the work must start again.  However, the fact that another individual or team has lost is not a value judgment on them, but is simply one of those facts of life.  If the loss came as the result of a poor effort on their part, they need to recognize that and work to overcome that.  If it came as the result of a superior effort by the opponent, accepting that is equally valuable.

The demonization of victory, and the disregard of the process of reaching it, robs people of valuable life lessons.  We all win and lose every day in this game we call life, and using those "defeats" as incentives to greater effort is a lesson that the athletes we all root for (and against) have learned . . . repeatedly.  So, when the Cup is skated around the rink by the Blackhawks or Lightning sometime in the next several days, let's honor the occasion with the exuberance of fans, but never lose sight of what it does . . . and does not . . .represent.  Stay tuned.