October 12 2008 06:00AM
I’ve been reading Roger’s World by Wayne Scanlan, a biography of legendary coach Roger Neilson. It’s been a little disappointing to date; if I hear one more reference to "Roger’s legendary Abercrombie & Fitch baseball cap" or "his beloved dog, Mike" I think I might break my brain.
In any case, after 40-odd pages, Scanlan finally finished writing about Nielson as a baseball coach and paperboy (and no, I’m not kidding) and got into his hockey career. It’s a folksy book, and is rather scant on actual hockey details, or detailed information on any of the revolutionary tactics that Nielson introduced. Despite that, there is some useful information, information that applies to some current discussion about hockey analysis.
Take this bit, from pages 84-85:
Neilson more or less pioneered the entire statistical analysis of the game as it exists today. He was the first to monitor faceoffs won and lost. He kept track of power play production and penalty-killing performance. He tracked hits and offered tiny cash rewards for delivering them. Way back in Peterborough, he had his statistical types keeping track – manually – of the minutes played by each of his players. According to Al Dunford, one of Roger’s first statisticians, he wanted to see each player’s TOI (time on ice) after every period, know who’s tired and who’s not, so he could decide whether he was making the best use of his resources. Modern coaches, reporters, and fans monitor TOI as an indicator of which players are the most highly valued in a given game.
A couple of points here:
- Neilson, despite watching the entire game from behind the bench, would use TOI and other statistical indicators to catch things that he would miss. Despite the fact that he was behind the bench, watching these players, he really felt that his analysis of the game would be enhanced with a statistical viewpoint . Personally, I feel that I am a fairly good observer of the game, but I’m certainly not at the level of an NHL coach. In other words, for someone to claim that he trusts his eyes completely over statistics seems a touch vain.
- Here’s the second thing: the statistics used by the vast majority of reporters and fans are the same ones that Roger Neilson was using, in the mid-1970s. Maybe I’m not the only one, but I’d be shocked if NHL teams and coaches haven’t advanced past the basic statistics used 30 years ago. Despite that near-certain progression, the majority of pundits haven’t kept up—even Nielson’s statistics are frowned upon by certain talking heads of the hockey world. Am I the only one who would prefer to hear details of Ron Wilson’s computational analysis, as opposed to dismissive comments by people like Ken Campbell claiming that "the computer is making the decisions"?
Turning to the next page, we see something else interesting:
Neilson explained that video was essential to explain the strengths of an opponent, for example, the techniques and tendencies of a particular penalty-killing duo. Quite simply, he also needed a second look at a game he didn’t always see that well the first time.
”You really don’t see the complete game behind the bench,” said Neilson. “Changing lines, especially if you’re trying to match lines, is a full-time job...
Don Cherry, then coach of the Boston Bruins and now a broadcasting icon, scoffed at the use of video in the early years. “I see on the ice what Neilson sees on the video tape,” said Cherry. “I’m not knocking him. He came up a different way than I did. I came up like a blacksmith – from the bottom. I have a video tape machine at home and one in the office, but I look at them for entertainment only, never when we lose. And I never look – for gawd sakes – to see where a guy is standing.”
Don Cherry’s quote is particularly instructive. It isn’t fair to claim that the majority of the hockey world suffers from the same myopia as Cherry, but I do think it is fair to say that hockey people in general have worked their way from the bottom up, and people who consequently have the traditional approach thoroughly indoctrinated into their mindset. Videotape was not accepted across the board immediately; the technology was distrusted by people who had a good deal of faith in their own vision of the game.
I really think that advanced statistics fall into the same category as video did in the early years. They aren’t a part of the traditional view of the game, and thus a whole raft load of commentators, even exceptionally good ones, don’t give them the time of day. They offer us a different way to look at the game, a unique objective that works as a complement (not a replacement) for what we see when we watch the games. They alert us to trends, help us to flag things that we want to observe, and at their best can give us a very good understanding of how a coach views his roster, and giving us a better idea of which players are helping their teams win.
I truly believe that a refusal to use such statistics only serves to limit ones knowledge of the game.