My Thoughts Were So Loud

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I want this blog/site to be.  Of course, I have some general idea, but it’s not entirely clear.   The name, Puck Theories, just seems cool, it was available, and in a rough sense I think it will capture what this site ultimately becomes.  Broadly, I guess I want this to be a place where the game of hockey is analyzed and discussed critically, using all resources available.  I’m aware that I’m not writing anything new when I make note of a growing divide over the use of newer statistics or analytics to evaluate team and player performance.  However, this divide and the point about using all the resources we have to inform our analysis and discussion of the great game of hockey, is where I will begin.  

As a social psychologist interested in political behavior, I have been fascinated for quite a while with how intense disagreements between people often share a very similar deep structure.  By deep structure I mean something similar to how the term is employed in linguistics – that the underlying abstract representation of many intense disagreements are strikingly similar.  For instance, when I read terse exchanges between those who emphasize more traditional, intuitive based ways of assessing team and player performance and those who emphasize newer statistics and a more analytical approach, I am reminded of a piece written by Nicholas Carr titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Within that piece Carr discusses the outright objection of Socrates to the development of writing, as depicted in Plato’s Phaedrus.  In that famous dialogue it is argued that the impact of writing would lead people to think they are “very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant” and that they would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.”  Carr is quick to point out that while Socrates wasn’t entirely wrong he was shortsighted.  Now I imagine some are already scratching their heads, wondering what an essay written in The Atlantic about how technological advancement may have a long-lasting impact on our cognitive processing that then meanders into a tangent about Socrates and the development of writing has to do with using newer statistics or analytics to assess the performance of hockey teams and players.  That is more than a fair question.  

My answer is that the objection of Socrates to the development of writing is but one of many examples throughout human history, and Carr discusses others such as the development of the printing press in the 15th Century, where we see intense disagreement due to innovation. Indeed, the criticisms of “watch the game” and “the game isn’t played in a spreadsheet” do not appear very different from claims that writing or the development of the printing press would produce intellectual laziness. That’s what I mean by deep structure.  “watch the game” can imply that one who’s relying on the newer statistics (which are often presented in spreadsheet form) is being lazy.  So while on the surface these various criticisms are about very different topics, the underlying message of all of them is fairly similar.

I’d like to now shift gears slightly and place the focus more squarely on the great game of hockey.  The division over the use of newer statistics and analytics is another instance of different camps adopting different, and possibly contrasting, approaches to understanding causality within the game of hockey.  The more traditional, intuitive approach emphasizes observable results such as goals, saves, wins and losses.  It also discusses how constructs such as aggressiveness, determination, intensity, momentum, and the “will-to-win” impact observable outcomes in a hockey game, while maintaining that these constructs are largely unobservable.  Indeed, constructs such as determination and momentum are treated in the same way the Supreme Court once opined about pornography “you know it when you see it” or I guess in the case of hockey one also knows when they don’t see it, and its usually when one’s favored team loses.

If I can throw my psychologist hat back on for a second, the more traditional and intuitive approach to hockey is somewhat akin to the psychological school of behaviorism, which focused exclusively on observable behaviors and phenomenon.  While behaviorists acknowledged unobservable constructs like attitudes, beliefs, motives, needs, and values, they considered them objects outside their realm of interest.  As a result, they made no attempt to operationalize them, observable behaviors were the only objects of study that mattered.

Cognitive psychology, the study of mental processes, emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s largely because behaviorism could not explain the process of language acquisition.  The newer analytics based approach to hockey that has emerged over the past decade is akin to cognitive psychology because it attempts to operationalize unobservable constructs that many hockey fans talk about.  Whatever one’s opinion is on the value of this analytics based approach, it is becoming increasingly clear that these newer statistics are here to stay.  The NHL now posts many of them on their official site.  Broadcasters and pundits have also begun to present this information to the fans.

So what’s the takeaway from all of this rambling?  What I hope is that we – as lovers of the game of hockey – can get past the arguments over the use of analytics because like or not they appear like they are here to stay.  This is not meant to suggest that there is nothing to debate, on the contrary there will remain much to haggle over.  The critical questions for me are:

1) Do the current analytics in use correctly operationalize the constructs they attempt to measure?  If not, how can they be refined?

2) Are there elements of the game current analytics don’t capture?  If so, how do go about measuring these elements?

These questions all deal with validity – are we actually measuring what we’re trying to measure?  I am fairly certain that for many such constructs there will remain an open debate over whether the operationalization is correct – and I see that as the fun part.  I hate to use a cliche but it feels appropriate here, we as lovers of hockey can disagree without being disagreeable.  As a player myself, I am skeptical of claims such as hitting doesn’t really help a team win.  Sure, if one is throwing a hit it presumably means your team does not have the puck, yet hitting is one way to get the puck back.

Along similar lines, in one of my more recent games my team was up 5-0 early in the third and our opponents began to send two or three forecheckers in to disrupt our breakout.  On one occasion two players threw checks on me behind the net, these both should have been penalties because we play in a non-hitting adult league.  I really wasn’t that annoyed that the ref didn’t call anything, the game was a blowout but what happened next was interesting.  My initial reaction was something along the lines of “keep hitting me guys, its been working so well for you.”  Then due to the flow of play I had an opportunity to throw a hit one of the two forecheckers, so I did, he fell over, and I said “that’s what’s going to happen if you keep throwing checks.”  I didn’t see another forechecker the rest of the game.

In closing, I guess I hope this piece can represent (if it’s even read widely) a call to arms of sorts.  There is still much to debate about how analytics are applied to hockey.  Since the use of analytics is only likely to expand I hope we as lovers of the game can openly debate the validity of these constructs, and if we disagree with one another that’s fine, as long as we can do so in a way that isn’t hostile or disagreeable.

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