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Numbers that really count are on the scoreboard

Pittsburgh Penguins center Tyler Kennedy (48) congratulates teammate defenseman Kris Letang (58) on scoring the game-winning goal against the Nashville Predators during the overtime period of an NHL hockey game in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010. The Penguins defeated the Predators 4-3. (AP Photo/Frederick Breedon)

Frederick Breedon

Going through an identity crisis when you're a century old seems a bit odd, but that's professional hockey for you.

And this is hardly the first time.

This week in Edmonton, the Oilers opted for the football-ization of hockey by deciding to audition for cheerleaders - mercifully, they've already held the outdoor Winter Classic there - to pump up audience interest in a team dead last in the NHL standings.

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This goes hand in hand with the basketball-ization of the game - blasting music, intermission absurdities - that has been going on for so long no one can even remember the last time a leather-lunged wit called down from the stands and broke up the crowd.

But neither compares to the incessant baseball-ization of the game that has become even more absurd than fans dressed as hockey pucks bouncing off each other in a humiliating race around the rink.

This movement began in the 1990s, when the NHL determined it might be able to move up in American sports coverage by providing more fodder for analysis. The league developed a game sheet that has, by last count, 22 separate mathematical measures for each player on the ice.

Some of the figures are valid - ice time, for example. Others are hogwash.

Not all faceoffs are won or lost. Anyone who has played centre knows that once in a while, you will tip off your linemates that you intend to go forward rather than backward, a play that will then count against you on today's scoresheet. Perhaps half of faceoffs are neither won nor lost, though no calculation factors this in.

Giveaways and takeaways tend far more to be the result of a teammate's effort or lack of effort than the player given credit for it. And as for hits, the count differs from rink to rink.

Perhaps the least helpful statistic, however, is shots, as they can vary as much as those coming from an AK-47 to a BB gun. Coaches tend to prefer counting scoring chances, but even this is a dubious measure as the NHL is loaded with losing coaches who will claim they "outchanced the opposition." As with virtually all hockey stats, the scoring chance defies pure definition.

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Scoring chances, however, are the prime evidence backing a story that flew around the Internet this past week: "Early stats show Kovalchuk not worth it."

Now, it might well be argued that the New Jersey Devils - hockey's musk ox of defensive strategy - were the worst possible team for free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to sign with last summer, but surely it is too early to conclude the $100-million (U.S.) was a waste.

Using a measure called CORSI - oversimplified, a tabulation of all shots directed at both nets while a player is on the ice - the argument went that, a mere handful of games into the season, Kovalchuk was a disaster while two other Devils players - Travis Zajac and Dainius Zubrus (the pure definition of "journeyman") - were far more valuable to the team.

This, we humbly suggest, makes the coach's "we outchanced them" seem virtually contempt-of-court by comparison.

Kovalchuk had the third worst CORSI rating on the team, just ahead of Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, two of the team's better players.

Another way of looking at this, of course, might be that the Devils were off to a horrendous start because its best players were stumbling out of the blocks, whereas journeymen were largely performing as journeymen are expected.

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It is, however, likely only a matter of time before the league adds this moot measure to its nightly game sheets, one more "baseball" stat to appease those who fail to comprehend that the best explanation for the game of hockey lies in a slight variation of the phrase "scat happens."

This is not to say that the game does not break down into convenient numbers.

But they are not found in a computer program or determined by slide rule.

They're right up there for all to see.

On the scoreboard.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More


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