Thursday, 26 January 2012

More Facts and Less Emotion

Check out any comment section of an online article or a team discussion forum where the topic is the elimination of fighting from hockey and invariably the pro-fighting fans display an emotional response.   The standard arguments get trotted out; players need to be held accountable, the cheap shot artists will take over, injuries will increase and players need to fight to relieve the stress of competition.    And feel free to offer a differing opinion, as long as you enjoy being told you know nothing about the game and should go watch ice dancing or badminton. 

For the pro-fighting fan it quickly becomes a personal attack on the anti-fighting side and emotions tend to flare.     Instead of emotional responses we need a rational discussion around the available facts, and less speculation on what people think is happening.   So let’s provide some solid evidence about the impact of fighting in hockey, based on studies and statistics compiled by experts on the game.  My research is in no way exhaustive and the data provided here is the result of a few internet searches and saved articles over the past few weeks.   That means this information is available to anyone who is willing to look for it, and I’ll provide links where available.

Part of the Game?  Not Really

I’m providing this stats based study even though it is a decade old because I think it is still relevant.   It was written by Iain Fyffe, a web journalist well known amongst hockey statisticians, and in it he analyzes playing time by the tough guys in the game.  I encourage you to read the entire article, available here.

There are lots of good points made in this piece, but two stand out:
  • Enforcers (called Knuckle-Draggers by Fyffe) are almost never defencemen.   This is because defence is too valuable a position to waste on a guy who’s going to play less than 10 minutes a game.   Even rarer is an enforcer who plays centre (zero in the data provided).   Why?  Because the centre position is reserved for the really good players.
  • The Knuckle-Draggers typically play in 68% of the games but in the playoffs, when teams really need to win in order to survive, their playing time drops to 23%.   If fighting is part of the game, and when the games really count, why are these guys left in the press box?

As I mentioned this report was first published in 2002 but I cross checked some of the data to ensure it was still relevant.    Looking at the top 15 enforcers today, based on PIM and number of fighting majors, the average time on the ice (TOI) is around 7:10, less than it was 10 years ago.   And how did the teams that employed these enforcers fare in the 2011 playoffs?   12 out of the 15 teams either didn’t make it beyond the regular season or were eliminated in the 1st round.   Maybe those teams were one more skilled player away from going deep into the playoffs.    

Skill Knocks Out Fighting

Last week the NY Times published some interesting facts about how fighting can affect team standings and impact a game.   It cites several sources, experts who make a living studying hockey and providing consulting for NHL teams.   You can check out the full article here.

Here is a summary of the most interesting parts of the NY Times story:
  • Since 1979-80, teams that finished among the bottom three in fighting majors have wound up atop the regular-season standings 10 times and won the Stanley Cup 11 times.
  • On average, teams that won the regular-season title since 1980 finished the equivalent of 21st in fighting majors in a 30-team N.H.L. Teams that won the Stanley Cup in that period finished the equivalent of 20th in fighting majors.
  • Fighting as a tactic within games has been statistically shown to be so small as to be inconsequential.  Studies show that there is a small lift after a fight but goals for and against are almost evenly divided, meaning no advantage.  
  • One study showed that it would take 30 to 60 fights to generate a single victory.

That last point was taken from research done by PowerScout Hockey and the full report is available here.

It’s interesting to note that when the PowerScout Hockey report was first released, a number of hockey sites, including The Hockey News, jumped on one of the report’s findings that “76% of the time one or both teams increased their momentum”.     They played up the fact that fighting has a positive impact on a team and is used strategically in order to win games.   However the report concludes that there is no significant impact because the goals scored are almost equally for and against, and power play goals were not netted out.   Either those publications didn’t read the entire report, didn’t understand it or only took the information that they required for their view of the issue.  The analysis is clear; as a strategy, fighting does not work.

The Rats Are Taking Over The Game!

The rallying cry for fighting fans – the rats will take over the game.   Lately that has been loud and pervasive but it has been around ever since the instigator penalty was put in the rule book in the 1991-1992 season.  If players cannot fight and police the game, then the cheap shot artists will come out of the dark and injuries will increase.    Once the instigator rule was brought in, the comment you will see on multiple sites is that it has led to players losing respect for each other as players are not worried about being held accountable.

So the instigator rule led to less fights and, if the argument above holds true, there should have been a resulting increase in non-fighting penalty minutes – all those rats running around slashing and tripping and hooking and ….you get the idea.   And if there are less fights you should expect the same results – more penalties.

So I have done a few web searches over the past few weeks and have not found any studies or research that could support the emergence of the rat – so I took a shot at it myself.   Now I admit that I am no statistician and I would love to have a hockey expert with better access to data provide their efforts and compare them to what I have found.    Below is a chart that shows adjusted PIM per team for each season, the top line in Red, and the number of NHL fights, the line in Blue.    The adjusted PIM takes the total of all PIM for the season, averaged to allow for different number of games played in each year and removes the fighting majors – leaving just the regular penalties.  The number of fights is provided by one of the more popular sites dedicated to showcasing NHL bouts.

After the instigator rule was brought in, fighting numbers dipped in ’91-’92 season but held steady for about 5 years, but non-fighting penalty minutes dropped. So enforcers had to keep their gloves on but overall infractions dropped. No sign of the rodents yet. After the ’97-’98 fighting starts to decline and non-fighting penalties keep pace with the trend. Less fighting and no resulting increase in cheap shots. After the lock-out in ’04-’05 we get the results that supports the pro-fighting crowd, a major drop in fights and penalties also increase. But within a couple of years the trend is back on track for less whistle calls as fights get less and less. Either the referees are not doing their jobs or the rats didn’t read the script. There is no link that I can see between a reduction in fighting and an increase in other penalties. I would love to see an expert take a shot at this analysis and see if the results are the same.

Perception Is Not Reality

NHL officials, coaches and players need to step back from all the rhetoric about this issue and study its real impact on the game, not something that they perceive to be true based gut feeling and historical anecdotes. I will admit that I started this blog based on my gut feeling, that it was just wrong for the league to tolerate fighting and it should be eliminated. The difference was I was willing to study and follow the research being done and build a more informed opinion. Fighting is a poor strategy for influencing the game, it is usually employed by less successful teams and, based on my look at the statistics, there is no resulting increase in other penalties when fights are reduced.

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