The Canadian National Past-time* – Part One

It was really only a matter of time before a Canadian skeptical blog took a look at hockey. So, before I proceed any further, allow me a brief disclaimer… this isn’t really going to be hard core skepticism. This is skepticism-lite. But you probably already guessed that. That doesn’t mean that professional sports can’t provide some fertile ground for thinking about how critical thinking is applied.

The most common aspects of sports that gets the skeptical scrutiny is the existence of the ‘hot-streak’** and the practice of good-luck rituals.

As any hockey fan – indeed fans of any team sport – knows, there is a long history of smack-talk between fans of rival teams.  A lot of the talk that gets slung back and forth is pretty silly and ultimately falls into the category of “fallacious arguments.”  I’m a sucker for it though, I can’t help but dive in with my best critical analysis flying.  It’s usually a wasted effort.  Everyone comes to the game with an a priori position as to which team is superior, even when their own team is pulling up the rear of the standings – myself included.  No Habs fan wants to hear that their argument that their team’s 24 Stanley Cups has nothing to do with whether they have a chance of winning a single game, let alone the Cup this year.

In any sport there are a huge number of factors that make any single game, let alone a season or a championship extremely difficult to predict.  That is, in fact, part of the point.  But it leads to a lot of emotionally inspired, but logically unsound thinking.  In this first post I’m going to look a bit at the failures of statistics in hockey and the mis-application of stats by fans.  In the second part I’ll look at logical fallacies in hockey debates.  (I warned you…. skepticism-lite.)

One thing sports tend to do well is their stats. There are so many stats taken that comparisons of one player or team to another in a single season; or comparing one player’s performance from year to year is a cinch.  One of the best parts about sports statistics is the absolute transparency about how the statistics are collected and reported – try and get that kind of fundamental information in a side bar of a newspaper, or in a politically driven poll.  Questions of ‘who collected these statistics?’; and ‘how did they count?’ and the implication of bias that those questions raise are not factors in sports statistics.  The methods of counting are available for all, and are applied with impartial uniformity.

While people might try to use stats in decieving (usually cherry-picked) ways to support arguments in favour of their favoured team or player, the statistics themselves are not counted with intention to mislead or emphasize.

This is not to say that there aren’t some dubiously measured statistics.  In hockey, one of the most commons team statistics leaves a huge part of the equation behind, presumably in the assumption “that it’ll all balance out in the long run.”  I speak of a team’s Power Play record (and by extension a team’s Penalty Killing Record, but I’ll just deal with the offensive version)  The stat is essentially determined by counting the number of times a team is given a one or two man advantage and how many times they score in that situation.

The problem arises in that there are varying lengths of power play, and varying number of man-power advantages a team can have.  There are 2 minute minor penalties, 4 minute double minor penalties (which counts as two penalties back to back), and 5 minute major penalties.  (There are also 10 minute penalties, but they don’t really count in this case – if you don’t know hockey, don’t worry, it’s not essential.)  To complicate matters further, the minor penalties end prematurely if a team scores, but 5 minute penalties don’t, and if your team is on the power play and you incur a penalty, you end your advantage and the power play ends.  On top of all that, you can have two players serving penalties at once, so the other team can be playing with 40% more men.  The point is, there is zero consistency to powerplays, so a single all-encompassing statistic is nearly useless.  Perhaps two additional statistics should be kept: Goals scored per minute of one man advantage, and goals scored per minute of two man advantage.  Presto – you have a much clearer picture of a team’s performance on the power play.

But statistics can fail in other ways too.  The changes in the game from season to season, let alone the ever evolving strategies that make one era nearly impossible to compare against another in anything but a subjective fashion, result in a minefield of unsupportable claims of fact:

A: Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player ever. He had 92 goals in one single season.
B: Yeah… but that was over an 80 game season. Newsy Lalonde had 16 goals in a 6 game season. Extend that pace to 80 games and he’d have 213 goals.
A: There’s no way he could keep up that pace over a season.
B: Even if he fell off his pace to average half that rate he’d still out-score Gretzky.
A: Have you seen how little the goalies wore back then? They were scared to stop the pucks!
B: They didn’t need to be scared. The sticks the players used weren’t good enough to lift the puck or shoot them with any kind of power.

…the iterations of this argument will never end.

There is no way to make reasonable comparisons of the game today to the game as it was played before the most recent lock-out (a handful of significant changes were made during the hockey-less year that resulted from that), let alone the game as it was played in the early days of the Original Six - over 90 years ago.

Case in point:  In 1988-89, Steve Yzerman scored 155 points in the season.  Since the turn of the current century, the closest any player has come to that total was still 30 points shy of that mark.  (Joe Thornton in 2005-06.)  Today 155 points would be an unimaginable number of points.  In 88-89, Yzerman came in third. THIRD!  Eclipsed because he was a contemporary of Lemieux and Gretzky.  (Indeed, only 13 times have players scored more than Yzerman’s amazing total that season, and all of them were named Mario or Wayne.)  No doubt 88-89 was an amazing year in the game of hockey, highlighted by some of the best players the game may ever see, but it was a different game.

A direct comparison of eras is quite simply a disingenuous comparison.  But it’s not like its ever going to stop hockey fans from making the effort to debate… though to be fair, that is part of the joy of the game.

- Kennedy

*Don’t feel the need to jump in all pedantic-like.  I chose my words with some care.  The National Sport is lacrosse (named so due to the way the players crucify each other – not a game for atheists apparently) and no doubt curling deserves consideration (if I can find a way to apply skepticism in any meaningful way to curling, trust me, I will – ask me sometime and I’ll be all to happy to tell you about how may Dad was one of the best curlers in Canada in his day.)

**On a side note: Radio Lab, the show which I linked to for “Hot Streak” information, is the most entertainingly listenable show on science out there. Yes, fellow Canadians Quirks & Quarks, as good as it is, is not the high water mark.

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  • Kennedy Goodkey

    Kennedy is a film-maker and skeptic. As a skeptic his primary interests are in the communication and advocacy of skeptical and science issues, specifically calling attention to the idea that the standard practice of “playing nice with others” is not always the best approach, and definitely must be explored and refined as a tactic to be leveraged to best effect.