LCS: Guide to Hockey

Who Da Man?

by Howard Fienberg, Correspondent
Issue 120, May 5, 1999

Righteous indignation was the norm. Cries of “Ridiculous!”, “Insipid!”, and “Damn that Zippy!” were heard across the land. Why was everyone so upset? Besides Toronto being the only Canadian team to survive to the second round, English Canada was told that the Great One was not as great as the Magnificent One. “Scientists prove Lemieux is the real Great One,” headlined the National Post (Apr. 22).

Statistics professors Scott Berry (Texas A&M University) and Patrick D. Larkey (Carnegie Mellon University) wrote “Bridging eras in sports,” which was named Best Applied Paper by the American Statistical Association. However, it was labeled “Best Toilet Paper” and “Most Likely to be Torched in Anger” by the Canadian press.

The study attempted to model the effects of ageing on sports using statistical methods to compare athletes of different eras, with the bridge being a player who overlaps two eras, allowing for easier comparison between them. Now I may be only mildly numerically competent and as statistically savvy as a chimpanzee on hooch, but I figured this one out. Your garden variety chimpanzee cannot decipher his return change on a bottle of Fireball. Your average Canadian journalist may be able to decipher his return change, but only after the fifth bottle - perhaps explaining why they did not get it.

While the researchers looked at hockey, golf, and baseball, we shall only concern ourselves with hockey. Well, that is what the Canucks did! Because baseball and golf are about as exciting as watching flies mate, and much more expensive. There is only one true sport - hunting water buffalo. However, hockey puts up a good fight, so we will give it the benefit of the doubt.

One big objection from the press was that the researchers did not include Bobby Orr. The assumption made in the paper is that defensemen and goalies are in the game only to keep the puck out of the net. Before we string these guys up, let’s remember, they are statisticians. So maybe they have never been to a game, or haven’t paid attention since the first defenseman joined the rush a century ago. But given the average defenseman’s propensity for defense (funny that), they and goalies were not included in the study. Case closed.

Second objection was that the Rocket Richard did not make the Top 25, and several other older stars ranked lowly. One of the main ideas in the study was to compensate for the differing kids of play in the different eras - when was it easiest to score goals, who played in the era of greatest competition, what were the effects of aging, who had the greatest ability, which era had the best hot dogs, etc. Whine all you please, but the researchers decided, quite rightly, that goals in the nineties are worth a lot more than goals in the past. (For instance, modern goalies are made out of steel and oversized padding, versus the goalies of old who lacked both face masks and, as a consequence, nose cartilage) As well, the list is dominated by many modern players because the talent pool has greatly expanded in the last twenty years.

The results of the study put the optimal hockey player age at 27, with a “sharp decrease after the age of 30. A hockey player of age 34, the optimal golf age, is only 75% of his peak value.” I still don’t know how you can justify the optimal golf age being so young when so few play it at that age.

They did seem to have trouble adjusting for the length of seasons played. Since they were much shorter in the early days, this could be a source of error.

But come on! Hockey is a game, and this research, despite its awards and pretension, is just fun. So stop getting all riled up. Gretzky is still the Great One. Just not for the reasons lay people may believe. It was not his prolific scoring by any means, because Lemiuex was definitely better. It was not his fantastic skill, because Mario Lemieux had tons more. It was in his character.

Not to disparage Mario in any way, cause he is a great guy and I love him. Platonically. And he had the drive and guts to play though a decade of pain and succeed like no one else. But he never had the same love of the game and general good-guyness that Gretzky continues to exude. Mario was in it to win and excel, but Gretzky was in it to play. So in the eternal debate over who was better, we are left undecided. It all depends on what you value most.

And to stir the pot, I will say that I would take Lemieux over Gretzky any day.

The mean points for the 1996 standard (with standard deviations) are presented for each player below, along with his date of birth.

Rank Name Born Points in 1996
1 M. Lemieux 1965 187 (7)
2 W. Gretzky 1961 181 (5)
3 E. Lindros 1973 157 (16)
4 J. Jagr 1972 152 (9)
5 P. Kariya 1974 129 (15)
6 P. Forsberg 1973 124 (10)
7 S. Yzerman 1965 120 (5)
8 J. Sakic 1969 119 (6)
9 G. Howe 1974 119 (7)
10 T. Selanne 1970 113 (6)
11 P. Bure 1971 113 (8)
12 J. Beliveau 1931 112 (5)
13 P. Esposito 1942 112 (5)
14 A. Mogilny 1969 112 (6)
15 P. Turgeon 1969 110 (6)
16 S. Federov 1969 110 (5)
17 M. Messier 1961 110 (4)
18 P. Lafontaine 1965 109 (5)
19 Bo. Hull 1939 108 (4)
20 M. Bossy 1957 108 (4)
21 Br. Hull 1964 107 (5)
22 M. Sundin 1971 106 (7)
23 J. Roenick 1970 106 (6)
24 P. Stastny 1956 105 (4)
25 J. Kurri 1960 105 (4)

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