Friday, 18 July 2014

Puckerings archive: Goaltender Perseverence (30 Mar 2001)

What follows is a post from my old hockey analysis site puckerings.com (later hockeythink.com). It is reproduced here for posterity; bear in mind this writing is over a decade old and I may not even agree with it myself anymore. This post was originally published on March 30, 2001 and was last updated on April 11, 2002.



Goaltender Perseverance: a meaningless stat
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2002


This essay examines Chapter 8 of Klein and Reif's Hockey Compendium, which is all about goaltending. This chapter makes up pages 131 to 159, and fully 22 of these pages (76%) is taken up by the discussion of a Klein and Reif (KR) statistical creation, Goaltender Perseverance.
Unfortunately, all of these 22 pages are wasted. Goaltender Perseverance is a meaningless and useless concept. But don't take my word for it; read on and you'll discover why.

KR begin their discussion with the appropriate point that traditional goaltending statistics (that is, Goals-Against Average and Won-Lost-Tied records) are deceptive a best:

"The statistical method hockey has used since the very beginning of the game for determining who is a good goalie and who is a bad one is all wrong. Goals-against averages, they're called, and as we all know, you figure out a goalie's GAA by taking the number of goals he allows and dividing it by the number of full games he plays. This is patently ridiculous…" (p.134)

This statement is true; GAA is of very limited meaning for evaluating goalies. However, KR have a problem with it because it evaluates goalies based on something that is more a measure of team defence (goals against), rather than the individual goalie's performance. This is rather ironic, because Goaltender Perseverance also evaluates goalies based upon something that is more a reflection of team defence (shots faced), rather than individual goalie performance. I will demonstrate this, but first, we will examine KR's rationale.

KR move on to Save Percentage, which is a much better number for evaluating goalies. Unfortunately, the NHL has officially tracked this figure since 1982-83, even though it had been invented decades earlier.

But KR are not content with Save Percentage as it is. Their reasoning is as follows:

"The more shots you face, the less likely the chance that you have time to get set for each shot, to be in position for each shot, to see each shot." (p.137)

That is, if you face a larger number of shots per game, your save percentage will be lower, on average. This is simply a statement KR make, and it forms the entire basis for their Perseverance index. They make no attempt whatsoever to prove that the statement is true. They present no evidence that the fiftieth shot in a game is more likely to produce a goal than the fifth shot. In fact, their claim is entirely false.

To disprove their claim, I will use only the data KR themselves had: the official NHL shots figures for 1982-83 to 1986-87, and the 1981-82 numbers they compiled themselves. Their argument is that as a goalie's shots per game increases, his save percentage decreases. This is easy to test. I took the shots per game and save percentage figures for these six years, using the top tier of goalies as identified by KR (that is, those playing 1600 or more minutes in a season). I then calculated the correlation coefficients between shots per game and save percentage. If KR's premise is correct, then a higher number of shots per game should produce a lower save percentage. Thus, the correlation coefficient should be a significant negative one (say -0.40 at a minimum). The results are as follows:

 Year  Correlation
 1981-82  0.17
 1982-83  -0.32
 1983-84  0.15
 1984-85  0.14
 1985-86  0.25
 1986-87  0.08

In none of the years is there any sort of strong negative relationship. Which is to say, the number of shots you face does not have a negative effect on your save percentage. Five of the six years have a slight positive relationship, meaning that as shots increase, save percentage increases. I have a theory as to why this might be, but have not yet tested it; the positive relationship is quite small at any rate. In summary, KR's premise is entirely false.

There is further evidence that the Perseverance Index is a meaningless concept. As an index, it is designed to rank players, but the actual number itself has no meaning. There is nothing inherently wrong with indexes. However, an index must be based upon solid premises and logical reasoning. Perseverance is not; it is a meaningless, arbitrary mishmash of numbers. Here is the formula (p.138):

Perseverance = (6 x (Saves/Shots x 100) + Shots per 60 minutes)/.6

Why 6? Why .6?

"It [the formula] is based on our perceptions, and in that sense it is subjective to some degree." (p.138)

This last statement is not true. The formula is entirely subjective. It was admittedly arrived at by trial and error, with the end result affecting the formulation until a result that "looked right" was found. Arriving at any metric, even an index, by trial and error opens the door for personal biases to enter after examining the results, but this is beside the point.

The entire point of Perseverance is to reward goalers for facing a lot of shots (or, conversely, penalizing them for facing few shots). This makes the rating meaningless, because the number of shots faced by a goalie is beyond his control; it is a function of his team.

To prove this, I again used only the data KR had access to. In this case, I could not use 1981-82, because the splits for traded goalies are not provided by KR. I calculated the correlation coefficients between teams' starting goalies and backups for each year. If there is a high degree of correlation (0.60 or more), then there is evidence that shots faced per game are a function of team. The results:

 Year  Correlation
 1982-83  0.77
 1983-84  0.67
 1984-85  0.89
 1985-86  0.71
 1986-87  0.70

Each and every year, there is strong evidence that shots are a function of team; meaning that the number of shots a goalie faces depends on which team he plays for. Thus, KR are actually evaluating goaltenders partly based on which team they play for. Talk about patently ridiculous!
KR spend 22 pages gushing over their creation, which (1) is based on a false premise, and (2) evaluates players based on something that is beyond their control. In short, Perseverance is useless and meaningless. This is a noble cause, trying to find new ways to evaluate goalies. However, this failed attempt shows that more work needs to be done.

If you have further interest in the subject of evaluating goaltenders, there are other method available besides save percentage; for example, Neutral Winning Percentage and the Point Allocation system.

Reference
Klein, J. and K.-E. Reif. The Klein and Reif Hockey Compendium. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

In-Depth Review: L'histoire du hockey au Québec, Part 3

Welcome to part three of my in-depth review of Donald Guay's 1990 book L'histoire du hockey au Québec: Origine et développement d'un phénomène culturel avant 1917 ("The History of Hockey in Quebec: The origin and development of a cultural phenomenon before 1917"). Please note that since the book is written in French, any time I quote from the book, I will provide both the original passage in bold italics, followed by my translation in regular italics.

In chapter one, Guay defined a sport but did not define hockey. In chapter two we finally get to some characteristics of the sport of ice hockey that can be used to differentiate it from other games and sports. Guay discusses five such characteristics, including their origins and evolution over time: the number of players, the puck, the goals, the sticks and the rink.

The first thing I notice is that one of the most basic defining characteristics of hockey is not included here: the skates. I think you'll agree that, even if a game is played on ice, it would not be considered ice hockey by our current understanding if skates are not used. Let's see what Guay has to say about the characteristics he does identify.

Number of Players

Guay points out that in the earliest recorded Montreal hockey matches, the norm was nine players per side, shrinking to seven by the early 1880s. This is fewer players than other similar sports, such as the eleven used as bandy, and as such the author suggests that this is a differentiating characteristic of ice hockey. It is, however, unwise to use something so specific to define a sport. Bandy has eleven players per side, and early hockey had nine per side. If, in a bandy match, two players on each side are sent off with penalties, does this now mean they're playing hockey, since they now have nine per side, and nine per side is characteristic of hockey?

Moreover, there is a version of bandy called rink bandy that was developed in the 1960s in Sweden, that is played in hockey rinks with six players per side. How are we to differentiate between ice hockey and rink bandy, if the lower number of players is supposed to be a defining characteristic of ice hockey? This illustrates that when defining what a game is, referring to specific rules is a bad idea, since rules change over time and can lead to overlaps such as this.

Guay goes on to discuss how the number of players in ice hockey was gradually reduced, first to seven and then to six in the early 1910s when the rover was eliminated in eastern hockey, a move which the western leagues were slower to adopt. Guay discusses the rover a bit, and notes that sports writer Andy O'Brien claimed that players at this position were not subject to any rules, and were allowed to go anywhere on the ice at any time. That is, the strict offside rules of the time did not apply to the rover. This is simply hogwash. The position was called a rover not because of the rules, but because of the roles forwards played on offence. Art Farrell, in Hockey: Canada's Royal Winter Game (1899), explained that while the centre played the middle of the ice and the wings their own sides, the rover was supposed to go wherever he was most needed to support the other forwards.

To Guay's credit, he does not suggest that O'Brien's claim is accurate, stating that he was unable to corroborate it. Of course, he could have simply referred to the rules from this time, and he would have found it was complete bollocks. Indeed, the fact that he needed to try to corroborate this suggests that Guay is not very familiar with the game as it was played at this time. There is nothing mysterious about the rover, it was simply another forward.

The Puck

Guay begins here by noting that in the 1870s, hockey was played with a rubber ball like that used in bandy, shinty, hurling and field hockey. For the first Montreal match on March 3, 1875, however, a circular piece of wood was used, in order to protect the spectators. Guay states that this was specified to be an exception, however, and that until 1885 matches of ice hockey played outside, at least, used a ball and not a puck.

We can go through the newspaper game summaries from 1875 to 1884 to see if this lines up with history. In these years, I can find reports for ten different matches that refer to the object of play by one name or another.

March 3, 1875: Montreal Gazette (03 Mar 1875) refers to a "flat circular piece of wood"; Montreal Gazette (04 Mar 1875) refers to a "block of wood"; Montreal Daily Witness (04 Mar 1875) refers to a "flat piece of board."

March 15, 1875: Montreal Gazette (17 Mar 1875) refers to a "little circle of wood."

February 5, 1876: Montreal Gazette (07 Feb 1876) refers to a "puck." This is the first recorded instance of "puck" used in this manner. It may be derived from the same term used in hurling, where "to puck" the ball means to strike the ball.

February 1, 1877: Montreal Daily Witness (02 Feb 1877) refers to a "hockey block" and a "wooden block." This is consistent with matches to this date, and it's clear that the were still using a wooden puck to play hockey. However, the report also refers to the puck as "the ball" in one instance. This suggests that sometimes the term ball was still used to refer to the puck, even though it was not a ball in the sense of a spherical object. This will become more certain later on.

February 26, 1877: Montreal Gazette (27 Feb 1877) refers to a "ball" nine times. However, given the February 1, 1877 reference we cannot be sure that this actually means a spherical ball and not a puck.

March 6, 1879: Montreal Gazette (07 Mar 1879) refers to a "ball." See comments above.

February 16, 1882: Quebec Morning Chronicle (17 Feb 1882) refers to a "puck" twice.

January 27, 1883: This was the final match of the 1883 Montreal Winter Carnival, and was played at the Victoria rink, and not the St. Lawrence River as the previous games in the tournament. Quebec Morning Chronicle (29 Jan 1883) refers to a "puck" six times, a "ball" five times and a "rubber" three times. This makes it quite clear that the term "ball" was sometimes used to mean the puck. Montreal Gazette (29 Jan 1883) refers to a "rubber" twice, a "ball" twice and a "bully" twice.

February 5, 1884: Montreal Gazette (06 Feb 1884) refers to a "ball."

February 7, 1884: Montreal Gazette (08 Feb 1884) refers to a "rubber." This match, and the match above, were part of the 1884 Winter Carnival. The matches in this year's carnival were all played at the McGill rink, which was an outdoor rink, not covered like the Victoria or Crystal rinks.

Taken all together, it seems clear that the puck used on March 3, 1875 was not an exception in the sense of being a one-time thing, but in the sense of a persistent change from the previous norm. It seems to be a change that stuck. Some confusion can arise given that it also seems that the term "ball" was used sometimes even when the object was flat and circular, like the puck we know. Apparently "ball" could have the generic meaning of the thing that you play the game with, and did not necessarily mean a sphere. So perhaps Guay read the February 5, 1884 report and saw the word "ball", and figured this meant that this outdoor game was played using a rubber sphere. Given the information above, we cannot make this assumption, and indeed it seems likely the object was pucklike in nature.

Of course, it is possible that the converse was the case; that the term "puck" became the generic term, even was the object was actually a sphere. However it's very unlikely that such a new term would become the widely-accepted generic term for such an object in such a short period of time. We have evidence that ball was the generic term. In a game report in the Montreal Daily Herald of 08 Feb 1887 made reference to a puck four times, and a ball once. We know, according to AHAC rules written before that season, that a flat, disklike puck is the object that would be used in the match. As such it seems clear that puck was a specific term meaning a flat disc used for hockey, while ball could be used to mean any object of play in similar games.

Although Guay appears to be incorrect about the use of pucks and balls in early Montreal hockey, he is correct when he says this:

«Cette modification, si elle semble banale à première vue, apporte un élément essentiel qui va distinguer davantage le hockey des autres jeux et sports alors pratiqués, tels que le shinty, le bandy, le hurling ou le hockey sur gazon qui se pratique tous avec une balle, mais de différents grosseurs. Il devient possible de manier, de contrôler la rondelle qui glisse sur la glace, ce qui permet aux jouers de se déplacer rapidement avec la rondelle et de mieux maîtriser des «combinaisons», c'est-à-dire le jeu d'ensemble. Le technique de base est le «stick handling» ou maniement du bâton qui permet de développer de nombreuses techniques qui demeurent très difficiles, sinon impossible avec une balle» (p.54)

"This change, seemingly trivial at first glance, brought an essential element which would further distinguish hockey from other games and sports played at the time, such as shinty, bandy, hurling or field hockey which are played with balls of various sizes. It made it possible to handle, to control the puck while it glides along the ice, which permits the players to move rapidly with the puck and to better use "combinations", that is, passing plays. The basic technique is stick handling, which allows the development of techniques which would be very difficult if not impossible with a ball."

I reached this very same conclusion in On His Own Side of the Puck. The change to a puck was originally done only to protect spectators, but it had great unintended consequences. The greater "science" that it allowed in ice hockey is surely one of the reasons that the popularity of the sport increased so dramatically in Canada in such a short period of time.

The Goals

This section is uncontroversial, with Guay providing a fine summary of the evolution of the goal posts, and later goal nets, used in ice hockey. One item of note is that Guay asserts that the posts were eight feet apart in 1875, which is based on a reference in the report for the March 3, 1875 game in Montreal. However, the report only stated that the goals were "about" eight feet apart, and it's not clear if the writer was referring to the goals used in the hockey match, or to lacrosse goals, which the game was being compared to at the time. So ultimately, until the 1886 rules specified how far apart the goals were to be, we don't know for certain how far apart they were.

The Stick

Guay briefly discusses early sticks, noting that the shape of the blade is different from sticks for other sports such as field hockey, bandy and shinty. Pretty straightforward stuff.

The Rink

Finally, Guay notes that ice hockey is played on a smaller surface than other similar sports. Hockey's standard is about 200 by 85 feet, while bandy used about 300 feet by 150 feet. But once again, even though hockey used a smaller surface, using this as a defining characteristic of hockey is problematic. How long and wide does the playing surface have to be before hockey becomes bandy? If the rink is 250 feet long, is this characteristic of hockey or bandy? If a game, using hockey equipment and rules, is played on a bandy-sized surface, is it no longer hockey? If bandy is played in a hockey rink, is it no longer bandy? This is why specific dimensions should be avoided is trying to define what hockey is, and how it is different from similar sports such as bandy.

After all this, Guay suggests that it is because ice hockey had written rules that the sport overtook traditional British games such as field hockey, bandy, shinty and hurling. I'm really not sure what to make of this statement, since ice hockey took its first written rules from the written rules of English field hockey's written rules, and the author knows this. Bandy also had published rules before ice hockey came into being. As such, Guay does a fairly poor job in defining what hockey is and how it is different from similar sports. He discusses some of the characteristics that hockey has, but does not really define what hockey is. Notably, he leaves skates out of the equation entirely, even when comparing it to sports that are not played on ice and do not use skates, though all that is really needed is the puck to differentiate it from similar sports, to which the author does give proper credit.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Puckerings archive: Player Comparisons (21 Mar 2001)

What follows is a post from my old hockey analysis site puckerings.com (later hockeythink.com). It is reproduced here for posterity; bear in mind this writing is over a decade old and I may not even agree with it myself anymore. This post was originally published on March 21, 2001 and was updated on November 12, 2002.


Player Comparisons
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2002


Note: This essay is based on my April 28, 2000 posting on the "hockhist" mailing list on Yahoogroups.

The fact is, it’s difficult to look at a pre-modern player’s numbers, even when adjusted, and tell what kind of a player he was. Most of us have never seen many of these players play. Translating numbers into a vivid image of the player’s style in your mind is a difficult task. On the other hand, we have seen most modern players actually play, either live, or on television. We have an idea about players’ styles, beyond their simple numbers.

This leads to a possibility: perhaps we can better understand an old-time player if we can compare him to some modern player. This can help us form an image of the player’s style in our minds, by associating it with the style of a player we know. While there can never be a perfect comparison, of course, this can be a useful exercise when examining the record of older players.

Just this exercise has been done in two recent publications: the first edition of Total Hockey (TH) in 1998, and 1999’s Ultimate Hockey. The purpose of this essay is to examine the player comparisons done in these two books and comment on their validity, and then present some comparisons of my own that I feel are valid.

First, I will go over the comparisons (called “Statistical Twins”) made in Total Hockey. All references to statistics are Adjusted Scoring statistics, from the second edition of Total Hockey. Here are the comparisons:

Mario Lemieux - Jean Beliveau
Physically very similar, both were imposing and capable of dominant play. Beliveau is certainly the better leader. Their career numbers are fairly similar, 544-654-1198 for Lemieux and 615-722-1337 for Beliveau. However, Beliveau played nearly twice as many games as Lemieux. Lemieux’s best seasons are 73, 68 and 60 goals, and 154, 144 and 131 points. Beliveau’s best are 66 and 55 goals (no other season over 50), and 115, 102 and 100 points. Clearly, Lemieux’s numbers are far superior. Physically, this is a good match, but statistically, it is marginal at best.

Bobby Orr - Fred Taylor - Paul Coffey
First of all, Taylor does not belong in this group. True, he was a defenceman at the beginning of his career. However, he was a forward (rover) for the majority of his career, including his best years. He tends to be lumped in with defencemen, but how many blueliners lead their league in goals three times and points five times? So he’s out. Orr and Coffey are often compared, simply because Orr is the best offensive defenceman of all time, and Coffey is probably second. But Orr has a significant edge in the numbers. Orr’s best years are 40, 37, 37 and 36 goals, and 123, 119, 107 and 107 points. Coffey’s best are 38, 32, 30 and 25 goals, and 99, 91, 90 and 87 points. And to say Coffey is anywhere near Orr defensively is ridiculous. Bobby Orr is probably the greatest hockey player (let alone defenceman) of all time. To compare anyone to him is just silly.

Steve Yzerman - Max Bentley
Yzerman’s numbers are significantly better than Bentley’s, and is really a different kind of player. This match is no good. A much better comparison for Max Bentley is Denis Savard, as will be discussed later.

Paul Kariya - Doug Bentley
Kariya is really too early in his career to make a good comparison, and his numbers are quite a bit better than Bentley’s. True, their styles are fairly similar, but Kariya is clearly superior offensively. This is not a good match.

Raymond Bourque - Dit Clapper
When Clapper started playing defence half way through his long career (one good reason to dismiss this comparison), his numbers began looking distinctly like a defenceman’s. Bourque is far better offensively, so much so that they are not really comparable as players.

Brad Park - Earl Seibert
This is not a completely terrible match, though Park is so far ahead offensively that it makes the comparison a little shaky.

Chris Chelios - Art Coulter
See the comments for Park - Seibert. Though their styles are similar, statistically there is no comparison.

Al MacInnis/Doug Wilson - Flash Hollett
First of all, other than one huge season, Wilson didn’t score enough to be grouped with these other two. MacInnis - Hollett, though, is a decent match. MacInnis is a better playmaker, and a better player overall. But their both being from Nova Scotia makes it a likable comparison. This is not a great match, but it’s better than most in TH.

Brett Hull - Bill Cook
Though Cook was a more physical player, this is a fairly good match overall. Hull has the edge on raw scoring, recording seasons of 80, 64, 62 and 53 goals, while Cook had 62, 60, 58 and 52. But because Hull is not at all a physical player, this is a difficult comparison to endorse.

Brendan Shanahan/Keith Tkachuk - Charlie Conacher
Tkachuk is too rough a player to compare to the Blonde Bomber, as is Shanahan to some extent. But in terms of goal-scoring, they do have some similarity. Conacher had seasons of 64, 60, 58 and 56 goals; Tkachuk had 55, 49, 47 and 42; and Shanahan had 49, 49, 48 and 43. Clearly, Conacher was a more dominant scorer than the other two, and that, coupled with the high penalty totals of the others, make this match a bad one.

Adam Oates - Joe Primeau
These two are playmakers extraordinaire. Both have low penalty totals. And though Primeau had a shorter career and wasn’t the goal-scorer that Oates could be at times, this is a pretty good match. Primeau has the edge in assists, with seasons of 99, 84, 68 and 50, while Oates had 69, 67, 62 and 61.

Doug Gilmour - Syl Apps - Ted Kennedy
These three are all excellent checkers, with at least modest offensive talent and a lot of grit. Apps had very low penalty totals, especially compared to Gilmour, and made 5 All-Star Teams. Kennedy was not as offensively gifted, and made 3 All-Star Teams. Gilmour has the best offense of the three, but never made an All-Star Team. Overall, Kennedy played more like Gilmour, but Apps scored more like Gilmour. These are fair matches. Gilmour had seasons of 93, 90 and 82 points; Apps had 82, 81 and 70 points; Kennedy had 76, 71 and 66 points.

Marcel Dionne - Cy Denneny
Dionne was more of a playmaker than Denneny, and had a longer career. Both were smallish (Dionne more so) and put up some big numbers. Denneny had seasons of 122, 112, 92 and 83 points, while Dionne had 107, 103, 101 and 97. This is a fair comparison, but it’s not great.

Jari Kurri - Frank Nighbor
Though Kurri is definitely underrated defensively, he is not in the same league as Nighbor in this regard. Both won the Lady Byng award, and both put up some big numbers, tailing off later in their careers. But Nighbor won the Hart and was clearly the better player overall. This is only a decent match.

Mark Messier - Maurice Richard - Newsy Lalonde
TH cites “leadership” as the tie binding Messier and Richard. Both are feisty and physical, but there the similarity ends. Messier was foremost a playmaker, while Richard is the ultimate goal-scorer. Comparing them is quite silly. Lalonde is much more like Richard, and both could be very rough players. However, Lalonde scored goals through great skill, and Richard scored through sheer force of will. These are not good comparisons at all.

Phil Esposito - Nels Stewart
Esposito relied more on his teammates to pick up his garbage goals, inflating his totals somewhat. Stewart was a dirtier player, but like Espo, was a dominating scorer. Esposito had seasons of 76, 67 and 66 goals, while Old Poison had 62, 61 and 56. This is a decent match overall.

Bobby Hull - Howie Morenz
Now here is a good match. Morenz was a better playmaker, while Hull was more consistent and had a longer career. But in terms of style, the match is excellent. Both were the most electrifying, exciting things on the ice during their times. Both skated like lighting, and were renowned for their end-to-end rushes. Both had hard, accurate shots, and a talent for scoring. This is a very good comparison indeed.

Wayne Gretzky - Frank Boucher/Bill Cowley/Elmer Lach/Stan Mikita
Cowley and Lach simply don’t put up the numbers like the others do. Mikita is a completely different type of player, not being the playmaker the others are. Boucher actually comes close to Gretzky’s numbers in terms of assists, which is somewhat surprising. Gretzky had seasons of 111, 94, 93 and 89 while Boucher had 110, 87, 83 and 80. However, Boucher was nowhere near the goal-scorer Gretzky was in his prime. Boucher is certainly the closest match, but the comparison is only fair due to the great disparity on goals. It’s not really fair to compare anyone to Lemieux, Orr, Taylor, or Gretzky. It just doesn’t work.

I will make only comments on the Ultimate Hockey comparisons at the end of this essay, because there are so many of them. Of all the comparisons from TH and UH, there are a few I really like. I feel these are matches of players who are truly similar:

Bobby Hull - Howie Morenz (TH)
Sprague Cleghorn - Chris Chelios (UH - see below)
Max Bentley - Denis Savard (UH - see below)
Jacques Plante - Patrick Roy (UH - see below)

Now for the good stuff. Following are some comparisons I have come up with myself, and feel are very good.

CLINT BENEDICT - DOMINIK HASEK
Benedict was a dominant goaler. In 18 major-league seasons, he led the league in average nine times and wins eight times. More importantly, he changed the way goal was played. When his career began, goalies were prohibited from falling to the ice to make a save. Benedict broke this rule so often that it was finally revoked. Like Benedict, Hasek is renowned for flopping around on the ice, doing anything to make a save. He too has changed the way goal is played, in that before, when a goalie was completely taken by a deke, he would simply give up. Now, many goalies do as Hasek does, doing anything to get some part of their body in the way, often while lying on the ice, and often making the save.

BILLY BURCH - YVAN COURNOYER
Burch was a forward renowned for his skating and stickhandling skills. He put up some good numbers, but never quite enough to match his enormous talent. He had seasons of 39, 35, and 34 goals, and 76, 70 and 65 points. Cournoyer is quite similar, though he had an edge in raw speed, and Burch was a better passer. The Roadrunner had seasons of 47, 46 and 39 goals, and 85, 78 and 69 points. All things considered, these two are quite comparable.

HARRY CAMERON - AL MacINNIS
Cameron is the best offensive defenceman of his time. Known for putting a curve in his shot, he always racked up piles of goals. He also led the NHL in assists twice, in 1917-18 and 1921-22. And although his skills were immense, he was a troublesome player, leading him to be moved around; he played in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Saskatoon. He had NHL seasons of 25, 23 and 22 goals, and 81, 65 and 58 points. Al MacInnis is the best offensive defenceman of his time. He is known for his powerful slapshot, a shot which Cameron predates. MacInnis is probably better than Cameron defensively, and hasn’t been nearly as troublesome. His best seasons are 26, 26 and 24 goals, and 83, 69 and 68 points.

ART CHAPMAN - CRAIG JANNEY
Chapman was a centre with good passing skills who, other than two seasons in which he paced the circuit in helpers, was always a second-tier talent, not quite among the league’s elite. His best seasons were of 60, 54 and 44 assists, and 75, 73 and 56 points. He was also a gentlemanly player, with low penalty totals. Janney also has good playmaking skills, but has never led the league in assists. His best seasons are 57, 53 and 50 assists, and 77, 74 and 68 points, and he has always had few penalties.

LIONEL CONACHER - CHRIS PRONGER
Conacher was truly “The Big Train”. At 6’2” and 195 pounds, he was very big for his day. He was a physical defenceman with significant offensive skills. He was truly a force on the blue line. Standing 6’6” and weighing in at 220, Pronger is certainly the modern player most deserving of the name “Big Train”. He is a dominant physical force on defence, and has offensive talent to boot.

BILL COOK - JOHN LeCLAIR
Cook was a great right wing, one of the best of all time. He was a consistent, prolific scorer, having NHL seasons of 62, 60, 58 and 52 goals, and 114, 98, 98 and 98 points. He led the NHL in goals three times, and the WCHL twice. He was a big, physical player, who was imposing in more ways than one. LeClair, a left wing, is also an imposing scorer. He’s had seasons of 60, 53, 51 and 50 goals, and 96, 95, 95 and 88 points, but has never led the league. LeClair has never been quite as dominating as Cook, but they are still very well-matched.

RUSTY CRAWFORD - DALE HUNTER
Crawford had a long pro career, beginning in the Saskatoon Pro League in 1910 and ending in 1930 in the AHA, a period covering 20 seasons. During this time, he was a tough-checking forward with considerable scoring talent who never shied away from the rough stuff. He was never an elite player, but was a character player. All this can also be said about Hunter, who played 19 NHL seasons, and was a hard-playing, moderate-scoring character player.

BUTCH KEELING - RICK MARTIN
Keeling was a shooter through-and-through. His goals always exceeded his assists by a good margin. He was a very consistent scorer, having 20 or more goals in 9 of his 12 NHL seasons. His best season saw him count 37 times. Martin was also a very consistent goal-scorer in his 11 NHL seasons, which included a 50-goal effort. He scored 30 or more goals in 7 seasons. Keeling’s numbers are somewhat lower, but he was stuck on the second line for most of his career, behind the powerful force of the Cook-Boucher-Cook line.

GERRY LOWREY - ANDREW CASSELS
Lowrey is not well-known at all, but he was a quick, smallish forward with excellent (and underrated) playmaking ability, who was also able to pop in a few goals. Never among the elite scorers, he was much like Andrew Cassels is now. Cassels’ skills are very underappreciated, much like Lowrey’s. These two are perfect second-line centres.

CHARLEY McVEIGH - RUSS COURTNALL
McVeigh was a smallish (5’6”) forward with great speed, earning him the nickname “Rabbit”. He lived by his skating, putting up seasons of 26, 21 and 20 goals, and 53, 53 and 52 points. His playmaking talent was also considerable. Courtnall was also a consummate speedster. He had seasons of 30, 26 and 25 goals, and 65, 62 and 60 points. Courtnall may have somewhat better numbers, but in terms of style, they are remarkably similar.

MARTY PAVELICH - PAT FLATLEY
Pavelich was a hard-working, second-line-type winger who always chipped in with his share of goals. He was an integral part of the Red Wings machine of the 1950’s. Flatley was never part of any machine, having the misfortune of playing most of his career for the Islanders in the late 1980’s. But he was also a hard-working winger with consistent offensive contributions.

LEO REISE (Sr.) - JEFF BROWN
Reise was a well-travelled defenceman with some good offensive skills, and was quite consistent. Between 1920 and 1930, he played in Hamilton, Saskatoon, and New York with both the Americans and Rangers. He had NHL seasons of 67, 58 and 43 points. And though he was a solid defender, he wasn’t a rough customer. Brown played in Quebec, St.Louis, Vancouver, Hartford, Carolina, Toronto and Washington between 1985 and 1998. He was a very consistent offensive performer, and was also a solid defenceman. He had seasons of 58, 54 and 51 points.

MICKEY ROACH - GUY CHOUINARD
Roach was a small, quick forward who had a fairly short career covering 8 NHL seasons. He put up some fairly good numbers, punctuated by one outstanding career year in 1922-23 for Hamilton (29-38-68). He also had low penalty totals. Chouinard also played 8 full NHL seasons in which he put up some good numbers. He too had one outstanding career year, in 1978-79 for Atlanta (43-41-84), and took very few penalties. Though Chouinard had somewhat better numbers, these two are very comparable.

PAUL THOMPSON - BERNIE FEDERKO
Thompson was a very consistent, high-scoring forward who is terribly underappreciated. In 13 NHL seasons, he had 7 years of between 62 and 77 points, and between 24 and 36 goals. Never among the league’s elite, he did lead his team in scoring a few times. Federko was also a very consistent, high-scoring forward. In his 13 full NHL seasons, he had 9 years of between 62 and 78 points, and 7 years of between 24 and 33 goals. He, too, was never among the league’s elite, though he did lead his team in scoring at times. Paul Thompson for the Hall of Fame, anyone?

CULLY WILSON - TIGER WILLIAMS
Wilson was a brute; a rough, very physical player. He led his league in penalties three times, and was often the perpetrator of come violent acts. He made up for this with some good, consistent offence from his right wing position. He moved around, playing for six major pro clubs. Williams played for five teams in the NHL, leading the league in penalties three times. His offensive skill is underrated, and fairly consistent; it is usually forgotten under a barrage of his fists. This is another good comparison.

For the comparisons in UH, I will only make brief comments on each because there are so many. Here they are:

Sprague Cleghorn - Chris Chelios: Very good match, both rough with good offence.

Tommy Dunderdale - Dale Hawerchuk: Pretty good.

Jack Laviolette - Scott Niedermayer: Despite Laviolette often playing the wing, this is pretty good in terms of style.

Joe Malone - Jaromir Jagr: Not good.

Harry Mummery - Ed Jovanovski: Now that Jovanovski has matured, not bad. But Mummery doesn't really have the offence.

Didier Pitre - Peter Bondra: Not good.

Goldie Prodgers - Trevor Linden: Prodgers was often a defenceman, and was a better scorer, too. Not good.

Gord Roberts - Keith Tkachuk: Pretty good.

Tommy Smith - Teemu Selanne: A decent comparison.

Fred Taylor - Paul Coffey: Bad. See comments above discussing TH comparisons.

Frank Boucher - Wayne Gretzky: Not terrible, see comments discussing TH comparisons.

Punch Broadbent - Brendan Shanahan: Decent, but Broadbent was very inconsistent.

Babe Dye - Brett Hull: Not bad.

Frank Finnigan - Mike Peca: Pretty good.

Jake Forbes - Mike Richter: Richter much more consistent, but a decent match.

Dick Irvin - Joe Nieuwendyk: Pretty good.

Duke Keats - Keith Primeau: While both very physical, Primeau is not nearly the force offensively. Not good.

Mickey MacKay - Alexander Mogilny: Mogilny’s painful inconsistency makes this a poor comparison.

Howie Morenz - Pavel Bure: Bure is another good match for Morenz.

Reg Noble - Rick Tocchet: Noble played defence for a large part of his career, but otherwise a fair match.

Ken Randall - Kevin Stevens: Randall mostly a blueliner, and Stevens had better numbers (due to his linemates, mostly).

John Ross Roach - Mike Vernon: Roach was consistently one of the worst goalies in the NHL, though he was good enough to stay; Vernon is probably better.

Marty Barry - John LeClair: Good match, but Barry’s numbers aren’t up to LeClair’s.

Busher Jackson - Sergei Fedorov: Jackson can’t match Fedorov’s speed or shot.

Mush March - Sami Kapanen: Quite good, but Kapanen is early in his career.

Baldy Northcott - Shayne Corson: Northcott a better scorer, Corson a longer career, but still a good match; very similar styles.

Joe Primeau - Adam Oates: Good, see the comments about the TH comparisons.

Babe Siebert - Bobby Holik: No good; for one thing, Siebert was often a defenceman, and was much rougher.

Hooley Smith - Jeremy Roenick: Smith a better playmaker, Roenick a better goal-getter; not great, but not terrible.

Nels Stewart - Cam Neely: Neely was not nearly the force Stewart was. Not good.

Sid Abel - Saku Koivu: Koivu is early in his career, but will probably never match Abel’s goal-scoring. Only a fair match.

Bobby Bauer - Robert Reichel: Reichel is a pretty good match for the overrated Bauer.

Max Bentley - Denis Savard: Now here is a great match! Savard could easily be called the "Dipsy-Doodle Dandy from Pointe Gatineau”.

Butch Bouchard - Scott Stevens: A good match, even if Stevens has superior numbers.

Frank Brimsek - Grant Fuhr: The overrated Brimsek is not a good match for the much-overrated Fuhr.

Neil Colville - Ron Francis: No good at all.

Roy Conacher - Brian Bellows: Quite good.

Jack Crawford - Larry Murphy: Murphy was much better on offence, and worse on defence. Not good.

Bill Durnan - Ed Belfour: Pretty good, though Durnan would never claim he was screened on a breakaway.

Bryan Hextall - Wendel Clark: Fair, but Clark was a much rougher player.

Nick Metz - Mike Keane: Good, but Metz scored quite a bit more.

Babe Pratt - Kevin Hatcher: Not bad.

Chuck Rayner - Ron Hextall: Not bad, but scoring goals shouldn't be a tie binding goalies.

Milt Schmidt - Mark Messier: Schmidt doesn’t have nearly the numbers of the Moose.

Andy Bathgate - Steve Yzerman: Not bad, though Stevie Y has a big edge on offence.

Jean Beliveau - Mario Lemieux: See comments about TH comparisons.

Leo Boivin - Lyle Odelein: Boivin not the fighter Lyle was at times, but a fairly good comparison.

Bill Gadsby - Chris Pronger: A fairly good match, both are (or will be) frequent all-stars.

Bernie Geoffrion - Al MacInnis: Other than being known for their slapshots, there is absolutely nothing in common here.

Doug Harvey - Ray Bourque: A decent match.

Gordie Howe - Eric Lindros: An insult to Mr. Hockey.

Tom Johnson - Adam Foote: Good; two unassuming, tough, quality defencemen.

Red Kelly - Brian Leetch: Kelly was a center quite a bit, making this comparison mostly invalid.

Ted Kennedy - Doug Gilmour: Pretty good, see comments about TH comparisons.

Edgar Laprade - Craig Janney: Janney’s playmaking is superior; not good.

Tony Leswick - Martin Lapointe: Both are hard-working wingers; a good comparison.

Ted Lindsay - Mark Recchi: Not good, as Recchi is anything but Terrible.

Ed Litzenberger - Dave Andreychuk: Litzenberger’s prime is too short to compare him to the consistent Andreychuk.

Fleming Mackell - Theo Fleury: Mackell’s too tall (a towering 5’7”), and is clearly inferior offensively.

Gus Mortson - Ulf Samuelsson: Good match. Highly penalized, good defence.

Jacques Plante - Patrick Roy: A very good match. Both are the elite goalies of their time. Plante invented wandering from the crease, and Roy tried his hardest to emulate, but often turns it into an adventure/nightmare.

Terry Sawchuk - Dominik Hasek: No good. Sawchuk is very overrated.

Tod Sloan - Owen Nolan: Both inconsistent, with some big years. Not bad.

Sid Smith - Luc Robitaille: Robitaille is one of the greatest left wings of all time. Smith is...not.

Jim Thomson - Craig Ludwig: Thomson’s offence is too good (!).

Ralph Backstrom - Alexei Yashin: No good.

Alex Delvecchio - Mike Modano: It’s unlikely Modano will play 24 years, but they are similar; good defence and very good offence.

John Ferguson - Bob Probert: This is quite a good match, though Ferguson is a “policeman” in the pre-70’s tradition, while Probert is definitely a “goon” in the modern sense.

Glenn Hall - Martin Brodeur: A decent match.

Dave Keon - Guy Carbonneau: Good.

Jacques Laperriere - Eric Desjardins: A decent match, both very good, and very underrated.

Frank Mahovlich - Mats Sundin: Both known as Leafs, both never quite living up to their talent.
Stan Mikita - Peter Forsberg: A good match; both are complete players.

Bob Pulford - Rod Brind’Amour: Two tight-checking forwards with significant skills; a decent comparison.

Henri Richard - Paul Kariya: No good.

Eddie Shack - Claude Lemieux: A decent comparison; though Lemieux is significantly better on offence, both are feisty, entertaining players.

J.C.Tremblay - Phil Housley: A good match, though it took Tremblay several years to blossom offensively.

Making comparisons in this way is not an exact science. And it is not to be taken too literally. It is only an aid, to help in the understanding of players who played long before many of us were alive. At the very least, it’s an interesting exercise; a reason to look at the records of older players.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

In-Depth Review: L'Histoire du hockey au Québec, Part 2

This is the second part of my in-depth review of Donald Guay's 1990 book L'histoire du hockey au Québec: Origine et développement d'un phénomène culturel avant 1917 ("The History of Hockey in Quebec: The origin and development of a cultural phenomenon before 1917"). Please note that since the book is written in French, any time I quote from the book, I will provide both the original passage in bold italics, followed by my translation in regular italics.

In the first part of the review, I discussed Guay's definition of sport, which he uses to differentiate certain physical activities from others, which he refers to as games. I find the definition lacking, since it ultimately seems to use only one criterion to make this distinction: sportsmanship. Also, he did not define what he means by hockey when he says he's interested in the origins of the sport of ice hockey. However, we will press on and continue to review chapter one, discussing the origins of hockey.

Guay selects four claims for the origins of hockey in Canada to discuss. They are: the Hurons in the 17th century, Montreal in 1837, Kingston in 1855 and Montreal in the 1870s. These are the only four claims he considered worthy of consideration; notable by its absence is any mention of Nova Scotia. I am, of course, not talking about the flimsy Windsor claim, but Halifax/Dartmouth. Of course, Guay's book predated Martin Jones' work Hockey's Home by a dozen years, so perhaps that's understandable. We certainly cannot fault Guay for not having the information in the recent On the Origin of Hockey by Gidén, Houda and Martel either, but of course we may bring some of that into the discussion if it becomes relevant.

Let's move on. Guay discusses each of these four claims in turn.

Hurons, 17th Century

Guay discusses the passage written by Gabriel Sagard in his 1632 work Le grand voyage au pays des Hurons ("Travelling in the land of the Hurons"), who related that young Hurons played «...avec des bâtons courbés, qu'ils fount couler par-dessus la neige et crossent une balle de bois Léger, comme l'on fait en nos quartiers.» ("...with curved sticks, they run in the snow and pass a light ball of wood, like we do back home.")

Guay suggests that this is more likely to be a description of baggataway (lacrosse) played in the snow, rather than hockey, and that while lacrosse and hockey do have some basic similarities we have no reason to believe that one developed from the other. I certainly agree with Guay's conclusions here; there's no reason to call this hockey rather than lacrosse. However, he has made it difficult on himself because he has not defined what hockey is. Guay does not specify what characteristics hockey has that he can use to make the determination that what is being described is not hockey.

Montreal, 1837

This comes from John Knox, who claimed that his father played hockey in Montreal in 1837, supposedly between two clubs called the Dorchesters and the Uptowns. There exists no contemporaneous corroboration for this story; it was told in 1941 by an 84-year-old Knox, who referred to an undated document apparently written by his father. The lack of corroboration may be enough by itself to sink the claim; we certainly cannot rely on undated documents and decades-old memories to establish history.

Guay takes a different approach. He notes that the document referred to the fact that the activity had "no referees and no such thing as a face-off, no blue lines, no offsides" (p.28, quoting from the document), and that this means the activity had no rules. Without written rules, of course, this cannot be the sport of ice hockey, since Guay's definition of sport requires written rules. Aside from the weakness in Guay's definition, I don't think he has any basis to conclude that the activity had no rules (assuming it happened according to the document's story.) Since the document referred to two matches, one ending 1-0 and the other 3-1, there must have at least been unwritten rules, otherwise how could there have been a score? No blue lines and no offsides just means there was not these two particular rules in play. Moreover, the lack of a referee does not mean there were no rules; in the first half of the 19th century and earlier, for example, in field hockey it was fairly common for team captains to be in charge of determining when rules were broken, and sometimes players would be allowed to mete out punishment themselves, in the form of shinning: hitting the offending player in the shins with your stick.

So Guay concludes that this was not a sport, but a game. But which game was it? The document in question calls it ice hurling, in fact, not ice hockey. So it is likely that, if these games did occur, they were a version of the traditional Irish game of hurling, played on ice. This is a reasonable conclusion, although again, Guay has not suggested how he would tell the difference between the game of ice hurling and the game of ice hockey, other than implying that if it is not a sport by his definition, it cannot be ice hockey.

Kingston, 1855

James Sutherland's claims about Canadian hockey beginning in Kingston are pretty well-known, and have been promoted by various parties since they were first made. Guay notes that the claim is built on writings in a journal, which stated that shinty was played on the ice. Shinty is a traditional Scottish game, which Guay suggests had no fixed rules, no written rules, no referee. And without written rules, of course, it cannot be the sport of ice hockey, according to the author.

Sutherland's claim has holes in it, such that it is not taken seriously by historians as a "birthplace" claim. For example, the story asserts that the country's first hockey league was formed in Kingston, in 1885 or 1886. But we only have record of permanent hockey clubs first being established there in 1888, and without hockey clubs there can be no hockey leagues.

Guay also notes that in an 1887 article in the Kingston British Whig newspaper, when asked about hockey, locals responsed "What is hockey?" This, of course, is a question that Guy himself has not answered yet.

Montreal, 1870s

Guay devotes an entire section of chapter one to Montreal in the 1870s, entitled «La naissance du hockey sur glace» ("The birth of ice hockey.") He makes mention of the famous March 3, 1875 match in Montreal, the first recorded match of organized hockey in Canada. Remember that Guay means the sport of ice hockey, as he again refers to his six criteria to begin this section. He goes through them one at a time.

Clearly this ice hockey was a physical activity, and it was played between two opposing teams. One might quibble with this point for the March 3 match, since it was played between two teams drawn from members of the Victoria skating club, not from opposing clubs. Beginning with the second match later than month, the competitors represented different clubs, so this may be a minor point. Guay asserts that the teams were there for fun, but were also determined to win, indeed that each team made it a "point of honour" to be victorious (p.40). I don't see how can know the latter, and this illustrates one of the weaknesses of his definition of sport. How does he know the players were not playing solely for fun? He assumes they made it a point of honour, but provides no evidence that this is true.

He does provide evidence of sportsmanship, as the game report noted that the "best of humour" was maintained even in a physical game on March 3, 1875, with bumps and collisions to be expected. Tempers were not raised. This could, of course, just as easily be seen as evidence that the players were playing for fun, and did not make winning a "point of honour." He does note that in the recorded matches played between 1875 and 1885, the vast majority of them were won by close scores, which suggest that teams were generally evenly-matched, which is another requisite of sportsmanship by his definition.

As for the written rules, Guay states that the 1870s Montreal matches were played using rules borrowed from English field hockey. This is largely true, as discussed in my book On His Own Side of the Puck. However, given Guay's insistence that written rules are required for an activity to be a sport, it must be noted that we do not know exactly what rules were used for the Montreal matches played in 1875. It was not until 1876 that the newspaper reported field hockey rules were being used for a match, and it was not until 1877 that the Montreal version of said rules were published. So we do not know what rules were used for certain in 1875 - they may not even have been written down. And yet Guay leads off with the March 3, 1875 match in Montreal as the first example of the sport of ice hockey, despite not having evidence that it fulfills all six of his criteria for being a sport.

Though we don't know for certain, it is quite likely that field hockey rules were used in 1875. Guay notes that the Montreal Gazette report on the March 3, 1875 hockey match states that some of the players involved were reputed to be "exceedingly expert" at the game. Since there were no reports of ice hockey in Montreal before this one, but we do know that field hockey was played in the city before then, Guay concludes (quite reasonably) that these first ice hockey matches were essentially field hockey put on ice. Not just ice, of course, but skates, though Guay does not make note of this. He also does not indicate whether he considers field hockey to be a sport, or a game.

At the end of chapter one, Guay writes:

«Il est évident que le hockey sur glace n'a pas encore toutes les caractéristiques qui le particularisent actuellement, ni même à la fin du XIXe siècle, mais il est déjà suffisamment différent des autres jeux et sports pour être perçu comme tel par les observateurs contemporains.» (p.41)

"It's clear that ice hockey did not yet [in the 1870s] possess all of the characteristics which we associate with it today, or even at the end of the nineteenth century, but it was already sufficiently different from other games and sports to be recognized as such by contemporary observers."

The is the first time Guay addresses what might make hockey hockey, but unfortunately he does not provide any examples of the characteristics he's talking about. In an earlier caption for an 1880 illustration of hockey on ice, Guay wrote something that could be taken as a definition of what "hockey" means. He states that in its beginnings, hockey was:

«...un jeu élementaire qui consiste à frapper une balle avec un bâton en forme de canne pour lui faire franchir les buts de l'adversair.» (p.38)

"...a simple game consisting of hitting a ball with a cane-shaped stick, to pass the ball through the opponent's goal."

This is not a bad definition of hockey in the general sense, though it's certainly not a definition of ice hockey specifically, since there is no reference to ice or skates. Moreover, even if ice were invluded it would be insufficient to differentiate hockey from bandy, so these cannot be all of the characteristics he is referring to. Guay suggests he will discuss some of these characteristics in chapter two, which we will address next time.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Puckerings archive: So Defence Wins Championships, Eh? (16 Mar 2001)

What follows is a post from my old hockey analysis site puckerings.com (later hockeythink.com). It is reproduced here for posterity; bear in mind this writing is over a decade old and I may not even agree with it myself anymore. This post was originally published on March 16, 2001 and was last updated on July 4, 2002.


So Defence Wins Championships, Eh?
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2002


One of the most widely-held convictions (which is to say, myths) in hockey is that "defence wins championships". For instance, during the 2001 NHL All-Star Game broadcast on CBC on February 4, Pat LaFontaine said that "defence wins championships", and noted that "everybody" knows this. It may seem obvious to anyone who actually thinks about this statement that it is probably false. But let's see if we can demonstrate this with some analysis.

The contention is apparently that defence is more important than offence in winning championships (does no one remember the Oilers and Penguins?). Just thinking about this assertion leads to some conclusions: defence shouldn't be any more important than offence; the important thing would seem to be the difference between the two. That is, the most important thing in winning a hockey game is scoring more goals than your opponents do. This seems fairly obvious, since it is the factor by which the winner of a game is actually determined.

So this is my prediction: goal differential (GD) is more important than both goals for (GF) and goals against (GA) in predicting champions. To test this, I examined every NHL season from 1926/27 to 1999/2000; the starting point was chosen because it is when the NHL took exclusive control of the Cup. We therefore will not have to compare teams from different leagues in doing this analysis. For each of these 74 years, I noted the following: the Cup-winning team, the number of teams in the league, the winner's rank in GF, the winner's rank in GA (lowest GA being best), and the winner's rank in GD.

Using this data, we can make some observations simply by inspection: The team with the league's best offence won the Cup 24 of 74 years; the best defence won 26 of 74, and the best GD won 29 of 74. This supports my prediction. For Cup winners, the most important factor (that is, the best-ranked factor) is distributed as follows: GF 40, GA 44, and GD 46. This adds to greater than 74 due to ties. This is more support, albeit slim, for my prediction.

Now I hear you all yelling, "Come on, Iain! Get to the real numbers!" Well here you go. Before describing what I did, I'll cover what I didn't do. One thought was to compare the champions' GF, GA, and GD to the league averages. This won't work, of course, because the average GD for any year must be zero. We could compare the champion's GF, GA and GD to the league's best GF, GA and GD that year. This cannot be done either, because while GF and GA have a downward limit (zero), GD can be negative, with no absolute limit. This prevents any direct comparison of the numbers. So, we must use rankings to compare them. I did this using percentiles.

For each Cup winner, I calculated their percentile scores for each of GF, GA, and GD using their ranks in each category. For example, a team's percentile in GF is calculated as follows:

GFRnk / TMS x 100

Where GFRnk is the team's rank in GF, and TMS is the number of teams in the league.
Thus, if a team ranked first out of 10 teams, it was in the top ten percent, while if it ranked tenth, it was only in the top 100 percent. The lower the percentile, the more important the factor is in predicting championships. I then calculated the average percentiles for each category. The results:

GF: 28.7
GA: 28.2
GD: 22.2

That is, the average champion ranks in the top 28.7% in GF, the top 28.2% in GA, and the top 22.2% in GD. Notice that while GF and GA are virtually identical, GD is significantly better-ranked, and is therefore more important.

In conclusion, no matter how you look at it, defence by itself does not win championships. Nor does offence. It's the ability to outscore your opponents by the greatest degree that matters. This may seem so obvious that it's not even worth noting, but given the comments of LaFontaine and the majority of sportscasters, it needs to be said, and said often.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

In-Depth Review: L'histoire du hockey au Québec, Part 1

I've done a few book reviews in the past, but I'm going to try something a bit different this time. Last week I had to look something up in a book that's been sitting in my hockey history library for some time. In doing so, I realized I had never actually read the book in its entirety, only ever really using it for reference. So I decided it was time to read the thing, and when going through the first chapter I realized there was probably a lot of meat for some blog posts in there. So this will be a series of posts, making up an in-depth, chapter-by-chapter review of the book from my analytical perspective. The book is quite dense and scholarly, and intentionally so, and as such I think it's appropriate to devote some time to it.

The book is L'histoire du hockey au Québec: Origine et développement d'un phénomène culturel avant 1917 ("The History of Hockey in Quebec: The origin and development of a cultural phenomenon before 1917"), published in 1990. It was written by Donald Guay (b.1934), a Quebec historian who has published well over a dozen works, mostly on the subject of Quebec sports history. As you may have surmised, it's written in French. As such, any time I quote from the book, I will provide both the original passage in bold italics, followed by my translation in regular italics.

The book is made up of five chapters, and I intend to cover each one in some detail. I'm not going to read ahead, I'm going to review each chapter as I go through it. Some chapters, at least, will be broken up into multiple parts (I know this because chapter three is about four times as long as any other chapter in the book, and besides that, as you'll see I won't even get through chapter one in this fairly large post).

So let's introduce the series, naturally enough, by addressing the introduction.

Introduction

In the introduction, Guay posits that despite the enormous role hockey plays in Canadian society, historians and sociologists have not (at least as of 1990) devoted a great deal of attention to it. I think this is largely a fair comment; there was certainly nothing like The Hockey Conference at the time this book was written. As such, Guay suggests that he will be examining a number of important questions about the history of hockey in Canada, and specifically addressing them from a French-Canadian sociocultural perspective. I won't be spending too much time commenting on the French-Canadian perspective, since I cannot claim to have much insight in that regard. I will, however, be commenting on the information and arguments in the book having to do with hockey history specifically.

Some of the questions Guay intends to ask (and hopefully answer) are:
  • When were the matches played in the sport of hockey?
  • Who organized these first matches?
  • How, when and by who were the first hockey clubs and leagues formed?
  • What part did French Canadians play in the development of hockey in Canada?
So we can see that Guy does not intend to focus solely on the French-Canadian perspective; he's asking some very basic questions about Canadian hockey history here, which should give us a lot to discuss. Chapter one focuses on the origins of hockey; chapter two discusses the evolution of various component parts of the game (such as the puck and stick); chapter three examines the organization of the sport at various levels; chapter four studies the growth in popularity of hockey; and chapter five discusses some of the problematic aspects of the game, such as violence. With that in mind, let's get started with chapter one.

Chapter One: Les origines du hockey ("the origins of hockey")

You may have noticed that in the first question above, I used the term "sport of hockey" when referring to the first hockey matches. This is not my distinction, but Guay's. The first part of chapter one is spent discussing the difference between «des jeux» ("games") and «le sport» ("sport".) Guay suggests that it is important to differentiate between a sport and other forms of physical activity, and to do so he suggests six observable criteria resulting from an «étude empirique» ("empirical study") of sport and games. I'm not entirely sure it's proper to use the term empirical here, as we'll see when we discuss the criteria below, some of which seem rather subjective to me.

Guay summarizes these six criteria into a definition of sport (as opposed to a game) as follows:

«Le sport est donc une activité physique compétitve et amusante pratiquée en vue d'un enjeu selon des règles écrites et un esprit particulier, l'esprit sportif.» (Guay p.19)

"Sport is therefore a competitive, but fun, physical activity played with something at stake, using written rules and according to a spirit of sportsmanship."

The last part of this definition strikes me as possibly circular; sport is something played according to a spirit of sportsmanship. Okay, what is a sporting spirit then? Guay expands on this here:

«L'esprit sportif, la mentalité sportive comprend des valeurs qui orientent, guident les attitudes et les conduites des sportives et des sportifs. C'est une éthique fondée sur l'équité, le désir de vaincre et la loyauté. L'esprit sportif, c'est cette volunté de vaincre, mais de vaincre loyalement sure un adversaire de calibre.» (Guay p.19)

"Sportsmanship, or the sporting mindset, is defined by the values that guide the attitudes and actions of sportswomen and sportsmen. It's an ethic based on fairness, the desire to win and honour. Sportsmanship is this will to win, but to win honourably against a quality opponent."

You will notice that this is arguably results in quite a narrow definition, and my fear when reading it is that it will be later used by the author to exclude professional hockey from the definition of sport, or indeed whatever version of the activity that he wishes to exclude. Guay seems to be using a more old-fashioned, olde-tyme elitist definition of sport and sportsman, from the days when such activities were undertaken solely by gentlemen and gentlewomen, without the sweaty lower classes being involved. The implication seems to be one of praise for the mythic virtues of amateur sport above all else.

The reference to fun is also a bit odd. One might think that fun or enjoyment is more characteristic of a game than a sport, as a sport can often be far more competitive that a casual game. But Guay suggests that while opponents on a sporting playing field may be the greatest of rivals, for his purposes something is not a sport unless the participants take pleasure in the playing, because «le sport n'est qu'un jeu.» ("sport is nothing but a game.") I trust I'm not the only one confused by this bit; most of the criteria seem to be showing how much a sport is the same as a game, rather than differentiating them.

One also worries that this definition is established in order to later enshrine Montreal as the birthplace of hockey. It's too early so say, but I'm seeing signs of it going in that direction.For example, it refers to written rules. But why must the rules be written in order for something to be a sport, or sporting rather? Are unwritten rules insufficient for sporting gentlemen to engage in sport?

With respect to the «enjeu» ("stake"), Guay does not in fact mean that there must be some tangible prize, or else much of amateur sporting would be excluded by this. By the stake, he suggests that sportsmen are seeking victory «qui confère satisfaction, honneurs, gloire, argent, etc.» ("which provides satisfaction, honour, glory, money, etc."). So the stake can be anything (tangible or otherwise) that the participant values. This is fine, but I can't see how it serves any purpose to differentiate a sport from a game. Does anyone play a game without getting anything out of it? If satisfaction from participating in the activity is sufficient, then that's broad enough to cover pretty much every game ever played by anyone, be it a physical activity or not.

Indeed, since Guay is attempting to differentiate between two types of physical activity, one which he calls a game and one which he calls a sport, I don't think his definition accomplishes this goal. A sport is a physical activity; but in this context so is a game, since Guay refers only to non-sport physical activities and does not mean board games or anything similar by the term. A sport is competitive; but games can clearly be competitive as well. Most games are, I would suggest. A sport is fun, but so is a game, I think you'd agree (otherwise, why play it?) A sport has something at stake, but Guay's definition of stake is so broad that it cannot exclude someone playing a game because he or she simply enjoys doing so. A sport has written rules, but many games do as well, so that draws no distinction. This leaves only the final criteria, sportsmanship, to tell the difference between sports and games.

This distinction may actually be clearer in English than in French. The English term sportsmanship is recognized as a positive thing, while the similar term gamesmanship has a negative connotation. The former suggests being straightforward and honest, playing a game honourably as Guay would suggest, while the latter suggests underhandedness, doing whatever it takes to win, exploiting loopholes in the rules, that sort of thing. But I question whether this is a valid distinction between sports and games, since it has to do only with the mindset of the participants rather than the activity itself. It's surely possible to play a game in a sportsmanlike manner, and to use gamesmanship in a sport (using more everyday meanings of sport and game). Moreover, this means that a specific instance of an activity can be considered both a sport and a game at the same time, depending on which player's perspective you are examining. One player could be in it for honourable victory, while another may be thinking he would kill someone's grandmother just to score an extra point. Since Guay purports to be looking at the origins of hockey as a sport in Canada, the first time the sport of hockey was played in Canada, I suggest that he cannot rely on the mindset of individual participants to make such a determination. How could he know, for example, that of the 18 men who played in the March 3, 1875 hockey match in Montreal (which we will discuss), they all had honourable victory as their goal? No, it would be far better for the criteria to be solely about the nature of the activity itself, not dependant on what the participants may or may not have been thinking.

But even if Guay is drawing a valid distinction with the criteria of sportsmanship, I daresay this does not line up with what most people understand as the difference between sport and game. For example, compare modern shinny and hockey. The former can be called a game, and the latter a sport. Shinny is much more informal than hockey, often played on a pick-up basis with minimal rules, no referee, that sort of thing. Meanwhile hockey typically implies a scheduled match between organized teams. I suggest the modern understanding of games versus sports has much more to do with the level of organization in the activity, while Guay is putting forward something of an archaic distinction, based on ideals that (in my opinion) never really existed. Even at the time when amateur sports were placed on a pedestal above professional sports, these ideals were mythical. Amateur hockey, for example, had lots of gamesmanship and shenanigans, betraying the fact that the participants were often more interested in victory than making sure the victory was honourable.

As such, I find Guay's definition of sport to be unconvincing, incomplete, and ultimately unnecessary. Why do we even need to distinguish between a game and a sport? Why are the origins of the game of hockey not interesting, but the origins of the sport of hockey are? At any rate, let's move on. We'll keep this attempted distinction in mind if it becomes relevant later.

Actually, it becomes relevant almost immediately - this is what you get when I write a review as I read the book. Guay proceeds to discuss the idea that hockey had its origins in ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks or Persians. He's obviously now referring to hockey in the general sense of hitting a thing with a stick, rather than a specific form of such activity such as ice hockey. It's notable at this point that while Guay has tried to define what a sport is, he has made no attempt to define what hockey is. This is an unfortunate tendency in hockey historical writing, to jump around between meanings of hockey without noting that you are discussing different things.

Indeed, Guay criticizes others for seemingly attempting to push the history of hockey as far back as possible. He apparently fails to recognize the distinction between the modern meaning of hockey and the older, more general meaning. Of course, this may not be entirely his fault, since the authors he refers to may not have explicitly made that distinction themselves; as I said, that's a common problem. Guay states (p.23) that while these games «...aient une certaine ressemblance avec le hockey comtemporain, on ne peut affirmer que ce soit du hockey...» ("...have a certain resemblance to modern hockey, we cannot confirm that they are hockey...) I'm seeing more worrying signs here. This sounds like Guay is going to argue that while earlier, pre-Canadian versions of the game are not really hockey because they do not sufficiently resemble what we now call hockey. Of course, the first hockey matches played in Montreal in the 1870s also suffer from this issue, in that they were very different from the modern version of the game, but that is often glossed over by proponents of the Montreal birthplace idea. It's too early to judge, but I've seen this before so we'll keep out eyes open for it. It would help, of course, if Guay would define what he means by hockey, but unfortunately he does not.

Guay takes a different tack, referring to these ancient activities as games, not sports, thus illustrating why he built up a distinction in the first place. He says that since we cannot directly connect these "games" with the "sport" of hockey played in Canada since the late 19th century, they cannot be called hockey. Moreover, since as discussed above the distinction between game and sport that Guay makes seems predicated solely on "sportsmanship", he seems to be saying that sportsmanship is a recent invention, that ancient peoples could not have possessed it. A cynic might be inclined to say that the definition of sport is therefore written to exclude all forms of games from before the last couple of hundred years from the discussion. We'll see how it goes.

Next time, we'll look at Guay's discussion of a few "birthplace" claims for ice hockey, and his own statements about the birth of that sport.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Puckerings archive: Playoff Scoring Levels (16 Mar 2001)

What follows is a post from my old hockey analysis site puckerings.com (later hockeythink.com). It is reproduced here for posterity; bear in mind this writing is over a decade old and I may not even agree with it myself anymore. This post was originally published on March 16, 2001 and was updated on April 8, 2002.


Playoff Scoring Levels
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2002


Playoff hockey is often seen as being tight-checking and low-scoring, and there is some truth to that. Playoff hockey does not suffer from the same bullshit that the regular season brings; for instance, goons do not play during the playoffs, and fighting is therefore extremely rare. But the question is, how much lower are scoring levels in the playoffs?

The answer to this question has been sought before, by Klein and Reif (KR). Unfortunately, their analysis is flawed. Their point is valid, but they make a mathematical error. Here is the passage:
“The most pervasive belief surrounding hockey is that it is much tighter than the regular-season variety of the game. “Playoff hockey” is the phrase, and it automatically triggers the image of a close-checking, conservatively played 2-1 or 1-0 game. The truth is, though, that the average playoff game features only about 13 per cent fewer goals that the average regular-season game.” (pp.196-198).

A bit overstated, if you ask me, but the point is valid. There is a belief that playoff games are lower-scoring, and it is indeed true. KR mention that playoff games have about 13 per cent fewer goals than regular-season games, although the numbers they present actually suggest the figure is 12 per cent. How do they calculate this? The same way that everyone calculates this figure: they compare regular-season goals-per-game averages to playoff goals-per-game averages. This is a very common error. This method is too simplistic.

The problem is that not all teams make the playoffs. Therefore, if we include all teams in one group (regular-season), but limit the other group to only some teams (playoffs), bias can occur. I will show KR’s data, with additional data that excludes non-playoff teams from the regular-season goals-per game calculations.

I have limited my analysis to the years used by KR. The table presents the following figures:

RSGPG: The regular-season goals-per-game average, as calculated by KR.
PLGPG: The playoff average, per KR.
PLRat: The ratio of playoff GPGA to regular-season GPGA.
FRGPG: The regular-season goals-per-game average, excluding teams that did not make the playoffs. To be honest, I did not calculate these directly, because I’m too lazy (but this extremely small inaccuracy does not affect my point). I used KR’s numbers for GPGA and the total goals in the NHL for that year to compute total minutes, and then calculated an average minutes per team and used that as my minutes for playoff teams in the regular season. he distortion this would cause is negligible.

FRRat: The same ratio as above, calculated using the Fair GPGA.

 Year  RSGPG  PLGPG  PLRat  FRGPG  FRRat
 1936-37  4.75  3.48  .733  4.62  .753
 1937-38  4.88  3.81  .781  4.89  .779
 1938-39  4.91  3.54  .721  4.98  .711
 1939-40  4.84  4.04  .828  4.78  .839
 1940-41  5.12  4.16  .811  5.03  .827
 1941-42  6.05  5.24  .866  6.02  .870
 1942-43  7.20  5.58  .776  6.95  .803
 1943-44  8.17  5.51  .675  7.44  .741
 1944-45  7.35  4.73  .643  7.35  .643
 1945-46  6.69  6.13  .916  6.56  .934
 1946-47  6.32  4.87  .771  6.06  .804
 1947-48  5.86  5.69  .972  5.72  .995
 1948-49  5.43  4.26  .785  5.28  .807
 1949-50  5.47  4.07  .745  5.09  .800
 1950-51  5.42  3.80  .701  5.20  .731
 1951-52  5.19  3.82  .735  4.89  .781
 1952-53  4.79  5.40  1.128  4.74  1.139
 1953-54  4.80  4.18  .869  4.64  .901
 1954-55  5.04  4.61  1.112  4.86  1.154
 1955-56  5.07  5.57  1.100  5.09  1.094
 1956-57  5.38  5.51  1.024  5.36  1.028
 1957-58  5.60  6.05  1.081  5.60  1.081
 1958-59  5.77  5.91  1.024  5.80  1.019
 1959-60  5.90  5.10  .866  5.65  .903
 1960-61  6.00  4.65  .774  5.85  .795
 1961-62  6.02  5.54  .921  5.87  .944
 1962-63  5.95  5.69  .956  5.63  1.011
 1963-64  5.55  4.79  .863  5.43  .882
 1964-65  5.75  5.06  .880  5.61  .902
 1965-66  6.08  5.30  .881  5.89  .900
 1966-67  5.96  5.25  .880  5.77  .910
 1967-68  5.58  5.34  .957  5.55  .962
 1968-69  5.96  5.56  .933  5.84  .952
 1969-70  5.81  6.00  1.033  5.77  1.040
 1970-71  6.24  5.93  .950  6.37  .931
 1971-72  6.13  6.04  .985  5.98  1.010
 1972-73  6.55  6.27  .957  6.55  .957
 1973-74  6.39  5.68  .889  6.32  .899
 1974-75  6.85  6.07  .887  6.84  .887
 1975-76  6.82  5.65  .828  6.82  .828
 1976-77  6.64  6.24  .939  6.63  .941
 1977-78  6.59  5.67  .860  6.29  .901
 1978-79  7.00  6.02  .860  6.95  .866
 1979-80  7.03  6.51  .926  7.07  .921
 1980-81  7.69  7.77  1.010  7.67  1.013
 1981-82  8.02  6.99  .872  8.05  .868
 1982-83  7.73  7.45  .964  7.67  .971
 1983-84  7.80  6.21  .796  7.76  .800
 1984-85  7.68  7.34  .956  7.65  .959
 1985-86  7.86  6.43  .818  7.81  .823
 1986-87  7.25  6.13  .845  7.17  .855
 Average  6.18  5.44  6.07

There are 51 years here. Of these 51 years, the FRGPG is lower than the RSGPG 40 times, higher 7 times, and the same 4 times. So clearly, there is a degree of distortion in KR’s numbers. The difference is generally minor, but it is still there.

What can we learn from this? Really, only that bad teams tend to play high-scoring games, usually because they allow a lot of goals. When you remove them from the mix, goals-per-game figures drop. But that’s not really the point.

The point is that when you do statistical analysis, you should strive to get it right. It is very easy to lie with statistics, as they say, so it is critical to eliminate flaws in your analysis. It’s ironic, because if KR had performed their analysis the proper way, it would have provided somewhat stronger support for their assertion that playoff scoring isn’t as low as many people think. By my analysis, playoff scoring is 10% lower; by theirs, it’s 12%. So you see, doing the numbers right can get you stronger support for your position.

Reference

Klein, J. and K.E. Reif. The Klein and Reif Hockey Compendium (revised edition). Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.
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