A “Love-Hate Relationship”: Stats and the Game of Hockey

Stats and the game of hockey, to me it’s “a love-hate” relationship. 

In today’s game there seems to be a growing emphasis on “numbers” that just didn’t exist five to ten years ago. 

Obviously the game has changed. 

With analytics taking on such a massive role, the game will never be the same. 

The question still remains are stats ruining the game? 

What role should stats play in minor hockey? 

Are stats ruining player development? 

Don’t get me wrong those that closely monitor stats probably think I’m archaic with my take on stats and the role they play in the game, they might even say I’m not a true hockey connoisseur. 

I’ve never been one who believes or actually puts a lot of faith in stats and numerical value in hockey.

Too old school I guess, but hear me out. 

I realize analytics are part of the game. 

I realize some stats play an important role. 

Of course stats have a place, but they don’t always tell the story. 

As a kid it would annoy me to no end, seeing one of my favourite baseball players, be due up and the manager pinch-hit for him due to the fact that he didn’t hit well against “lefties.”

How the hell is the player ever going to hit well against ‘lefties’, if you keep sitting him down? 

You have to play the percentages, it’s all about the stats, and it’s all about the percentages. 

Some coaches and managers live and die by that, to each their own, I guess.

How do these managerial or coach’s decisions play out in the game of hockey?  

Are minor hockey coaches starting to rely too much on stats to make their decisions?    

There is a massive difference between a “hunch and relying on numbers and or percentages in making coaching decisions.  

For example to look at a young goaltender’s save percentage over the course of the season and judge who gets the final start in minor hockey in my opinion is really absurd.    

I really believe that we can’t allow “stats” to dictate our decision making process in game situations.  

Far too many times coaches in amateur hockey go with the “hot hand” in net knowing full well the kid is so tired he or she can’t stand up and might be coming off a 40 save night, while having your capable back- up ready to go and fresh.   

Oh don’t worry, the back–up will see the ice in that game it’s going to be 3-0 before you can write down the plus minus on your coaches card.   

That’s another example of numbers in hockey and how they can cloud the judgment of coaches; in game coaches cards.   

I could never understand why some coaches would write down the players that were on the ice during a goal while trying to coach.  

As a player, if I witnessed that, it would be hard to regain confidence because you know damn well he is going to mention that in front of everyone in the room between periods.   

In game coaching is vastly different between sports, but I strongly feel that players coming off the ice should be told something after every shift and clearly numbers shouldn’t be a part of that.   

“Plus/Minus like all other stats are only effective if you use them to benefit your club.    

Take for instance looking at Plus/Minus for each period over the course of a 5 game stretch or a month for that matter might greatly benefit your preparedness for the game, if you are giving up 5 goals in the 1st and 2 over the last two periods you can use that stat to talk to your team about getting ready to play early on in games.  

I know some nights you look at your top offensive line and they are + 4 and you look at your “energy line” and they are – 2 and you automatically assume that your top guys were the best line on the ice.   

Well your “energy line” was up against the opposition’s top line and kept them to 2 goals.  The kid on the energy line checks the stats at the end of the month and finds out he’s a – 15 that’s really going to help his or her self-worth now isn’t it.   

To release stats to players under the U-14 level is just plain wrong.

If you want a divided dressing room or team, that’s a great starting point. 

What are we teaching your players when everyone around the game is hyper focused on numbers? 

Clearly the stat sheet doesn’t tell the hole story. 

As a player you know the “pecking order” and some cases the player has to look a long way down that list to find their stats. 

 I’m well aware of that feeling, while playing Pee Wee AAA, the stats were released by the assistant coach who just happen to have a son on the team that played defence like me.    

I had a very impressive + 8, we scored a lot of goals that year and I was pretty good in my own zone, but still had one of the lowest plus/minus on the team.   

That coach’s son was + 25, clearly the stats were miscalculated!   

I was disappointed that I only had 4 assists in 15 games, but really my job wasn’t to score goals or for that matter produce, I found myself on the PK a lot and playing in every situation as a stay at home defenceman.  

My defence partner was more offensive minded and someone had to “stay home” while he was rushing the puck and getting caught up ice. I’ll never forget before passing the stats out and quickly re-collecting them my coach said something that has stayed with me for 16 years, “here are the stats, these are in no way what defines you as players.” 

Clearly my long time coach and mentor understood that the numerical value of hockey sometimes overshadowed the essence of the game.

It would be an amazing study to look at how much NHL coaches vs. Amateur coach’s process during a game and how much they rely on stats vs. experience when considering certain decisions.   

I truly believe that experience is the best teacher and if we promote the numerical side of hockey it will ruin the game in the truest sense.  

During my coaching career, I had several parents come up to me the last few years in a failed promotional bid of their son/daughter,  “yeah they had a great year last year, played on the top line,  had the most minutes played of any forward and had 52 goals and 33 assists.” 

In effort not to disappoint or insult them I would listen to the pitch and say “wow that’s a great year” and quickly walk away.  

This usually was coming from 2nd year Atom parents whose child was making the jump to Pee Wee.  So you know damn well if the parents know all the stats than the kid does to.  

What type of hockey player do we want to produce?  

The player who is all about team or individualism?  

The player who is a good two-way player that can contribute offensively when needed or the puck hog who is goal hungry all the time?

I was also approached several times by parents who are “numerically gifted and want to keep the teams stats, to this I reply, “that’s great, I don’t want any of the players getting their hands on this.”

It’s a shame that Pee Wee aged kids about 5 or 10 games into the season start talking about goals and assists after games and during games.  

They just don’t know, because they have been told by coaches/ parents on previous occasions “wow you have 2 goals today go get a hat trick” rather than just being told to keep it going!   

I used to quickly correct this behaviour on the bench or in the room, by saying. 

It’s about development, it’s about getting you ready for the next level, the points will come and the wins will take care of themselves.” 

As far as stats are concerned we only worry about W’s and L’s on this team, the other numbers will take care of themselves.”  

From a scouting perspective, I seldom look at the leagues scoring race. I seldom look to see how many goals Player A has compared to Player B. Quite frankly I don’t give a rats ass, about numbers when I’m scouting. 

Does the player play to their identity and can that player’s skill set translate to the next level? Can the player skate? Can the player effectively see the ice? Can the player think the game? Can a player play both ends of the ice? Does the player pass the puck? What type of character does the player possess? Is that player a good teammate? How does that player respond to adversity? Where do the numbers come in? 

Do you see any numbers there, because I don’t see any numbers there. 

Don’t get me wrong some stats are great and very important, but do they tell the entire story? No.

Should stats define a young player’s career at the minor hockey ranks?  No. 

Do goals and assists define a young hockey player’s full potential? No. 

Should we post stats sheets and scoring races below the U-14 level? No. 

Do goals and assists in the minor hockey ranks really matter? Do stats define a player’s journey in minor hockey? Hell No. 

Why are we focusing so much of our energy on stats and the emphasis of them now more than ever? 

Stats are stats, love them or hate them, I guess we all have to accept them to some extent and the role they play in the game, whether it’s misguided or warranted, numbers don’t always tell the full story. 

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