Why is hockey analysis almost always so lame? Part 1

Posted on May 4, 2010

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My friend Andrew Potter (author of the sizzling new book The Authenticity Hoaxtweeted a link on Friday [when I began writing this post] to a compelling contrast between the two biggest stars in the world of ice hockey, the Russian Alexander Ovechkin and the Canadian Sydney Crosby. The column in question was by Steve Simmons, who has covered hockey for 30 years, writes for the Toronto Sun and is widely syndicated in Canada. There was kind of a pretext for the column, since both players are nominated for the Hart Trophy (for the NHL’s MVP). But it also gives off a strong whiff of, as Potter’s tweet puts it, “homer-ism of the worst kind.”

You see, although Ovechkin generally appears statistically stronger (e.g., the same number of points in 10 fewer games this season — fewer in part because of suspensions for goonish behavior on the ice), Simmons makes a strong case for Crosby’s superiority. It looks to Potter like Simmons can’t help favoring his fellow Canadian.

Simmons argument leans heavily on how the two have performed in the clutch — the Olympics and the playoffs (never mind that neither competition is relevant for the Hart Trophy):

Crosby is still alive in the playoffs. Ovechkin, again, has been prematurely eliminated. Crosby is coming off an Olympic Gamesin which he celebrated gold. He didn’t dominate, but he found a way to score the goal that mattered most. Ovechkin’s Olympic highlights included a dismal loss to Team Canada, the pushing of a cameraman, his lack of accessibility, and maybe worse — as now witnessed in both Washington and while playing for Russia, his inability to lead when it matters most.

And of course there is the fact that Crosby’s team are the current holder’s of the Stanley Cup, thanks in no small way to the jawdropping play of Ovechkin’scountryman, Evgeni Malkin, who was the MVP of the last year’s playoffs.

In a way, the argument is familiar to any viewer of sports TV in America. It goes something like this:

Kornheiser: What do you mean Y is better than X?! Let me ask you one question. How many rings has Y got?

Wilbon: None.

Kornheiser: And how many has X got?

Wilbon: One, but…

Kornheiser: UH-UH-UH-Uh-uh-uh!! Wait ’til Y gets a ring, then we can talk.

This argument is always mostly ridiculous in the context of team sports. Peyton Manning is a truly great quarterback; but he only has a ring because his defense made up for his mediocre playoff performance that year. But it still often seems to make sense. At the very least, the “legacy stock” of the leaders of championship teams almost always increases in value; and the great ones who never win — the Dan Marinos and Charles Barkleys – always look like they never quite lived up to their potential.

I’ve blogged already, in the context of football and basketball, of the odd ways we cope with the random factors behind sporting results. Ignoring luck, if you will, is clearly playing a big role in this analysis of Simmons’s argument for Crosby over Ovie. We know that last year’s Stanley Cup by Crosby’s Penguins, Canada’s Olympic overtime win, and Ovechkin’s Caps’ early exit from the playoffs could all easily have gone the other way, but for a lucky or unlucky bounce here or there.

And yet, one suspects the certainty that Simmons, and many other North American hockey fans, feel about Crosby’s superiority would be barely diminished even if he lacked these rings and trophies. These victories, however, allow us to strengthen a narrative that we already want to tell. Namely that a player like Crosby has “moral qualities” that make him great; and in this case, Ovie has “moral defects” that diminish his greatness.

Ovie is the spoiled-brat, nouveau riche Russian, on and off the ice. He’s flashy, narcissistic, and relies on inherited talent more than hard work. And Crosby is the exemplar of the time-honored New World success story: he works hard, makes his teammates better, gives them the credit, and digs deep when things don’t come easy.

These stark distinctions are often drawn between key players in sports. There are different explanations each time; they are not always rooted in “identity” considerations as they seem to be here (i.e., favoring one of our own). But once they set in, like stereotypes, they are hard to shake. Once we have the narrative about the underlying character of an athlete (or politician, celebrity, etc), we can build a highlight reel to reinforce it. If the narrative went the other way (say, in the case of Crosby and Ovie) do you doubt that we could construct a highlight reel that could prove the reverse (full of clips of Crosby pouting, slacking off, diving, and playing chippy; while Ovie, to use the words Simmons used for Crosby, is “not just scoring, not just setting plays up, but hitting people, physically dominating, showing his teammates the way”)?

So we have a tendency to underplay the role of randomness and luck in understanding sporting victories, and we have a tendency to overestimate the role of “moral qualities/defects” in explaining players’ success/failure. Butwhenever these two kinds of cognitive bias come together — when our moral heroes win and villains fail — the resulting narrative is potent indeed. I suspect that almost no Canadian hockey fan could read that Simmons column without instinctively nodding in agreement.

But so far I haven’t said anything that quite fits with the title of this post: why is hockey analysis almost always so lame? Everything I’ve said about this Crosby/Ovie debates happens in every sport, and in other contested parts of life as well. Most of the answer specific to hockey will have to be put off for future posts. But the fact is, we get less explanation of strategy and execution in hockey than we do in any other major sport, with the possible exception of soccer. Because there is almost no attempt by analysts in the booth, or in the press, to really break down plays, there is a much stronger tendency to explain results through the “moral qualities” of the players, especially the key players. It’s the “when-the-going-gets-tough-the-tough-get-going” analysis. The “the-great-ones-find-a-way-to-win” explanation. And it can be read into just about any result by a blind man.

It shouldn’t be surprising that soccer and hockey are the worst explained and analyzed major team sports. Hockey and soccer are “flow” sports, where there is a lot of neutral-zone play in which neither team is clearly on offense or defense, and where the transitions to more offensive or defensive postures by teams are uneven and in flux. At the other end of the spectrum are pure “taking-turns” sports, like baseball and American football, where play stops and you actually switch players and units for turns at offense and defense. (Somewhere in between is basketball.) The “taking-turns” sports also have a lot more set-plays that are easier to break down.

I’ll work on the significance of this spectrum in the future, especially to vent my frustrations with the uninformative and uninspired ways hockey and World Cup soccer are covered on TV (where broadcasting has barely changed in my viewing lifetime: which began with the dawn of instant replay and color TV).

Somewhere between the time I began writing this post last Friday, and now, Andrew Potter expanded his original tweet (and our e-mail exchange) on his own blog. He summarizes, better than I have, the heart of the problem with substituting moral determination for real explanation and an appreciation of luck:

Winners and losers, good and evil, these tropes are as irresistable in sports as they are in life. But success in both is as much a matter of lucky choices and chance bounces as it is about talent, hard work, and good behaviour. Perhaps the reason we like these narratives so much is that the alternative explanation is too uncomfortable to face.

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