About a month ago I headed out on Sunday morning to get the van so we could go to practice. As I walked down our little street I saw a man lying on the sidewalk with a neighbour hovering anxiously over him. I am always one to help and so I made my way over. He was moaning and grabbing his leg. He did not speak English or very little and he groaned and pointed and was in obvious distress. My neighbour asked if I knew him, he kept pointing to a house, a house that I knew a young family lived in. No, said I, I have never seen him before and I called 911.
I spoke to the dispatcher and answered the questions patiently. It seemed to me that the man was on something but he did not seem dangerous at all. We had never seen him before, I thought maybe he had wandered off the Danforth in a fog and had fallen. Did he have any distinguishing marks, scars, anything at all? No, said I, he is as regular looking as you might expect, nothing to set him apart at all, not even glasses, a bald spot or a big gut.
They assured me that an ambulance would be there shortly, I hung up and turned to see the man remove his artificial leg.
It also turned out that he actually does live on the street and has for years.
You can disqualify me as an eyewitness at any trial I guess.
The eye test … also known as ‘just watch the game’ – the hockey analytics’ war started in 2005 and carried on for a number of years but it ended a long time ago and every serious team in the NHL has invested a lot of money in analytics … Tampa, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Washington … you see a pattern?
Yes, despite the trolling of your humble scribe or narrator or whatever some of these old-timers use as they try and channel Ring Lardner or some such to get desperation clicks. The reality is that guys like Steve Simmons are, like those Japanese soldiers on remote islands who never knew the war ended, crawling with lice and eating yak dung to survive. The war is over Steve, it ended long ago.
I was there at the ground floor of analytics with Tim Barnes and Tyler Dellow and the rest of that lot and what I always found hilarious was that, unlike what was always said by the old guard as they skirmished, they never proposed that analytics replace everything but rather that it be used in tandem with good old fashioned hockey knowledge in order to gain an edge. A few hardcore nerds would go whole hog on the data stuff but nobody took them seriously. You can show me a pie chart (mmm pie) that PROVES that Cory Cross helps you win more games than Chris Pronger but I am probably not going to buy what you are selling.
But here is the thing … the eye test not only can lie, as it did in my encounter a few weeks ago, but it is subject to … bias.
Everyone reading this has it and I suspect you would admit to it. We have favourite players and favourite player types and this influences us when we are watching a game and yes this applies to all but the most hardcore analytics’ folks. Data folks will use the most obscure point imaginable to make one of their favourites look good and of course what people will say to support their own guy … well they will go to any length.
One of my favourites is the old ‘he’s good in the room’. Well yeah if you are an end-of-roster player then you absolutely will be a great guy because if you are not then you will be replaced in a second. Quite frankly when I hear a guy is good in the room as a his major talking point then my first thought is that they should probably leave him in the room. Reminiscent of how Don Cherry tried to convince a nation that the Bruins won the Cup because Shawn Thornton was chirping the Canucks from the bench. He was on the bench because if he was on the ice he would have gotten eaten alive.
And that’s fine, Don, like many of us, likes his thumpers. Any player who does not hit is ‘soft’, especially if they are a defenceman. Oilers’ media especially hate defencemen who do not hit … Poti, Gilbert, Petry, Bouchard … never mind that any of these men are a thousand times tougher than one of a group who once cried because they had their donuts taken away. They also rag on Europeans, which is weird considering how many great Oilers, including those on the Cup-winning teams, came from Europe. Oh well …
Fans are going to fan though and that’s fine. I loved Hemsky’s elan and Smyth and Horcoff’s everyman grit and drive more than McDavid and Draisaitl. Don’t get me wrong, the latter two will lift me out of my seat every time and they are the greatest and one of the greatest players of their generation. But those other guys and Gator Smith and Steve Staios … well, they spoke to me. Connor and Leon are in another stratosphere and maybe that is why for me, I liked the other fellows more, they were actual humans. (This is my theory of why fans love fourth-liners so much. A fan looks at Ales Hemsky and knows that he could never do what he does. It’s impossible. But a guy like Zach Stortini? I too could hit guys, fight and look energetic. Put me in coach!)
And so we have fans who love Jesse and don’t like Yamamoto and vice versa, those who love Ceci or Barrie (why lol) and have no time for Bouchard. It goes on and on.
The problem that we have in Edmonton and that we have had for years is that this bias, which is fine amongst us fans, is also how the ship is being steered, by the NHL Guide and Record book and an old man’s gut instinct. The team continues to trundle long, win one, lose one, hot streak, big slump, and it seems more and more that we are looking at another wasted year … another year of 97 and 29 down the tubes, up against the cap, when even simple analysis would show that Barrie should not have been given the contract that he was given, that Nurse (God love Darnell and I do … he is a warrior and a minute muncher) is nowhere near the player that they are shelling out that money for and that Campbell (I love Campbell too, he is a terrific person), well, we won’t say anything about Jack ….
As my old friend Cam Thomson once said, the NHL is an efficiency contest. The Oilers have, for years, burned money, bought players high and sold low and generally have made a hash of things. There’s a reason they are where they are after nearly 20 years of mostly bad hockey … much like Chicago during the Bill Wirtz/Pulford era, it comes down to bad management and an old style way of thinking that permeates the club, no matter who is in charge.
Again, to paraphrase David Byrne, it looks like we are on the road to nowhere. 🙁