Lowest Common Denominator

A schism exists in hockey fandom. On one side is the “old school” who believes in traditional stats and intangibles and who despise the cute and fuzzy bunnies on the other side, namely the “advanced stats” crowd. This feud is like the Hatfields and McCoys, in that it is not likely to go away any time soon. So who does that leave? It leaves the casual or typical fans. These are the fans who watch all (or a lot) of the games, but are not really into stats; the fans who, like it or not, buy the majority of the tickets to the games and fund the sport so many of us are obsessed with.

The fans who are not involved in social media probably do not even know that advanced stats exist in hockey. How would they? They are not on Twitter or visiting sites dedicated to analyzing the game through more in depth metrics than +/- so how would they have any clue? Most of these fans use Facebook to post shots of their kids and grandkids. They might follow the team they support to get in on a contest or two but most of them are not monitoring their team’s PDO and discussing sustainability of their star forward’s shooting percentage.

What this teeming mass of hockey fandom does hear about the game they get through national TV broadcasts, local broadcast teams, perhaps a few articles by local beat writers in the paper or online and local sports talk shows on TV and radio. So what are they learning when they listen these broadcasts? That depends somewhat on the team they follow. The Buffalo Sabres, by virtue of having the namesake of an advanced metric as their goalie coach, Jim Corsi, use Corsi in their intermission shows. Toronto Maple Leafs fans have at least one member of the MSM (main stream media) who regularly uses advanced stats. The Edmonton Oilers have recently started talking more about Corsi during interviews with their players. Very recently, a few members of the Chicago sports media have started using advanced stats in their coverage of the Blackhawks.

These are small steps in a handful of places to get the terms Corsi, Fenwick, etc… into circulation in more traditional news outlets and independent of social media. The overwhelming portion of the information that typical fans get comes from the big sources though. On the whole, these big sources, i.e. game broadcast teams, pre and post game shows, national broadcast teams, etc… do not talk about hockey in terms of advanced metrics. Occasionally, these outlets break down a play to show how it developed or explain how some of the rules of the game work. What they spend a lot of time talking about is a little less educational, namely fighting, retaliation, toughness, heart, grit, leadership, simple play, plus/minus, the will to win, the code, hustle, outworking the opponent, etc…

Hockey is growing in America every year. More and more fans are finding their way to hockey and they are doing it with heavy exposure to these broadcasts. Recently, there were two games during the day in the NHL that featured hat tricks. The lead story on the NHL on NBC broadcast that evening was not these amazing feats of hockey skill, but instead the line brawl and ensuing locker room shenanigans between the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames that had occurred the prior evening. The two hat tricks barely got any coverage. 

So what does this teach newer hockey fans? It teaches them to focus on the parts of the game that frankly seem to be the most embarrassing moments for many of us who obsess over hockey on a daily basis. In their effort to draw ratings and fans, the media treatment of the game is actually hurting it. The NHL Department of Player Safety is tasked with trying to keep players from being injured due to predatory hits and banned behavior. Medical research has been showing the terrible effects of repeated concussions and brain injury in athletes and the NHL has been taking steps toward trying to address that. Whether these steps go far enough is a discussion for a different day. Fighting is being discouraged in the game by new rules regarding helmets and visors.

Despite all of these trends in the NHL toward making the game safer, more skilled and less of a goon show, the coverage from the media on many different levels continues to employ an antiquated approach to the game. It should come as no shock then that many fans feel that the game is “going soft”. That is what they hear all the time. When fans tuned in to the pre/post game shows, sports talk shows and broadcasts after Jonathan Toews went down with an injury from a hit delivered by Brooks Orpik, they didn’t hear about how the Blackhawks simply dominated puck possession and shots after that happened. They heard how a team that has won two Stanley Cups in the past four seasons was soft. They heard how the Blackhawks were no longer to be considered a contender for another Cup because their players did not cheap shot or fight one of the Penguins players. They heard that the way to play hockey is to fight a player for delivering what even they said was a clean hit.

Considering how often hits are regaled in these broadcasts, it’s amazing to think that any hockey would even be played with the retaliation prescribed by many hockey pundits for every clean hard hit. The way hockey is being covered by the major media outlets encourages fans to start at and remain at the lowest common denominator of hockey fandom. Hits, fights, retaliation and toughness are the only admirable traits preached to them. Skill is something for soft players despite the fact that those skilled players are the ones doing most of the winning.

Even illegal hits that are discouraged by the broadcasts morph into discussions about how the victimized team should have responded. To think that new fans are drawn to hockey solely based upon fighting is foolish. It all boils down to trying to keep hockey in its brutal past instead of helping to usher in the future of highly skilled teams putting on an amazing show for the fans.

It should come as no surprise then that when someone brings up fighting or retribution for a hit on social media, the fans who have recently made their way into that sphere of hockey fandom go “full meatball” and scream about how hockey is going soft. It is nearly a verbatim recitation of the vitriol spewed forth during the broadcasts. The broadcasts appeal to the lowest common denominator of hockey fandom believing that is where they draw their ratings. In doing so, the broadcasts perpetuate hockey fans remaining at the lowest common denominator in their knowledge of the game and the lens through which they view the game. 

It is awfully hard to convince new fans and longtime fans, who are new to more advanced stats, of the merit to viewing the game from a more sophisticated lens when they are constantly told by louder, more far reaching voices that none of that matters. On the other hand, to combat the strongly entrenched views of so many fans and media members, those who do support analyzing the game in newer ways go overboard with criticism. When your belief system is attacked, it is human nature to staunchly defend it and that is what both sides of this debate are doing.

When a fan who is not familiar with more advanced metrics, but may be interested in seeing what they are about, sees all of the people they have ever listened to or learned from while developing their fandom slammed and dismissed out of hand by the advanced stats crowd, they have a very real reaction to it. It is not human nature to suddenly discard a belief system, even one as simple as sports fandom, for a whole new belief system overnight. It is even less likely to happen when the environment surrounding the discussion is hostile, which it often is in the traditional versus advanced metrics debate in hockey.

The only way to affect real change in how the game is viewed and played is to change the message being sent to the typical hockey fan. Less focus on the “code” of honor in hockey, which essentially is playground rules for ten year olds, and more focus on the amazing skill of the players would go a long way to accomplishing this. It feels like a hockey morality lesson every time one of the pregame shows in on. Perhaps actually talking about how hockey is played and how players can be assessed based upon things that require talent would better educate fans and take the focus off of the collateral parts of the game.

Slowly introducing newer ways of analyzing hockey would lead to a whole new thought process going forward. Old dogs can learn new tricks too and would benefit from hearing main stream media embrace these approaches. Showing how fandom can be enhanced by using newer ways of analyzing the game is one way of bringing hockey out of the dark ages and into the modern world. There are still plenty of things to analyze in hockey that do not require advanced metrics. The two ways of doing things do not have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes hits do lead to a change in possession. That doesn’t mean that hits are the most important statistic. It also means that they do not have to be completely ignored. Using both ways of analyzing the game together, we can all gain a better understanding.

To do this, something has to change. The turf war over the “right way” to analyze hockey has to be resolved. If the NHL wants to move forward and attract more fans, it has to move into the modern era and encourage a more diverse prospective from the broadcasters showcasing its product. The focus on plus/minus, hits and fights has to recede somewhat and make some room for analysis with a bit more substance to it. The NFL and MLB both use far more substantive analysis in their broadcasts even if it is not as advanced as some may want it to be.

It is time that hockey stops assuming that its fans are only capable of digesting the lowest common denominator of analytical information or only wants that level of information. Many advanced stats are not all that advanced. They do not require a degree in statistics to understand. Most fans do not sit around calculating the plus/minus rating of their favorite player; they simply accept whatever the broadcast team tells them it is. There is no need to make fans calculate their second line center’s Corsi For Percentage at Score Close over the last ten games, when they can simply be told what it is. It is not necessary that every fan become an expert in stats to enjoy what the stats can reveal about a player, a team and the game in general.

There is a wonderful opportunity here for broadcasters and other main stream media to grow their markets even more simply by integrating statistics and analytical vantage points that frankly are not that difficult to grasp in the first place. If the nomenclature seems to be a barrier, then simply calling Corsi “All Shot Attempts” and Fenwick “Shot Attempts Minus Blocked Shots” is completely acceptable. Making hockey sound a little smarter is about controlling image. A smarter image attracts new fans. A smarter image helps educate fans that are already watching. A smarter image helps move the mindset from old school goon to hockey fan.

A change in the mindset of fans to something above the lowest common denominator allows for increased acceptance of the rules that are designed to keep players safe. The more educated the fans are about how the game is played and how the players are analyzed, the easier it is for teams to create an identity of skilled play without the fan base screaming about hockey “going soft”. Doing this does not mean that everyone will agree or even buy into the newer methods of analysis, but it does mean that those methods will not seem so foreign. The push back against those methods will be lessened and thus acceptance will occur among new fans more easily. After all, what we all really want is to grow the sport we love so dearly so that more people can enjoy as we do.

The future of hockey will be no different than its past unless we work to move on from the lowest common denominator of understanding and analysis.

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