This past week I read Warren Littlefield’s oral history of NBC’s Must See TV entitled Top of the Rock, and while some of it was mildly interesting, it was not quite the deep dive I expected. However, one indelible nugget did emerge: during the early days of ER, George Clooney called all the actors into his trailer and demanded they band together as a tight unit and push each other to new heights. Clooney was merciless on the other actors – and no one was going to dare milk a scene or mess up a mark. Collectively they were going to raise their acting game and not following suit was not an option. Suddenly, ER is one of the top ten shows on television and the acting is unreal and actors are getting ridden mercilessly in table reads if they do not bring their A game.
The show needed an Alpha Dog to push everyone to new and previous unheard of heights and Clooney stepped up to assume the role without hesitation. When he moved on, Noah Wyle was more than ready to accept the mantle and the show carried on at a high level for fifteen years. The point of all this?
The Alpha Dog Theory is proven again.
The Alpha Dog Theory, you ask, what might that be?
Every team, show, group, etc. cannot thrive without an Alpha Dog to lead them. The job of the Alpha Dog is simple:
1) push their team to the absolute limits of their ability
2) take over and carry the team when it matters most,
3) set a standard for all others to mercilessly work to and ensure that standard is met
4) be able to lead the team through any adversity no matter what through doing whatever it takes to win
Using the example of ER again, Clooney clearly outlined what the cast was going to be responsible for and then drove them to be better at every possible turn through his own indelible performance.
How does this translate to sports? Never has an example been clearer than after the 2014 Winter Olympics. Let’s looks at three hockey teams: Canada, USA, and Russia. Canada won gold and the US and Russia left Sochi without winning anything of value in the greatest sport in the world. Why were the Canadians successful and the Americans and Russians not? Arguably both teams looked stronger than Canada early in the tournament – in fact, in the early games it seemed inconceivable that the US and Russia would not win medals.
Again, why did Canada leave Sochi with the gold while the Americans and Russians won nothing?
Simply put, Canada had a clear Alpha Dog hierarchy while the other two teams did not. In Vancouver in 2010 Canada was a team in transition between the older generation and the new and the team nearly lost the gold medal because Sidney Crosby did not assert himself until the last possible moment. In Sochi the pecking order was clear: Crosby was Alpha Dog, Toews was his number one wingman and the defensemen Doughty, Weber etc. all followed their lead. Everyone on the team knew all they needed was a stout defensive effort all the way through and then their Alpha Dogs would come through when they were needed.
Watching the gold medal game and seeing Crosby and Toews raise their games to a level few other can fully understand was breathtaking. After cruising through the tourney like Team USA basketball playing a steady stream of Angola’s, we came to the games that mattered. Against the US and then Sweden, Crosby and Toews did whatever it took to win. They back checked, they shut down whoever they needed to, offensively against Sweden both finally scored key goals. Crosby was the best player on the ice in the gold medal game – he made one defensive play where he poked a puck out of the defensive end to a streaking Chris Kunitz for a breakaway. Maybe two other guys in the history of the game (Gretzky and Orr) make that play. Does Alex Ovechkin? Not a chance. Does Patrick Kane? Not a chance.
The reason Team USA failed was because they lacked an Alpha Dog and on a team that talented, someone has to lead the way. The candidates are all 2nd guys on their teams (maybe they lead their team in scoring, but when it matters most they are not the guy): Ryan Kesler, Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane. Not one of those guys is an Alpha Dog, they are simply super-duper wingmen (not literally) who score a lot, and support their leaders. Why does Kane have two Stanley Cup rings: because he plays with Toews whom I find to be the most terrifying crunch time player ever. He will bull his way through three defenders and score with two or three minutes left and then go out and shut down the opposing teams top player without even bothering to skate to the bench for a rest. Toews does whatever it takes to win, regardless of himself and his stats and the team has been incredibly successful following his lead. He can blend his game into any situation and will willingly take a back seat if it is best for his team. Kane? Not so much an all-around talent, although he is a (I begrudgingly admit this under duress) great scorer and playmaker.
Russia had a far greater problem: they had an Alpha Dog named but he is not meant to be an Alpha Dog. The reasons Ovechkin cannot be an Alpha Dog are simple: he is not a leader, he does not get better when it matters most, and he has had top dog status foisted upon him when really he would be much better if all he had to do was score. He cannot lead a team out of the rink let alone to anything of real value. There is a reason that year after year he gets crushed by Crosby or others in the Playoffs – he simply does not get it. His game is not one that transitions easily to a team, he is more of an isolation player who thrives when an offense is tailored to his skills. He does not slide into a team built around defensive efficiency and a free flowing offense. The reason he fails year after year and Olympics after Olympics is because he cannot make his teammates better. It is not part of his game (and another reason why his Hart trophies are absolutely laughable). Russia has always been a team of individuals and without a leader to pull them together – someone like Pavel Datsyuk would have been better – they will always fail. This is not entirely Ovie’s fault, as they have pushed him to become an Alpha Dog when clearly he is incapable when he is more of a Kane who has never played with a Toews or a Crosby.
A few years ago when people laughably debated whether Ovie or Crosby was better, no one ever considered Crosby’s two way abilities, or how he could make anyone on his team better. He drove them forwards (getting players like Jordan Staal huge contracts that have not exactly panned out) to heights they could not have imagined: Chris Kunitz was on Team Canada! – while Ovechkin has never accomplished anything close to the same.
Alpha Dog problems are why Miami struggled to beat Dallas (LeBron had not fully taken over) and why they have beaten San Antonio and OKC in consecutive years for the Title now that LBJ is established (on both his team and in the league). This is why OKC has taken a step this year as Durant has seized the mantle, and why Carmelo Anthony needs another Alpha Dog to play with because he is most certainly not one. My beloved Canucks have struggled with Alpha Dog issues – namely we lacked one for most of the time the Sedins and Kesler have been on our squad. No one seized the title.
How did Man U win the Premiership last year and then fall apart this season? Lack of an Alpha Dog: in this case Sir Alex.
Year after year you can see the examples in all walks of life: Teams led by a single, clear Alpha Dog win titles and achieve success, teams that are not fall short. That is why after the Canucks had finally vanquished Chicago in 2011 (after some terrifying late Toews heroics) I said I would have traded anyone, anyone on our team for Toews. Even the twins. Both of them. Keep in mind this team went on to lose in Game Seven on the Stanley Cup Finals before the title window slammed shut hard on them and now they face trading Ryan Kesler this year. If you would trade anyone on your team, even two player at their absolute peaks, it says something about how valuable that player is.
The lesson, as always, each team needs a clear Alpha Dog in order to win. I am extremely happy that Team Canada has one (and two potentially!) and moving forwards we are in good shape and the country can breathe easy. Now, does anyone know where the Canucks can find one, preferably before next season?