Hockey’s Ken Dryden on Business Ethics

OK, so hockey legend Ken Dryden’s recent editorial, “The anatomy of three hits”, technically wasn’t about business ethics, but about the ethics of that business known as “hockey.” But you could essentially take the entire essay, substitute suitable examples from the history of business ethics, and the fundamental lessons would be the same.

Dryden’s basic point is about the nature of adversarial contexts. Hockey, like commerce, is a fundamentally adversarial context that also happens to be socially beneficial. That is, the rest of society benefits from the fact that both hockey players and business executives regard the other team as “the enemy,” and try their best to outdo them. Try, that is, within certain limits.

The hockey player, you see, is, like the business executive, subject to a strong duty of loyalty. The hockey player has a duty of loyalty to his team. The executive has a duty of loyalty to the corporation. But in both cases loyalty has its limits. Even the toughest of hockey’s tough guys know that.

These few sentences of Dryden’s, about tough-but-fair hockey players, sum up everything you need to know about the honourable business executive:

Players commit themselves to their teammates and to their teams. It’s what they love about their teammates, and what their teammates love about them. It’s what the fans love about them too. If these players are asked to do more, they will do more. Yet something keeps them from committing to what they shouldn’t commit.

That “something” is this: an understanding that despite the adversarial context in which they play, they are still human beings, as are their opponents.

Or at least, says Dryden, that’s how things generally have been in the world of professional hockey. But there are worrisome signs, of late, that the frequency and severity of dirty hits is ramping up. Here, the analogy continues: many people believe that bad behaviour in business is on the rise. Is there a role for enforcement here, to push behaviour back into line? Sure, says Dryden, but such external incentives can only go so far. What’s essential, then, both in hockey and in business, is that the players understand, and internalize, a basic respect for each other, and for the game.

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