The great teams use a tough loss to get better. When you hear a lot of talk from guys who just lost big about how unfair it all was and how they couldn’t get a call from the refs, you can be certain they’ll lose the next one, too. You didn’t need to go to any videotape to analyze why the Washington Capitals can’t get it done in the playoffs year after year; all you had to do was listen to their captain and general manager.
It wasn’t so much the words that came from the mouth of Alex Ovechkin that were revealing; it was the tone, a plaintive, childlike, everyone-is-against-us attitude. The fact it was echoed by the higher-ups suggests the Caps need to do more in the offseason than tweak the roster. They need to tweak an entire mind-set. Ovechkin summed it up when he attributed their seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in the first round of the NHL playoffs to one-sided officiating, a contention George McPhee backed him up on. “I don’t think there’s a league conspiracy, but it sure didn’t feel right,” McPhee said. That indicated a broader organizational weakness, a lack of insight into the fundamental art of winning.
Hear that sound? It’s unmistakable. It’s the sound of a losing attitude. You know it when you hear it. It sounds like the opposite of what winners say. Which is what Rangers Coach John Tortorella really meant when he said, “We’ve got everybody and their brother whining up there in Washington about what happened in that series, and I think that’s a big reason why they lose that series.”
The headline on Tortorella’s remarks was that he took a shot at the Caps. But if you read the remark in context, you see that he was complimenting his own team’s superior attitude. Tortorella led his remarks off by saying this: “I like where our team is as far as how they handle themselves.” The main factor that allowed the Rangers to rally from a two-game deficit and win Game 7, 5-0, was not the whistles but an implacable toughness; they didn’t beat themselves like the Caps seem to do at the end of every season.
Winners don’t excuse failure; they explain it. Big difference. How they handle losing has everything to do with how much they win in the long run, because great coaches and great teams understand that a painful loss is an invitation to get better — if it’s treated with honest self-examination. Winning organizations have a kind of emotional flexibility. They don’t dwell on any unfairness but instead analyze why they didn’t absorb it better, so they can develop contingencies for overcoming it the next time — and they don’t repeat their failures. Excuse-making, on the other hand, is corrosive and becomes an attitude and leads to repetitive losing. Here’s why.
“The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely the one who dropped it,” Lou Holtz once said.
Just listen to a few of the greatest winners talk about losing, and compare it to the sounds coming out of the Capitals organization.
“I found out that if you are going to win games, you had better be ready to adapt,” said Scotty Bowman, winner of nine Stanley Cups.
“If you lose with humility, then you can come back,” Alabama’s Bear Bryant said. Something else college football’s six-time national champion said was this: “In a crisis, don’t hide behind anything or anybody. They’re going to find you anyway.”
Then there was Leo Durocher’s marvelous description of the winning attitude of Dizzy Dean, whose certainty gave him such will on the mound. “Luck? If the roof fell in and Diz was sitting in the middle of the room, everybody else would be buried and a gumdrop would fall in his mouth,” Durocher said.
The clearest insights I’ve ever heard about winning and losing come from my friend Pat Summitt, retired with 1,098 career victories, most of any college basketball coach of either gender. She was a huge confronter, not in an accusatory, finger-pointing way, simply a brutally frank assessor of her weaknesses. She had to analyze the loss before she could sleep — and sometimes that meant not sleeping for 48 hours — and then confront her players and drag them to the same realizations. She wrote her memoir this year, and I helped her type the following observation.
“Dishonest teams don’t win the big one,” she said. “They cover up their losses with rationalizations and soothe their eggshell egos with excuses, and they keep making the same mistakes. But the truly ambitious teams find relief in honesty when they’ve lost because it’s the diagnostic tool that leads to a solution — here’s what we did wrong and let’s fix it so we don’t ever have to feel that way again.”
She also said this: “At Tennessee, we have won games by the margin of a single good thought.”
The Caps lose playoff games by the margin of Ovechkin’s negative thoughts. They will do this for as long as they let silly contentions about officiating and league conspiracies blind them to the larger fact of their performance. Buried in Ovechkin and McPhee’s remarks is the suggestion that they were really the better team. They weren’t. They got purely outfought, especially by the Rangers’ third and fourth lines, and mentally collapsed. The refs didn’t play swarming defense that blocked 27 Capitals shots in Game 7. The refs didn’t hold Ovechkin to just one goal and one assist in the entire series.
Nine times the Caps have blown two-game leads in the playoffs — three of those in the last five years. That’s a pattern. Until they have a very candid conversation with themselves — until they ditch their mood of sulky complacency in favor of real self-examination — you can count on it to continue.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/