The Canadian National Past-time – Part Two

And thus, onwards on my ongoing bid to simultaneously post the first skeptical article on hockey; write Skeptic North’s first two-part article; and do the most tenuously related article on the blog ever (or at least so far). As mentioned before, this is as much about demonstrating the flexing of skeptical thought against things other than the standard science fare.

Diving on in. As I mentioned in the first half, there is a lot of poorly reasoned arguing that occurs between fans of different teams in any sport. For the most part it’s good natured teasing, but it can get quite serious. There can also be a lot of bickering back and forth between fans of the same team.

As a born and bred BC boy, the Vancouver Canucks are my team. My first birthday was their first game. I’m in this one for life. Sometimes it has hurt to be a fan, and sometimes it’s been glorious – bit that’s why the sport is exciting.

A bit of framing:

For the most part the last few years have been pretty exciting… so long as you aren’t of the opinion that anything short of winning the Stanley Cup is a failure. But the early part of this season was a disaster… not the disaster that Toronto has been experiencing, but getting three points (out of a possible twelve) in the first six games is not an auspicious start, and the bandwagon jumpers were abandoning ship like rats.

It was merely six games, and not all of them had been lost. It was early in the season and the team had performed specatularly in the pre-season. There was very little reason to think that the team was a write off yet. In fact, it would only take a handful of games to turn things around and have a winning record*.

I found myself in a few arguments on Facebook with friends and fans for whom the sky was falling and it was time to trade our marquee goal tender. I have lived by life hearing arguments like these applied to the Canucks’ fortunes. I imagine that variations of them are rampant in any major sports market and that they’ll serve some universality.

Let’s take a look at some of the actual arguments I fielded (to bring in a metaphor from another sport). Indeed, it was the following excercise in skepticism in an unconventional place that I’ve been working towards through both parts of this article.

These are quotes from various people but let’s just call them one fictional person I’ll call “Trevor.”

I pointed out how simple a turn around in our fortunes were, and Trevor fired back with:

Yeah, that might be this year. But how about 15 years below five hundred, losing the finals by one goal, signing Messier instead of Sakic, giving away Cam Neely, all the botched first round draft picks, all the misfortune since we were born….do you all remember that? We will see another first round exit.

This is one big non-sequitur. Absolutely none of this has a thing to with what the team can do this season. Most of those points don’t have anything to do with any of the players, the coaching staff, the current owners, or even the arena they’ve called home for 13 years now.

Even so they’re bad arguments.

“Fifteen years below .500″?  So in 15 out of 39 years in the league, the team has won less than half their games? Well, guess what? Until the last few years of the potential “3-point games” – only half the teams could be over .500. 15 out of 39 is actually a success! Heck, it used to be mathematically possible to be below .500 and still make the playoffs. Indeed, the Canucks did so, and made it all the way to the final round in ’82. That is a success.

Pretty much the same argument applies, but magnified for “losing the finals by one goal.” Only two teams make it to the finals in a year, let alone going a full seven games and losing by the difference of a goal. Yes, that was heartbreaking and I’ll never forgive Nathan Lafayette for hitting the crossbar… but c’mon – that was a success!

“Signing Messier instead of Sakic.” Well, yeah those weren’t the best years for the Canucks, it’s true. But I think this is a false choice. To quote Leo McGarry, “I don’t accept your premise.” I don’t think Joe Sakic – a guy who played for one team his entire career – was ever really going to sign with Vancouver.

“Giving Cam Neely away.” Here we see a prime example of cherry-picking. Yeah, that was a crappy trade. But on the otherside of the coin, you have the Naslund/Stojanov trade – which arguably was a bigger success than the Neely trade was a disaster.

“Botched first round draft picks.” Again, cherry-picking – conveniently forgetting that in the Pavel Bure was a 6th round pick, who turned around and won the Calder Trophy for Best Rookiee. Or, the ultimate coup of getting both Sedin twins as back to back picks in the first round. This example also utterly fails to recognize the failure other teams have in capitalizing in the first round, it’s hardly the sole domain on the Canucks.

Trevor, it appears, is immune to rational refutation of his arguments and continues:

That’s weak….the only logical forcast to the future is the events of the past. The past don’t lie. The only difference with the Canucks now is expectations are higher. Nobody remembers 2nd place….or the regular season. The only thing that matters is the Cup.

The only logical forecast… is the past? What? Sure the consistency of the past is a good forecast for certain things. Things with few variables, or variables that have a minute overall effect. Classic example – the sun, I forecast will rise tomorrow in the East tomorrow at about five minutes to eight, local time. I’d put money on it. But when there are complex variables and/or a volatile system where slight variations can cause hugely different results, the past tells you very little. In a coin flip, getting heads or tails a half-dozen times in a row does not mean that you can expect to get it a seventh. Nor does it mean you can expect that pattern to change on the seventh flip. The chances are still 50/50, and good luck trying to effectively measure the variables to help predict how it will land. How much spin your thumb exerts and how much kinetic energy your arm adds to the coin’s lift; differences in height between where you launch the coin and also where you catch it, among other smaller variables make for a pretty much impossible equation.

Case in point: The Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006. The next season the came in eleventh in the Eastern Conference and missed the playoffs. If the past can’t help predict that, then how are the effects of the 1990s, let alone further back, going to help predict a team’s results today?

Yes, there are trends. The Red Wings have been formidable since the mid 90s. But frankly, they sucked for a long time before that, dating back to the pre-expansion era – a trend in it’s own right. And in the early 50s they were the team to beat – another trend. But don’t let that fool you. The only place those types of trends are useful in determining a team’s success is in the past, not the future.

As to Trevor’s final argument – “Nobody remembers 2nd place….or the regular season. The only thing that matters is the Cup.” Well, there is little doubt that people put more emphasis on the Cup, but the entire statement is such a gross exaggeration that it can’t be taken seriously at all. He himself remembers second place: “losing the finals by one goal.” And if you haven’t guessed, I’m a pretty rabid hockey fan – I remember an awful lot of the regular season. Each of those are extremely small sample sizes, I admit. But the reality is that if the only thing that mattered was the Cup, then GM Place wouldn’t be sold out every single game. Indeed, they wouldn’t even bother with the regular season. Fans care. Heck, if they didn’t care I would have never got into this stupid argument.

And on that note, I promise I’ll never write about hockey and skepticism here again. I figured that being a Canadian blog, someone had to do it, and I knew I’d have fun trying. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll provide a window into critical thinking for someone who never knew it was an option.

- Kennedy

*For the record, as of this writing, a mere five games later, the Canucks have a winning record – one point above .500.  Nyah.  Nyah.

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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.