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Respect Thy Hockey Neighbor

Let’s make one thing clear – advanced metrics in hockey are here to stay.

They provide extra layers to an already deep game, going as far as predicting future success, explaining previously unexplained causes of failure, and there is even a metric that predicts how lucky a team has been.

There’s a bevy of excellent resources out there that explain what these various metrics represent, and how they are calculated. I’m not going to explain them here.

What I want to discuss is why there is a vast gulf between those who love the statistical side of the game, and those who prefer the game from a strictly optics standpoint.

The “old guard” in hockey remains prevalent. Leading the charge is knuckle dragger Don Cherry, a man that can provide entertainment if you are looking for just that, and not anything remotely close to insightful hockey analysis. There are fans out there who’d love to see every player have missing teeth, have scars across their faces, have fights at every faceoff, and see 8-7 final scores. They scoff at the idea of advanced stats. The secondary assist is almost offensive to some. The game is more nuanced than this, however, but there is something almost romantic about a fan that cares about nothing more than who “looks good out there” or who laid the biggest hit, or who had the best chirps. The ultimate metric for these kinds of fans is the final score. Did my team win?

On the other side of the scale is the advanced or enhanced stat movement. I say movement because the process of adopting these metrics remains dynamic, not quite settling itself as a concrete part of the game- yet. The adoption of advanced statistics has happened relatively rapidly, and for those who have fully embraced the concepts it has almost made it to the point where the game is more about the underlying numbers, rather than what’s happening at ice level. To a fan who strictly uses stats to analyze a game (and there are many, many fans who fit this description) a losing streak during the season can be simply brushed aside, due to bad luck, or perhaps the team shooting percentage during the streak was the lowest of the season. A struggling player’s lack of success is attributed to again, bad luck, or perhaps shooting percentage.

That doesn’t mean that these metrics aren’t amazing. They truly are. The numbers and the way they are used now come so damned close to predicting future success, that to ignore them would be nothing short of arrogance on behalf of those in hockey operations departments.

Speaking of arrogance, it exists on both sides. Those who rely on nothing but their eyeballs to analyze games look at the advanced stats promoters as nerds, who don’t understand the game or the intangibles a certain player can bring to his team. There is venom spewed here, partially due to not understanding the way the numbers work, and partially because they are right – there is more to the game than numbers.

Those that use stats to form a majority of their arguments can at times look down upon the aforementioned fan with equal arrogance, sometimes unwilling to take the time to explain a certain metric, rather taking a “oh, you wouldn’t understand” approach. I’ve seen it. It happens. I’ve also seen an opinion of a player’s performance shot down with something like “lol, you’re dumb. His CF% was high so he played great”. Forget that that player’s team lost 5-0, he had three or four weak shots on-net, took two bad penalties and skated to the bench every time the puck went back to the neutral zone. This of course is just an example.

Fully relying on the numbers without taking into account the whole picture is no different than being a fan that refuses to acknowledge that there is more to the game than the final score.

I do believe that most fans-myself included-exist in the middle ground. Hockey is a beautiful game, an entertaining game. It’s meant to be watched among friends and family, with team colors proudly on display. Sports will always inspire lively discussion, and advanced stats should be a part of the discussion, but like anything else, it doesn’t tell the whole story. It is a part of the story.

Both sides need to respect the other, so that there are no longer any “sides”- just hockey fans. There will still be those who don’t care what the underlying numbers are, and there are those who will continue to watch games from a desk, with a pen and notepad tracking zone entries. There is nothing wrong with either approach!

To each their own, but at least be respectful of your fellow fan, and understand that the way they watch the game is just as valid as the way you watch it. We’re all in this together, after all.