The other day, my colleague Zach Laing at BLH tweeted out the following:
Since when did everything in the hockey world HAVE to be quantified by numbers otherwise it's taken as a farce?
— zach laing (@Loweded) March 11, 2016
Which I found really interesting, because I know for a fact (from multiple Twitter conversations) that Zach isn’t by any means an ‘anti-stats’ guy.
That got me thinking on a few statsy “controversies” that are out there, and now that I’ve got this cool new beer-soaked platform at my beck and call, this seems as good a time as any to explore!
“All these stats are really taking the fun out of the game”
Have you heard that one? I see some variation of it posted every few weeks. Putting myself in the mind of someone who posts that, I find I can both 100% agree with the sentiment and 100% disagree with it.
I’ll talk about the 100% disagree first – my third point will look at the 100% agree side.
Now, why would I 100% disagree with the idea of stats taking the fun out of the game?
Are you a numbers person? I sure as hell am! I have a PC dedicated to hockey. I run stats between periods and after every Oiler game. I write a post game analysis based heavily on the numbers I generate.
Funny thing though – watching the Oilers play, whether on TV or live – is a 100% visceral experience for me.
I do not think of or track *any* numbers while I’m watching. My heart races, and I tend to swear and shout a lot (my kids have had the ‘driving and watching sports is a swearing exemption’ theory explained to them multiple times). I leap out of my seat and fist pump when a big goal is scored, sulk when the team loses, and curse the Hockey Gords when yet another Oiler goes down to injury.
Other than goals, I’m not thinking about numbers at all. I’ve been watching this team since they joined the NHL, long before I jumped into the hockey stats game, and that aspect hasn’t changed a bit.
So If I’m not thinking numbers during the game, why the heck are you?
Watch the game. Enjoy it. Live and die by the team – just as you always have.
There are no numbers (other than the score) that should be able to sap your enjoyment.
If that’s actually happening, if the existence of hockey stats is somehow affecting your hockey experience, trust me: you’re doing it wrong.
You know what IS taking the enjoyment out of the game?
In no specific order, here’s my list:
Gary Bettman – for crushing so much of the spirit and competitiveness of the game in favour of fake parity;
Daryl Katz, Steve Tambellini, Kevin Lowe, and Craig MacTavish – because even today, we’re stilling watching a team struggling to dig out of years of incompetence at their hands;
grotesque reffing – let it go or call everything, refs, I don’t give a crap, just CALL A CONSISTENT AND FAIR GAME for sh*ts sake (and if you can’t, get people who can);
and a dishonourable mention to the Sportsnet panel (especially Remenda) – I swear I’ve lost five IQ points in the last year just because I couldn’t reach the mute button fast enough.
Want to blame something for taking the enjoyment out of hockey for you?
“Why do we need a number for everything?”
This speaks more directly to Zach’s question. His question actually has two parts:
– do we need numbers for everything?
– just because something doesn’t have numbers, should it get treated as a ‘farce’?
My general philosophy in this area (I won’t pretend it is everyone’s, but I do think it applies to a lot of the people in the hockey stats community) is summed up in this tweet:
"What a beautiful rainbow. I enjoy it so much that I'm going to research how rainbows are formed."
"WATCH THE RAINBOW, NERD!"
— Bonk's Mullet (@BonksMullet) March 8, 2016
It’s a tweet poking fun at the anti-intellectual attitude that sometimes pervades the discussion.
But it also speaks to this idea: “I enjoy the game so much, I’m going to research what factors have supporting evidence that they drive the game and differentiate good teams/players from bad teams/players.”
That’s the process. Note the word evidence highlighted. This is what it’s all about.
In the end, we want evidence because hockey is like so many other human endeavours:
Where does that leave Zach’s question? Frankly, the question of whether some specific aspect of the game *needs* numbers is almost a rhetorical question. Someone will either look at the topic or someone won’t. (Someone probably already has)
But understand, if there are no numbers to provide evidence around that aspect of the game – then whatever thoughts you have on that aspect are opinions. Farce? Hell no, I sure wouldn’t use that word. There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion. [You know the old saying…]
As a stats guy, I’m absolutely fine with that. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.
It’s only when someone espouses their opinion as fact that things start to get dicey.
Which leads naturally to my last point.
Yes, for certain people, stats really do suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck
Here’s the big thing that has changed over the last decade.
Back then, you’d watch a game with your buds, then discuss serious hockey sh*t after.
Like who really won the game within a game, who was good, who was bad, who got overplayed and who got underplayed. But you’d do it all of it without a shred of evidence, and usually heaped with a liberal dose of trash talk.
Now if you try the same thing these days – if you proferr opinion as fact to someone who actually has the facts – chances are you’re going to lose that exchange.
And dammit, who likes losing**?
If stats are not your thing, but you used to win hockey arguments based on opinions (because you’re louder, or bigger, or more sober, or have a media platform), ouch, these days have gotta hurt.
And it’s 10x as true in the modern age where instead of just arguing with a couple of co-workers at lunch over whether Mats Sundin is a perimeter player (true story from 10 years ago), you now go online and your opinion is read by hundreds or thousands of people you don’t know.
People who have no reason to preserve your feelings or ego. And are armed with reams and reams of facts.
It can get ugly fast.
I get that. So … I 100% get why those folks are so anti-stats.
But I won’t offer many words of comfort.
After all, isn’t it just a tad ironic that people can jump onto any of dozens of social media platforms, running on sophisticated computing devices, connected with millions of other devices over the technical marvel that is the internet – and complain that the nerds with computers are taking over the game of hockey?
This magic day when super-science mingles with the bright stuff of dreams.
If stats are definitely not your thing, maybe find a group of like-minded fans and have it out instead.
Meantime, even if I wasn’t personally working to move the state of the hockey stats game forward, I still would appreciate what the last 10 years have brought – which is, in the end, just basic science. To separate fact from fiction, opinion from reality.
On that note, I will leave you with a few of my favourite “picture quotes” on science. Just replace the word ‘nature’ with ‘hockey’ and you’re good to go. I think you’ll like them – because if you aren’t the kind to like them, I bet you stopped reading a long time ago!
**You know why I got into fancystats in the first place? Because I found myself losing arguments to those damn nerds. (they just happened to be fellow nerds) True story.