by Todd Crocker | AHL On The Beat
Not surprisingly, the first thing anyone ever wrote down in this world was numbers. The ancient Sumerians recorded figures far sooner than anyone ever wrote historical records, directions, recipes, a game plan or scouting report stating ‘Eannatum is a power forward who uses the wheel like no one else.’
Besides the Sumerians not having a cohesive alphabet, numbers were and always have been the universal tool for understanding complex and simple relationships. That hasn’t changed. Why then, if all our civilizations are rooted in numbers, are we so hostile to analytics in hockey?
When Kyle Dubas first appeared on the scene with the Toronto Maple Leafs his calling card was wunderkind analytics guru despite his business card reading Assistant General Manager. Everyone talked about his love of analytics and suddenly the calculator set had a champion in a solid position of power. He found some of the best bodies at making sense of graphs and formulas and put them to work in one of hockey’s traditional markets.
It wasn’t long before opposing press boxes had to make room for another body from the already substantial Marlies road crew. Analytics had come on the road in the American Hockey League. Doubters, believers, curious, all had agendas, questions and thoughts about arithmet-ice. Dubas, much to the disappointment of the more militant number launchers, offered that this part of the game had some evolving and proving to do. Three years on it has evolved and proved and continues to do both.
The body that can be seen most nights on the Marlies bus, head buried in a hand drawn chart, and fingers flipping about a keyboard are that of Bruce Peter. His focus during games is so deeply entrenched in the moving parts that it’s hard to know what the Saskatchewan sum seeker is working on, how to get rocket safely to Saturn or a WOWY (With or Without You). He doesn’t take his eyes from the game as he writes to his formulae, a talent in its own right. For those who are just getting to know the laws firm of Corsi and Fenwick, you may not want to know the work in front of a guy like Peter, including things like 5v5close, IAP, TMCF20 and OPPGF20.
Tax returns. They are the real culprit. The numbers of your life have become so complicated that adding them into your play time seems somewhat un-fun. And like that math teacher in high school who tried to sell you that ‘math can be a lot of fun’ the analytics community seems sure that all fans will cheer just as hard for a OZFO% as a thundering check into the boards. It might yet happen. Some nights when a chat room is alive with the mutterings of I’s and 0’s the vitriol is real amongst the defenders of SuperWOWY and the champions of CPDO, you can almost get passionately drawn into a divisive conversation.
Where do you come in on analytics as an average fan? The fan in Hershey, who likes their team because they love the visual poetry of the greatest game; the fan in Springfield, who throws on the team sweater and parks their car three blocks from the rink to see their favorite AHL team in the middle of a weather warning; the fan from Manitoba, who loves the second line right winger because they signed their card and said thanks for coming to the game; the fan from Toronto, who leaps from their seat when the Marlies score. Mystery solved: you don’t need to think about it at all.
Coaches, Management and the Values Vindicators all need to seek the most amount of information available in order to make a good ‘cos’ for their decisions. But in order to enjoy Kasperi Kapanen on a breakaway or a Garret Sparks kickback toe save, you don’t need it at all. The passion for this game, our game, the AHL, comes from you not the other way around. And maybe one day you’ll get excited about a set of numbers that is clearer than shots on goal (honestly, shot attempts are far more interesting but we’re going to be awhile changing all those scoreboards from SOG to SAS) but it isn’t required. The fans are the ones who will always make this game great and it doesn’t require a PhD in statistical analysis to enjoy an exciting night in a cold rink.
Thousands of years after it was written on a clay tablet that someone owed someone else for a fair bit of barley and it was recorded forever (and still readable in the British Museum, if you understand ancient Sumerian) and numbers remain our chief concern. Think of your own life and how important 0 to 9 are in everyday interaction from phones, to addresses, to payments, to time. It’s not a wonder that hockey is embracing analytics, it’s a wonder it took so long. If they were still around, the Sumerians would be proud, and likely be sitting next to Bruce Peter in a press box in the AHL.