Analytics cannot be allowed to sink its claws into the NHL like it has in Major League Baseball.
We are a few days removed from the Los Angeles Dodgers winning the 2020 World Series, but all the conversation and all the attention still belongs to the plucky Tampa Bay Rays.
Why? The Rays lost in six to the powerhouse Dodgers after all and we all know that losers get forgotten in the annals of history.
But the one thing we love more than a winner is controversy, and the Rays certainly served up a boiling, irresistible dish of just that in Game 6.
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You all know what unfolded by now, unless you’ve been in hiding (and that would be a different story for a different day) but the 2018 American League Cy Young pitcher Blake Snell was removed from the game in order to avoid seeing the Dodgers’ potent and deadly top of the lineup for the third time.
It was a bombshell decision that sent shockwaves through social media and the sporting world, leaving jaws on the ground to collect dirt and dust.
How could Rays Manager Kevin Cash take out a wheeling Snell, who had filthy stuff all postseason and was absolutely at the peak of his powers, in a pivotal Game 6? It was a baffling decision that made no sense and no amount of nerds hiding behind a laptop and spitting out obscene amounts of data can justify it.
Because, when all is said and done and it’s stripped back, sports is a simple game and sometimes all you need to succeed is gut instinct and the eye test.
And that’s why the National Hockey League has to put up a stubborn rearguard against the relentless and tradition-hating machine that is analytics.
Granted, numbers have seeped into the game we all love and so passionately follow, but we can’t allow the NHL to become as entrenched in analytics and numbers as baseball is.
Hockey, and all sports in general, are built on storied pillars of emotion, heart, character, feeling and, most importantly, truly magical moments that captivate us and leave us hooked for life.
We all love sports and our respective teams because of the joy we feel when they reach the absolute pinnacle, the top of the mountain, and we’re all united in collective grief when things reach a crushing nadir and the lean times flow.
What’s better than watching a moment of sheer brilliance unfold on the ice, like a textbook slice of magic from Wayne Gretzky or that never-say-die play from Mike Richards for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, a snapshot into what makes hockey the greatest sport on the planet.
Nothing, that’s what.
But numbers, and those who so furiously crunch them, threaten the very beliefs we hold so dear when it comes to what makes sports so special to us.
Just go back to that Game 6 between the Dodgers and the Rays, where the opportunity to see history unfold and a great pitching performance was snatched away from us, while Snell was robbed of the chance to etch his name in baseball folklore.
Imagine Sidney Crosby being benched for the final seconds of a must-win Stanley Cup Playoff game or Alex Ovechkin not being allowed to unleash his greatest weapon from his office simply because the numbers said that wasn’t the smart thing to do?
It is simply unimaginable but, as we are seeing in baseball right now, it could become a reality in the NHL if the nerds are granted their wish to come in and beat up the jocks in yet another sport.
Baseball fans are having the joy of watching America’s most beloved pastime being absolutely ripped from their very souls because the nerds have taken over, plugged their fancy laptops in and are infecting a game of feel and heart and character with mind-boggling numbers that would make even the professors at Harvard blush.
It can’t happen in the NHL. Not to that extent.
There are no metrics out there in the nerd-verse that can replace the gut feeling of a Head Coach rolling his best line out for two minutes at a time in order to chase an elusive game-tying goal, or a General Manager going all out to bag the White Whale that could be the final piece in a championship puzzle.
There are no numbers out there that can replicate the gruelling war of attrition that is an NHL game, where players literally put their bodies on the line for their teammates, their fans and the franchise.
You can’t underestimate the sheer randomness of hockey, and flooding this crazy, fast-paced, brutal game with numbers, stats and data would strip the joy away from the game we can’t get enough of.
Yes, heat maps and Corsi and other such stats are important in the game of hockey, but heart and soul, that invaluable gut feeling and the eye test still play such a vital role in today’s NHL, and it can’t allow itself to become awash in data and spreadsheets.
After all, sport and hockey in particular is compelling theater and its charming imperfections are what makes us fall in love over and over again.
And, very much at the epoch of a new era of hockey where blistering speed and mind-boggling young skill rules the day, you want the modern day superstars to play the game the way they know how, not to be dictated to by some machine with a distinct disregard and lack of respect for the human element.
No, while some numbers are good, the National Hockey League should learn from the harsh lessons currently pummelling Major League Baseball and fight back against the attack of the nerds who are armed with swathes of cold-hard data aimed to turn a game of chance into an exact science and transform those who thrive when going by their gut into powerless puppet masters.
Hockey and the NHL is better than that and they must now strive to protect all that is good and pure about the game we all love from those Ivy League monsters and brain-boxes.