In sports, "intangibles" is the phrase often dug up and applied when we don't have any more numerical evidence to explain why we think a player is great. Thanks to guys like Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden, the NFL analysts who heap it as praise on any moving creature with an NFL contract, it's lost most of its value.
The word has become a punchline.
And in a way, that's too bad.
"Intangibles" isn't always a meaningless bailout phrase, and had it not been so widely applied by struggling analysts devoid of explanations for why Player A or B is good, we might still remember that.
For example, there's no way to quantify just how afraid opposing players are to skate anywhere near Chris Pronger(notes) because he will hurt them for fun. We'll never know how much of a difference Mark Recchi's(notes) leadership had on the Boston Bruins title run. And we'll never know how many rushes were thwarted because Pavel Datsyuk(notes) is sound positionally.
So how much should we take "intangibles" into account when deciding which players get to go into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and who gets left out in the cold?
My father-in-law (to be) Clark Gillies is in the Hall, and is one of the guys occasionally brought up as a fringe guy (by [expletives] like my boss here at Puck Daddy). Now excuse me while I pray neither of them read the previous sentence.
Clark's statistics are great, but I'm fairly certain he's not signing "HOF '02" after his name strictly based on numbers. The voters who played hockey or watched it attentively from the early 70's to late 80's can attest to the ridiculous amount of room he created for Bossy and Trottier (and other linemates), the steady levels of fear he struck in the hearts of others, and the crippling amount of pain he inflicted on opponents over the course of every playoff series.
If there were an "OPPP" statistic (Opposing Player's Pants Pooped), the discussion of his Hall worthiness would be a short one.
The Hockey Hall of Fame, with a few exceptions like Clark, is the Hall of Great Statistics, which isn't entirely bad. I don't care if you were entirely devoid of even a single intangible quality, if you put up points-per-game like Pavel Bure, you're more than worthy of note in the history of our game.
But I'm on board with recognizing the more well-rounded guys amongst those waiting to get in first, given that the impact they had on their teams can't entirely be quantified.
Specifically on this year's list of nominees, names like Doug Gilmour and Joe Nieuwendyk come to mind.
While their numbers still sparkle like mad (huge totals, but both under a point-per-game), they brought the things that make Don Cherry swoon (and big secret: Don actually knows hockey pretty well).
Beyond just wearing the 'C' on their chest, they're the men who helped define our image of the perfect captain. They're the guys who went into the corners, played scrappy and best represented their teams. Yes, they poured pucks into opposing nets, but were still effective when they weren't doing that. That's not corny, that's reality.
There's just so much more to being a Hall-worthy hockey player than boxcar numbers. We all have differing opinions on just how much those intangible qualities matter (and stat-heads will laugh at this old-timey view of mine), but that whole picture needs to be recognized when we compare our past greats.
And further, when players have been left out in the past for poor off-ice behavior, they should have been. Representing the League and yourself with class should be at least part of getting recognized as one of the League's all-time best. We love Bobby Orr because he was great on the ice, yes, but he's revered the way he is because of how he conducts himself off it.
The Hall of Fame is the most prestigious honor we can award our game's greatest players, and we need to make sure we decide who's deserving with the right mindset.
Stats are invaluable, but they aren't the only thing that matters.