Why is hockey analysis always so lame? Part 3: It’s hard

Posted on May 10, 2010


I’m obviously making this up as I go along; but if you’ve read Why is hockey analysis (almost) always so lame? Part 1 and Part 2, thanks for bearing with me. So far I have talked mostly about the ways in which hockey analysis (on TV, in the daily press) is so frustratingly superficial. I have only hinted at why this happens. Here is my best guess.

[Note: this third-of-three-posts on this topic was not supposed to be long, but it is.]

There seem to be three families of explanations for the lameness of hockey analysis, and they generally reinforce each other.

1. The conservative culture of hockey broadcasting and print journalism in North America.

I won’t dwell on this, because it was the focus of Part 2. The coverage of hockey has barely evolved since the 1960s, even as the game has grown significantly more sophisticated. I would be curious to know how many hours of game film/tape the officials and players of an NHL team watched in a typical week during a typical season in each of the past 4 decades. My guess is that it has steadily increased from almost 0 to dozens of hours for the coaching staff and a few hours for players. But whatever it is that they are talking about while watching that footage, we are not hearing much of it in the on-air analysis.

Again, the most dramatic contrast in broadcasting and reporting styles comes from the NFL, where several shows a week will break down the very same game footage the coaches use, and introduce us to much of the conceptual and strategic vocabulary.

The networks have clearly decided that we, the hockey viewers, are simply not interested in understanding much beyond an appreciation for the incredible talents — or costly mental lapses — of individual players and how they contributed to important plays. Why? I can only speculate. Do the Canadian broadcasters have too much of a captive market, where they rarely go head-to-head with games at the same time? Do they have good evidence that football and baseball fans like sophisticated explanations of the cat-and-mouse strategies, but that hockey fans just like watching action and admiring individual guts and finesse? Is hockey broadcasting in the US too focused on individual home markets: where fans have a comfy partisan interest that makes them tune in to watch their home team, and where broadcasters generally have a conflict of interest that strongly discourages them from criticizing the home team?

In any case, as long as the networks abdicate any responsibility to educate the viewing public on the deeper points of the game, it will be difficult even to identify a market of viewers who crave a presentation of the game that goes beyond what it offers now: namely, at its best, an incredibly exciting, adrenalin-fueled, unpredictable, drama. The problem is, this drama will only be there for people who are already hooked, and in particular, who care about a team enough to strap themselves in for the thrilling edge-of-the-couch ride where the fate of their heroes is often uncertain and in jeopardy until the final horn. The currently broadcasting formula does little to attract new fans.

It is no secret that the NHL’s popularity has been in decline, especially in the US, for more than two decades. It remains one of the “Big 4” major-league sports only for sportscasters old enough to remember when it was actually bigger than basketball in its major markets. Perhaps the league and its broadcasters should consider treating its viewers, and potential viewers, with a little more respect.

But there are other challenges.

2. It is much harder to see and explain strategic rationality in “flow” sports than it is in “taking-turns” and “set-piece” sports.

I discussed this distinction in “Part 1,” and won’t repeat all of that. Roughly speaking, it is a lot easier to show, name, describe, and explain a brief set-piece play in say baseball or football. The play itself takes only a few seconds in real time; and it begins in a familiar way with the players and teams facing each other in clear offensive and defensive roles. We can develop a rich vocabulary for subtle variation in the formation or movement of the players (on in, say, the types of pitch the pitcher should throw or did throw, and exactly how well he executed it). These set pieces also make it easier to explain the strategic reasoning and execution of the two sides (I’ve talked about that in the context of football and curling before). That is, we see how teams are trying to succeed on offense or defense knowing full well that the other team is trying to predict and counter what they will do. And this typically requires disguising your intentions, or even acting in ways that will make the opposing team believe you are running a different play (as, e.g., when a quarterback fakes a hand-off in a play-action play in order to freeze linebacker for a split second, and then pump-fakes to a receiver he is not throwing to in order to freeze a safety for a split second).

Now how often, I ask you, do we hear about what hockey players and teams do to deceive the opponents about their true intentions? It obviously happens, but we are so far from a strategic narrative for understanding hockey team-play that this just never comes up.

But back to the contrast between “flow sports” and “taking-turns” sports. It is harder to recognize even set-plays in the former, because everything is, well, flowing. But these rehearsed plays obviously there: what do we think teams are practicing all week? It is especially hard to recognize these things when we have so little vocabulary to name them (“the trap,” “the cycle,” “the two-man forecheck,” “the screen/deflection,” … but how many others?). Naming and being able to “see” go hand-in-hand. People with a rich vocabulary for ballet will also be able to see many-fold more things happening on stage than the novice, who merely sees people dancing in a graceful confusion. People who understand some musical theory will hear more of what is going on in a musical performance. But without the vocabulary, it is hard to get this virtuous circle of understanding in motion. I am struck, for example, by how little vocabulary we have even for the most obvious set-plays in hockey, like offensive and defensive tactics on face-offs or power plays.

And without vocabulary to help us distinguish different kinds of formations and individual decisions, it will be difficult to develop a truly useful set of statistics and data generally. Beginning with Bill James, baseball “outsiders” were able to understand key strategic aspects of the game better than many insiders, in part because there is such a trove of statistical evidence available, even if much of it wasn’t being exploited. But sports like hockey, basketball, and soccer are badly served by their traditional statistics, which are mostly individual offensive production, and brute aggregate team data (e.g. on powerplay efficiency but not, say, on the effectiveness of different kinds of formations on the powerplay). There has been increasing discontent in recent years about how misleading the most widely discussed basketball statistics are (especially points, assists, and rebounds). See, e.g., Michael Lewis’s case for Shane Battier, the “no-stats all-star,” or Bill Simmons’ revelation of the “secret” of basketball (roughly, it’s the teamwork, stupid). Hockey fans should be outraged for roughly the same reasons.

It is more difficult for broadcasters to explain and illustrate the planning underlying the random-looking plays in flow sports like hockey and soccer, but it is surely not impossible. It would help if they would contrast two different ways of doing the same kind of play (say, a powerplay or faceoff) with split-screen video sequences. And these things are shown occasionally. But even when teams make big and successful adjustments in a playoff series from one game to the next, we are still generally offered little more than a lame psychological explanation of how the players became more motivated to dig deeper, etc.

3. Cognitive bias meets convenient narrative.

When we have a relatively foggy understanding of what’s happening in a complex social situation — like a hockey game — we become more susceptible to what psychologists call “cognitive biases.” I discussed these previously in the context of football prognostication, here and here. Cognitive biases are specific — and individually named — tendencies we all have to jump to erroneous conclusions that defy a careful analysis of the actual evidence. In sports these play a big role in both our explanations of past games and our predictions for future games.

Because there is so much randomness and apparent confusion in hockey, and because so much happens off camera, and because we understand relatively little about what teams are actually trying to do, we are especially susceptible to the use of simple framing devices and narratives that seem to instantly make sense of it all. As noted in “Part 1,” we tend to over-emphasize the role of certain “moral” powers of heroes and villains. We expect them to “put the team on their shoulders.” And when their teams are successful, even when the hero himself was not overly involved, we conclude that “the great ones find a way to win.” On other occasions, the narrative of teamwork and chemistry is the one that seems to fit best, but again this is typically a way of attributing a result to the collective virtue of a team. “They wanted it more; they worked just a little bit harder; they left it all on the rink…” (These look like examples of “confirmation bias,” “framing effects,” or “fundamental attribution errors.”)

Or maybe one of their coaches found a systematic weakness in the other team’s strategy that could be ruthlessly exploited, and that they got both of their goals in a 2-1 victory that way…

Two quick upshots of these long discussions/rants:

1. Should we not presume that there is, in some quasi-aesthetic sense, a “higher” pleasure in sports spectatorship that is based on a “truer” understanding of what is actually happening? That a “true” fan will not settle merely for the excitement and drama of seeing an uncertain situation resolved (i.e. by the final buzzer), but will want to understand as much as possible why the result happened, or what the losing team ought to have done to get a better result?

2. When we see how easily we fall back unconsciously on cognitive biases and simplifying moralist narratives to understand sporting results should this not make us all the more nervous about how we quickly we adopt explanations of more “important” things in life — things about which we are surely much more ignorant (like Congress or Wall Street or the Taliban or the what’s going on in the minds of our own pets)?