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Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan reached down to pluck 28-year-old Ontario Hockey League executive Kyle Dubas. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan reached down to pluck 28-year-old Ontario Hockey League executive Kyle Dubas. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)

Kelly: NHL’s Analytics War no harbinger of revolution Add to ...

In order to get Canada’s culture wars planned out ahead of time, every NHL season requires a theme.

In recent years, we’ve beaten each other up over brain injuries, the role of the goon and work stoppages. The only theme we agree on is the Olympics, but we’re a silver medal away from killing each other about that.

Hockey season kicks off Wednesday, and we’ll spend most of the next eight months arguing about math. Welcome to the mainstreaming of the Analytics War.

The (very reductive) analytics explainer: If you see more of the puck, and more of the offensive zone, you will, in all likelihood, win.

This sounds pretty sensible, which may be why it upsets people so much. When it comes to the canons of the country’s best-attended church, we aren’t prepared for quiet revolutions.

This will be positioned as a fight about the future of the game. Which it isn’t.

What it is is an attempt to make hockey make sense. Which it doesn’t.

At its best, the NHL is about the physical mystique of a few men doing things the rest of us can’t. Once you begin to pick apart that process, you’re no longer a fan. You’re a foot soldier in the ice Crusades.

You are either for analytics systems such as Corsi (puck possession expressed by attempted shot differentials) and Fenwick (Corsi with tweaks), or you are stuck so far back in time you risk marrying your grandmother.

On the other side – which is currently in ragged retreat – you are either against analytics or you hate Canada and want us all to have bar codes tattooed on our necks.

L.A. Kings defenceman Drew Doughty – beloved of both camps – hit exactly the right note for an open-hearted give-and-take when he said recently, “I think that Corsi thing is a bunch of crap, personally.”

Of course he does. Doughty and every other player don’t want to think of themselves as gaming a system. As much as we want the players’ talent to be mystically endowed, they want to believe that even more.

So it’s left to their bosses to wrestle with this stuff.

In just one instance, Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan reached down to pluck 28-year-old Ontario Hockey League executive Kyle Dubas. Dubas is a wonk and a kid (because, these days, all wonks must be kids).

Did Shanahan hire Dubas because he’s had some to come-to-Jesus moment over analytics? No. He hired Dubas for the same reason every other team in the league hired someone to sift the numbers – because they want a dissenting voice at the table.

Rhetorically, hockey’s stuck in 1930s. The sport works from an evaluative framework that reads like a grade-school report card: “Jimmy shows great effort and is a good guy in the room, but needs to work on his puck-handling and toughness.”

Dubas et al. have something more compelling than instinct and clichés. They have deep numbers and a new language through which to express them. That’s Dubas’s job – binary-to-English translation.

Across the league this summer, a tipping point of club presidents and general managers became cautious converts to the idea that analytics might have value. Most of that is in public relations – “Look how New Age we are. Next, we’re all going to buy clogs” – but once that boulder starts picking up speed, only the very stubborn and the very-soon-to-be-unemployed are going to stand in its way.

It’s the intersection of Big Data and a sport that hasn’t changed in any fundamental way since the 19th century. This is Silicon Valley, the Google algorithm and Steve Jobs finally squeezing their way into the culture’s most medieval corners.

We live in a time of increasing informational confusion coupled with a great unwinding of our institutions. We used to have God and government; the cops and our teachers. We don’t trust any of those people any more.

What we’re left with is sports and a jonesing need to impose order on chaos. That’s what analytics is really about. Converting to analytics (and this is a conversion process) is pledging yourself to the idea that there’s a way to exercise control over the least controllable thing in your life – your team.

It’s an alluring prospect. If you make your living in the NHL or are one of the remora bumping along in the commentariat that trails after it, it makes sense that you want to think about this stuff an awful lot. If you’re anyone else, I’m not sure why you’d care.

These are blunt instruments. Baseball analytics present you with a scalpel. Hockey analytics hand you a hammer. The problem with hammers? Once you’ve got one in your hand, everything looks like a nail.

That isn’t to say the numbers aren’t useful. They plainly are, but they don’t change the way a fan watches the game.

Moneyball landed like a piano on the baseball community because so much of it was counterintuitive. In hockey, the data tends to confirm what an old-school savant’s eye test has always told him. Analytics slow the game down to its component parts. They’re scouting tools, not enhancements to viewing.

The NHL’s pro- and counteranalytics factions aren’t arguing over substance, or even the methodology. They’re knife-fighting about the font the results are printed in. The only difference between the sides is generational. It’s about sons and fathers – hence the ferocity.

My only fear in all this is that Corsi is the Jaws of hockey, the beginning of the numbers cult. Before Corsi, we talked about the sport as cinema. After Corsi, we’ll talk about the box-office take.

Years from now, the sides will have coalesced into one hive mind. Some other schismatic will break away from received wisdom, and we’ll start this process again.

In between, we’ll be left with the game – unexplained and, on an intrinsic level, unexplainable. Occasionally, what happens out there raises itself up to the level of magic. Both warring parties would agree on this much at least: You cannot fit that magic on a spreadsheet.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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