“Anyone who believes the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup because the club hierarchy believes in advanced statistics is an idiot.”
—Steve Simmons, Sun Media
“It’s one part of the puzzle. You’ve got a big puzzle that’s 100 per cent. Maybe it’s a five-per center or a seven-per center, but a five- or seven-per center, whatever it may be, when you look at how close the league is, it does mean something. When you’re making decisions, it’s a tool.”
—Ron Hextall, former Kings assistant general manager and current Philadelphia Flyers GM, on the value of advanced statistics
Ever since I was a kid fresh out of Grade One, when the subject of ciphering was called arithmetic rather than mathematics, I have harbored a disaffection for numbers crunching.
I wasn’t very good at it back then, you see. Actually, I was gawd awful. I failed Grade One arithmetic.
As a consequence, I spent a good portion of my summer vacation on the front porch, staring through a screen at all the other neighborhood children in full frolic on the street, sidewalks or lawns. While they engaged in their playful, pleasurable pursuits such as hop-scotch, skipping rope, roller skating, running through the sprinkler, playing ball or swapping bubble gum cards (yes, that’s what kids did in the mid-1950s), I wrestled mightily with the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems my mother had prepared for me in my scribbler.
I took no comfort in this. Arithmetic was a fearsome foe. An enemy on the level of brussel sprouts and spinach. No less quarrelsome was the notion that, since I was on the inside looking out at my friends in romp, I surely must have been the dumbest kid on the block, a suggestive that has gnawed at my self-worth ever since.
It was a painful time and, upon reflection, it perhaps explains my initial hesitancy to fully embrace the new-wave Corsi, Fenwick, PDO numbers that have been introduced to hockey.
I mention this because of Steve Simmons and his allies in hockey’s Flat Earth Society, a group of arithmophobes and/or neophobes waging war with the propeller heads who have penetrated puckdom with their percentages and probables. It could be that Little Stevie Blunder and the others failed Grade One math, too. Could be that they remain scarred.
So, when they see unfamiliar numbers—or, as Simmons describes them, “strange numbers”—they are threatened. They cannot comprehend. Thus, they circle the wagons and bleat about protecting their beloved game against the marauding blogger-nerds who lay seige with an arsenal of equations, slide rules and spreadsheets.
It doesn’t occur to them that theirs is a crusade without merit. Without hope. They have been Custered.
Almost across the board, National Hockey League outfits have embraced new-age analytics by creating a Department of Propeller Heads (see: Maple Leafs, Toronto; Devils, New Jersey; Oilers, Edmonton; Kings, Los Angeles; Blackhawks, Chicago; etcetera). Yet there is no surrender in the Flat Earth Societites. They won’t stand down until an NHL game sheet no longer looks like an algebra exam they once flunked. So they soldier on, like so many Lt. Hiroo Onadas hiding out in the jungle and conducting a guerilla campaign 29 years after the World War II bullets had stopped flying.
The question many of us ask is this: Why?
I mean, Simmons and the Flat Earth Society write/talk like hockey analytics are as much a threat as the ebola crisis. In an age of information they reject information. Go figure. So what, pray tell, lies at the root of their refusal to yield to the large ball of fancy/advanced stats rolling toward them like that big boulder chasing down Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark?
I believe the answer is contained in one word: Ego.
Simmons has no reservations about self-worth. His ego is as large as he is loud. In any discussion of sports, the Sun Media columnist believes his to be the most intelligent voice in the room. And the sole truth. Lest there be any doubt, he will shout above your side of the debate because he believes he who shouts the loudest wins the argument. He will also take your opinions and “strange numbers” and hurl them “out the window” because you are most certainly an “idiot” or a “weasel” or “you need to learn hockey.”
Many of us recognize that name-calling in a verbal to-and-fro is the refuge of the ill-informed or those who have exhausted all counterpoint, yet Simmons too often positions himself in both areas.
Mainstream sports scribes like Simmons and Damien Cox of Sportsnet reject the notion that someone outside mainstream media (read: bloggers) might know something they don’t know. They believe bloggers to be beneath bottom feeders. After all, the MSM guys went to journalism school. They’ve been sniffing jocks for 20-30 years. They sit in a press box, not in their mama’s basement. And let’s never forget the preferred argument in support of their perceived superiority over the blogger—“We attend practice.”
The MSM scribe’s ego simply cannot accept the reality that someone working out of his, or her, basement can produce copy as good, if not better and more informative, than he who attends practice.
Well, let me tell you what sports scribes do during practice: They quickly take note of who’s playing with whom and who’s hurt. They then engage in an exercise in one-upmanship, whereby each takes a turn telling the others about his adventures covering the Super Bowl, the Grey Cup or the Olympics. That is usually followed by a rousing and animated discussion on which of the Gilligan’s Island girls they’d rather boink, Ginger or Mary Ann.
Trust me. Been there. Listened to it. It was one reason for my tendency to stray from, rather than run with, the pack.
The jock sniffers in MSM must understand that they no longer are where it’s at. Sports bloggers are a significant force with something to say. And, contrary to stereotyping, they aren’t a bunch of greaseball, ill-educated, nerd monsters who need a bath and troll from mama’s basement. One survey found that the majority are college grads and 29 per cent have graduate degrees. Quite frankly, the sole advantage MSM scribes have over bloggers is access and, unfortunately, the majority of them don’t know how to use it or they flat out abuse it (that’s an article for another day).
It’s time to stop arguing whether a hockey puck is flat or round. It’s both. So someone tell Steve Simmons and his pals that they can come in from the jungle. They don’t need to shout anymore.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C.