Thursday, 4 October 2012

Art Duncan - Scoring Champion from the Defence?



You may know that Art Duncan is credited as being only one of two defencemen to lead a major professional league in scoring, the other being (of course) Bobby Orr, who did it twice in the 1970s. In 1923/24, skating for the Vancouver Maroons of the PCHA, Duncan played 30 games, scoring 21 goals, 10 assists and 31 points, all of which were tops in the league. So he did something even Orr wasn't able to: as a defenceman, he not only led the league in points but in goals scored.

Or did he?

Are there reasons to be suspicious of this claim? The fact is, although players are generally referred to as having played only their primary position, players from Duncan's era and earlier often moved around a lot through their career. Just because Duncan is listed as "Defence" doesn't mean he only ever played defence. Have a look at career major-league scoring record:

SeasonClubLeagueGPGATPPIM
1916Vancouver MillionairesPCHA17741125
1917Toronto Northern FusiliersNHA641512
1919Vancouver MillionairesPCHA182130
1920Vancouver MillionairesPCHA1848120
1921Vancouver MillionairesPCHA243586
1922Vancouver MillionairesPCHA24591425
1923Vancouver MaroonsPCHA26156218
1924Vancouver MaroonsPCHA3021103120
1925Vancouver MaroonsWCHL26551028
1926Calgary TigersWHL29941330
1927Detroit CougarsNHL3432526
1928Toronto Maple LeafsNHL43751297
1929Toronto Maple LeafsNHL3944853
1930Toronto Maple LeafsNHL3845949
1931Toronto Maple LeafsNHL20000

The 1923 and 1924 seasons certainly seem to stick out. Is it possible that he played forward in those seasons? His teammates might provide a clue. In 1923, for defenders Vancouver had Lloyd Cook (who himself played a bit of forward in his career), and...that's about it. Abbie Newell, another forward/defenceman who played only six games, was on the team as well. Frank Patrick played only two games. Everyone else was a forward throughout their careers, suggesting that Duncan must have been a defenceman in 1923. As for his high scoring total, he was actually outscored by Cook by 30 points to 21. Both of them were basically on the ice 60 minutes per game, while the forwards were subbed out fairly often; Mickey MacKay led the team with 40 points, and Frank Boucher was next among forwards with 20.

But the following season, the Maroons added Joe Matte and Helge Bostrom to the lineup, both of whom played both defence and forward in their careers, and both of whom played regularly in 1924. Along with Duncan and Cook, this gave them four possible defencemen. Duncan scored 31 points, Matte scored 15 and Cook 12. Bostrom was clearly a sub, with only three points in 26 games. But perhaps Matte and Cook were the defencemen, Bostrom a substitute for them, and Duncan was on the forward line.

Of course, we don't really need this kind of analysis, although sometimes it can provide some insight. We can actually just go to the game reports published in the newspapers at the time, and see what position Duncan was listed as playing. So as best as I can figure them, these are the positions for the 1923 Vancouver Maroons, as they were listed in the starting lineups (SD is for subsitute defenceman, and SF substitute forward):

GRDLDCRWLWSDSFTotal
LEHMAN, Hugh25000000025
REID, Charlie500000005
DUNCAN, Art02400011026
PATRICK, Frank010000102
COOK, Lloyd00300000030
MacKAY, Mickey03022030230
DENNENY, Corb00021001821
TAYLOR, Fred000100001
SKINNER, Alf00001700623
HARRIS, Fred0200860420
PARKES, Ernie00002002729
BOUCHER, Frank00052170529
ASSELSTINE, Jack00000201012
NEWELL, Abbie000001146
COTCH, Charlie00000001515
303030303030391274

Duncan was the starting right defenceman in 80% of Vancouver's games. But he did start once at left wing; maybe that's an indication that the following season he played more and more forward, allowing him to score at an unprecedented rate.

Well, in 1924 the Vancouver Maroons played thusly, as near as I can figure it:

GRDLDCRWLWSDSFTotal
LEHMAN, Hugh30000000030
DUNCAN, Art03000000030
COOK, Lloyd00270001028
PATRICK, Frank001000304
BOSTROM, Helge00001117726
MATTE, Joe00200515729
BOUCHER, Frank00029000029
COTCH, Charlie00010101214
SKINNER, Alf00002700229
PARKES, Ernie00002102730
MacKAY, Mickey00000220628
3030303030303661277

So no, Art Duncan did not play forward, at least as far we can tell. He started on defence every game that season. Just as Lloyd Cook put up impressive scoring numbers the season before while playing defence, Duncan did the same, but took it to a whole 'nother level. It seems that Duncan simply scored at a torrential pace, and deserves full credit for the accomplishment.

But there's still something else to consider. In 1922/23 and 1923/24, the PCHA played an interlocking schedule with Canada's other western major league, the WCHL. In 1924, for example, Vancouver played 11 games against each of Victoria and Seattle, the other PCHA clubs, and two games against each of Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon of the WCHL. Although Vancouver was technically in the PCHA, they played 27% of their regular-season matches against WCHL clubs. For all intents and purposes, the PCHA and WCHL were two conferences of the same league, a league with an imbalanced schedule. And just as we don't give Henrik Sedin a 2012 scoring championship because he led the Western Conference in scoring, we shouldn't be looking at interlocking leagues as being separate.

This is especially important in this case, because it's clear that the WCHL was the higher-quality league in 1924. In the "inter-league" games, the WCHL teams had a combined 17-5-2 record. This means that Art Duncan had lesser competition to beat for the scoring championship of his league. If we combine the WCHL and PCHA scoring leader lists, we get the following:

PlayerClubPosGPGATP
COOK, BillSaskatoon Crescents730261440
OLIVER, HarryCalgary Tigers527221234
HAY, GeorgeRegina Capitals625201131
KEATS, DukeEdmonton Eskimos529191231
DUNCAN, ArtVancouver Maroons330211031

Bill Cook of the Saskatoon Crescents led the WCHL/PCHA in goals, assists and points. He outscored Art Duncan by five goals and four assists, or nine points, almost 30% more than Duncan. Crediting Art Duncan with a scoring championship is silly; he technically led the PCHA in scoring, but the PCHA was not a self-contained league at the time. Duncan only wins the scoring title if you ignore two-thirds of the teams that he played against in 1924.

So while Art Duncan was certainly a defenceman when he scored 31 points in 1924, he should not be given credit for a scoring title. The PCHA and WCHL were separate leagues in name only; since they played against each other they were simply conferences of the same effective league. Bill Cook led this league in all offensive categories. Duncan's numbers were certainly very impressive, but Bobby Orr is alone in leading a major professional league in scoring from the blueline.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Hockey's First Hat Trick

You might know that the first recorded, organized indoor hockey game was played at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal on March 3, 1875. You might also know that less than two weeks later, on March 16, the first such game played between two clubs; the March 3 match was made up of two sides of Victoria rink skaters while March 16 featured the Victorias versus the Montreal Football Club.

But do you know who scored hockey's first recorded hat trick? It happened on February 26, 1877. There are at least three matches before that date that might have featured a hat trick, but we don't know who scored all the goals in these games, so we have to satisfy ourselves with the first such recorded event. Who accomplished the feat? Would you believe a 37-year-old stockbroker?


Charles Geddes was involved in the creation of the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1874. But more importantly (for our purposes, anyway), he played hockey with James Creighton, the father of the organized game, who captained many a side and played back while coaching his players.

Creighton was captaining the Metropolitan club against the St. James squad on that February day. The Mets won the match 3 games to nil, Geddes taking each goal himself. The Montreal Gazette covered the game in some detail in their February 27, 1877 edition. Geddes' goals are described thusly:

"...Geddes soon came to the rescue, and toying with the ball in his particular and graceful way, succeeded in putting it through the goal and scoring the first game for the Metropolitans. Time, 15 minutes."

"...unfortunately for the St. James' men, Creighton made some admirable play into Geddes' hands, who put the ball through in a twinkling, thus scoring the second game for the Metropolitans. Time, 3 minutes."

"...and Geddes again took the ball...and sent it through the goal for the third time, making the third game for his side. Time, 7 minutes."

So Charles Geddes can be considered hockey's first scoring star. But, this game was also the last recorded game we have of him playing. In the 1870s we only have records of a few matches per season, and with a player of this age it's probably not surprising.

Side Note: The description of the second goal above suggests that James Creighton, besides being father of the game, should be credited with hockey's first recorded assist. Not bad considering he was a defenceman.

Credit goes to hockey historians and SIHR members Pat Houda and Carl Giden for the source of this information.

Friday, 28 September 2012

An Even Earlier Stick

In the last post we had a quick look at the evolution of the early hockey stick, and the effect it may have had on scoring in the game. Today I give you a little bonus. I found a high-quality image of a stick from c.1880, five years earlier than the oldest one poorly illustrated in the last post. The 1880 stick is illustrated below, along with the 1885 and 1893 editions of the implement.

It looks like the first big change was in fact the shape of the blade, which went from a rounded shape (much like an early field hockey stick blade but with more surface area) to something more oblong in the early 1880s, which greatly resembles a modern blade.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Early Evolution of the Hockey Stick

We recently looked at the increase in hockey goal-scoring from 1892 to 1911, and hypothesized a reason for it. I wanted to go back a bit now, to look at another, rather more dramatic, increase in goal-scoring over time. I'll posit a hypothesis to explain this one as well.

First, to the facts. Organized hockey tournaments began with the 1883 Montreal Winter Carnival, which was won by McGill, and also featured only 1.13 goals scored per team per game. Such low scoring rates continued in the 1884 and 1885 Winter Carnivals, and the 1886 Montreal hockey championship (held due to the lack of a Carnival that year). In 1887, between the Winter Carnival games and challenge matches of the newly-formed Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), over two goals were scored per game, and starting in 1888 is was substantially higher than that, generally approaching three per game. The data is here:

SeasonGPG
18831.13
18841.43
18851.17
18861.18
18872.09
18882.88
18892.79
18902.93
18912.50
18923.14
18933.88
18943.03

Something clearly changed around 1887, and as well already know, it's nothing to do with the roles players played on the ice. My hypothesis is that it is largely to do with something that can be seen by comparing portraits of the Montreal AAA hockey teams from 1885 and 1893. First the 1885 club:


And now the 1893 players. Take note of the long wooden items in their hands.


The sticks are noticeably longer. The 1885 sticks seem more like field hockey sticks, and required players to hunch over quite a bit when stickhandling. The 1893 sticks, while still short by modern standards, are a fair  bit longer and the blades more closely resemble modern ones as well. I believe that the additional length of stick made stickhandling and shooting that much more accurate, and as such scoring increased all around.

By spending some time with some old hockey photos and a ruler, I came up with some estimates of the length of hockey sticks at various points in early history. We know that for the 1927/28 season, the NHL instituted a rule that sticks would be no longer than 53 inches, measured from the top of the handle to the heel of the blade. In earlier years, sticks were shorter than this, apparently increasing in length fairly steadily over time, except for a noticeable jump somewhere between 1885 and 1893.

In 1885, hockey sticks were about 33 to 35 inches, measured from the top of the handle to the heel of the blade.

In 1893, they were about 42 to 46 inches.

In 1901, they were about 44 to 49 inches.

In 1910, they were about 46 to 52 inches.

As an illustration of these differences, here are some badly-drawn hockey stick shapes:
So it seems to me that hockey sticks likely became substantially longer around 1887, and this in turn led to dramatically increased scoring as players were provided a much greater ability to control the puck, both on a rush and in a shot. Competing ideas are welcomed.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Offensive Contribution from Defencemen

Recently we had a look at the evolution of positions in hockey. We noted that from about 1892 to 1911, the standard lineup could be called 1-1-1-4, being a goaltender, a point, a cover and four forwards. Even though this formation persisted for about 20 years, the results on the ice varied quite a bit over this time. In 1894, AHAC teams scored an average of 3.03 goals per game. This number trended upward, and spiked around 1904, reaching a high of 7.73 goals per game in the ECAHA in 1907.

Obviously there must be some reason for this, and looking for some answers should be interesting. I've got one hypothesis already: as time went on, the defensive players (point and cover-point) became more and more involved in the offence. As the seasons progressed, the proportion of goals scored by points and cover-points increased largely in step with the increase in goals-per-game. Note that I don't mean that as teams scored more goals, defencemen scored more goals in step with the forwards; I mean that as teams scored more goals, defencemen scored more goals relative to the forwards.

This does make sense; if your defensive players are focusing more on offence, your team will score more goals because you have more men trying to put the puck in the net. But of course, your opponents will also tend to score more goals, since you have less focus on preventing goals as well. For whatever reason the back players started to play offence more and more, resulting in more goals by their side and more goals by their opponents as well.

The following chart shows the year-by-year rate of team goals per game, divided by the average goals per game over the time period, and the proportion of goals scored by defencemen (which serves as a proxy for the defenders' relative involvement in the offence), divided by the average proportion over the time period. The goals per game ranges from a low of 3.03 in 1894 to a high of 7.73 in 1907. The percentage of goals scored by defencemen ranges from a low of 2.4% in 1892 to a high of 15.5% in 1908.

The relationship certainly isn't perfect, suggesting that there is more going on (not surprisingly), but it is quite a strong one. You can see this by looking at the chart; as goals per game increases, so does the percentage of goals scored by defencemen. The coefficient of correlation for these rates for this time period is 0.75, which is a very strong positive relationship.

So a big factor in why scoring increased so much over this time is that the point and cover-point, who previously focused on defence above all, became more and more involved in the offence. Whether this was a conscious decision on someone's part, or if it was a matter of the defensive players wanting to be more involved in the play, or something else entirely, we can't be sure. We know what was changing, but we don't know the true cause of the change.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Scope of History

If you've ever discussed historical hockey players online, particularly in the context of comparing them to modern players, you may have come across the following comment, or something similar: "You can't really compare players from the past with those of today, because you didn't actually see the older players play." Similarly, when constructing some list of all-time something-or-others, someone will invariably say something like "I can only comment on the players I actually saw play."

In the context of hockey history, I find this type of comment baffling. History is not defined as "what you have witnessed personally." In studying the history of the game, of course you will encounter people and events that you have no direct personal experience with. To suggest that you can only make educated comments about things you have seen yourself is counter-historical. History involves the study of, well, history - things in the past, oftentimes beyond the memory of any living person, much less yourself. But events of the past do not suddenly become unknowable when the last direct witness passes - you just have to study the record in order to know it.

If you limit yourself to what you have seen yourself, I suppose you might feel more secure in the knowledge you do have (although the fact that you're relying on human memory has problems of its own). But let me tell you, if you choose not to study the history of the game because you can't "know" it the way you can with modern hockey, you're doing yourself a disservice. The history of the game is fascinating, and well-worth the effort of studying it.

Of course, if you're here reading this, you probably already agree.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

1904: Rowing Club v. Senators

One reason Billy Breen may not be as well-known today as he deserves to be is that he was never a member of a Stanley Cup championship team. Perhaps Billy McGimsie wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame, wouldn't be known at all today, if the Kenora Thistles had failed in their Cup challenge against the Montreal Wanderers.

As captain of the 1904 Winnipeg Rowing Club hockey team, Breen led his club on his one and only Stanley Cup challenge against the mighty Ottawa Senators. The Ottawa lineup was just full of legendary players: goaltender Bouse Hutton, point Harvey Pulford, rover Rat Westwick, centre Frank McGee and right wing Alf Smith. That's five of seven in the lineup that are in the Hockey Hall of Fame today. The western squad had just one in rover Joe Hall, who really built his Hall of Fame credentials later in his career as a defenceman.

Realistically, Winnipeg would seem to have had little chance, and going into the best-of-three series they were given none by the experts. The first game bore this out, as Ottawa came away with a 9-1 win in a chippy game on December 30, 1903. But things turned around on January 1, 1904 when the Rowing Club shocked the capital city club by taking a 6-2 decision, with Breen scoring half of his team's goals. Suddenly, it was a series again.

Unfortunately for the westerners, Ottawa played an outstanding defensive match in the deciding fixture on January 4, taking it 2-0 to hold on to the Cup. The game was scoreless until the 41-minute mark, and was anyone's game until they scored their second with seven minutes to play. Winnipeg winger Billy Bawlf was given much of the blame for the loss, his poor performance being disruptive to an otherwise promising forward attack. This was Billy Breen's only shot at a Stanley Cup championship, and it slipped away.

But here's the thing. There's absolutely no shame in losing to this edition of the Ottawa Hockey Club. In the CAHL that season, the Senators went 4-0, scoring 32 goals and allowing but 15. It was a season of troubles, of course, which ultimately resulted in Ottawa dropping out of Canada's highest league before the year was done.

Quebec ended up with the CAHL championship, since they had a 7-1 record after counting two default wins over Ottawa after the latter had dropped out of the circuit. But the Montreal Victorias were really the class of the league (barring the Senators); taking out any Ottawa matches the standings for the season would have been:

ClubGPWLTGFGAGD
Montreal Victorias65106834+34
Quebec HC65105037+13
Montreal HC62403140-10
Montreal Shamrocks60602764-37

The Vics and Quebec split their two matches, but the former outscored the latter 19-14. Montreal was arguably robbed of a CAHL championship because Quebec was credited with two wins by default over Ottawa, who would in all likelihood would have defeated them both times, while the Vics actually played the Senators twice and lost, ending up 5-3.

So the Montreal Victorias were an outstanding team in Canada's best hockey league in 1904, and yet lost twice to Ottawa, being outscored 14-7. They couldn't do what the Rowing Club did: beat the Senators.

The Oarsmen's 6-2 victory on January 1 was the only time Ottawa lost that season. And Winnipeg's 2-0 loss in the third game of their series was the second-best score any team put up against the Senators in 1904. The westerners' performance in games two and three of the Cup series was a major accomplishment given the quality of the opposition. "Lost the series" doesn't do their effort justice, not remotely. Billy Breen led his team on the ice, and on the score sheet, against a hockey leviathan and came away with more than just their self-respect. They won a match against a team that no one else could beat, and came within a few goals of taking taking championship away from them. That deserves to be remembered.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Billy Breen



William Wright "Billy" Breen is surely one of the greatest hockey players that most fans of the game have never heard of. Even some historians conversant with the time he played (1900 to 1909) aren't familiar with him, likely because he played his entire career in Manitoba, a place that has long been overlooked in the study of the game's history.

Breen was born December 6, 1882 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Some sources list his date of birth as October 11, 1883 but the 1882 date is supported by both the 1901 and 1911 Canadian censuses, and makes more sense when you look at when he started playing senior hockey at any rate. He was an accountant by trade, and was one of the most renowned players in Manitoba, earning as much praise as the great Dan Bain, whose career was winding down as Breen's was heating up. Breen died fairly young in 1927, after an operation. He was apparently suffering from lymphosarcoma, a malignant cancer. His place of death is listed as Rochester, Minnesota, which suggests he was being treated at the Mayo Clinic at the time of his death.

Billy Breen was an excellent bowler and golfer, but where he truly shone was on the hockey rink. He was small by modern standards, but was of a fairly typical size for his time, and was noted as an outstanding skater and shooter. He was an exceptional rusher and would pour shot after shot in on opposing netminders, with a hard and accurate release.  His recorded hockey career began in the 1900 season, when he played for the Winnipeg HC second side in the intermediate section of the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association (MNWHA) at the age of only 16. His 16 goals in eight matches led the league, and he easily outscored Rat Portage's Tommy Phillips (a future Hall-of-Famer), who was about seven months older than Breen. He missed a few games of the following season's intermediate schedule, but on a goals-per-game basis he beat out not only Phillips (who played cover-point that season), but Hall-of-Famers Tom Hooper (who was the same age as Breen), Billy McGimsie (three years older than Breen), Joe Hall  (two years older than Breen) and Jack Marshall (six years older than Breen). Breen was a teenager playing against men, and was still the scoring star of the league.

He also played some senior hockey in these seasons, and performed well. The Pegs at this time were dominated annually by the Winnipeg Vics, though, so he had limited success at that level. However, his five goals in five senior matches in 1901 was enough to tie him for the league lead. In 1902 the Pegs were again terrible, but the 18-year-old Breen led his side in scoring once more.

Breen broke out in 1903, when the Winnipeg Rowing Club, replacing the Pegs, finally broke the Vics' hold on the provincial championship. He tied for the lead league in scoring, and outpaced another Hall-of-Famer in Fred Scanlan, who skated for the Victorias. In 1904 he was far and away the leading scorer in his league, recording 20 goals, when the second-best had 8. He was playing in a separate league from the Rat Portage Thistles in these years, however, so it was unclear how he stacked up against McGimsie who was busy leading Rat Portage to victories in the MNWHA.

When the two leagues finally came together again in 1905, Billy Breen was able to compete directly against McGimsie and Phillips, who had returned from studying in the east. The results make it clear that in terms of offence, it was Phillips, McGimsie and Breen, and then everyone else. Phillips scored 29 times in eight matches, one ahead of his teammate, while Breen managed 25 in nine games. No one else had more than 16, and that was in 10 games.

In 1905 it was more of the same, except this time Breen crept to the front of the list. He scored 26 times in nine games, ahead of Phillips' 23 in seven (a pace of over 29 for nine games). McGimsie scored 19 in in eight matches. After that, the next best was 11, scored by Breen's teammate Billy Kean, about whom we'll have a post sometime soon.

So in these two seasons of direct competition, Phillips scored 52 times in 15 games, McGimsie 47 in 16, and Breen 51 in 18. These three men were the MHL, offensively. No one could even approach them, not Tom Hooper or Si Griffis (another Hall-of-Fame Thistle) or Joe Hall, who was a forward at this time in his career, or even Cyclone Taylor, who scored three goals in three games as a rover for Portage in 1906.

When the Manitoba Hockey League turned professional in 1907, Breen remained an amateur while Phillips and McGimsie pursued (and won) the Stanley Cup. He was again a big fish in a small pond, counting 20 goals while the next-best total was nine, recorded by teammate and future pro Bert Boulton. Breen himself turned pro the following season, and although Kenora (formerly Rat Portage) was out of the league, there were a number of excellent pros in the league, partly due to the downfall of the International Hockey League.  The MHL was dotted with names such as Hamby Shore, Lorne Campbell, Fred Lake, Don Smith, Skinner Poulin, Barney Holden, Ernie Dubeau, Jack Fraser and Art Serviss, quality professional players all. Don Smith was third in the NHA in goals in 1911, Campbell had led the IHL in scoring in 1907, and Shore and Lake formed the core of the mighty Ottawa Senators defence in the early 1910s. The MHL in 1908 was easily the second-highest quality league in the country to the ECAHA, far outpacing the OPHL in terms of the quality of player.

Playing in the highest-quality league he ever had, Breen scored two goals per game, which ranked behind only Hamby Shore, and nearly one assist per game, far outpacing everyone else in that category. These assists are reconstructed from game reports, of course, because they were not officially awarded at the time. But the description of play was very detailed in the Winnipeg newspapers at this time, so these assists, while estimated, should be fair. Breen displayed his playmaking chops this season, and only his missing four games kept him from the very top of the scoring list. Here are the per-game figures:

PlayerClubGPGAPGPPG
BREEN, BillyWinnipeg Strathconas2.000.922.92
KENNEDY, HarryWinnipeg Maple Leafs1.920.502.42
SHORE, HambyWinnipeg Strathconas2.130.272.40
CAMPBELL, LorneWinnipeg Maple Leafs2.000.252.25
CHARLTON, RoyPortage Plains Cities1.730.272.00
KEAN, BillyWinnipeg Maple Leafs1.400.401.80
LAKE, FredWinnipeg Strathconas1.310.381.69
SMITH, DonPortage Plains Cities1.500.071.57
SWITZER, FrankWinnipeg Strathconas0.930.201.13
POULIN, SkinnerPortage Plains Cities0.800.271.07

Breen played only one professional game after this season, recording four goals in two assists for the Winnipeg HC before that team folded. The MHL did not survive after the 1909 season; just as with so many of the professional leagues at this time, that circuit's life was brief and volatile. Breen wanted to get back into the senior amateur ranks in Winnipeg, but now that he had played professionally that was not going to be easy. He became a coach and referee while fighting to get his amateur status reinstated, which took until 1913. At this point, he had not played for four years, and decided he was done as a player. He coached the 1913 Winnipeg Hockey Club, winners of the Allan Cup, and later coached the Toronto Rowing Club in the OHA.

His career by Point Allocation:

SeasonClubLeaguePosAgeGPMINOPDPPPTPATPAK
1900Winnipeg Pegs IIMNWHA (Int)9168016004.30.00.04.32.69
1900Winnipeg PegsMNWHA516601200-1.5-0.80.0-2.3-1.92
1900Total (Prorated)5168016001.6-0.50.01.10.69
1901Winnipeg Pegs IIMNWHA (Int)917469203.90.00.03.94.24
1901Winnipeg PegsMNWHA45178016002.90.00.02.91.81
1901Total (Prorated)45178016004.30.00.04.32.69
1902Winnipeg PegsMNWHA5186012000.4-0.5-0.3-0.4-0.33
1903Winnipeg OarsmenWCHA5198016005.90.9-0.16.74.19
1904Winnipeg OarsmenWCHA5206713406.90.0-0.26.75.00
1905Winnipeg OarsmenMHL5217214404.10.0-0.14.02.78
1906Winnipeg PegsMHL5228016006.10.0-0.25.93.69
1907Winnipeg PegsWCHA4238016007.60.0-0.17.54.69
1908Winnipeg StrathconasMHL5246012005.20.0-0.15.14.25
1909Winnipeg PegsMHL42591800.70.00.00.73.89
Career6681336042.8-0.1-1.141.63.11

His defensive stats should be taken with a grain of salt. It's something of an artifice of the Point Allocation system that outstanding offensive players in leagues below a certain level of quality will receive little or no defensive points. Based on the descriptions of his play it seems clear that Breen was an effective checking forward as well as an offensive dynamo.

Writers of the time spared no compliment when describing Breen:
And then again it was a case of too much Billy Breen on the forward line. As brilliant a skater, and as effective a shot as ever, it was his dashing playing that unquestionably put his team on top. Four goals out of five comprised his scoring record, and that it about his usual average. He is a great player, and a gentlemanly little captain of the Rowing Club. As an effective forward he is in a class by himself to-day, and the game has seldom seen a better. (Winnipeg Free Press, 30 Dec 1904)
Billy Breen – a name to conjure with! The dashing little forward has long since made his reputation. He has been the hero of many a hard-fought content, so any more comment on his playing is almost superfluous. It can, though, be truly said he never deserved the plaudits of enthusiastic admirers more than he did last night. A fitting leader is he to a representative seven of Winnipeg's best athletes. (Winnipeg Free Press, 7 Jan 1905)
For the Winnipegs, Billy Breen was the bright particular star, just as the brilliant little centre forward has been in so many games he has played. His dashing, hurdling rushes could not help but ring applause from the most apathetic, and seldom has a finer individual exhibition been seen on Winnipeg ice than that put up by the only Billy Breen last night. And when another man carried down the ice, it was always Breen who was in front of the net to take the pass. (Winnipeg Free Press, 23 Jan 1906)
Breen and Shore made a brilliant pair in centre ice. It is doubtful if there are two faster centre men in the country, while in Switzer and Lake they have a pair of wings who work in well on goal, and are strong at checking back. (Winnipeg Free Press, 18 Jan 1908)
This last comment on checking back leads us to a discussion of Breen's defence. He was surely most noted as a dynamic offensive player, but it's clear he was defensively responsible as well.
One of the principal reasons for the Oarmen's victory was the system of close-checking adopted by their forwards [Breen, Claude Borland, Harry Kennedy, Billy Field]. Not only did they play together well, and shine individually when attacking, but every mother's son of them was after the puck all the time, and the gritty never-say-die spirit in which they hung to their checks, proved to be an important factor in bringing about the ultimate result. (Winnipeg Free Press, 7 Jan 1905)
Another important factor in the result was the splendid way the Peg forwards [Breen, Kennedy, Billy Kean, Harry Gordon] checked back. (Winnipeg Free Press, 5 Jan 1906)
While sometimes he would stop an opponent's rush directly, the most frequent mention of his individual defensive play is for intercepting passes. For example:
Breen stole a pass and went down but M. Brown blocked. (Winnipeg Free Press, 21 Feb 1906)
On a pass back from Campbell, Breen stole the puck and pressed [sic] over to Lake who slapped in into the net. (Winnipeg Free Press, 8 Feb 1908)
Based on these plays and others, it seem Breen had a particular talent for breaking up an opponent's rush by intercepting a pass, and immediately transforming it into an offensive rush of his own.

Although he was primarily a shooter, it's also clear that Breen had substantial playmaking/passing ability. Aside from his leading the MHL in assists in 1908, descriptions of his play make frequent mention of skilful passing.
Breen passed out from the corner to Shore, who slipped in a counter. (Winnipeg Free Press, 25 Jan 1908)
Breen got away with a magnificent dodging run, hurdled three or four sticks and passed over to Lake who shot an easy goal. (Winnipeg Free Press, 18 Jan 1908)
The next game was a short one. Breen rushed down the side, passed over to Haddock, who scored a pretty goal. (Winnipeg Free Press, 30 Jan 1906)
I also noted several mentions of Breen winning a faceoff before starting a rush, so it seems likely he was very good on the draw as well. All of this gives us a picture of an all-round hockey talent, one whose main talent is skating and shooting, but who was also a gifted passer and was at least responsible on defence, if not better. The one flaw in his game seems to have been that he played in Manitoba instead of Montreal.

Breen is a member of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, and may have some small claim to belonging in the Hockey Hall of Fame as well. The biggest question to my mind is why he is not as well known today as he deserves to be. Next time we'll discuss one possible reason for this.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

All-Stars Versus MVGs

Following up on the last post, we want to figure out why Hart Trophy voting results for 1924 to 1930 seem more than a little sketchy (for goaltenders, at least) if they're interpreted as who was seen as the best player at the position each season.

Fortunately, we have many seasons in which we have both Hart Trophy voting and All-Star voting results. This will shed a great deal of light on this. We know the highest-rated Hart goalie for 1934, 1937, 1939, 1940 and every season from 1942 to 1957 and beyond. But for now we'll stop at 1957, giving us 20 seasons to work with.

In these 20 seasons, only six times is the highest-rated Hart goalie the same as the First Team All-Star (Frank Brimsek in 1942, Bill Durnan in 1944, 1945, 1946 and 1949, and Harry Lumley in 1955). It's the Second All-Star goalie six times (Roy Worters in 1934, Earl Robertson in 1939, Brimsek in 1943 and 1948, Chuck Rayner in 1950 and Jim Henry in 1952), and eight times the Hartiest netminder was third in the All-Star voting (Tiny Thompson in 1937, Robertson in 1940, Turk Broda in 1947, Al Rollins in 1951, 1953 and 1954, Gump Worsley in 1956 and Terry Sawchuk in 1957). Clearly, different standards are at play between the voting for the two awards. You might not expect 100% agreement between the two if the standards were the same, but with this degree of difference, where the third-best goaltender was the most likely to be seen as the most valuable, there's clearly something going on. And it we look at the results in detail, it's pretty clear what that difference is.

SeasonMVGW%ASGW%
1934WORTERS, Roy.472GARDINER, Charlie.531
1937THOMPSON, Tiny.552SMITH, Norm.615
1939ROBERTSON, Earl.478BRIMSEK, Frank.779
1940ROBERTSON, Earl.354KERR, Dave.667
1943BRIMSEK, Frank.570MOWERS, Johnny.610
1947BRODA, Turk.600DURNAN, Bill.650
1948BRIMSEK, Frank.491BRODA, Turk.642
1950RAYNER, Chuck.486DURNAN, Bill.539
1951ROLLINS, Al.775SAWCHUK, Terry.721
1952HENRY, Jim.471SAWCHUK, Terry.714
1953ROLLINS, Al.493SAWCHUK, Terry.635
1954ROLLINS, Al.235LUMLEY, Harry.558
1956WORSLEY, Gump.529PLANTE, Jacques.734
1957SAWCHUK, Terry.618HALL, Glenn.629
Average.509Average.645

In every season but one, when the All-Star Goaltender (ASG) is a different man than the Most Valuable Goaltender (MVG), the (ASG) was a winning percentage (W%) that is higher than that of the MVG, and sometimes the difference is enormous. The voters of the time clearly had no problem giving Hart Trophy votes to goaltenders on bad teams (see 1940 and 1954 in particular), but not All-Star votes. The only season in which the MVG has a higher W% than the ASG is 1951, when Al Rollins did not play a full season but was still considered MVG. So MVP votes could go to a netminder who did not play a full season, but All-Star votes would not; see also in 1957 (when the difference in W% is the smallest) when Sawchuk played only 34 games. So in every season in which both the MVG and the ASG played a full season, the ASG always had a significantly higher W%; he played on a significantly better team.

It seems absolutely clear to me, then, that the voters were applying the following standards to these votes, in general:

1. The All-Star voting was for the goaltender who was the most proficient at his position.

2. The Hart Trophy voting was for the goaltender who contributed the greatest proportion of his team's success.

So if you have two goaltenders, one worth 10 points on a team that recorded 40 points, and another worth 15 points on a team that recorded 70, the latter would do better in the All-Star voting while the former would do better in the Hart voting. The former was more valuable to him team in the sense that he contributed a greater proportion of his team's success. This is the only way that the voting results for Earl Robertson in 1939 and 1940, Jim Henry in 1952 and especially Al Rollins in 1954 make sense. For purposes of the Hart Trophy, it was often most valuable in the sense of "imagine how bad they would have been without him." This is not the modern attitude, when generally a player cannot be seen as "valuable" unless his team did well, but it clearly a prevalent attitude in the time period we're looking at.

Now, the best Hart goalies in the pre-All-Star seasons were John Roach in 1924 (.435 W%), Clint Benedict in 1925 (.333), Roy Worters in 1926 (.529), 1927 (.375), 1928 (.523) and 1929 (.553), and Charlie Gardiner in 1930 (.534). It's possible that some of these men would have been voted First Team All-Stars if there had been such a thing at the time, but given this analysis, it seems that at least in 1924, 1925 and 1927 these netminders would not have been named the best, rather than most valuable in the sense defined above.

So it seems that Roy Worters should not be considered the best goaltender of the late 1920s based on his Hart voting records. These votes were not intended to say he was the best goaltender, but that he was the best relative to his team. And since his teams were usually not good, that doesn't tell us much about his absolute standing among his brethren netminders.

Monday, 10 September 2012

All-Star Goalkeepers

All-Star Team results from the past provide historians with useful information about how some players were perceived in their own time. Statistical records are of course very informative, but have their limitations. Things like All-Star Team voting records can help shed some light on things that might not be reflected in the stats. They tell us who was seen to be the best at their position at their time, which is particularly useful when it comes to defensive players.

The downside of NHL All-Star Teams is that the league only began these awards in 1931. We know Charlie Gardiner was considered the best netminder in the NHL for the 1930/31 season, but who was seen as the best in 1929/30?

Well, we may not have All-Star voting records from before 1931, but we do at least have the Hart Trophy records, which go back to 1924. (This is all thanks to work done at hfboards.com, see link here.) If we know who the top-rated goaltender in each season from 1924 to 1930 in the Hart voting, maybe we can consider them to be effectively First Team All-Stars. If they had such a vote at the time, we could figure that the goalies seen as the most valuable would also have been seen as the best.

I've certainly seen this sort of argument made, specifically that since Roy Worters received the most Hart Trophy consideration among goaltenders in every season from 1926 to 1929, he should be considered the best goalkeeper of his time. Interpreting this as the equivalent of four consecutive First All-Star Team selections, it's hard to see it otherwise.

As it happens, we do know which goaltender received the most Hart votes each season from 1924 to 1930. In chronological order, they are John Roach, Clint Benedict, Roy Worters, Roy Worters, Roy Worters, Roy Worters and Charlie Gardiner. The fact that Gardiner received the most Hart votes in 1930, and then was the First Team All-Star in 1931, suggests that we may be on to something here.

So maybe Worters was seen as the best goaltender of his time. Considering the competition, his being seen as the best each season is quite something. He was up against a variety of Clint Benedict, Alec Connell, George Hainsworth, Hap Holmes and Hugh Lehman in these seasons, Hall-of-Famers all. Of course, Benedict, Holmes and Lehman were nearing the end of the road at the time, but still, four straight seasons being the best of the best...

But hold on a minute. We also know which goaltenders received the second-most Hart votes in 1924, 1925 and 1926, namely Jake Forbes, Jake Forbes and Doc Stewart. Forbes and Stewart were both good goaltenders, but were not all-time talents by any stretch. And yet, in both 1924 and 1925 Forbes was apparently considered a better netminder than Georges Vezina, and in 1926 Stewart was seen as better tan both Benedict and Connell, if we see Hart votes as the same as All-Star votes. Now, if that is in fact what was going on, we really no longer need to concern ourselves with these voting results, because if that's how the voters saw things, then they shouldn't be taken seriously. Jakes Forbes was not a better goaltender than Georges Vezina.

So there must be something else going on. There is; and next time we'll look at exactly what it is.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Evolution of Hockey Positions

If you're reading this blog, chances are that you know what rovers, points and cover-points are. Or were. They're part of the history of the game; before defencemen we had points and cover-points (or simply covers), the former playing close to the goalkeeper, and the latter being a conduit between the defence and the forwards. The rover was phased out of eastern hockey around 1911/12, while the point/cover positions morphed into side-by-side defenders soon thereafter.

But that's not all there is to the story of positional changes in hockey. If you go far back enough, specifically to 1875 when the first organized, indoor games between two opposing clubs took place in Montreal, there were typically nine men on the ice for either side, rather than the seven we're used to dealing with in early hockey history. They played four forwards as we're used to from the rover era, but had two extra men on defence. Not only that, but the defensive positions were not yet called point and cover, they were back and half-back, a clear indication of the fact that the rules of the game were adapted from football.

I can't be 100% of how the players typically lined up, but I think the following makes sense. The goalkeeper is marked with GK, the backs with B, the half-backs with HB, and the forwards with F.
The first big change in hockey positions came around 1880, when two men were dropped from the standard lineup. I'm not sure of the impetus for this change. The number nine had basically been chosen to fit the practical limits of the Victoria Skating Rink (which bequeathed its 200' by 85' rink size to North American hockey); when played outdoors hockey was played with more men than that. At some point they may have simply decided that 18 men on the ice made it a bit too crowded, and reduced it to 7-on-7.

However, they did not immediately adopt the seven-with-a-rover lineup. They dropped a back and a forward, still playing with two half-backs, thusly:
This standard seems to have lasted about a decade, after which one of the half-backs transmogrified into a fourth forward (the rover), and the other became the cover-point (CP), while the back was now called the point (P). This change from four defenders and three forwards to three defenders and four forwards probably had some effect on goal-scoring, which did uptick at this time, as we'll be looking at in the near future.
This was the standard in eastern hockey for about 20 years, when the decision was made, at least at the game's highest level, to eliminate the rover (as discussed here). That opened the ice up a bit, and brings us close to the setup we're used to today:
It took only another season or so before the point/cover-point setup gave way to the modern lineup, which we still have today...
...which, I think it's safe to say, is not going to change any time soon. It's worked well for almost a century now.

The usual caveats for this sort of general discussion apply, of course. The years mentioned may not be entirely precise, and it's unlikely that every team adopted the same lineup at the same time. Each change would have taken a bit of time to become standard.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Man-Advantage Effect

Normally I like to stick to things that happened in hockey before 1927, but sometimes fascinating things can be found in more recent season, for which of course we tend to have better data than those from long ago.

A recent thread of HFBoards got me looking into the relationship between NHL teams' man-advantage situations and their results in the standings. I wanted to look at each team's net power-plays, which we'll call their net odd-man situations (NOMS) here, and how many points they recorded for the season. As such I computed the coefficients of correlation for each NHL season from 1963/64 to the present, which is all the data that was readily available.

Remember that a positive correlation means that teams with higher point totals for the season also tend to have higher NOMS (ie, receive more man-advantage situations than they give up), while a negative correlation means that teams with higher point totals tend to have lower NOMS. The results are summarized in the table below. A correlation of zero means there is no relationship between a team's place in the standings and its NOMS.


Before the Great Expansion, at least for the seasons I have the data for, a team's NOMS were not strongly predictive of how that team did in the standing. And this held for the first season after expansion as well. But starting in 1968/69, the weaker teams in the NHL had a strong tendency to have a net positive in man-advantage situations. And this is a persistent effect, only getting close to zero for a season or two in the early 1980s, but remaining negative.

This persisted until 1988/89, when the whole thing swung to the positive. Starting in that season, strong teams had a tendency to have a positive NOMS, meaning they received more man-advantage situations than they gave up. Although it has dropped to around zero correlation in five seasons since then, otherwise it's been a  positive correlation, and often strongly so.

There are at least two competing effects here, that could explain the relationship between a team's NOMS and its success in the standings.

One is that, obviously, a team with a positive NOMS should be expected, on average, to receive an advantage in net goals (which in turn results in an advantage in wins). Having a man advantage is a large advantage, almost doubling your chance to score a goal in that time and reducing your opponent's chances to almost zero. So based on this, we would expect that a team with a positive NOMS would do relatively well in the standings, which would result in a positive correlation coefficient.

Another factor, however, is score effects. A team with the lead will tend to play defensively. This is why teams with a lead will tend to be out-shot by their opponents. Additionally, I think I'm safe in saying that a team playing defensively will also take more penalties than they draw, since most penalties occur on defence. Since a team that is often in the lead will tend to win more often than one that isn't, that may lead to a good team giving up more man-advantage situations than they receive. This would result in a negative correlation between NOMS and points in the standings.

I suspect, and I haven't done any research to support this, that the first factor would have a stronger effect than the second, since the first involves actually having a higher NOMS while the second involves only the potential for a lower NOMS. That is, the skill/descipline/luck/whatever involved in drawing more penalties than you take is a stronger factor that the score effect. That's just an educated guess, of course.

So from that perspective, the results from 1988/89 to the present make sense. Teams that have a high NOMS should be scoring more goals than their opponents, on average, and therefore the positive correlation makes sense.

But two important questions would then remain: why the negative correlation between 1968/69 and 1987/88, and why the switch from negative to positive in 1988?

One thing that is very different in the NHL from the 1970s to the 1990s is the parity among teams. In the 1970s, the best teams dominated the worst (typically, expansion) teams. Dynasties like the Lafleur Canadiens, Bossy Islanders and Gretzky Oilers do not exist in the NHL today, and haven't for some time. This great disparity in team quality does suggest that, perhaps, the game's officials (knowingly or subconsciously) gave more advantages to the lesser teams in order to give them something of a fighting chance. That's a possibility. And then when relative parity arose, such things were no longer needed and were abandoned, leaving NOMS to grant the advantage that it should, as discussed above.

But there's also the possibility that the players on the better teams, knowing they were so far superior to their opponents, simply took more liberties with opposing players. Perhaps they didn't hesitate to trip the man in the slot, because they knew the resulting power-play would be relatively weak and would likely be killed off. So again, the negative correlation is a result of disparity, but this hypothesis does not require biased officials to function. As such, this is the explanation I currently prefer.

Those are a couple of hypotheses. I welcome yours.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Who Was the First Thug?

I'm going to talk about fighting again. Those who've been reading my stuff at various places over the years know well my position on fighting in hockey. One particular bramble in my teeth is the claim that fighting has "always been part of the game." This is simply untrue. It's essentially true that violence has nearly always been a part of the game, but fighting certainly has not.

In the early years, the most violent players did not fight; they assaulted, slashed, tripped and bashed, but fighting was rare. Players like Newsy Lalonde, Joe Hall, Alf Smith and Sprague Cleghorn were known to be rash and hostile players to say the least, but since it takes two to fight, such activity was fairly rare. And it was absolutely not the case that they used fighting as a strategic weapon.

That's what critics of fighting really abhor in the modern game. Few people are completely opposed to spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous fights. It's the premeditated, organized thuggery that disgusts most people. And this is a modern phenomenon. Designated goons have not always been part of the game. In fact, they've been around for less than 50 years, when the game has been played in an organized form for over 120.

There were no real thugs in hockey's first decades. By thug, I mean a player whose primary job was to be violent. There have always been players, to be sure, that have made violence a part of their game plan. But until a certain point, there were no players whose designated role was to hit opponents in the face.

In the 1920s, the Montreal Canadiens had a pair of rough defencemen in Bert Corbeau and Billy Coutu. Coutu was something close to a thug at time, but for most of his career he took a regular shift on the blueline with a very good defensive team. These were typical violent players of their day. They were violent, but also useful players, when they could keep themselves out of the penalty box. Jimmy Orlando with the 1940s Red Wings was similar. In four full seasons, he led the NHL in penalty minutes twice and was second once. But for his career, he averaged less than two PIM per game, which is hardly thug territory.

The Rangers' Lou Fontinato (late 50s/early 60s) is another player that seems a bit thuggish. In eight seasons he led the league in PIM three times, and averaged 2.33 PIM per game played. He certainly had a thug's approach to the game, often dropping the gloves, and otherwise trying to punish opposing players with his body. There's a case to be made that Fontinato is hockey's first true thug, though again he might have been too useful on defence to be so called. He played eight seasons on defence, when NHL teams played only four or five blueliners per game. As such the position was too valuable to waste on a thug. Even in today's game, with six defencemen, thug blueliners are rare.

Reggie Fleming (1960s) comes closer to the title of ur-thug. Some years he didn't play much but still too a lot of penalties, and he was certainly considered an intimidator. But still, his penalty totals are a bit low to be a real thug, especially when you consider his often-decent offence as well.

Howie Young might be it. In 1963 he had a truly thuggish season, scoring nine points but recording 273 penalty minutes in 64 games. But that was not typical for Young. He was always fairly high on the PIMs, but never had another thuggy year. His 1963 season could be considered the prototype season for a true thug, but it was not consistently Young's role.

Ultimately, you might be shocked to find that it really started in earnest with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Broad Street Bullies did their best to ruin the game in the 1970s, and it was the 1973 season, when Dave Schultz was inserted into the lineup, that the chaos really began. Along with Bob Kelly and Don Saleski, Schultz (and later others) took violence and intimidation to a whole new level. And it only got worse from there, culminating in Schultz's festering sore of a 1975 season, when he racked up an obscene total of 472 PIM, which beat his own previous record by 35% and which remains 15% more than any other season in NHL history to this day.

The game has only recently begun to recover. Designated thugs are of late becoming less and less common, finally, after decades of players who bring nothing to the rink but fists and fury. No one has broken 400 PIM in a season since 1993, and even 300 PIM has only been recorded three times since the turn of the 21st century. But when it comes to thugs in history, I think it's fair to blame the Flyers. Many other players joined in, but they started it.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Minnie McGiffin - Hockey's First Thug

And I don't use the term "thug" in an adulatory manner. Roy "Minnie" McGiffin was not a gentle player by any means, and I shouldn't even describe him that way, since that type of language (so often used even today) glosses over the fact that he was a violent, dangerous player.


To begin with, let's have a look at his career record, using TPAK. We have several missing seasons here. In 1910 he played junior-level hockey in the OHA, at least before he was suspended for unsportsmanlike conduct in February of that year. He was in California during the 1911 hockey season, and spent the 1912 season playing for Cleveland in the USAHA, for which statistics are not currently available. After his playing career ended in 1915, McGiffin served in the US Army Air Service during World War I, and died in an airplane accident in Texas, in 1918.

SeasonClubLeaguePosAgeGPMINOPDPPPTPATPAK
1909Toronto AthleticsOHA6178016003.5-0.3-0.72.51.56
1909Toronto AthleticsIPAHU817671340-1.7-0.8-0.6-3.1-2.31
1913Toronto BlueshirtsNHA5216012001.81.1-1.01.91.58
1914Toronto BlueshirtsNHA5227214402.22.1-1.33.02.08
1915Toronto BlueshirtsNHA51237216200.23.8-1.82.21.36
35172006.05.9-5.46.50.90

As you can see, he was a pretty marginal player at the NHA level (and in the amateur game), however a large part of this is due to the penalties he took. He loses 45% of his value as a player on the ice due to the cost to his team of being a man down so very often. For the three seasons McGiffin played in the NHA, from 1913 to 1915, the "top" (actually bottom) three penalty rates (per 60 minutes of ice time) all belong to him:

PlayerSeasonGPPIMPIM/60 MIN
McGIFFIN, Minnie19151813114.06
McGIFFIN, Minnie1914188610.20
McGIFFIN, Minnie191315839.73
WILSON, Cully1915201389.63
SKINNER, Alf191516688.34
BROADBENT, Punch1915201157.80
CARPENTER, Eddie191519636.28
MUMMERY, Harry191320875.54
ROBERTS, Gord191519745.51
PITRE, Didier191317805.43
BROADBENT, Punch191417615.37
MUMMERY, Harry191520885.22
DARRAGH, Jack191420695.15
RONAN, Skene191419655.10

No one comes close to his level of rule-breaking. McGiffin was at least 46% ahead of the second-ranked player on a per-minute basis every season. He was always in the top two in total penalty minutes (leading in 1914), despite usually being a substitute player. And this isn't an artifact of him being careless, or being prone to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in fact noted as a very violent player in his day:
Minnie McGiffin got into the game every now and again and managed to distinguish himself with the usual line of rough work. In the first period he had only been on a minute or so when he chopped [Hamby] Shore and went off. In the second he started the procession to the penalty bench by crashing into [Art] Ross who at once retaliated...McGiffin then replaced [Jack] Walker and knocked [Jack] Darragh flat with a glaring foul. He was given another major. Later he came back to use the butt end of his stick on [Leth] Graham, knocking the youngster cold. (Montreal Daily Mail, 11 Jan 1915)
Like others of his ilk, McGiffin (who was also called "The Hornet") was a dangerous player. He was, of course, liked by his home-team fans, who saw only McGiffin's aggression and willingness to challenge the opposing players and turned a blind eye to his plain, unvarnished violence: 
According to the official list of penalties Minnie McGiffin is the bad man of pro hockey. However, local fans don't think so. They blame the long list to the officials. A leather-lunged rooter at the Arena Saturday night voiced the feeling of the bleachers when the Torontos made a change in the last period: “Blow your whistle, Umps, Minnie's on the ice. (Toronto World, 1 Feb 1915)
Much like many of today's fans, McGiffin's supporters backed him because he was his own team, while at the same time deriding opposing players for their violent tendencies. But there's a good argument to be made that McGiffin was hockey's first real thug. We'll look at the history of thugs in major hockey next time.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Old-Tyme Forwards

We've been looking at some terms that can be used to describe historical hockey players in non-anachronistic ways. It's bad enough to describe a modern player as a "power forward", but for Orr's sake just never, ever do it for a player from the 1910s. It doesn't make sense in the context of the player's time. We've looked at goaltenders and defencemen, and we'll finish up today with forwards. In no particular order:

Goal-getting: A goal-getting forward is one that not only scores goals, but actually goes to the net to get his goals. Hence the name. Herb Jordan is an example of a goal-getting forward.

Combination: A combination forward is an expert passer and playmaker. "Combination play" is an old term that was used to describe when players would pass the puck amongst themselves on an offensive push, rather than relying on individual rushes. The great Winnipeg winger (and first known Metis hockeyist) Tony Gingras is a good example of an early hockey forward who assisted his mates rather than scored goals himself.

Stout: A stout forward is one who uses his body to work his way into the offensive zone. If a defender gets in the way, a stout forward is as likely to go through the opponent than around him. He is not necessarily a dirty player, but is a physically punishing one. Bert Russell is a good example of a stout forward.

Backchecking: A backchecking forward is one who takes his defensive responsibility at least as seriously as his offensive duties. "Checking back" is perhaps a surprisingly old term, and forwards were lauded for taking defensive work seriously from the beginning of the organized game. Jack Marks is an example of a backchecking forward.

Skating: A skating forward is a player whose primary game feature is his skating ability. It's not just about speed, of course, but agility as well. While Sinclair 'Speed' Moynes was remarkably fast, his control was terrible and thus probably shouldn't be considered an exceptional skater. Hobey Baker, on the other hand, was known as an outstanding skater, both fast and effective, and is a good example of this type.

Side-shot: A side-shot forward is a gifted scorer, typically a winger, who works from the corners and side of the net. He relies more on his shot to score goals than he does on positioning. Gord Roberts is a good example of a side-shot forward.

Peppery: A peppery forward is an ornery customer, who is generally a physical player, but not clean. He is not afraid to use his fists or his stick when an opponent does something he doesn't like. Peppery is a term often used at the time, and like many terms used today, it's really a euphemism for "rule-breaker" and "dangerous player." Cully Wilson was a good player, but his terrible temper makes him a good example of this type.

Stickhandling: A stickhandling forward is one who controls the game by controlling the puck. It's difficult to remove the disc from his possession. Odie Cleghorn was a noted stickhandler, and used his ability to both score goals and set up his linemates effectively.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Old-Tyme Defencemen

Last time, which was quite a time ago (thanks, tax season!), I suggested some terms that could be used to describe the style of old-tyme goaltenders, so that we don't have to resort to modern, anachronistic language when discussing them. Now we can have a look at some names for the defenders.

Hardrock: A hardrock defenceman is a physical player, who uses his body to prevent opposing players from approaching the net. He hits them, and if they get up, he hits them again. Fighting has not always been a part of the game, but body-checking has, and these men do it best. Harvey Pulford is an example of a hardrock defenceman.

Lifting: A lifting defenceman is one who excels at clearing the puck out of his end of the rink by lifting it, hurling the puck high into the air so that it cannot be intercepted by the opposition. While common in the early days of the game, this is a tactic not much used today. The Winnipeg Vics' great defensive pair of Rod and Magnus Flett are both noted for their lifting ability.

Rushing: A rushing defencemen is one who relieves the pressure on his side by rushing the puck up the ice himself. He is generally, though not necessarily, a gifted offensive player. He can either carry the puck all the way to the goal, or pass it off to another player for a scoring chance. Mike Grant is a noted example of a rushing defenceman from the game's early days, and there were many others since this style of play attracted so much attention.

Blocking: A blocking defenceman focuses on preventing scoring chances rather than moving the puck up the ice, but unlike the hardrock defenceman he does not rely on physicality to do so. He uses positional play and stick-checking ability to either block the opponent's path to the goal, or to block his shot. James Stewart is a fine example of a blocking defenceman.

Shooting: A shooting defenceman is one who focuses more on the offensive game, but instead of rushing the puck in to the goal, he possesses a deadly shot that can be used from a distance as well as in close. There are many such defenders in the game today, but in hockey's early years such players were fairly rare. Harry Cameron is one example.



I'm always open to suggestions for additional "classes" of player, if you will. Next time: fowards.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Descryptyve Tyrmes for Olde Tyme Hockeyists

When discussing hockey players from long ago, the tendency is to use modern terminology to describe them. A gifted goal-scorer, such as Herb Jordan or Joe Malone, might be called a "sniper", for instance. A physical winger, such as Gordie Roberts, is called a "power forward" (shudder). This is understandable, as an attempt to frame old-time players in terms understood by modern fans, and it may be useful in that sense.

But on the other hand, players are really best viewed in their own contexts, rather than trying to force them into modern roles, which are often imperfect descriptions. In that regard I think it's better to use contemporaneous terms when discussing these players, and not just in the "oh, they called faceoffs bullies, how quaint!" sort of way.

The disadvantage to this approach, of course, is that if you're not familiar with the era, you have to learn these new terms. That's a small price to pay, I think, and if you have an interest in hockey history, it's well worth it.

So to begin with, here are a few descriptive terms that can be used when discussing early hockey goaltenders.

Stonewall: A stonewall goaltender (or netminder, or guardian, but never a "goalie") is one that is simply proficient at stopping shots through his positioning and technique. He frustrates his opponents' efforts by making stop after stop; he would not be said to make a save. Percy LeSueur is an example of a stonewall goaltender.

Flopping: A flopping netminder is one who finds a way to get some part of his anatomy between the puck and the goal. Generally less consistent that the stonewall variety of guardian, a flopping goaltender is more likely to make a spectacular stop. Clint Benedict is perhaps the epitome of this style, as his constant flopping actually led to rule changes for the position, which previously were required to remain on their feet when making a stop.

Stickhandling: A stickhandling guardian is one who tries to liberate the puck from opposing attackers before they can even get a shot off. He challenges opponents by leaving the goal area and uses his stick to separate disc and man. Paddy Moran is a prime example of a stickhandling goaltender, as we've discussed here before.

I'm always open to suggestions for additional "classes" of player, if you will. Next time: defencemen. (Never blueliners.)

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Assists per Goal in the 1910s and Beyond

I was recently asked about assist rates in the first years that assists were officially awarded. As you may know, the PCHA began awarding assists in 1912/13, and the NHA followed a season later. And as you might also know, for many years very few assists were awarded per goal (as compared to modern standards). How few? This few:

It's possibly interesting to note that the NHA/NHL awarded fewer assists per goal than their western counterparts most every year (though their rate is less consistent). The possibly interesting part is whether this is simply due to slightly different standards in awarding assists, or whether it has to do with the fact that the PCHA still used the rover while the NHA did not. With more players available to participate in an offensive rush, perhaps it makes sense that more assists were awarded per goal.

It may be worth noting that when the PCHA finally dropped the rover after the 1921/22 season (as they began playing an interlocking schedule with the WCHL, which did not use the seventh man), its assist rate dropped from 0.57 to 0.51, and stayed at that level or lower, whereas in the final seven seasons with the rover, the PCHA had an assist rate of between 0.57 and 0.60 six times. This suggests to me that at least part of the reason that the NHA/NHL had a lower assist per goal rate is the lack of a fourth forward.

The first really big jump in assist rates occurred in in 1929/30. In 1928/29 there were 0.60 assists per goal, but there were 0.82 the following season. This is clearly due to the change in the forward passing rules that season, which made individual rushes less important and passing plays more important. The rate went to 0.92, then 1.05 in the next two seasons, and would never drop below that level again.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Probably-Not-Meritorious Men of the 1920s

Note: This time of year could be called the Tax Season Lull around here, since what I do for a living eats seriously into the time I have available for more important pursuits, such as writing about obscure hockey players from history that no one cares about. It should pick up again in May.

To complete our look at potential Hall of Famers from the 1920s, we have the bottom tier. These men were very good players indeed, but although some of them were honoured with inducted, it's difficult to make a case for them based on the results of their careers.


RankPlayerPosGPTPAKScoreHall?
34ADAMS, Jack58492.5672.9Yes
35BAILEY, Ace77842.7770.9Yes
36BURCH, Billy59622.6770.5Yes
37MUNRO, Dunc36883.2270.5No
XTRAUB, Percy310252.2965.8No
XWILSON, Phat310672.5165.3Yes
XTRAPP, Bobby38092.4762.5No
XHIMES, Norm579432.5261.8No
XWATSON, Harry54623.2961.4Yes
XGREEN, Wilf76742.4057.0Yes
XGREEN, Red66662.2956.9No
XGOHEEN, Moose35782.5454.9Yes

At the top of the list is Jack Adams, who was a very effective centre in his prime, but didn't have enough good years to really be considered an elite player. Surely his lengthy tenure as GM and coach of the Red Wings did nothing to colour the memories of his abilities as a player.

Ace Bailey's induction is a tragic one, in the sense that he was inducted due to a tragedy. Bailey had one outstanding season in 1928/29, but other than that was good-not-great. His injury probably didn't prevent his meritoriousness, since his offensive production had already dropped considerable before Eddie Shore's hit.

Billy Burch was more famous than his ability suggests he should have been. He rep was embiggened by promoters when the Hamilton Tigers moved to New York, being called the Babe Ruth of Hockey in an effort to draw fans to the games. He was very good, but did not deserve the Hart Trophy he won in 1925, and has not real claim on a spot in the Hall of Fame. Burch's linemate Wilf Green is an even worse selection; he barely even beats out his brother Red in terms of meritoriousness, but his fame as the leader of the Hamilton players strike created name recognition that his play could not.

That leaves us with Phat Wilson, Harry Watson and Moose Goheen. These three are similar in the sense that none of them played at the highest level of the game; only Goheen even played professionally, in the minor leagues from 26/27 to 31/32. They all benefit from this fact, because they never had to play against the very best competition available. Memories of their play can therefore easily be overestimated. Although I'm missing much of Goheen's early career, the numbers we do have don't suggest Hall-of-Fame calibre. Neither do Wilson's; he was the best player in a fairly weak league (Thunder Bay senior league), which grew even weaker when the minor professional leagues become organized in 1926/27.

Harry Watson is a bit different. Although surely inducted for his performance in the 1924 Olympics, Watson was in fact an excellent player, one who could have most likely had a very good NHL career should he have chosen that route. He effectively retired from hockey at age 26, as so many amateur players did, playing only a game or two per season after that. If he had a full-length professional career, he'd be much closer to the "maybe yes" line here, although he lacked the (at least) one really big season most Hall-of-Famers have.
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