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Sports

Revenge of the Nerds: How Advanced Stats Are Breaking Hockey's Tough Guy Culture

Following a hiring binge of analytics-minded staff in the NHL, hockey's culture of violent masculinity might be on the verge of a game-changing shift.

by Joshua Kloke
Oct 1 2014, 11:55am

Photo by Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

When Toronto native David Clarkson signed a 7 year, $36 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013, the buzzwords came quick and often. "Grit," "heart," and "intangibles" were all used to justify handing out one of the largest Leafs contracts ever to a player who only once previously had broken the 40-point mark.

Clarkson started his tenure with the Leafs by illegally jumping on the ice to fight Buffalo Sabres goon John Scott. He was coming to the aide of star sniper Phil Kessel, who had been goaded by Scott. The fight, in a meaningless preseason game, set the table for Clarkson. He scored only five goals last season—that's a little over $1 million per goal.

Some people saw this coming. From the day of Clarkson's signing, many of the Leafs' most ardent and thoughtful supporters were voicing concern because Clarkson doesn't make the grade when measured against advanced statistics. Increasingly, hockey fans and NHL front offices are grading players using analytics that go beyond goals and assists, and focus on more nuanced statistics such as puck possession and shot quality.

Fans like Julian Sanchez, the Editor-in-Chief of the Leafs SB Nation blog Pension Plan Puppets, saw a different side of Clarkson's game that the Leafs were not acknowledging.

"Maybe he scores 30 goals but is that the same as Kessel scoring 37?" asks Sanchez. "[Using analytics] is about trying to get some underlying information about whether something can be repeated." An opportunity that Sanchez and many other Leafs fans believe the organization had failed to seize on.

Then, this summer, everything changed. The New Jersey Devils hired former poker player and blogger Sunny Mehta as their Director of Analytics. The Edmonton Oilers hired outspoken lawyer and analytics blogger Tyler Dellow to consult with Hockey Operations. And the Maple Leafs made the biggest splash of them all, hiring 28-year-old analytics proponent Kyle Dubas as their new Assistant General Manager. This came immediately after the Leafs fired executives Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin, both former players.

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Advanced stats, as they are often referred to, aren't actually all that advanced. One hockey blogger told me that a few years ago these stats were mostly compiled by a small number of enthusiasts using primitive data. Still, unlike traditional stats such as goals and assists, advanced stats can go well beyond the traditional vagaries that writers lauded in Clarkson. Concepts like "intangibles" and "grit" simply don't hold up on a spreadsheet.

Further, the recent hirings of analytics-minded front office staff has set into motion events that could alter the way NHL teams are structured. They could also be another step toward phasing out a facet of the game that many fans still think of as vital: fighting.

Fighting has long been a part of the NHL, but gained notoriety during the 1970s with the Philadelphia Flyers, a team affectionately coined the Broad Street Bullies. A nickname the team earned by beating the piss out of their opponents en route to two Stanley Cups in the 70s. Left in their wake was a rough and tumble style of hockey that regarded fighting skill as a valuable asset in a player. Fighting also added entertainment value to hockey, so much so that it became a defining aspect of the sport. With fighting entrenched in hockey's culture, teams felt compelled to ice players with hands built more for throwdowns than scoring.

Photo by Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

Fast forward to the upcoming 2014-15 season and analytics use has cast a harsh spotlight on fighting's ineffectiveness at helping teams win. TSN analytics specialist Travis Yost discredited the long-standing belief that winning a fight sways the momentum in a team's favor in a 2013 NHL Numbers post and seems perplexed that the argument isn't over yet.

"It's common sense," he says. "We know the contributions they're making in the win-loss column are non-existent. There's more ice time to go around and you can't risk playing an enforcer. That's going to be such a drag on the rest of your team."

The 2013-14 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings offer the most immediate evidence. The Kings were a big, physical hockey team who could dominate and grind down opponents, but they also iced four skilled lines and finished tied for twenty-first in the league in fighting majors—the Maple Leafs finished first.

But not everyone in hockey is listening.

Thanks in no small part to hockey's relatively niche fanbase in the United States, there remain traditionalists loyal to fighting. Often labeled an "Old Boy's Club," these executives and commentators overlook the perils of fighting and, not coincidentally, many are wary of how analytics could influence the game.

"When you have a number of young players and you'd rather keep them on the ice than injured you have to have someone out there to settle things down," says Edmonton Sun reporter Derek Van Diest, who covers the NHL's young and lowly Oilers. The Oilers feature talented forwards on offense as well as one of the league's most feared fighters: 6'4", 240 lb. Luke Gazdic.

Gazdic, after a season with only four points, atrocious puck possession statistics, and 15 fighting majors, inked a new contract with the Oilers. This is the same Oilers team that finished twenty-fourth in the league in goals scored in 2013-14. Van Diest, who famously went on an anti-stats rant early this year, is undeterred by the signing.

"You're not going to get a lot of offensive production from him but there's other subtleties in his game that he brings," he says, in an attempt to highlight the nuances of beating another human being to a pulp.

"Their motivation for bringing in a guy like Luke Gazdic is like when the Minnesota Wild signed Derek Boogaard," he continues. "Boogaard hit Ales Hemsky and put him out for two months. [The Oilers] didn't have anyone to respond to that."

Photo by Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

Not to diminish the hit and subsequent injury to Hemsky's shoulder, but a career spent fighting in the NHL took a far worse toll on Boogaard, who died at 28 from an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. He was also suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a fate common to enforcers. Within months of Boogaard's death, two of his tough guy kin—27-year-old Rick Rypien and 35-year-old Wade Belak—committed suicide. Both were known to be suffering from depression, a common symptom of CTE.

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If this summer's analytics staff hirings will be looked upon in the future as a watershed moment in the history of the game, the league should consider itself lucky. Major League Baseball suffered a public relations black eye following the revelations of the so-called Steroid Era. The National Football League is barely keeping its head above water over off-field player conduct and its handling of brain trauma concerns. Yet the NHL's problems are still simmering below the surface.

By embracing analytics, the NHL has the opportunity to follow a progressive trend and, ultimately, get off scot-free despite its role in creating the issue. If teams follow the numbers, fighting will phase itself out of the game organically: more speed, more skills, less bullshit, and, most importantly, less risk of player deaths.

As for players like Clarkson, they will have to adapt and become something more than single skill specialists. As the success of franchises like the Blackhawks and Kings with skilled heavy-hitters demonstrates, teams are starting to demand players who can do more than punch opponents in the face.

"You have to hold athletes accountable," says noted sports psychologist Dr. Saul Miller, who has worked with NHL teams before and authored Hockey Tough: A Winning Mental Game.

"You've got to have tough guys in this game," he says. "But that element has to be dynamic. There's got to be more than this goliath sent out there to make a statement."

This means that many single-skill fighters could soon see their jobs disappear, even if they aren't fully caught up on the analytics revolution.

"(Most players) don't know anything about it," says 18-year NHL veteran and TSN NHL analyst, Ray Ferraro. Known for his chippy style of play, Ferraro racked up 1,288 penalty minutes in 1,258 games.

"I'm sure if you showed them the graphs with all the numbers on them it'd be like their Grade 11 Physics class that none of us understood. You can't make yourself into something you're not."

However, as contracts like the one Toronto gave Clarkson begin to feel more and more out of place, the last vestiges of enforcer culture will begin to fall away. The constructed role of masculinity in hockey will be further challenged by analytics. Or, ironically, it will be incorporated into the fluid play that critics have said make hockey impossible to measure. 

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