The “End All Be All”

Recently, I expressed my frustration with the lack of advanced stats being discussed in a meaningful way by many analysts on TV broadcasts of NHL games. My main point in expressing that frustration was to point out that many hockey fans are not on social media and often do not have access to or knowledge of the resources available to explain stats they may not be familiar with. I was advocating for the inclusion of these stats in broadcasts so that people who are unfamiliar with them could feel more comfortable with them and get some exposure to them in an accessible setting. This level of comfort would decrease the pro-stats versus anti-stats strife and be better for everyone in my opinion. Unfortunately, some read this as me trying to put down people who are not on social media or who aren’t into stats, which was not at all my point. Perhaps I could have done a better job making that clearer but apparently I fell short in that regard.  

I received many and varied responses to that post but one of the best basically said that when more NHL teams admit to using them, fans and media would begin to feel more comfortable accepting advanced stats as a useful tool. With that said, I was intrigued this past week by new information regarding the use of advanced stats by some NHL teams. While many in the “advanced stats crowd” have known for a while that there are several teams in the NHL that use their analytics budget for more than just tracking hits, information came out this week that expanded upon that and more importantly, the information was publicized by thereby reaching a far larger audience.

While doing interviews with the coaches and players of the San Jose Sharks and L.A. Kings, writer Corey Masisak (on Twitter @cmasisak22) asked questions about puck possession and the teams’ use of stats. He was met with a fairly frank discussion that led to confirmation from both teams that they do in fact track puck possession data and use it in their strategies, player usage, etc.

During media availability for the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues series, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock admitted that both he and Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville use advanced stats for their teams. On a much smaller level, I was able to get information from a woman who knows one of the Blackhawks analytics people regarding the team’s use of advanced stats. She informed me that the Blackhawks internally track Corsi, Fenwick, zone entries and exits, among other data. This information is then presented to the coaching staff for their use.  Obviously, my Twitter feed is a drop of water compared to the ocean that is the reach of and the many other media sites and publications covering the NHL, so I do not expect that to have anywhere near the impact of the aforementioned information.

Regardless, this advanced stats usage by NHL teams such as the Sharks, Kings, Blues and Blackhawks being mentioned and explored by major media sources is a big deal. It is very intriguing. I write about and tweet about advanced stats regularly and sometimes meet with resistance to the information I disseminate. I wondered if perhaps seeing that these very successful teams use advanced stats would sway the opinions of those who had been skeptical as to their usefulness. I took to Twitter and asked for thoughts on the matter. I also made sure to explain that I was not trying to insult or make fun of anyone in order to encourage more honest responses. Obviously my audience, for the most part, are pretty accepting of advanced stats but some of them are not.

The majority of the responses I received from the skeptics boil down to this:

Numbers and stats are fine but they are not the “end all be all” of hockey analysis. You cannot just rely upon numbers to decide who the good players are. The eye test has to agree for the stats to mean anything.

Obviously, I am paraphrasing and summarizing here because several people really took the time to lay out their thoughts and, I would like to add, the majority who responded did it in a very respectful and congenial manner.

The “End All Be All” was the most widely mentioned criticism of advanced stats in the tweets and emails that I received. There seems to be a wide spread notion that folks in the advanced stats crowd begin and end all analysis with the numbers. Perhaps it comes across this way because there just are not that many people in each team’s fan base, at least for the American teams, that focus on this information. Being one of the very few who do stats analysis for a team may lead people to think that stats are the only thing that particular person looks at when in fact it is simply the lack of that type of information from other sources making it stand out.

For the past year, I have followed along on Twitter and frequented the websites and blogs of as many advanced stats people as possible. That is a very short time and happens to coincide with the amount of time I have been on Twitter. In that short time, I have learned an amazing amount from people who have revolutionized stats in hockey and people who use stats as part of their analysis of the teams and players. In that year of paying close attention to and having frequent discussions with these people, not once have I ever heard even one of them say that advanced stats are the end all be all in analyzing hockey. Never.

I think the “end all be all” argument against stats is more a function of perception than reality. Often the advanced stats pack provides a counterargument to more “traditional” analysis by citing ways that the numbers show a different reality than what is being alleged. If the majority of what you have heard in the way of hockey analysis is not numbers related and then it is attacked based upon numbers, it makes sense that you may develop an aversion to the numbers. Again though, I have never heard any in the advanced stats crowd say that numbers are the only way.

I know of several hockey sites that do a wonderful job of breaking down plays and strategies. They are not all that plentiful so people have to search them out. Hockey is so often presented as hit, shoot, score that the actual strategy to the game is left by the wayside fairly often. Further, there are people who are doing tracking projects for zone entries, zone exits and passing. These manual tracking projects require a lot of time to carry out and frankly, I do not think it will shock anyone to learn that not every NHL team has a member of the public that does this.

The long and short of it is this: Hockey is a tough game to analyze. It is more fluid than many other sports and lacks the technological applications that some other sports have to help track data. Even the data provided to the NHL is tracked by people, so as fans we have to make do with what we have. No, Corsi and Fenwick are not perfect, but they are the best tools we have at this point to analyze puck possession and puck possession is the name of the game. All told, I think that the more people are hearing about teams using advanced stats, the more they are coming to accept that they are useful, but they still have some reservations. 


A Quick Rant

The Blackhawks have always been my hockey team and always will be. Hockey consumes a major portion of my life. Of course, I have a family and they are my priority, but I also devote a lot of my time to hockey. I talk about hockey on Twitter and I write about hockey too. I not only watch the games like many others, but I go back and watch them again to manually track zone entries, defensive play and special teams strategy. That takes a long time as you would probably guess. I say this so you will understand that I am not a person who just follows the Blackhawks when they are in the playoffs or something like that.

I would love the Blackhawks regardless of their style of play, but I really enjoy the style with which they have played for the last several years. That style is basically highly skilled hockey while keeping the extracurricular activities, i.e. fighting, to a minimum. This style of hockey has been a great source of pride for me and many other Blackhawks fans over the years. I like a good clean hit as much as the next hockey fan, but there is just something about watching a player like Jonathan Toews steal the puck at his defensive blue line, thread through the retreating defensemen and score on a strong move to the net that is so much better. Things like this make me not care at all about which team is leading in hits at the end of a period.

When the Blackhawks are playing a team with an aggressive in your face physical style, they have done a great job over the years of sticking to their game and getting even by scoring. One such instance has become a bit of a rallying point for some Blackhawks fans and has been used by fans of other teams to show what they would want their team to do in such a situation.

During the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins, Brad Marchand was giving Patrick Kane the business and challenged him to a fight. Kane responded by saying he didn’t think that was a very good trade off and the two continued to verbally jab at each other. Shortly after that happened, Toews ended up scoring and so did Kane. On the ensuing faceoff, Kane was lined up with Marchand and said “You shoulda kept your mouth shut” to him a couple of times. This is really a microcosm of what Blackhawks hockey has been for several years. Attempts to intimidate them have more often than not been met with an offensive onslaught in lieu of fists.

Of course, the Blackhawks have had their share of fights over the past few years but are usually near the bottom of the league in fighting majors. It’s been a wonderful time watching them stick to their game and be successful. There have been a few moments during that time that have been a bit tough to take though. Actions that have led to suspensions for Blackhawks players are what I have in mind here. For the most part, the Blackhawks tend to play a pretty clean game but sometimes tempers get the best of them or a split second decision goes wrong. Brent Seabrook’s hit on David Backes is one of the latter. Duncan Keith’s stick slash to Jeff Carter’s face during the Western Conference Final last season was one of the former. Neither is something I feel good about as a Blackhawks fan or a hockey fan in general. I will not defend either of those actions.

I used to argue the legality of hits on Twitter. I learned after banging my head against a wall for a while that this is futile for me. All it has resulted in for me is unnecessarily elevated blood pressure and annoyance so I decided to stop doing it. Sometimes it is really hard. It is not easy to see some of your favorite players bashed by others who only watch them play a few games a season. I think that’s true for any hockey fan. The urge to say “but he’s not always like that!” and defend one of your favorite players is very compelling when you feel he is being wrongly characterized, but this is never going to change. People will not suddenly go back and watch all of a player’s clean hits on the season to determine only then if he is a “dirty player” when he makes a hit that breaks the rules. I have probably done this to players on other teams and driven their fans crazy just like people have done to my favorite players. It’s just how it is.

At some point, I have had to accept that all of my favorite hockey players, and other athletes in general, may not be the nicest people while playing their sport. It sounds so simple that it is almost silly but in actuality it has been a difficult realization to come to. So much of sports, particularly championship runs, become so romanticized that we build up grandiose notions of who these athletes really are. Regardless of their skill, regardless of the hours and hours of charity work they do off of the ice (court, field, etc…), regardless of how fun they are with their family and fans, they are still ruthless competitors. That ruthlessness is what has gotten them into a professional sport. They have another gear of competitiveness to go along with their amazing talent and skill that they have honed to the point of exhaustion for years. That drive can also lead to being so competitive and so ruthless that they do things that cross the line. This is particularly true in hockey, where physicality is a major part of the game and where punching someone in the face to resolve your differences usually gets you little more than a 5 minute rest in the penalty box.

We do not have to like the bad hits and we certainly do not have to condone them. I do not like seeing dangerous or reckless play in hockey from any player. I like it even less when it is a member of the Blackhawks doing it. It makes me angry and sad at the same time because I know that the Blackhawks do not have to play like that. They have enough talent to win without the dirty stuff. If it were a normal part of their game, I would constantly complain about it and beg for change from the coaches and front office.

I know it’s hard to deal with this type of situation on social media. Just by reminding people that I do not want to discuss the legality of hits, I opened the floodgates to people complaining at me about how “convenient” that was since it was a player on my team at the source of the most recent controversy. Next time I will just keep my mouth shut. Lesson learned. I saw a flurry of tweets from Blackhawks fans calling Seabrook’s hit on Backes dirty and being generally angry about it. I think a big part of it is their actual feeling and part of it is an effort to distance themselves from other fans, who were defending a player on their team regardless of the dirtiness or cleanness of the hit or the actions that led up to it with some serious vehemence. 

I, for one, at this point in my life, think it is pointless to fight over whether a hit was legal or not. You, of course, are free to think differently and disagree with me. You do as you wish and do what makes you feel better in that situation. That is not to say that I condone all of the behavior I have seen from fans on Twitter, because some of it I find pretty disturbing, but hey, it’s a free country.

Back to my point though…

My point with all of this is that I have to keep reminding myself that sometimes people that I really admire for their sporting ability do things that I really dislike. Sometimes it is even some of my favorite players doing things I do not like. The truth of the matter is that I can and will continue to be a fan even when things go wrong. I will still be a fan even though players I really like make bad decisions and do things that I disagree with. I hope that as this series continues against the St. Louis Blues, the Blackhawks will remember what got them to this point and leave behind a period of play during which they acted like a completely different team. Some of the play during the third period of Game 2 versus St. Louis made me feel pretty ashamed. I don’t think that makes me less of a fan somehow. I think it’s okay to be disappointed in the actions of the players on your team sometimes. It doesn’t mean that I suddenly hate the Blackhawks or am disloyal. If anything, I think it is a testament to how much I love the team. I hold them to a high standard and I do not think there is anything wrong with that.

Every team has a low point of the season and particularly in the playoffs. I think that was it for the Blackhawks. I hope that was the low spot because if they go any lower than that we will be seeing a roster of Black Aces instead of Blackhawks and it will be an early end to the season. Essentially, if they want to play Blackhawks hockey and win, they have to be better. They have to get back to playing their game instead of getting involved in all of the extracurricular business that leads to tempers eventually blowing. I hope they can do it, because I would really like to watch them play their brand of highly skilled hockey and be proud of how they handled themselves for a lot longer than two more games.


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.