The Fake GM Files begin! Or, “It’s Just Dots Hockey”

New project time.

I’ve explained what I’m going after in the Fake GM page, so click it to learn all you need to know about the posts.  The quick summary: this is a work of fiction based on a hobby of mine.  I’m the fake General Manager of the Florida Panthers hockey team.  I picked Florida at random: I had a 1-in-30 chance of getting my beloved hometown Islanders, but it didn’t work out.  Part of me is glad of it, because I would start freaking out about everything in the fake game – seriously, I can’t even play fantasy hockey if I have to root against my own team.

Now that you know the restrictions on the writing, here’s the situation we all find ourselves in… this first entry is the prelude to the unfolding story, how my fictional reporter came to be writing about his in-game avatar, according to the world they inhabit, that I hope to describe for you.  The story begins below the fold.

Puck Hunt

         On July 1, 2019, I officially ended my employment with the Florida Panthers ice hockey club.  My friends thought it was a stupid thing to do.  After all, the Panthers were a dynasty, having finished with the best overall record in the National Hockey League five times in eleven seasons, and winning the Stanley Cup seven times over the same period.  And it was a difficult decision, even though I knew it was absolutely right for me, because I genuinely enjoyed the job and the sport.  But the funny thing is, the success of the team on the ice had never been the point to me, and in the year that followed, I wound up proving it.

         You see, I had no clear idea about the next step in my professional life.  A good friend of mine who had been making amateur movies came to me with an idea – he knew of my lifelong interest in creative writing, and wanted me to dust off some of the scripts I had in various stages of incompletion, finish them to presumably-professional standards, and then he would turn them into successful finished products.

         And for a couple of months I did work at it – honest, Frank! – but ultimately, all I managed to do was realize the reason why those scripts never became more than a hobby to amuse myself in off-hours, rather than a serious concern.  Simply put, I preferred watching real drama.  Hockey had fed that need I had to invest in an uncertain outcome, and to experience the genuine thrill of risk and reward.  A story to which I already held the ending was fun but not rewarding in the same way.

         Frank, however, is a persistent and clever guy.  He suggested that, if I needed not to know how things would turn out, that we could do more unscripted things, simply set up the scenarios and film them as they played out, in character, as if in a documentary.  That seemed much more appealing: it suited my temperament perfectly, and it meant that I was no longer obliged to finish any script myself; the players would do it for me and I could have the thrill of discovery.

         While those ideas were percolating, I still had a lot of spare time, and I was no longer using it rewriting old, bad scripts.  Instead, I found myself writing about my old job, about the real-life drama, weaving it into a narrative that became The Twelve Year Road Trip.

         But of course, that was a book, not a film, and Frank still wanted one of those.

         In the end, we compromised.  I still got the book.  During the research and interviewing necessary to that book, I approached my old boss, Mike Beginner, with a request… would he mind if Frank and I followed him around for a season for a cinema verité look at a season of the NHL?  This would get my friend his film.

         It was not a terribly original idea.  Entire seasons of documentary television have been made about following sports teams.  The twist was that this was not going to be a look at the stories of the players and the game this time, but at a particular phenomenon: how pursuing success in a visceral and physical sport relied very much on detachment and cold analysis.  It was meant to be a traffic camera set up at the intersection of passion and objectivity.  And I really thought that I had the perfect traffic cop at the center of it all: the architect of the dynasty that helped bring hockey sabermetrics out of the proverbial parent’s basement and into general consciousness.

         “It sounds like Moneyball on Ice,” Mike said when he heard my idea.  This was a big problem – Moneyball had already been written and turned into a movie.  “Maybe you could adapt it into something interactive.”  And he shot me an idea: a series of short interactive movies, of no set length, covering segments of the season.  While the movie was playing, the viewer could highlight hot zones on the screen, identified by small captions similar to the now-ubiquitous scorebox in every sports game telecast, and they could see pop-up information illustrating or detailing the situation they were watching on screen – either some statistical bit, or a small pop-up video footnote.  It would give the viewer a lot of control over the content and let them have as much or as little extra information as they wanted, without disrupting the story.

         Now, I may yet do that, but neither I nor Frank had the chops to pull off a thing like that.  I’m afraid that my ambition was much smaller: video journal, a day-by-day look into how a hockey franchise does its business.  And there, Mike was much more reluctant.  He wasn’t afraid of my giving away trade secrets: he’d written a book himself, two years prior to mine.  He was much more concerned that I would have no new story to tell.

         “I don’t get it,” I said, because I didn’t get it.  “This is a different kind of story.”

         His answer showed me, not only that I didn’t get it, but that I didn’t get why I didn’t get it.  “It is, and it’s a great idea; but if you do it, in the end you’re going to have a different kind of story that you’re forced to tell the same old way.”

         In the end, as you can see, I prevailed upon him, by saying that my prior book was about my experiences and feelings, heavily influenced by hindsight.  This would be a story told as it progressed from moment-to-moment, with no idea of how it was going to end.  In other words, my kind of a story.

         What you are about to read is almost that story.  Frank and I did film, and we got a lot of wonderful stuff, but in the end, we don’t have a staff of dozens who can edit and produce and do post-production and then turn around a finished episode two days after we’re done, so that an audience at home can watch (or interact) with the finished product while it’s topical.  The only way we can do it is to condense the footage, eventually, into a more conventional documentary format.  And when I realized that, some eleven months after I had spoken to Mike in his office about the idea, I suddenly saw what he was saying: I was going to have a story developing moment-by-moment that I could only tell after the fact – influenced by hindsight, invariably picking the moments that fit a narrative when the decisions were all made with no such advantage.  That unfolding, interactive adventure, where the “author” had no more idea than the players or audience about what was about to happen, was gone.  Mike didn’t resist the idea because he disliked it, but because we could never do it full credit.

         Well, that sort of illustrates the reason why the man is a very successful general manager, to say nothing of the reason why the project held such appeal to me.  Watching a guy come up with an objection that it took me almost a year to see for myself is strangely entertaining.  I hope an audience will find it so, because it’s exactly what I want to try to capture, and I have one tool, at least, that is almost as immediate as that experience – a regular running commentary.  So, if you will, this is the book of the documentary of the book, the written account of the pursuit of decision-making on the fly.

         For the record: that conversation occurred on October 5, 2020.  I’m writing these words in the early a.m. of September 9th, 2021.  The Florida Panthers have just opened their training camp, thirty-six players under the watchful eyes of almost as many scouts, coaches, trainers, and executives.  Like most of the 15 previous camps the Panthers have run under Mike Bonner, there isn’t much uncertainty over which 23 of these men will begin the year in the NHL, which will be sent north to Rochester, NY, to join the AHL affiliate, and which will be returned to their junior clubs.  But for the first time in many years – since before the club’s first Stanley Cup, in fact – there is a lot of uncertainty about the group as a whole.  And to explain that trepidation, it is necessary at the outset to shift backwards, to pick up the story in the same spot we joined.  Our next entry will be for June 19th, 2021, as the National Hockey League prepared for its annual Amateur Entry Draft in Dallas, Texas.  I will try, as best as possible, to catch you up so we can start the season together on October 5th, 2021.  And I will stick to the story as it was happening, to try to capture the feeling of these decisions as they were being made, without the safety net of knowing the outcome.

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