I’ve been engaged in the massive world of hockey-related debate since I began writing in print and online nearly five years ago.
In that time, the debate in the hockey community hasn’t lacked its controversial issues. We’ve seen huge reform to the rules and guidelines that manage contact to the head and the procedures that follow with players and staff. We’ve seen a bitter, bitter lockout. We’ve debated endlessly about the role of fighting in hockey and slowly but surely, we’ve seen the number of fighting majors decrease. The list goes on.
None of these debates have been as divisive and mishandled as the debate on analytics in hockey. The debate, which started amongst a handful of bloggers who had seen the movements happening in other sports and wondered how it could be mimicked in hockey, is an incredibly challenging, forward-thinking discussion.
The community where the debate was happening however was at first very small, and when word got out about their ideas, and people began to develop a curiosity, it was up to those with a platform, mainly journalists (but also other bloggers) to help the rest of the community understand the terms, and in turn be able to engage in the debate.
They did need journalists, though. They needed mainstream writers and broadcasters if the concepts and ideas were ever to be fully understood, let alone accepted by hockey fans at large. Slowly, one by one, those engaged in the research who were good at placing the stats in context were plucked up for that very reason, their research gone with them.
As a journalist, it is expected that you break things down for the everyday reader. You’re also expected to be a good listener.
Not only was the debate met with an initial dismissal of the ideas by several journalists, whose readers were initially intrigued, but it was also misrepresented, poorly explained and in time even caricatured. As a result the everyday hockey fan (and many others), who read and respect the journalists’ work and aren’t engaged in any of the relevant blogging circles, were at first incredibly misinformed.
Slowly, these caricatures ruffled some feathers with those on the other side of the debate. For those with the new ideas, it should have come as no surprise that they were met with apprehension. Instead of taking the higher road, and trying to further peoples’ understanding of the new ideas, the mudslinging from the other side came back just as hard, probably harder, as bloggers and the “fancy stats” community flung dirt across the aisle. They too failed, using every stats-driven event they felt they’d been proven right by as ammunition.
It became a debate of personality, rather than a simplification process and an engaged debate, one both sides needed to play a role in. The self-righteous, pompous blogger met the stubborn journalist. The sardonic mud-slinging that ensued was embarrassing, and made things a lot worse.
Today, only the most basic, now-outdated concepts are understood by the masses while fans on both sides of the debate have chosen their sides based more on the individuals they felt came out of the battle cleaner than anything else. Hours of online debate go nowhere, as people argue out of distaste for the other side’s attitude, refusing to cede ground on even the most basic of agreeable ideas.
On one side, the use of words like ‘work ethic’, ‘resolve’ and ‘compete’ are mocked and laughed at as relevant in analyzing the game or a player because they can’t be quantified. Nobody’s allowed to say they “saw” anything anymore. Sportsnet analyst Nick Kypreos was mocked on Twitter during the intermission of a recent Leafs game when he broke down what he saw and decided the Leafs played a poor period. The underlying numbers reinforced what he was saying, so he wasn’t wrong, but his language was attacked.
This has been made worse by Kypreos and others turning the issue into a divisive one, as if as a gimmick, with Kypreos commenting that he doesn’t need stats and his counterparts yelling back the other way on air. This only serves to compound the issues present in the debate.
On the other side, the use of the simplest of metrics is dismissed, passed off as a “fancy stat” and laughed at when a team or player defies the metrics. This polarization leads to an inability to discuss the utility of both stances.
This isn’t a matter of trying to find diplomacy where diplomacy doesn’t exist. There is no denying that there are limitations to the metrics just as there is no denying that there are limitations to what we may perceive and what may actually be happening.
There is no denying that measuring a player based on his even strength performance is more indicative than measuring with powerplay and penalty kill. It’s precisely the reason that penalty killers haven’t been given minuses for decades.
There is no denying that there are certain things that can only be seen in hockey. It is an incredibly fluid sport.
There is no denying that skill is not all that matters. Players need to be able to compete. They need to have a strong work ethic. These will always be things that go into evaluating them.
The stats will never tell the story the way they do in baseball, where every event can be measured. They are most certainly not a perfect measurement for evaluating players (as of yet, at least).
And each of the stats, especially in hockey, require a ton of context to be understood. Still, they are a valuable tool and one that should be measured and critiqued in order to find the right balance of just how valuable.
Only when we stop using a single stat to justify an opinion and only when we stop strictly using our eyes to evaluate can we push the debate forward.
First, we have to respect the person on the other side and approach them in a cooperative, attentive, productive spirit. Here’s hoping.