By Colby Cosh - Saturday, February 2, 2013 - 0 Comments
Phil Birnbaum, who along with “Tom Tango” is probably one of Canada’s two great gifts to quantitative analysis in sports, has been studying the NHL over the past few weeks. It was only after a second or third reading of his series breaking down luck versus skill in the NHL standings that I was able to really grasp what he was saying. I’m a fluent speaker of basic stats-ese, but not a native. Phil is a pretty approachable explainer of things (including some of the things devised by Tango), so usually I don’t have to bash myself over the head too hard with his findings. But I didn’t see how interesting the message was until now.
Probably all hockey fans know instinctively that the introduction of the shootout has injected a fair amount of randomness into the year-end NHL standings. Birnbaum, looking at the shootout-era data, has now shown just how much. In the old NHL that still had ties, it took an average of 36 NHL games for a team’s actual talent to become as important to its standings position as sheer randomness. “Talent” is defined here as repeatable ability, ability relevant to prediction: after 36 games, your team’s distance in the standings from .500 would be about half luck and half “talent”, and that would be reflected in your guess as to how they would do in the next 36 games (assuming nothing else about the team had changed). Over a full season, we could be confident that there was little randomness left in the ordering of the teams in the league table.
But in the new post-ties NHL, Birnbaum notes, the standard deviation of standings points has shrunk from about .2 per game to .15. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Monday, January 7, 2013 at 8:56 AM - 0 Comments
The conventional wisdom on the NHL lockout, usually delivered with a sneer, is that Canadian hockey fans will belly-crawl back to the league uncritically now that all the bickering and all the tantrums have ended. Like all conventional wisdom, it is conventional because it is quite a safe bet. I know I’ll crawl with everyone else: I’m capable of intellectually segregating my fondness for the game of hockey from my loathing of the existing institutions of hockey. (It’s not all that difficult! Nor is it shameful!) What’s different about this lockout is that in the meantime I took the bait of regular-season NBA basketball with enthusiasm for the first time ever. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 3:46 PM - 0 Comments
The Conservative MP suggests, if the NHL season is cancelled, that the Stanley Cup’s trustees hold a competition to award it.
So if the 2012-2013 NHL Season is unsalvageable, I propose that the trustees exercise that very discretion and award the Stanley Cup to the best amateur or beer league or women’s or sledge hockey team in Canada. That would allow the trustees to fulfill their obligation to exercise their duties in the best interests of the original purpose of the trust, which was to promote amateur hockey in Canada.
How absolutely Canadian!!
If the lockout is not resolved by the end of January, perhaps a Private Member’s Motion…………………
Colby Cosh made a proposal in this regard in August.
The House does not return until January 30.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 4:02 PM - 0 Comments
When the National Hockey League locked out its players for the entirety of the 2004-05 season, there was no competition held for the Stanley Cup. To this day, almost nobody ever talks about how bizarre this was—how bizarre, I mean, that the Canadian people and their officialdom stood for it. The precise legal status of the Stanley Cup is a lot like an unobserved particle in quantum physics: it is an unknowable, an existential question that has absolutely no good answer until and unless somebody with judicial authority chooses an arbitrary criterion and applies it. But as for moral ownership of the Stanley Cup… there cannot be any reasonable doubt about this, can there?
The Cup was originally a gift of the viceroy to the people of Canada. It is sacred to the people of Canada, and only to them. As the National Hockey League came to be recognized as the world’s supreme hockey competition in the 1920s, the people of Canada came to accept that the NHL’s champion, even when it was an American team, should receive the Cup. We have forgotten that this was a matter of generosity on our part: that the NHL does not own the Stanley Cup, but is suffered to award it only in exchange for operating the best continuing hockey competition for Canadian audiences.
It is astonishing that we should tolerate the use of our Stanley Cup as a hostage to one side in a labour negotiation. This happened once, and we regretted it passively, snivellingly, instead of demanding action. We can manage a half-decent riot when a Canadian team loses the Stanley Cup in a fair fight. But for some reason, when the Cup is openly confiscated by billionaires, dangled in front of young Canadian hockey players and mothballed when they refuse to give back a piece of their paycheques, we do nothing but mope.
And now it might happen again, you say? Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, March 4, 2012 at 6:22 AM - 0 Comments
Reporting from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples breaks intriguing news about a new idea for discouraging late-season “tanking” by pro sports teams who want to improve their draft position. Reading about Adam Gold’s scheme, I had the pretty firm reaction: “Yeah, this is right. We’ll see somebody adopt this soon.”
Right now, in the NBA and the NHL, teams eliminated from the playoffs are supposedly discouraged from sending out sub-par lineups by the use of a draft lottery. Lottery systems, which basically add some statistical random noise to the end-of-year standings before the draft order is set, have curbed the worst abuses (best exemplified, I think, by the bizarre ending of the 1983-84 NBA season). If a hypothetical NHL team, let’s call it the Deadmonton Boilers, finishes in last place, it is not guaranteed to get the number-one pick. The problem, however, is that the randomization, being random, doesn’t really reverse the powerful incentive to be horrible: finishing in last still gives the Boilers the best statistical chance of getting the number-one pick in the Entry Draft, and guarantees that they will pick no lower than second. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Friday, September 30, 2011 at 9:00 PM - 11 Comments
I’m someone who has been fairly tolerant of the status quo when it comes to hockey fighting, so it might surprise you to hear I have a quik-‘n’-EZ answer to eliminating it. Hockey great/political not-so-great Ken Dryden appears in ESPN piffle-factory Grantland.com today with some intelligent, if stale, reflections on the relationship between head injuries and the game we adore. Dryden goes into nostalgia mode, as the camera dissolves to a shot of the Habs battling the Flyers in the old Forum, and he writes:
Once, hockey players did their own fighting. An elbow to the nose or a slash on the arm, and — big or small, good fighter or not — a player had to right his own wrong. Most players were bad fighters. On their skates, they wrestled, slipped, and flung themselves around. It was vaudeville. Now most fights are between designated fighters. Each such fighter knows what he’s doing, and though usually well-matched enough to be able to protect themselves, these fighters are also skilled enough to hurt each other.
This description is verifiably accurate; it’s not romantic nonsense. What Dryden is describing is specialization. The burden of fighting has almost entirely been taken away from otherwise talented players and loaded onto big SOBs who can’t do anything else well. Which, frankly, takes a lot of the fun out of it, and makes the fighting seem more like a distracting artificial appurtenance.
What change in the game might have accommodated this increasing specialization? The very obvious candidate that almost nobody mentions (though it’s a favourite of Roy MacGregor and of hockey bloggers Tom Benjamin and Tyler Dellow) is increasing roster size. If Dryden had ransacked his memory, he might have recalled that hockey teams weren’t allowed to dress 20 people when he played. In the 1960s, as he was stopping pucks for the Junior B Etobicoke Indians and the Cornell Big Red, the figure was 16 skaters and two goalies. It wasn’t increased to 17+2 until he was already a Canadien, or to 18+2 until he was a lawyer.
Many or most of the true goons in the league are frequently healthy-scratched from games and left to rot in the press box, as things already stand. It’s clear enough that if an 18th player were cut from NHL rosters, the loser would, in many cases, be the “designated fighter”. We know this may be so because, as Dryden hints, the DF didn’t appear in the game until around the time the 18th player was added. The goon’s degree of specialization has, over time, become extreme, like that of a punter in football—and it’s worth noting that we do see football teams doing without punters sometimes, in order to open up a roster spot for some other less esoteric specialist.
The DF is in the game because there is just enough room on rosters for a player with a talent that is radically uncorrelated to the skills the game is designed to express. And without a certain critical mass of DFs, there is no use having one around; they no longer, like Dave Semenko, skate on the same lines as young players who need protection. Their confrontations are staged separate from the real hockey—a tacit admission of their irrelevance to game outcomes (if the substantial absence of fighting from the playoffs weren’t proof enough).
I once imagined we might have seen the advent of the shootout specialist in that 18th roster slot by now. Shootout ability, in contrast with the ability to fight, could not possibly have higher leverage in determining game outcomes. But the shootout—contrary to the complaints of its detractors—turns out to, by and large, reward offensive skills germane to the game’s essence; the guys who are good on the SO are mostly the guys who are pretty decent at scoring anyway.
But even if the shootout were likely to pull particular players into the league who cannot otherwise compete, what players would those be?—ones with devastatingly accurate shots, beautiful decoy moves, creativity, and flair? How loudly could a fan reasonably complain about that? As it is, we’re instead dragging players into the NHL who excel at violence, and it’s not even the graceful violence of a well-executed hip check.
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 7:48 PM - 26 Comments
Hi! Here’s a table of reported sexual offences for the city of Vancouver for a particular group of months.
If you adjust the figures slightly for Vancouver’s population growth and look at the annual playoff progress of the city’s beloved Canucks, what you’ll find is that you can’t use these numbers to prove much of a link between NHL hockey and sexual violence. But if there is one, it’s probably negative. July is (at a high level of statistical significance) the worst month for sexual offences; it’s also the only one of these months in which hockey is never played. In months during which the Canucks were eliminated from Stanley Cup contention, the rate of sexual offences was, on average, more than 20% lower than in other months. There were more sex offences in months with less hockey even if you correct for pure date effects, and the lockout year (2005) had a higher rate of sex offences than either the year following or the year prior.
If I took these data nuggets and attempted to argue from them that hockey prevents sexual violence, you would probably not be impressed. (Indeed, it would probably occur to you that reports of sexual offence are a poor proxy for the overall level of sex violence in the population.) Unfortunately, this kind of reasoning, even in much weaker and less rigorous form, isn’t a problem for Laura Robinson and the Winnipeg Free Press. (For fine details of the horror, see Tyler Dellow’s reaction to Robinson. For other examples of Wade Belak’s death being used irresponsibly in sociological arguments, simply pick up absolutely any Canadian newspaper at all.)
By Charlie Gillis and Ken MacQueen - Monday, December 6, 2010 at 10:00 AM - 42 Comments
He had a country on its feet
René Fasel is a small, brusque man whose greatest virtue—candour—is also his greatest flaw. The head of the International Ice Hockey Federation has more than once gotten himself into trouble by blurting out unwelcome thoughts on, say, ﬁghting in hockey, or the parsimony of National Hockey League owners. But seldom has Fasel risked his own well-being so recklessly as he did after the second period of the gold medal hockey game between Canada and the United States at the Vancouver Olympics, when, with Canada leading 2-1, he turned to the man sitting next him.
“All we need now,” said Fasel gleefully, “is another American goal.” The man was John Furlong, and he was not so much offended as thunderstruck. As the Games’ chief organizer, Furlong knew better than anyone the gravity of the moment for the 22 million Canadians tuned in to the game. His country stood on the cusp of the greatest moment in its sporting history, he recalls in a forthcoming book Patriot Hearts: Inside the Olympics that Changed a Country—a gold medal win, on home soil, in the sport it gave the world. Yet here was Fasel, a sports bureaucrat from Switzerland, thinking about—what?—the impact of overtime on international television ratings?
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, September 14, 2010 at 12:36 PM - 0 Comments
You knew that when the smoke of an arena controversy became visible, the sports-as-culture warriors would soon come riding over the hill. David Asper pops up in today’s National Post to observe that most of us accept the idea of government funding for high-culture venues like concert halls, theatres, and galleries. “To define ‘culture’ narrowly, without including sports, is elitist,” he complains. (Strictly for form’s sake, I should offer the riposte: what’s so bad about elitism?) “If we are to have a legitimate definition of our national culture, it must be based on the totality of who we are and what we do. Places where professional sports teams play are no less houses of culture than the opera, the theatre or the art gallery.”
The question you should be asking Mr. Asper is “So what, rich guy?” He is, in my view, quite right; sports are part of our culture. I would even argue that they are a morally elevating part of that culture—a medium for the cultivation and display of courage, duty, justice, and fair play (a crucial, almost defining element of our civilization that is not at all the same thing as “justice”). But that premise is not enough, not nearly, to establish that massive public funding for professional sports venues is proper or necessary.
Turn his argument on its head and set aside high culture: what important cultural institutions don’t we depend on governments to build? Would Asper argue that restaurants don’t define a city or that they aren’t places where highly civilized imaginative pleasures are expressed? Doesn’t a good clothing store or a furniture shop have a clear cultural dimension? A shoe store? Aren’t hairstylists, skate parks, comic shops, Apple Stores, recording studios, and the parlours of small-town piano teachers all enablers of cultural expression? Should all these things be nationalized and paid for by the state?
The relevant fact about live National Hockey League games is not that they are not “culture” but that they are owned by a profit-maximizing cartel which limits access and squeezes every penny it can get out of that access. Here in Edmonton, where the owner of the Oilers is trying to get an arena built at staggering municipal expense, you often hear arguments to the effect of “Oh, we bought an art gallery for a non-profit company, so we can certainly buy an arena for a billionaire.” It already sounds preposterous when you put it in plain English like that, and it’s even sillier if you pause to compare the function of an art gallery to the function of an NHL hockey rink.
I am the last person on earth the Art Gallery of Alberta would pick as a defender, but an art gallery is at least intended to provide a public good in the strict technical sense: it takes assets nominally owned by wealthy people and makes them available, at a low price not set in a profit-maximizing way, to virtually unlimited numbers of people—without affecting the value of the assets. That, in fact, is the historical origin of public art galleries; they were designed to multiply the benefits of a shared cultural heritage by extracting paintings and sculptures from vaults and putting them before the public in a safe, secure, orderly manner.
NHL hockey is simply not a public good according to an economist’s definition. Game attendance, at least, fails both tests: it’s both rivalrous and excludable, in the sense that you don’t get to attend if you don’t have a ticket, and buying a ticket (at a market-clearing price or lower) excludes someone else from having one. That does not mean there aren’t external benefits from the sale of that private good, in much the same way that there might be positive net external benefits from living near a good bakery even if you don’t buy bread. But using public funds to subsidize that good would still constitute a relatively pure transfer (a theft, some might say) from the people who have no use for it to the people who do. It would be like specifically underwriting pumpernickel production on the premise that bread is, in general, a good thing that is an important part of Western culture (as it certainly is).
Asper, of course, doesn’t come close to acknowledging the wider point that subsidizing NHL arenas is ultimately a means of subsidizing a cartel—of using the gullibility and open-handedness of politicians in one city to threaten those in another. Nobody is discussing expanding the league, and further expansion is difficult in principle; even leaving aside the state of the NHL’s overall finances and the current health of the economy, about thirty teams seems to be the natural upper bound for a competitive structure that isn’t organized like soccer (with meaningful parallel competitions and relegation/promotion between divisions). Quebec’s arena proposal is a means of darting ahead in the queue for troubled franchises in other cities, franchises that are ceaselessly seeking their own sweetheart deals for cheap rent, non-hockey revenues, and other subsidies.
This action is understandable, since Quebec has already been cheated out of NHL hockey by a richer urban rival in the past. But the overall effect is to create an inane arms race, a contest to see who can throw the most money at NHL owners and players. It’s bad enough that cities behave in such a sordid, compromised manner; we really don’t need all three levels of government working together to raise revenues and salaries for a private profit-maximizing business.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
With an official request now on record that the federal government contribute public money for the purposes of building a hockey arena that would conceivably aid in returning an NHL team to Quebec City, here is the text of two media advisories which were issued, three days apart, in January 2000.
The first was sent out January 18. That day, industry minister John Manley announced a subsidy plan meant to aid Canada’s struggling NHL franchises. Three days later, amid much consternation, the Liberal government of the day scrapped the proposal. The second release was issued in response to that reversal.
To wit. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 12:37 PM - 0 Comments
Oiler goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin’s trial for the offence of “extreme” impaired driving was the talk of the town in Edmonton yesterday. Khabibulin, 37, may seem a little old to be horning in on the extreme sports craze, but that’s what Arizona charges you with when you’re caught going 70 in a 45 mph zone and you have a blood alcohol content of 0.16%. The Russian, pulled over in February, was found guilty late last week and was sentenced Tuesday to 30 days in jail, the mandatory minimum. He had the bad luck to be busted in Maricopa County, home to the demented Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his “tent city” justice. Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 6:08 AM - 0 Comments
“The grievance is denied.” That’s the concluding sentence of arbitrator Richard Bloch’s Monday ruling on the 17-year $102-million contract Ilya Kovalchuk signed with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils last month. When the NHL deregistered the contract, whose terms would have seen New Jersey pay Kovalchuk 97% of the total amount in the first 11 years of the deal, the Players’ Association naturally objected.
Sure, the NHLPA argued, there were years tacked onto the far end of the deal that neither Kovalchuk nor New Jersey expect the player to be in the NHL for. Those years are priced below the likely league minimum, and are obviously in the contract for the sole purpose of lowering Kovalchuk’s average salary-cap hit in the present. But what of it? Nothing in the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the PA specifically forbids this behaviour, and several similar “backdive” deals, though less extreme in every respect, have already been registered by the NHL and played under.
Bloch rejected this argument, granting a clear outright win to the league. The CBA contains a general “anti-circumvention” provision, but the guidance offered by that provision was less than clear:
No Club or Player shall enter into any Player Contract, Offer Sheet or other agreement that includes any terms which are designed to serve the purpose of defeating or circumventing the intention of the parties as reflected by the provisions of this Agreement, including without limitation, provisions with respect to the Entry Level System or Restricted Free Agency. However, any conduct permitted by this Agreement shall not be considered to be a violation of this provision.
Now that’s an odd paragraph, wouldn’t you say? Because there is no rule in the CBA that would in itself forbid the Kovalchuk deal, the NHLPA leaned on that last sentence, which basically says “anything permitted by this agreement is permitted by this agreement” and seems, in its plainest reading, to deprive the first sentence of all its potential force. Well, hell, no arbitrator’s going to go along with that—i.e., to read a paragraph completely out of a contract prepared and vetted by professionals representing both parties, as if he were physically Liquid Paper-ing it out of the document.
Bloch had little choice but to conclude that there must be some reason for a general anti-circumvention rule—and that reason, he concluded, was to allow the league to block contracts like Kovalchuk’s, which violate the spirit of the CBA rather than its letter. Nothing specific about Kovalchuk’s contract—the amount, the end date, the degree of frontloading—is forbidden by the agreement, Bloch conceded. Perhaps no single factor is even unique to it. But, taken together, the components have a vague tendency to offend the “no circumvention” concept. Supposedly.
Bloch’s decision includes an observation that is, after all, very hard to disagree with: “A contract term covering a Player’s NHL services to age 70…is not expressly prohibited by the CBA. But the parties to that SPC may not reasonably be found to be seriously anticipating its fulfillment.” Bloch would have created a serious problem for the NHL if he had found the anti-circumvention sections of the CBA to be meaningless. If he had ruled in favour of the NHLPA, you can bet your last nickel that someone would have been signing one of those age-70 contracts in July 2011. Or even sooner.
But Bloch has created a serious problem, too: as a consequence of his ruling in defence of the CBA’s spirit, it is no longer clear exactly which frontloaded contracts are kosher and which are treyf. Kovalchuk and the Devils returned to the negotiating table Monday night in an attempt to save the contract by tinkering with the math. What principles ought to guide them? What changes must they make to render the contract acceptable in the eyes of another arbitrator—one who wouldn’t even be Richard Bloch? (The NHL and the Players hire arbitrators for the duration of only one grievance; experience in the sporting world has shown that owners will inevitably and instantly fire any “permanent” arbiter who rules against them.)
Bloch hasn’t really said what kind of deal meets the no-circumvention test. He didn’t even give the parties the reassurance that existing frontloaded contracts are definitely legal and could be safely imitated. In fact, he specifically said the opposite. Which puts the league under no apparent obligation to even treat like contracts equally, or two different teams consistently. All that the Devils and Kovalchuk can really do here is to seek Commissioner Bettman’s advice in advance of signing, or make another deal and cross their fingers that either the Commissioner will like it or the next arbitrator will uphold it.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn’t appear to offer the team and the player any freedom to sign a contract without some degree of league interference—which raises the question, what good is the CBA at all if we’re going to have a “Bettman decides everything” system? (And, more particularly, how did the Players’ Association get manoeuvred into signing an agreement that doesn’t protect its rights very effectively?)
By Colby Cosh - Monday, April 19, 2010 at 3:11 AM - 19 Comments
As the paid-up holder of a Mainstream Media club card, can I warn the sportswriters away from making too much of the statistical fluke of all eight first-round NHL playoff series starting out tied through two games? The warning will arrive too late for some, but others may yet be saved.
As a landmark of NHL parity, the large number of 1-1 results in 2010 is not going to prove very useful. Imagine that game outcomes are statistically independent of each other and that the better team has a p chance of winning each individual game in the home team’s rink. If that’s the case, then the chance of a given series standing level after two games is 2(p)(1-p).
The 1-1 tie is always, for realistic values of p, the most common outcome. In a world of perfect parity—all teams are equal, no home-ice advantage, p = 0.5—half the series will be tied 1-1 after two games. And because the chance of the better team going up 2-0 is counterbalanced by a decreased chance of the other team going up 2-0, the overall chance of a tied series doesn’t drop off very fast as you depart from the parity condition, p = 0.5. For p = 0.6, about 48% of the series are still tied 1-1 after two games. (The better team is ahead in 36%, or 0.6²; the worse team is up 2-0 in 16%, about 0.4².)
But you can see that having eight series tied 1-1 will be incredibly rare even in the world of perfect parity. The probability of that happening in a given year will be the total product of the chances of a 1-1 tie in each of the series. Given an average overall value of p, the odds of all eight series starting out equal works out to, at most, (2(p)(1-p))8—a pretty small number, demonstrating the great flukiness of the “eight ties” outcome. Even in the perfect-parity world the expected frequency works out to 1 time in every 28, or 256, years. In the real world, the right average figure for p is probably around .54, giving us an “eight ties” year about 1 time in 269. In a fairly extreme non-parity world where the 1-4 seeds had an average 60-40 edge—that is to say, p = 0.6—the “eight ties” outcome would happen once every 355 years.
In other words, using this fluke as any kind of sign, indicator, or test for parity is about like insisting on reading a book only by the light of Halley’s Comet. You’d better have a comfortable chair. And plenty of kids, so they and their progeny can continue the observations (over several millennia) after you die in it…
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 5:50 PM - 7 Comments
Congratulations to the Chicago Black Hawks on clinching the NHL’s Central Division title seconds before their opening faceoff against the Flames today. It’s the franchise’s first such pennant since 1992-93, when the league’s divisions still retained their old, still-beloved names and the Hawks were champions of the Norris. Of the teams in existence before the renaming (which took place at the outset of 1993-94), only four have failed to win a “new-style” division title: the Islanders, the Kings, the Once and Future Jets, and—wait for it—the Edmonton Oilers.
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 10:55 PM - 20 Comments
It must be 2010; I’m watching Don Cherry talk about Corsi numbers on TV [fast-forward to 5:00 in the video above]. Granted, he’s denouncing them, but a) he has a couple of good points, and b) that’s what old guys do when they’re confronted with statistical innovations. Read your Kuhn.
Ron Maclean didn’t do a very good job of explaining the Corsi stat (yes, it was invented by Jim Corsi), and he picked a slightly inopportune occasion to bring it up with Grapes sitting next to him. As this Globe & Mail primer explains, Corsis are essentially a more powerful extension of the plus-minus stat you see in the newspaper; they count not only the goals for and against while the player is on the ice at even strength, but all shots directed at the net either way (goals, shots on goal, missed shots, and blocked shots).
Everybody knows plus-minus isn’t a very robust or accurate way of measuring a player’s contribution, and Corsi numbers mitigate some of the disadvantages of only counting goals. You’re counting a lot more events per game—scoring chances, loosely speaking–which gives you more statistical power and leaves luck and contextual factors with less relative influence on the stat. You’re also factoring out the quality of the goaltending behind (and in front of) a skater.
That doesn’t mean Corsis are a perfect means of understanding or isolating a player’s contribution. Shifts in hockey aren’t like a batting order, in which everyone must take his turn. Some players are out there with inferior teammates, some players are shielded from the toughest competition, and some players provide value just by chewing up a lot of minutes. Context is important, and in hockey we may never be able to correct advanced stats for context as well as we can for hitters in baseball. (That’s why stats in hockey aren’t very advanced. We’ve really only just gotten around to expressing events as rates in the simplest possible way. The guy who did this for baseball was born 186 years ago.)
The biggest easily-measurable influence on Corsi numbers—easily measurable thanks to the work of Gabe Desjardins—is where a player tends to start his shifts on faceoffs. A guy who is rolled out for a lot of defensive draws is going to have a worse Corsi rating through no fault of his own—indeed, he is penalized for being trusted by his coach. In that sense, Ryan Johnson was a bad choice for Maclean to pick on, and Don Cherry’s outburst of skepticism was entirely appropriate. Desjardins’ site also tracks “zone starts”, so we know that Johnson, who has the league’s worst Corsi rating, is one of the league’s most disadvantaged regular skaters zone-wise. Through the games of March 28 he’s been sent out for only 78 offensive-zone faceoffs but 165 in his own end. Which is why he’s near the very bottom of this list.
Like Desjardins himself, I am less impressed by the subtly different argument actually made by Cherry—that it’s unfair to penalize Johnson for blocked-shots-against that he himself has blocked. Insofar as Corsi numbers are measuring any ability, it’s the ability to not have to block shots in the first place—to help your team promote the puck out of your end and into the enemy’s defensive zone. The counting of blocked shots has a problem similar to the counting of double plays turned by a team in baseball; they correlate negatively, if at all, with the winning of games. An individual blocked shot might have a positive value—though even that’s certainly not true in every case—and you want players who are willing to block them. But it’s better not to give up lots of opportunities for blocked shots.
And, hell, it’s better still not to be a low-talent, high-grit player who has to block them to keep a job. Even Don Cherry knows that.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 6:08 AM - 24 Comments
A memo to those who are concerned with (hitherto) legal checks to the head in the NHL: I sure hope you’re not just fighting physics. Because you’ll lose.
I see nothing wrong with the proposed new rule against blind-side hits to the head. I’d be willing to take it even further, and adopt an easy-to-apply strict-liability standard; if you hit somebody in a way that induces unconsciousness, or causes a concussion, you sit out the next n games. This would spare us from adopting hard-to-apply rules whose enforcement might ebb and crest, vary between personalities, and differ between leagues and regions. (It would occasionally lead, like all strict-liability rules, to unfair-seeming results and punishments for actions that didn’t look unjust or vicious aside from the outcome. But almost anything is better, at least to my mind, than a rule defined by excessively complex language, taught by means of intuitive references to a mass of individual cases, and left to evolve so that everybody thinks he knows the offence when he sees it.)
Ultimately, we are going to have collisions, and concussions, in the game of hockey, and the general quality of thinking about them is pathetically weak. Almost every columnist is quick to assail the disciplinary and managerial guardians of the game for lacking his own up-to-the-minute moral sensitivities; none stops to consider how unintended changes to the game, fundamental physical factors, may have increased the incidence and severity of closed head injuries. We routinely speak and act as if the rules are the only thing in hockey that humans have control over.
It’s sometimes observed, for example, that the players are bigger and the game faster than 20 or 30 years ago. But nobody ever sorts out the relative importance of these effects; a player whose mass is 5% bigger has 5% more kinetic energy in open ice, but if his velocity is increased 5%, the energy varies according to the square, and thus increases by more than 10%. If you watch early ’80s hockey, what immediately strikes you, once you get past the sheer horribleness of the goaltending, is the relative slowness of the game. There’s no one reason for this: plenty of things have changed just a little bit, from the quality of icemaking to skate technology to the way skaters are trained. And the change isn’t that extreme, or else Chris Chelios, who actually played early ’80s hockey in the early ’80s, would be unable to draw a paycheque in his weak-bladder years. Still, it’s a factor with exponential weight.
No one wants to consider deliberately slowing down the game, but we should at least consider that its speed is part of the problem, and a part we can’t ignore if we want to address collisions at the fundamental level of imparted energy. Otherwise, as the game continues to get faster, we’ll constantly be playing catch-up with rule changes. The speed is there in the game for pure entertainment purposes, just as much as the bodychecking is. It is, without any possible question, part of the game’s danger; more speed means more and worse injuries, all other things being equal. If you won’t consider steps to slow things down, you are in exactly, EXACTLY the same ethical position as somebody who refuses to consider changes to bodychecking doctrine. Hope I didn’t just put a bullet in the head of your high horse.
Another immediately noticeable thing about early ’80s hockey, of course, is the less ridiculous padding. Armour initially introduced to prevent injuries has pretty clearly become weaponized. And the role of helmets in preventing some hypothetical background rate of concussions is poorly understood. The concussions have, by the best measurements we can make, increased as helmets became common and then mandatory.
We can’t do without helmets, since they demonstrably prevent catastrophic and immediately life-threatening head trauma from pucks, falls, and checks. But if players feel more comfortable throwing Cooke-style shoulders to the head now, it’s probably, in part, because everyone wears a helmet. We know that no change to helmet design has ever been shown to reduce concussions. We know that the forces that cause most concussions are rotational, as helmet expert Pat Bishop recently pointed out; and it’s conceivable that, on the whole, helmets worsen the specific problem of concussion by adding more angular momentum to rotational blows [UPDATE: but see commenter Gaunilon's objection to this bit]. The increase in concussions may be part of the price we are paying for the absolute elimination of skull fractures from the pro game.
If so, it’s almost certainly a price worth paying. And, please, spare me the citations of brain-injury data from American football. NFL players are taught to use their helmeted heads as weapons, and linemen are subjected to brain injuries on nearly every snap of a game; that was a major point of the admittedly compelling Malcolm Gladwell article you’re all so impressed with yourselves for having read. (I’ll leave aside the possibility that Gladwell is overselling the findings of some scientists he got all excited about hanging out with, and since it’s Gladwell, by “possibility” I mean “extreme likelihood you could happily bet your house on”.) There’s no analogue to this brutal, repetitive activity in hockey, and no research to justify comparison with the NFL’s problem. Hockey has to solve hockey’s problems, and only hockey’s. Full stop.
By Colby Cosh - Friday, February 12, 2010 at 2:21 PM - 24 Comments
A couple of weeks ago, Colleague Gohier mentioned to me with Colleague-ly sympathy that the 2009-10 Edmonton Oilers must be difficult to cheer for. They’re in last place overall in the league, and even after last night’s victory in L.A., the race to the bottom is not close. This is unfamiliar territory for most of the remaining Canadian teams—very unfamiliar indeed for Oiler fans. Few of you outside Winnipeg have any reason to know this, but it’s actually kind of fun in some ways.
It’s not that this version of the Oilers is a gang of colourful lovable losers like the ’62 Mets. “Unlovable losers” might be closer to the truth. But when your team is this bad, there’s a refreshing absence of delusions. You can watch with total detachment, and hate sincerely. No apologizing to yourself for despairing at the way so-and-so kills penalties or the way Mr. X (or, let’s say, Mr. O’S.) won’t battle for the puck. You’re free to loathe the players on a last-place team for their salaries; no, they really aren’t earning their money—it’s right there in the agate type. (Incredibly, this abominable roster is costing the team every cent of the salary cap. They spent to the max and got the min.) And remember all those front-office mistakes you hated at the time? Turns out you were right: they were mistakes, and the outfit is run by idiots. You really could run a hockey team that was no worse than this!—there’s nowhere to go from 30th but up!
Edmonton is a hockey city that was crying out to be nuked—a rotting, ill-ventilated museum for the ’80s Oilers, who grow ever more prominent in the team’s marketing even as the front office conspires to demolish the perfectly adequate building they played in. The reward of the philosopher’s suffering is clarity, and Oiler fans are finally ready to confront the emptiness of two decades of excuses for almost unrelieved mediocrity (excuses parroted by a captive press corps now facing its own credibility crisis, as fawned-over free agents and prospects shatter horribleness records). Remember when the Oilers were bad because of the exchange rate? Remember when they were bad because there was no salary cap? Remember when they were bad because of the inefficient, cumbersome consortium-ownership model? Even the injury excuse has been overused so much in recent years, it amounts to crying wolf. The ’09-’10 Oilers really have had bad luck with injuries, as long as “bad luck” is defined to include signing a run-down 36-year-old goalie to a huge contract in a buyer’s market and having nothing but beer-league backups available.
In the face of all this, it remains literally true that there is nowhere to go but up. If you count Sam Gagner, who is only 20 and is already unstoppable some nights, the Oilers appear to have a legitimate nucleus of first-class prospects. And they’re about to add a #1 or #2 overall draft pick to the mix. This is by virtue of being unspeakably awful, but it’s nice that the league arranges things so that high draft picks follow periods of revolutionary ferment.
By Colby Cosh - Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 8:33 PM - 32 Comments
This is a heresy I normally utter only in the presence of trusted intimates, but this is a special occasion: if I had a playoff series to win and I could take any goalie from Edmonton Oiler history, I’d go with 1996-98 Cujo. And yes, I do mean “any”.
By Colby Cosh - Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 5:58 PM - 48 Comments
So Don Cherry likes the idea of changing the name of some of the NHL’s year-end trophies, does he? Breaks my heart to say it, but I guess he is a bad role model after all.
Let’s not get distracted by broad notions of respecting heritage and preserving the old imperial spirit of hockey. Most of these trophies were given to the NHL specifically so that people’s memories would be preserved in perpetuity by means of some small token. The Norris Trophy was donated to the National Hockey League by the children of James Norris. The Art Ross trophy was a gift from Art Ross. The Hart Trophy, or the original one, came from David Hart. Not many people know who James Norris, Art Ross, and David Hart were, but if anyone does, it’s because of the generosity and devotion to hockey of themselves and their families.
It would be morally and spiritually unspeakable for the league to unilaterally annul these pledges and rename these objects, and the arguments given for doing so are asinine. We want to rename the Norris Trophy for Bobby Orr because… everybody already knows who Bobby Orr is? Memorials are meant for the people we all still remember, are they? Then why the heck do we call them that?
The heritage angle is relevant too, but it is only likely to confuse things. When the NHL locked out its players in 2004 and decided not to hold a Stanley Cup tournament, we were all outraged that a long tradition had been broken. But while we were lamenting for history, we weren’t quick enough to remember that the NHL doesn’t have any ethical claim at all to exclusive control of the Cup, and isn’t even its legal owner. That principle has now more or less been established by a court settlement, but in the meantime, the league succeeded in holding the Cup hostage in a labour dispute.
Now it wants to turn its other trophies, whose beauty and antiquity are the envy of all other professional sports, into cheap marketing trinkets. Unless you believe the conveniently anonymous NHL source who says the idea was to make the trophies more “relevant” to the players. If I said something that stupid to a journalist, I would insist on anonymity too. (þ: Staples)