Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Why Are We So Damn Ignorant?

For some reason, rather than continually explore new avenues and attempt to enhance our understanding of how hockey actually works, we (I'm using "we" fairly broadly here) seem to instead bury our heads in the sand, dig our heels in, and resist new ideas and concepts. This is especially prevalent if these new ideas are in the form of acronyms or contain decimals. Tonight, my absolute favourite TV hockey personality Steve Kouleas left Twitter with a gem of an anti-thinking tweet, and wouldn't you know it, the analyblogotwittosphere or whatever we're calling it jumped all over him. I'm not going to rip Kouleas here because I find him insufferable and it'll turn into a rant, but I'll address some stuff that really has been bothering me; mainly just how to meld stats with more "traditional" analysis done by the talking heads in a way that makes the staple intermission or pregame or postgame panel much more informative or insightful.

But first, a rundown of what happened, just to prove I'm not setting up a strawman here. I don't know what prompted it, but ol' Stevie just felt it necessary to throw this out there:

That's not even grammar'd correctly, and the excessive use of ellipses basically undermines any point he may have been trying to make since they show he has the punctuation skills of a second grader, but that's irrelevant. The main point is that this is a major host on perhaps the world's most influential television network when it comes to meaningful hockey analysis is completely dismissing the underlying school of thinking that seems to be slowly welling up beneath the traditional mainstream narratives. You would think that, as a network dedicated to feeding hockey programming en masse to the insatiable Canadian populous, TSN would also strive to deliver the most insightful programming too. For the most part, I think they're the best of the three major Canadian networks, with guys like McKenzie, Dreger, LeBrun, and even Ferraro and Ward at their disposal.

TH2N seems wildly divergent from this perception however. It's like something CBC's panel would do sans Friedman. "LOOK HOCKEY TALK LOUD NOW," or something like that. Aside from the banal shouting that goes on between Kouleas and Button (whom I think is horribly miscast), there's also the fact that berating alternative viewpoints seems to be the norm from TH2N regulars, as shown by STATS GUY tonight and Steve Simmons a while ago:

Other than the obvious "I claim to understand your ideas completely but really I have no idea" stuff that's going on here, I don't think that taking the stance of "it will never work!" is either productive or even smart. As Broad Street Hockey's Eric Tulsky pointed out earlier tonight, a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time looking at this stuff. Dismissing it outright works on the same logic as denying climate change or suggesting that smoking doesn't cause cancer. Unless you can defend your argument that Corsi is "ridiculous nonsense" with actual strong evidence, your opinion is invalid, no matter how how large the pulpit you preach from (and as we all know, a one-game sample that lacks any sort of context is flimsy evidence at best).


This all brings me to my main gripe with how hockey is being analyzed right now: incorporating stats, educating your viewership, and making your product better would be incredibly easy and I don't understand why it's not being done. Take Hockey Night in Canada for example. On one hand, you have Elliotte Friedman getting free reign to use timeonice.com in an intermission bit, and then on the other Glenn Healy claims that Pavel Datsyuk isn't that talented. Fortunately, you only need one guy to know what he's talking about to present a segment in a way that makes everyone come across as intelligent. Imagine an intermission segment on HNiC as follows:

MacLean: "The Boston Bruins are up 2-0 on the Penguins. Who could have seen this coming, Elliotte?"

Friedman: "Well Ron, according to some of the most reliable measures we have on predicting future success, the Bruins were by far and away the better team than Pittsburgh through the regular season. We all know that Detroit built a decade of success on the back of puck possession, and the best measures of puck possession we have at our disposal are a couple of stats called Corsi and Fenwick. *brief explanation of both stats followed by a chart showing the massive difference between BOS and PIT in these measures.* So while this fast 2-0 lead for the Bruins may be surprising to some, it really shouldn't be."

MacLean: "So PJ, what are the Bruins doing in these playoffs to keep up this great puck possession play?"

Stock: "It's all about the 50-50 puck battles. Here you got a guy like Bergeron who's a great player and look at him work against Crosby here *hilight reel of Bergeron and other Bruins fighting for pucks along the boards.* You win with guys like Bergeron. They turn pucks over and give it to your team and help you keep the puck for more of the game."

MacLean: "But coaching has an important role too, Kevin?"

Weekes: "Absolutely. You look at how Boston is structured in their defensive end, and they keep pucks to the outside and cause turnovers. Pittsburgh on the other hand is really loose. Look at how poor their coverage is on this Krejci goal! They're chasing the Bruins all over the ice, and never in a good position to get the puck back if they turn it over. As a result, Boston has the puck more and they're winning."

A segment like that introduces and explains a statistical concept, and then outlines the factors and events in a hockey game that go into that stat. Not only does it simply run through numbers, but it marries the newer wave of analytics with the traditional narrative in a way that should be more easily understandable to viewers. Stats aren't intrinsically divorced from the old-school way of looking at hockey, but mainstream analysts really have yet to make the connection between what we see going on, and what we measure going on. It's not a hard connection to make, but I really hope it happens sooner rather than later. Hockey needs more Friedmans and less Kouleases.


One last thing: my favourite part of this whole thing was when Kouleas challenged Twitter to "go to a coach or GM and ask them a question on it" and both a coach and a GM immediately responded telling him that he was full of shit. I really hope the Soo Greyhounds win a Memorial Cup soon since it would be nice to see an organization that embraces analytics so openly get rewarded for it.

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