Hockey and the Introduction of Analytics

For the longest time, sports have been thought of as a way to get away from work and simply enjoy the simplicity of sports as a whole, whether that be through the spectator role or as a player.  Either way, sports have generally been seen as a way to get away from things like mathematics and anything else that would be described as work.  In recent years, however, professional sports have become increasingly popular, drawing in millions of spectators.  The world of sports is no longer solely about play, but also about the business of the sport and the profits associated with a team’s image.  With the immense popularity in professional sports, many people are now questioning whether or not the money and business associated with teams is taking the play out sports.

In the essay “The Dynamics of Modern Sport” (in the anthology Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process, Blackwell, 1986) by Eric Dunning, Dunning discusses how professional sports have lost the “play” aspect due to the increased number of spectators.  Dunning also claims that the increased seriousness of professional sports has turned the concept of ‘play’ into work.  With professional athletes getting paid, they are essentially working for their owners.  While these athletes are ‘working,’ they are still enjoying the games, so I don’t believe the play factor is entirely gone.

Scoring chart for Washington Capital’s winger Alex Ovechkin. Many analysts look at stats like this to figure out where players score from most.

With the amount of money to be made off of winning teams, owners and managers are willing to do anything to make their teams better and ensure that they have a winning team.  Owners have used money, draft systems, and immense training in order to create teams that can win championships, as well as bring in large.  One of the most recent techniques for finding new ways to win is the use analytics.  Hockey in particular has been receiving lots of criticism as to whether or not advanced statistics should be used within the National Hockey League.  For the longest time, hockey experts have thought that good hockey players are made through dedication and the gift of ‘hockey sense.’  Some of these experts are claiming that complex analytics will take away from the true meaning and value of hockey, and that it may be taking out the fun and excitement.  This does not differ much from Dunning’s claims on play and how seriousness has affected the fun and play in sports.

Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown hoists the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years on 6/13/2014.

While hockey is seeing big changes with the introduction of complex analytics, I would argue that the passion and excitement that the players have has not changed.  “Hockey is not baseball,” says Stephen Whyno in the Cambridge Times article Hockey Analytics is Still Evolving (Whyno).  Whyno quotes Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney saying, “The game is more impulsive, more spontaneous, more dynamic, more inventive, more creative, more imaginative, faster” (Whyno).  What he means is that hockey is a very complex and fast-moving sport, which is much harder to evaluate than baseball, which has already been utilizing advanced statistics for the past ten years.  Despite all of this, analysts are still finding ways to evaluate the sport of hockey in hopes of finding new ways to draw out plays based on what the statistics say.  By looking at different analytics described on the Hockey Analytics website, coaches and players can evaluate how well players do in specific scenarios (Hockey Analytics).  Coaches can use advanced stats such as Corsi and Fenwick to gain information on zone entry data and how that all leads to scoring goals (Hockey Analytics).  The debate is on how this will affect the game of hockey.

NY Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist lies devastated while the LA Kings celebrate after championship winning goal.

Many analysts believe it can change the way the game is coached and eventually how hockey players think and play.  The video provided at the end of the article shows how analytics has affected hockey so far and how it measures so many different things.  While analytics is relatively new to hockey, it has been introduced to a few teams already and shown some great success.  The Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings are the last two teams to win the Stanley Cup, and both happen to be teams that have already begun using advanced statistics (Whyno).  Both teams have used analytics and shown great success.  So far, the players on these teams continue to show great passion and excitement for the game of hockey, despite the use of statistics to decide how they play.  With the recent success of these teams, I truly don’t belief that the increasing use of analytics will affect the ‘play’ factor in hockey.  With or without analytics, players seem to really care about the game and are continuing to show passion and dedication towards the game of hockey.  There are only two things players care about: having fun and winning, and analytics and professionalism certainly isn’t going to change that.

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4 thoughts on “Hockey and the Introduction of Analytics

  1. I agree with your analysis of this wonderful sport. Although the business side of hockey has grown immensely over the past 10-15 years, there is still so much heart involved for both the players and the spectators. Hockey has seen an increase in speed and skill, which can be attributed to the removal of the red line. With this increase in skill, the whole dynamic of the sport has changed. The role of the “enforcer” has become less important, because not only do all players have to possess enough talent to keep up with the other players, but they also need to be physical enough to defend themselves in certain situations. I believe ‘hockey sense’ still exists within the most cherished players in the league, although the use of analytics could give some teams the extra push when fatigue grows as the season goes on.

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    • I agree with you completely. I think hockey has grown immensely over the past ten years and become increasingly popular. My point here was that even though business in hockey has grown and the sport is changing, the passion and emotion that players feel has not diminished at all.

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  2. I also agree with you in the sense that hockey has grown over the last decade. There are definitely more statistics that coaches can use to put the best team on the ice. However, I think that the business side of hockey has definitely taking some fun out of the game for the players. In the 2012-2013 season there was an NHL lockout that cancelled almost half the season. If money were of no issue, than there would never be a strike. I also think that the role of an “enforcer” is still a huge part of hockey. Yes they must be better at skating, but hockey fights and big hits are things that give your team momentum just as much as a goal or a save does.

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  3. I definitely agree that the NHL, like all other professional sports. Has become very business oriented. Though, I do not think that the use of analytics really takes away from the game and adds on to a more business side. Using analytics is really just another form of strategizing that teams can use to better themselves. This can be very similar to how coaches look at game tape or really just evaluate the performance of their players to make a strategy. While I would not exactly call analytics a fun part of the sport, the overall improvement that can come from looking at things such as this can lead to a feeling of happiness or even utopia. So in general I would say that analytics do not necessarily add more to how business-heavy professional sports can be, but it is another form of strategizing to try to get that feeling of joy.

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