It’s been a pretty good month for hockey birthdays.
We have Wayne Gretzky turning the magical 50 today; the Great One himself was in New York earlier this month to celeberate Mark Messier’s 50th. Over in Europe Dominik Hasek; perhaps the best goalie of his era, was making news because he was still kicking out pucks even as he gets ready to celebrated his 46th birthday on January 29th.
Those of you who have kids in minor hockey – or nearly any organized sport – may have found yourself nodding and thinking: No wonder they're three of the best hockey players of all time; tThey’re January kids!
It was only a few years ago that Malcolm Gladwell put into stone an observation made by hockey parents every time little Johnny November gets knocked off the puck by bruising Owen January: there’s an advantage to being born earlier in the year that shows up as soon as hockey starts and never really goes away.
Would Gretzky be Gretzky if he was born October 26th instead of January 26th?
Maybe not, says Gladwell:
After all, it’s an “an iron law of Canadian hockey: in any elite group of hockey players – the very best of the best – 40 per cent of the players will have been born between January and March.” Those born in the last quarter of the year might as well just “give up on hockey.”
As Frances Woolley wrote in the Globe’s Economic Lab recently, in the NHL at least, birthdays don’t necessarily mean destiny: Mario Lemieux was born on Oct. 5, Eric Staal on Oct. 29.
In fact, of the 35 skaters slated to take part in the NHL all-star game this weekend, only six were born in the first quarter of the year.
And being born in January couldn't have been much of an advantage for Gretzky, who was small for his age, in relative terms, and played above his age group all the way up in minor hockey until turning professional at age 17; his size was always the primary knock against him.
Gladwell based his observation on the over-representation of "early monthers" in major junior hockey; but he may have cut his observations too short.
A recent article by Benjamin Gibbs, Mikaela Dufur, Shawn Meiners and David Jeter of Brigham Young University suggests the idea that the NHL's population reflects a structuraly bias based on age in minor hockey doesn't hold up very well.
They studied the birth dates of the 1,177 Canadian-born players who competed in the NHL between 2000 and 2010 and found twenty-nine per cent were born in the first quarter of the year.
Woolley observes that: If 40 per cent of Major Junior players are born in the first quarter, but only about 30 per cent of Canadian-born NHLers are, then January-born major junior players must, on average, have a lower chance of making into the NHL than December-born players. They are the ones who lose out from the current system – risking injury and concussion for a small chance of a big pay-off.
The explanation is that those that are truly elite emerge over time and shake off the effects of the age bias that may have been a factor earlier in minor hockey.
A perfect example, according to the study, in the 2010 Canadian Olympic team, where more players – 17 per cent – were born in the last quarter of the year than were born in the first quarter, which yielded only 13 per cent of the roster.
This is in contrast to the Canadian teams before NHL players were allowed to compete – in 1994 more than half the Olympic roster was made up of “early mothers.”
It’s an open question as to whether or not the real damage to hockey’s age/size bias stems from the unknown number of potential Gretzkys or Messiers or Hasek’s who never start down that path because they’ve had a late year birthday and quit or got cut before their talents could flourish --I'd argue the cost and logistics of elite hockey training are a much bigger barrier for most.
But it does appear that Gretzky and his fellow January legends would have had a good chance to make their presence felt regardless of when their birthdays might have fallen; if only because their gifts were so rare they shone through any bias.