(This post is part of a fundraiser for 826 Boston, a non-profit tutoring and writing center. For $50, readers can get me to write anything about hockey they want, so donate today to make me say stuff by clicking here. I probably don’t believe the nonsense below, which was requested by Rob.)
There’s been a big push back against fighting in the NHL over the last few years, and over this past summer especially, and I think that any rational person can understand why: it’s not only dangerous to the participants, but it is more often engaged in by guys who serve little purpose other than to sit on the bench for 53 or 55 minutes of any given hockey game before they go out and fight another guy who has a similar role to them on the other team. I believe something like 50 percent of all NHL fights are conducted between the same relatively small number of combatants.
These guys, in pursuing several hundred thousands of dollars per season or more, are not morally wrong in their decision to hold such a job. If they can hold it and want to chase that money despite the obvious health risks, then good for them, go get ‘em. And beyond that, if a fight breaks out at a hockey game, people tend to stand up and cheer, and it’s not because they know they won’t have to see these largely useless players after they stop punching each other.
I’m not sure that fighting sells tickets, at least not in large enough numbers to justify putting oneself at a disadvantage by slotting a Paul Bissonnette or Shawn Thornton into your lineup most nights. Anyone who will argue that there are some fighters in the NHL who are useful beyond their fistic abilities is stretching the definition of “some” to some pretty illogical extremes. And these are roles that could likely be filled to greater efficacy in helping their teams win by minor-league call-up 13th-forward types.
The reason I bring all this up (apart from someone having donated $50 to 826 Boston to say “why fighting is actually cool and good instead of bad and stupid,” obviously) is that Brian Burke made an ass of himself in his now annual tradition of badmouthing analytics at the Sloan analytics conference in Boston. “I would never do Moneyball because it’s boring… I have to entertain people,” he said to a room full of statisticians. It is important to note that the last several teams to win the Stanley Cup are those that have invested at least in part in a statistical analysis of the sport so that they can potentially gain a competitive edge, and no one walked out of watching Peter Chiarelli and Dean Lombardi lifting the Stanley Cup over their heads saying, “Yeah they won, but that was so BORING. Why didn’t anyone punch anyone else?”
Put another way, any general manager who thinks his team has to be “entertaining” in the sense of engaging in fights and not simply outshooting and outscoring the opponent isn’t doing his job correctly. Let the ticket reps worry about selling tickets, let the promotions department worry about entertaining people, and stick to building the best — not the most entertaining — hockey team out there.
Think fighting is “actually cool and good?” You’re not going to get too many arguments from people in the wider world. Much like sex, it sells. But we have the numbers to show that the entertainment value it provides doesn’t translate to wins, and that’s ultimately what fans want to see more than blood on the ice.
That thing Burke loves to say about analytics being like a lamp post for drunks to lean on? It applies to fighting as well. When you’re reeling and unsteady (as Burke-run teams so often are), you can lean against it to say everything is fine because fans are getting what they want. You’re also getting passed at breakneck speed by teams that don’t need to lean on anything at all.
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