Youth vs. Experience: The Never-Ending Battle

Thanks to ESPN

To those youngsters in the sports media game who are adherents almost exclusively to statistics, and who are fighting what amounts to an uphill battle in gaining recognition that your way is the right way and the rest of us who disagree are somehow Luddites: I was once a Golden Boy like you.

Released from four years of education from a top-flight, New England university with a Division-I athletic department and a year of hard-core media experience, I was ready to take on the world, convinced that I’ve really learned what life is about, and that the answers I’ve found on the path towards adulthood are the answers to something new, something big, something which will shake up the status quo and change the way things are.

I remember those days, thinking that every fact or philosophy or answer from older adults could be challenged and confronted on its face with either two criteria: wondrous revelation or complete bullshit.

At the other end of the spectrum and looking back, it’s clear that life is more complex, involves more compromise, and can drain the energy of the most stalwart souls surfing the crest of their own righteous indignation.

Turns out, nobody likes a know-it-all, let alone the hundreds that seem to be legion in the battle to get advanced stats recognized as a legitimate tool in analyzing and evaluating players in the National Hockey League. But I don’t blame you, because it’s a natural process.

Back before the internet grew into the force it has become in the race to provide supplemental information to what little we get through mainstream means, the only way to try and prove oneself worthy of making it alongside those people we read and saw on television was to schmooze through rapid and wide-ranging recitation of history and stats.

In the absence of actual time spent on the beat — those character-building experiences of having to deal with antiquated equipment, unreasonable deadlines, gruff, ungrateful, unresponsive or plain silent and weird interview subjects, taking jobs at small-time stations/newspapers/minor-league teams and working one’s way up through the ranks — we had mere minutes to commit certain facts and numbers to memory with which to win arguments and make an impression.

Being Right was the guiding principle, and it became a competition as many things in this business are. Being Wrong was a fate worse than death. If you were Right, many flocked to your side in support, but if you were Wrong, you were more than just incorrect, you were totally unworthy of being believed. Sadly, it’s still this way more than a decade forward, bolstered by the echo chamber of social media.

In the DVD extras contained within the movie “Miracle,” about the 1980 USA Men’s Olympic hockey team, the director stated that his roles had to be filled with a certain type of person, because, with time and money on the line, it’s easier to teach a hockey player how to act than teaching an actor how to play hockey.

This is how I feel about any potential conversion of those who favor math to explain the game over any other manner: I don’t denigrate your position, I believe it has a certain value, but due to the overwhelming number of people over the years who cover the sport and write based on memory, the eye test, traveling, watching games on TV or in person, and talking to players, coaches and others steeped in hockey culture, it’s going to benefit you more as you go to see the beauty of our accumulated experience rather than for us to add yours to our repertoire.

I wish it were easier for some of you to understand that in criticizing, I’m not trying to deny something which you feel passionate about. Instead, I’m trying to awaken you to the possibilities and information at your disposal if you see that history and culture of the game in the distant and recent past has a clear effect on what happens now in terms of both — the how and why what is exists, even more so than the what itself simply existing to be analyzed.

During Flyers Faithful’s emergence with the help of Broad Street Hockey roughly a year and a half ago, I sat myself down to find out exactly what Corsi and Fenwick were, why they were used as an analytical tool, and why they purport to be effective instruments in determining a player’s worth, value and proper mode of use on the ice.

Long story short, they were tried and found wanting. As someone who progressed over nearly 30 years from a fan to student of the game to one who covers the sport, it offered me confusing or diametrically opposed views of players from what I actively experienced. Those statistics, the ones advanced beyond those normally accepted, did neither enhance my understanding of a player or the game itself, nor did it make my job as evaluator and commenter any easier or the answers I seek any clearer.

A few things to keep in mind: I was a year ahead in Math from third grade until college, I had to perform statistical analyses throughout my graduate coursework, and frankly, if I wanted to go back to school I’d quit this business and go back. It’s clear the pendulum on sports discourse has swung too far back in the other direction to counter-balance brainless sports-talk chatter. No need to add a potential migraine to navigating the other pitfalls of sports media. But again, that’s me. I’m not speaking for anyone else or suggesting the way I feel is the Way It Is.

Though there are teams from the juniors on up to the NHL who use advanced stats as evaluators, your interest in, promotion of and defense for the near exclusive use of such,  really amounts to a small fraction of the immense banquet of information available about our great game beyond charts and graphs and stats. I estimate it to be roughly equivalent to the amount of Jay-Z’s investment ($1 million) compared to the Nets’ actual worth in gross capital ($15 billion).

In discussing the merits of shot blocking during the playoffs re: the Gregory Campbell broken leg from two weeks back, I had two separate and distinct discussions. One was with our own managing editor, Kevin Christmann, and the other with a Canadian citizen through the comment section of the TSN Facebook page. They could not have been more stark in contrast.

The discussion with Kevin, piggy-backed alongside our dear Nina G. hit a serious snag when I tried to shed a little more light on my stance from simply examining the mechanisms and potentialities of “blocking vs. not blocking,” into some background information as to why a player might want to choose self-preservation over any other abstract noun to describe the process of preventing a puck from reaching its intended destination. I urged Kev to educate himself a bit on the culture of players who basically feared an unplanned meeting with the puck up until about 10 years ago.

His response of “not sure what that has to do with now” simply did not compute. It brought the conversation to a screeching halt on my end. I’m sure it came off a mite prickish when I responded “I feel sorry for ya, man. EVERYTHING that happened before has impact on what happens now.” But in order to explain that, I would have to move the discussion off Twitter and onto this column to spill my thoughts properly. For me, there’s no bite-size way to quantify what we were debating.

The second iteration was a lengthy, respectful discourse between a 35-year-old from Philadelphia and a 19-year-old from Ontario.

In a series of six back-and-forth comments, we discussed a wide range of topics and philosophies: the merits of blocking vs. staying away in the heat of postseason battle, the proper angle and body position to take to the shot block, whether it’s wise to get in front of a puck that isn’t in danger of going into the net if the goaltender is in proper position, the potentiality of a goalie not able to control a rebound if a shot gets through, how intelligent Campbell was staying out for the duration of his shift in obvious pain, the misguided culture from the locker room on up to the media branding Campbell a “warrior,” and citing examples from the present as well as the recent past to flesh out our positions. It was beautiful.

Knowing the culture of the game in its past is absolutely essential towards understanding my position and engaging in debate. There is no statistic, no metric to fall back upon to support the other side once the conversation heads in that direction. There has to be knowing, actual accumulated vision and memory, in order to have an effective counterpoint.

Channeling Charlie Manuel for a minute, at the same time, I do applaud you for reaching out and embracing a different way of thinking. This business is fantastic for those who want to talk about the same thing in the same way with the same body of knowledge without end, and it’s a bit of a class struggle if you think and do things differently.

Contrarianism is a function of one’s 20′s. Youth and lack of knowledge, and sticking to your guns only cuts it to a certain point. I recall a brief discussion over how “clutch” two-time Cup winner Justin Williams may or may not be between Christmann, Charlie O’Connor from THG and yours truly. O’Connor took the contrarian pose, expressing in a tweet he really couldn’t see how Williams — ex-Flyer and two-time Cup winner — could be considered such despite his bona-fides in Game 7s with simple stats like goals, assists and points.

The sticking point was the definition of “clutch” viewed through that bugaboo known as “sample size.” While all three of us agreed that a sufficient sample size could never actually be reached due to the capricious length of one’s career and likelihood of encountering multiple Game 7s, we disagreed that it might be a touch too discerning to boil that down to how many go-ahead, game-winning or OT goals he scored. It did little to budge Charlie O or Kev from their positions and left me wondering how either of them could seriously deny that Williams has a knack for coming up big as could be observed over any length of time.

Ex-BSHer Geoff Detweiler made a spectacular exit from our internet world a few months back, proclaiming his frustration with all the “stupidity” he saw in media coverage and discussion of hockey with all the gusto and drama of a Joan Crawford soliloquy.

There’s no question Geoff brought much to the table with his promotion of stats, his stance on stupid narratives along with his knowledge and desire for discussion. But viewed through the prism of social media, his intentions were completely perverted by his heavy-handedness, a constant edge which turned discussion into confrontation at the slightest provocation, an annoying need to respond to others by parsing nearly every word of a previous statement, and the appearance of a crusade for his way of thinking that would triumph over the uneducated masses.

When confronted by the daunting task of having to convert thousands of supposedly ignorant individuals from the lowly Flyers fan on up to talking heads on American and Canadian TV, the weight seemed to burst a couple arteries in his brain. It was painful to observe, and I took no pleasure in seeing how it unfolded in spite of what you may draw from the above passage.

I wish you’d come back, man, but in time, when your experiences outside the echo chamber of the internet, and those of being a regular fan, and of life in general have mellowed your approach — stripped of the indignation, the cockiness, the balls-to-the-wall ethos that define you right now.

While the depths and intricacies of statistics have yet to be fully realized, you all can only do so much evaluation within the limits of what the current crop of stats can allow. While you’re stuck calculating within those parameters and waiting the next set of stats to be created, the entire mass of hockey history remains at your fingertips through YouTube, internet publications, team media guides, old physical paper-bound media guides, actual books, conversations with people involved in the game, road trips to different locales where you do more than see an NHL game and drink at the nearest bar, and your own motivations to seek out all of the above.

I’m a bad liar. Trust me, it’s worth the time and effort. Add both together, and you’ll be dangerous individuals.

It’s OK to say you don’t know. Many writers and colleagues don’t do it and will either hedge or strain to come up with an answer because (I can only imagine) admitting no knowledge might puncture the esteem their thousands of followers have for how they’ve built themselves up. Admitting you don’t know is a sign of true wisdom, because you know enough about your subject to recognize gaps in information. It’s OK to make a judgment and be wrong without blowing the circuitry. Information changes over time depending on who is willing to reveal what, and so can your opinion. Just don’t make it static and strictly based on numericals.

If and when you’re going to defend your craft, use a light touch, like a safecracker or a pickpocket…or someone who burns down a bar for the insurance money. When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.

For my part, I’m going to stick with it, roll with the changes. If something comes along in the realm of stats, advanced or not, that doesn’t twist my grey matter like dough going through a pasta press, I’m going to hook onto it. I’m not going to challenge, prod, satirize or antagonize the other side. Deal?

  • Charlie O

    Hey Bob,

    Just wanted to comment on this article, as I was mentioned and did want to make a few points.

    First, I do try my best not to come across as a know-it-all. It certainly wouldn’t consider myself an advanced stat devotee – I think they’re extremely valuable and I use them often, but they are a supplement to watching the game, not a silver bullet. If I’ve come across as indignant or overly contrarian in the past, I do apologize, as it’s not my intent.

    However, I would like to make a point regarding the sample size argument. In your article, you mention that “It’s OK to say you don’t know.” That’s exactly my argument with regards to clutch and sample size – it’s possible a player like Justin Williams has an innate skill that makes him capable of shrugging off pressure and always coming through in key situations. I absolutely believe this skill exists.

    I just don’t feel comfortable proclaiming someone to be ultra-clutch unless a very large sample has been generated. I don’t know whether Williams has this skill for certain, so I prefer to avoid describing him like that to be safe. By the same token (and I’d argue this is more important), I like to stay away from calling a player “a choker” due to a few poor playoff performances, as I don’t think it’s fair to the player, because I don’t have enough information to criticize him.

    My opinion on “clutch” and “choker” is informed by the same kind of thinking that you’d like the younger generation to use more often. At least, that’s why I believe what I believe regarding the topic. Again, if my opinion came across as arrogant or dismissive in the past, I’m sorry – my intention really was the opposite. Hopefully this helps explain my thinking a bit better than can be done in 140 characters on Twitter.

    Cheers,
    Charlie