Happy Friday, BSB community! As we all know, our beloved Rangers missed the playoffs this season. Suffice it to say, this has created a much longer off season than we have all recently grown accustomed to. While a huge bummer, I prefer to look at it as an opportunity. For one, I personally have enjoyed watching stress free playoff hockey for the first time in forever. Well, that’s not entirely true. When the Pens, Devils, Bruins and Flyers were alive there was a little stress, but thankfully they didn’t last long.
More importantly, it gives us an opportunity to discuss the game, the team and other hockey related issues without the break-neck pace of a typical off season. This is exactly what I would like to do this morning. But, I need your help. We have an incredibly diverse readership here. People coming from all walks of life to enjoy content and discussion about our favorite team. Different ages, professions, education, geography, gender, etc., creates a multitude of different perspectives and ideas, which is a great thing. We don’t always get along, but the variety of opinions is what makes this site so great.
So, here is what I ask of you. I am going to tackle a difficult subject in the hockey world: the application of advanced statistics to the casual fan. This is obviously ground that has been covered before. However, I want to take a different bent on it. I was discussing this issue with a couple of gentlemen on Twitter yesterday and would like to get some additional feedback. So, as I go through this discussion, I would ask two things: 1) be honest with yourself about how you feel about these issues and if you choose to share your thoughts on this post, be honest in your comments on it, and 2) be willing, if just for one day, to cast aside the stone throwing and animosity you may have to the other side of this debate. Everyone good with that? Good.
The big question raised was what barriers exist to helping the casual fan get on board with a deeper mathematical analysis of the game? This seems like a simple question, but it is actually quite a lot to unpack. Let’s start with the current state of advanced hockey statistics. At this juncture, we have correlations. We have enough data to suggest that certain characteristics positively correlate to certain results. That is not to say we have proof of such things, but we believe we can use their predictive value to make better decisions.
This theory has been applied through numerous, and relatively recently created statistical benchmarks. I think the creators of these metrics and even their most devout believers will concede that they are not perfect, and they cannot be used as the end-all, be-all reference point for either constructing a roster or debating a co-worker at the water cooler. To be used correctly, they must be looked at in context, in conjunction with other markers (some more developed than others) to arrive at a defensible conclusion.
From a cultural standpoint, sports are incredibly slow to adapt these types of advances. Historically, the sports industry has been administered with a jockish perspective that doesn’t need any fancy numbers to know the game. Baseball is a great example. We now know that baseball is fairly easy to analyze. Each play happens in a vacuum and can be physically measured in a number of ways. It’s all very isolatable and over the past 10-20 years, these stats have become more and more reliable and applied. That’s not to say their inception was universally beloved. Hell, they made an entire movie (from a best-selling book) about that very struggle. People who believe they have a history and a deep understanding of the game based on their experiences in the trenches do not particularly enjoy being told everything they believe is wrong by some Ivy-Leaguer with a spreadsheet.
As we know, hockey is much more fluid. Literally thousands of tiny plays happen every single shift, by a varying number of players who all may be involved, or not. Events are chain reactions, which could be set off by a small mistake 20-60 seconds prior. It could have been with half a different line on the ice when the determining play was actually made. There is far more frequency to players being in a different area of the ice than they lined up at a faceoff. Goaltenders influence their defensemen and vice versa. Forwards either do or don’t back check, which influences goaltender performance. Everything is dependent on everything else.
And sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle. Stats guys and gals like to minimize the impact of the emotional component of the game. I get it, it’s harder to quantify than the already hard to quantify events on the ice. However, this is still a game played by people and they have human responses, both positive and negative. Historians will still probably be trying to explain the Golden Knights fifty years from now. Sometimes a group of players just has “it”, whatever “it” may be. This is why I personally believe that a mix of observational analysis will always be a companion to statistical analyses, especially in hockey.
Obviously, the point of advanced statistics is to be able to create a better decision-making process for organizations to build their rosters to contention. Without the framework they provide for a universal definition of what makes a team successful, it is basically a free for all with all different executives using their own personal compass for what they value in a player. Trends and market inefficiencies are ripe during the early days of this type of implementation and I believe it makes watching offseason maneuvering all the more enjoyable.
So, why are people adverse to accepting the role that this information plays in the game moving forward? That is ultimately what I would like to have all of you help me understand. One theory is that stats people are pompous, condescending and arrogant. They treat your more casual fan as uneducated and ignorant. There is probably some truth to that, but I don’t necessarily believe that is the missing link between hockey ideologies. There is obviously just the simple theory that they aren’t accurate/effective. Sure, there are some holes in the story that these stats tell, but I think we are past the point where we can say they have no merit.
Well, what about general hockey philosophy? I think that falls into how much you value intangibles. If you feel that someone’s ability to deliver a big hit, a timely fight or win a big faceoff is something to be valued, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, you might be willing to outwardly dismiss the stats saying so. I think less superficially, the philosophy that you would rather sacrifice a little skill for a player with a certain work ethic or willingness to do those unpleasant things on the ice (battle in corners, agitate in front of the net, play with an edge, etc.), can be a driving force in the rejection of the statistical conclusion, as well.
Barring some dedicated ideology that draws a line in the sand about how you want your hockey team to look, the rest of it is emotional. I honestly don’t think there is any getting around that. This goes for acceptance of the stats, as well. Some people want to be part of a certain perspective, something they can help to identify their fandom with. Some people are resisting a change of something that has been a major part of their life since childhood.
For me, I’m of the age when Richter and Leech and Messier were roaming The Garden ice. They were larger than life. They made hockey mystic. In many ways, I wasn’t being naïve, as their legacies have stood the test of time in the hockey world and their feats were just as impressive to everyone else as they were to me. It is part of the fabric of who I am and what makes me love the game. I understand people who want the game to always be the way it was when they fell in love with it.
Is that it then? I don’t necessarily think so, I think it varies, probably greatly. There are definitely people out there who simply do not have the intellectual capacity to digest these stats and understand their significance, so they lash out against them. There are people for whom, hockey is a simple manifestation of their aggression, and they use that as an outlet to assuage their need to see someone get hit with something. Call it the gladiator mentality. “These guys are here for our entertainment and I want to see hits and fights. If the game loses that, it isn’t worth it”.
There are those who believe that the indicators of success are leading to softer skills being valued and the type of person who plays the game is changing. Those players with aggressive, violent tendencies are being marginalized for players whose focus is on specific skills, rather than a specific mentality. They are making the game soft.
There is also an intrusion component. The hockey world tends to be pretty closed off. For you to be accepted in the world of Hockey Men, you need to have grown up around the game, played your whole life, etc., etc., and this new wave of people who have taken interest in the game, despite having never played or shared their experience, is also resisted by those at the top level, and down to your youth hockey organizations. “What could you know about it if you haven’t played it”?
Additionally, there are political undertones. In my experience, those with a more progressive political bent are generally more willing to embrace this type of change, as they do with most societal issues. People that are more conservative, tend to resist the need to fix what isn’t broken. You can debate all day whether the thing actually is broken, but the type of mindset that guides your political leanings tends to do the same with sports.
With all that said, the question I pose to you, our community, is this: if you don’t believe these stats have value, what type of conversation/perspective/message would make you more willing to have an honest discussion about acceptance of, if not these current set of stats, but overall mathematical application of information to hockey?
On the other side of the coin, for those of you who believe in the merits of advanced statistics, how do you think the message could be better delivered? Short of dragging non-believers by the scruffs of their necks to enlightenment, how can we help those who reject their merits feel more comfortable being open minded?
Now, there is a high probability that this little experiment here will be a complete disaster, given the subject matter. But, I believe in you. I think we can have an adult conversation about the path forward to a better understood game. If not, well, enjoy the weekend, everyone!"Discussing advanced statistics",