Why do sports fans like injuries? Are they evil?

Dear Sports Fan,

My partner seems to really enjoy when an athlete gets hurt playing their sport. Usually it’s when it’s an opponent but sometimes even a player on the team he roots for. What’s up with that? Why do sports fans like injuries? Are they evil?

Thanks,
Violet


Dear Violet,

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot over the past couple of weeks, since the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs started. Even though I’ve been a hockey fan for over twenty years now, the intensity, violence, and sheer excitement of the playoffs surprises me every year. Injuries are one of the most noticeable ways in which the playoff games differ from the regular season games. Hockey playoffs are set up as best four game out of seven series between two teams. During the course of one of these playoff series, the injury rate for players seems to approach 100%. Just off the top of my head, from the series I was following most closely, I can think of countless times when players got hit in the face with sticks or with the puck, injuries resulting from players blocking shots and taking the puck off a unpadded or insufficiently padded area, twisted knees, and crunched shoulders. And of course, the dreaded specter of concussions looms over hockey as it does every collision sport.

All of these things happen during regular season hockey games but not nearly as often as they do during the playoffs. Your question begs me to consider my love for the playoffs and their higher rate of injury — am I a masochist? or is there another reason for enjoying seeing other people get hurt?

Over the years on this blog, I’ve suggested that one of the primary and primal reasons why people love watching sports is because they enjoy watching other people do things they absolutely could never do themselves. In this case, I think there’s another similar rationale that comes into play. People love watching sports because they enjoy watching other people do things they absolutely would never do themselves. The thrill of watching other people in danger and the admiration of our sport heroes courage are palpable. A hockey player who slides in front of a 100 mph slap shot, risking broken bones, smashed teeth, or worse simply to prevent his goalie from needing to make a save is doing something as unthinkable to most sports fans as LeBron James dunking a basketball or Bryce Harper hitting a home run. The distance between us and the hockey player is simply mental, not physical. Hockey injuries are a visual reminder of the mental distance between NHL players and normal fans.

The other aspect of enjoying injuries, especially in hockey, is that they, and how quickly hockey players return to play from suffering them, are a testament to how much hockey players care about winning. Sports fans live with the constant nagging fear that in the entire ecosystem of sports, they care more than the owners, coaches, general managers, players, and media members. It’s okay to be the person who cares the most about something, but when you care the most and have the least control over the outcome of something, you’re generally the rube. The way that hockey players play in the playoffs — recklessly, relentlessly, and despite injury — shows that they care just as much as the fans.

So, the next time your partner gets excited by blood dripping onto the ice, just know that he sees that as a sign that his passion is matched by the players he roots for and that he is admiring someone for doing something he would never, ever do.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What's the difference between a major and minor penalty in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the difference between a major and a minor penalty in hockey? Is it just how long the penalty is?

Thanks,
Amber


Dear Amber,

Ice hockey has one of the most colorful ways of penalizing players for misdeeds on the ice. The guilty player is sent to sit, alone, on the other side of the ice from their teammates, in a little glass-enclosed prison called the penalty box. While they are there, their team (usually) has to play a player (basically everyone, even in women’s hockey, says “a man down” but we’ll use the more egalitarian “player”) down. Duration is one difference between a major and a minor penalty in hockey, but it’s not the only one. There are actually a few more key types of penalties in hockey: minor, double minor, major, and a confusing category that includes misconducts, game misconducts, and match penalties. In this post, we’ll run through each type of penalty and its consequences.

What is a minor penalty in hockey?

The minor penalty is by far the most common penalty in hockey. It’s given for infractions like tripping, obstruction, goalie interference, and the less violent forms of cross-checking, high sticking, boarding, etc. A minor penalty sends a player to the penalty box for two minutes. During that time, her team will play with a four player unit on the ice called a penalty killing unit, while the other team plays with five players on an offensive-minded power play unit. If a goal is scored by the team with the extra player, during the two minute penalty, the rest of the penalty time is negated and the teams return to even strength — five against five. If another player on the same team commits a penalty while his teammate is still serving a two minute minor, that player joins his teammate in the penalty box and their team plays two players down. The resulting 5-3 power play often results in a goal. If the goal is scored during the 5-3, only the first player to commit the penalty leaves the box, and when play resumes, there will still be a 5-4 penalty.

What is a double-minor penalty in hockey?

A double-minor is exactly what it sounds like — two minor penalties assessed to a single player. This could be for two separate acts. For example, a player could be called for tripping, feel as though it was the result of a dive, get angry at the player who he thinks dove, start a scuffle with that player, and be assessed an additional minor penalty for roughing. The result would be a double-minor: two minutes for tripping and two minutes for roughing. More common is a double-minor assessed for a single act whose violence merits more than two minutes of penalty time. Double-minors are relatively rare and the majority of them are for a single offense: high sticking. High sticking, when one player’s stick hits another player above the shoulders not as part of the follow-through from a shot, is a two minute, minor penalty… unless the player who got hit with the stick bleeds. In that case, it’s a double-minor. This is why you’ll often see a ref go over to examine the player who took the stick in the head or face. Fans of that team will often be rooting for blood to appear. It’s a weird rule. A double-minor behaves like two independent minor penalties, one after another. If a goal is scored during the first two minutes, whatever time is left on that penalty is forgiven and the second two-minute penalty will begin as soon as play resumes. If a goal is scored during the second two minutes, the rest of that penalty is wiped out and the player leaves the penalty box.

What is a major penalty in hockey?

A major penalty is generally one given for a violent infraction with intent. Most are more serious versions of minor penalties. For example, cross-checking, boarding, elbowing, charging, may all be given in minor form or as a major. A major penalty comes with five minutes of penalty time. Five minutes is a lot, but there’s another reason that major penalties are so punitive. Major penalties can never be wiped out by a power play goal. Unlike in a minor or double-minor, when the team with the extra player scores during a major penalty, the penalty continues. No matter how many goals the other team scores, they continue to play with a numerical advantage until the five minutes are up. A major penalty is the one given for fighting, but because fighting always involves two players equally, the two major penalties cancel each other out. Although the two players involved do have to sit in the penalty box, their teams are allowed to continue playing five on five as they would otherwise do.

What are misconduct, game misconduct, and match penalties?

These three forms of penalty are a little complicated but they’re basically all given to players who do dumb shit on the ice. Their primary purpose is to get a player off the ice for either ten minutes (the misconduct) or the rest of the game (game misconduct and match penalty). None of them result in a power play but they’re often given in conjunction with a minor or major penalty. For example, a player who throws a particularly dangerous elbow may be given a major and a match penalty. Both the game misconduct and match penalty result in throwing a player out for the rest of the game but they have different implications for fines and suspensions after the fact. All three types of penalties are relatively rare, but you will see them if you keep watching hockey for long enough.

Hopefully this gives you a sense of how the major (no pun intended) forms of penalties work in hockey. The primary difference between them is duration, but what happens when a goal is scored during the resulting power play is another important factor.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How does a snap shot work in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does a snap shot work in ice hockey? Can you describe how it works and when or why a player would choose to use it?

Thanks,
Pat


Dear Pat,

There are three main kinds of shots in ice hockey: the slap shot, the snap shot, and the wrist shot. Each shot has its own technique and is distinguishable when watching hockey on TV or in person. Each shot has advantages and disadvantages and is appropriate for different situations. In this post, we’ll describe the most commonly used shot in today’s National Hockey League, the snap shot. You’ll learn how to identify it when you see it, when and what it’s used for, and even how to do it if you find yourself with a hockey stick in your hands.

The snap shot is a hybrid shot which combines the best features of the slap shot and wrist shot together in a single unstoppable combination. As we described in the post on wrist shots, the wrist shot is the quickest to get off because it requires no windup and the most accurate because it’s done in a single, fluid motion where the puck never leaves the blade of the stick. As we described in our post about slap shots, the slap shot is the most powerful shot in hockey — it can send a puck flying through the air at over 100 miles per hour. The snap shot steals elements from both shots. You can understand the snap shot as a slap shot but without most of the wind-up or as an abbreviated wrist shot. Take a look at one good example:


The clearest advantage of a snap shot is that it takes virtually no preparation to take. You can move into the snap shot motion equally well from stick handling or immediately from a pass. The snap shot doesn’t have the wind-up of a slap shot or the fluid but long motion of the wrist shot. This makes it much harder for goalies or defenders to block. Curtailing the wind-up also robs the other team of vital information about the direction of the shot. The snap shot takes advantage of the flexibility of modern hockey sticks but also allows a player to aim quite accurately.

If you want to work on taking a snap shot yourself, start with a slap shot or a wrist shot, whichever you’re more comfortable with. If you choose slap shot, take a smaller and smaller wind-up until you’re barely moving your stick back from the puck before propelling it forward and into a shooting motion. Once you’re there, raise your bottom hand up six inches to a foot on the shaft of the stick and add an extra flick of your bottom wrist right after your stick comes in contact with the puck. If you’re more comfortable starting with a wrist shot, practice leaving the puck still on the ice as you do the first half of the sweeping motion of the shot. It will feel like you’re picking the puck up in the middle of the wrist shot motion. Now add some extra oomph to the shot by slapping the puck when you first make contact.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

 

How does a wrist shot work in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does a wrist shot work in ice hockey? Can you describe how it works and when or why a player would choose to use it?

Thanks,
Greg


Dear Greg,

There are three main kinds of shots in ice hockey: the slap shot, the snap shot, and the wrist shot. Each shot has its own technique and is distinguishable when watching hockey on TV or in person. Each shot has advantages and disadvantages and is appropriate for different situations. In this post, we’ll describe the wrist shot. You’ll learn how to identify it when you see it, when and what it’s used for, and even how to do it if you find yourself with a hockey stick in your hands.

The wrist shot is the quiet killer in hockey. Although it’s no longer the most common shot in hockey, it still has a lot of advantages over its more bombastic cousins, the slap shot and snap shot. It’s easy to identify a wrist shot because it’s usually the one you don’t see! For a professional player, the transition between simply skating with the puck and taking a wrist shot is seamless to the point of invisibility. If you look closely, you may notice a player position the puck slightly farther out to the side or even slightly behind them right before they move into the wrist shot motion. From this position, the player flicks the puck forward in a single, smooth motion.

Most of the power of a wrist shot comes from a shift in weight from one leg to the other – the leg farthest from the goal to the one closest – that’s also neigh impossible to see. In the follow through after the shot, a player’s stick may come up to about waist-high. The puck moves fluidly throughout a wrist shot from being on the ice but not in touch with the stick, to touching the tip of the stick, to sliding backwards along the blade. The puck will slide back on the blade only to around the midpoint of the curve, at which point, the players movement begins to sling-shot the puck forward. It’s called a wrist shot because a player’s lower hand will turn over during the shot, using the wrist to flick the puck at toward the goal. Take a look at NHL player Alex Steen score on a wrist shot here:

The biggest advantage of the wrist shot is that goalies and defenders have as hard a time identifying one as we do in the audience. A wrist shot gets the puck moving towards the net with no fanfare. Although it’s the slowest of the three major shots in the air, the suddenness with which a hockey player can take a wrist shot often makes it the best option. It also requires very little commitment from the shooting player. If she sees a teammate in a better position to shoot, it’s relatively easy to change the wrist shot to a pass. If the shot is blocked or the puck stolen, a player who has chosen a wrist shot should be able to recover and play defense with less difficulty than a player who may be off-balance after a slap shot gone wrong. The wrist shot is also the easiest to aim for experts and, because the puck never looses contact with the stick, for beginners as well.

The wrist shot is the easiest shot to practice at home. Take a hockey stick and a tennis ball and find a wall with no windows nearby! Put the tennis ball about two feet to your forehand side (right if you’re right-handed, left if you’re a lefty) and about six inches behind your feet. In a single motion, slide the ball forward, allow it to settle on the middle of the curve of your stick, and then shoot it forward by lifting the stick while turning your bottom wrist quickly up. You should get a nice, fluid shot. If not, it may help to move the ball back and forward a bit while it’s at your side and start the motion at the end of a backwards roll. Once you’ve got it down with a tennis ball, try it with a puck. It will be much harder to lift off the ground that way, but it is possible.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

 

How does a slap shot work in ice hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does a slap shot work in ice hockey? Can you describe how it works and when or why a player would choose to use it?

Thanks,
Marie


Dear Marie,

There are three main kinds of shots in ice hockey: the slap shot, the snap shot, and the wrist shot. Each shot has its own technique and is distinguishable when watching hockey on TV or in person. Each shot has advantages and disadvantages and is appropriate for different situations. In this post, we’ll describe hockey’s most iconic shot, the slap shot. You’ll learn how to identify it when you see it, when and what it’s used for, and even how to do it if you find yourself with a hockey stick in your hands.

The slap shot is perhaps the most iconic image people have of a hockey shot. A player winds up for it, bringing their stick up almost vertically behind them before using all their muscles to swing it down. Instead of hitting the puck directly, as you might expect, in a slap shot, the stick makes contact with the ice a few inches behind the puck. When this happens, the stick actually bends with the blade of the stick forced backwards by the impenetrability of the ice. As the stick’s forward motion continues, the blade releases from the ice, getting an extra bit of speed by springing forward just as it connects with the puck. The result is a powerful shot, the most powerful in hockey. As you can see in this .gif from a “hardest shot competition” in last year’s NHL All Star game, slap shots can travel over 100 miles per hour!

The clearest advantage of a slap shot is speed. Ironically, the disadvantage is also speed. Although the slap shot propels the puck faster than any other shot, it also takes the longest time to execute. In today’s NHL, it’s rare for a player to have enough time to wind up and release a slap shot before a defender has hit them, stolen the puck from them, or slid into a position to block the shot. Even if a player does have time to get a slap shot off, they aren’t particularly deceptive. If a goalie has time to set up in position to save a slap shot, they’ll probably be able to do so. The times when a slap shot are most effective are when a player can execute the process before the defense knows they’re going to be in a position to shoot. This usually means one of the shooter’s teammates has the puck and passes it to the shooter as he’s setting up to shoot. This type of slap shot, directly from a pass, is called a one-timer. It has an added element of difficulty because the shooter must time and position their shot to strike a moving puck but when it works it’s almost unstoppable.

If you want to work on taking a slap shot yourself, your best bet is to start on solid ground. With shoes on pavement, a slap shot is no harder than swinging a golf club. It’s on ice that things get tricky. You must be able to swing your stick and torque your body with great force without losing your balance. Practice it incrementally, starting with a small windup and working up to a full one. You’ll know you’ve gone too fast when you find yourself sitting on the ice without having moved the puck at all. Another note for beginners — unless you’re freakishly strong, don’t try to do the trick the pros do to get extra speed by hitting the ice first. You’re probably not stronger than your stick, so instead of it bending, your body will take the brunt of the ice’s impact. Ouch!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

 

What is a hockey assist?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was playing basketball the other day and one of my teammates complimented me on a “nice hockey assist.” I know that an assist is the pass right before someone makes a shot. What is a hockey assist?

Thanks,
Conrad


Dear Conrad,

A hockey assist refers to a pass that led to a pass that led to a goal or basket. It’s called a hockey assist because hockey is the only one of the major sports to credit players for it in basic official statistics. A hockey player who passes the puck to a teammate who scores is given an assist. A hockey player who passes the puck to a teammate who passes the puck to a teammate who scores is also credited with an assist. To distinguish the two types of assists, the first one is called a primary assist and the other is called a secondary assist. What the hockey world calls a secondary assist, the rest of the world calls a “hockey assist.”

Every sport has a historical group of simple statistics which defined how casual fans and even insiders thought about players for a long time. Examining the statistics can also tell us something about the culture of the sport. In hockey, one of those basic statistics was points, calculated by adding all of that player’s goals and assists. This is perhaps simplest way to judge a player’s worth. In a player’s cumulative season or career point total, a secondary assist counts just as much as a primary one. From this, we can intuit that hockey values teamwork and spreads out credit for achievements more than most sports. This rings true considering some of hockey’s other traditions, like putting the name of every player from the championship team on the Stanley Cup, hockey’s ultimate trophy.

The hockey assist is not without its critics. In fact, a quick google search reveals people who call it a lie, pointless, and less sense than almost any other rule in sports. People need to chill out. The statistical revolution has come to every major sport and has completely revolutionized the way players are evaluated within teams. No team worth its salt is going to make player decisions on statistics as fundamental as assists or points. Furthermore, as people have become more savvy about looking for meaningful statistics in other sports, the hockey assist received some serious consideration. Here’s a great blog post by Kevin Yeung for SB Nation’s Memphis Grizzlies blog, Grizzly Bear Blues, in which he explores the hockey assist in a basketball context. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in learning more about the value of your basketball hockey assist!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

For women's sports to thrive, look beyond the World Cup

So far, the women’s 2015 World Cup has been a great success. Sure, it’s had its sore spots: the cringe-inducing spectacle of people playing soccer on artificial turf that literally melts their cleats and burns their feet; the lackluster performance of the United States team so far; the mostly empty stadiums for some Round of 16 games; but overall, it’s been a great time for soccer and women’s sports in general. The games have been fast, exciting, and as a whole, quite competitive. There have been viewing parties all over the country, from bars and living rooms to town squares and outside city halls. Even President Obama got into the act, showing support for the U.S. team.

One way that you can tell that women’s sports has hit the jackpot of popular support with this World Cup is by noting how quickly and vociferously opponents of equality in sport get shouted down in the media. Early this week, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit provided an example when he tweeted his belief that women’s sports in general are not worth watching. As you might expect, Benoit was roundly condemned for his tweet. He was mocked by former Saturday Night Live actors Amy Poehler and Seth Myers (who themselves were good-naturedly mocked by Fox Sports 1’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole). His contention that women’s sports are not worth watching was debunked by innumerable columnists around the country, my favorite of which was Will Leitch in Sports on Earth who argued that anyone who thinks women’s sports are boring, are in fact, boring themselves:

People like Benoit toss out these justifications for not watching women’s sports out of some sort of faux sports purity, like he’s really just out to watch the pinnacle of athletic achievement every night, like anything less than the “best” and the “fastest” and the “strongest” is somehow a waste of one’s time. But this isn’t why we watch sports at all; we watch because every game we watch, we have a chance to see something we’ve never seen before. Dismissing that out of hand isn’t a way of demanding the highest quality performance every game (as if that’s something that could be done anyway); it’s a way of confirming your preexisting biases. It also devalues the actual athleticism on display, and the amount of work it required of everyone to get there.

Although the reaction against Benoit’s comment suggests that he was voicing a fringe, minority opinion, he was not. His attitude towards women’s sports is quite mainstream. Benoit simply made the mistake of speaking out against women’s sports during the World Cup, one of women’s sports two or three most popular events at a time when it’s never been more popular. If you think anything he said was new, you should watch this bitingly ironic video the Norwegian national team made before the World Cup began:

Negative attitudes like the ones the Norwegian team mocked in their video are all too common in the sports world and are relatively safe to voice during the 45 months out of every 48 when a World Cup or Olympics is not going on. This is bad for elite female athletes, it’s bad for people who love watching sports, it’s bad for girls who aspire to be athletes and their parents. I actually can’t think of anyone it is good for. It’s bad for everyone. Unfortunately, as popular as events like the World Cup and Olympics are, they can’t solve the problem because they only come around once every four years. To solve the gender inequalities in sports, a more consistent, permanent force is needed.

Tanya Wheeless, a former executive of the professional basketball teams, the Phoenix Mercury and Suns, wrote recently about the challenge of sustaining interest in women’s sports beyond the World Cup in Time magazine. She suggests that the critical variable in equalizing the opportunities and rewards provided by sports to women is investment:

What if the likes of Nike, Adidas, Coke, and Gatorade spent as much promoting female athletes as they did men? What if women’s leagues had the same marketing budget as men’s leagues? What if the National Women’s Soccer League got as much airtime in the U.S. as the English Premier League?

Naysayers will say all of that would happen if the interest were there. I say, increase promotion and the interest will follow. It’s the difference between having a market and creating one.

Wheeless could not be more right. The future of women’s sports must be bolstered by strong professional leagues. Professional leagues provide opportunities for athletes to get the training and experience they need to become world class. Without strong professional leagues, athletes are left making gut-wrenching decisions, like that of Noora Raty, perhaps the best women’s hockey goalie in the world, who retired at 24 for financial reasons, or Monica Quinteros, the 26 year-old Ecuadorian soccer player who left her job as a gym teacher to play in this year’s World Cup. You think they might have stuck with their sports if they could have made a living doing so? Yeah, so do I.

We don’t need to leave it to “Nike, Adidas, Coke, and Gatorade.” We can do something about this ourselves. We can contribute to equality and the success of women’s sports by becoming a fan of an existing women’s professional team. That’s exactly what I aim to do with the local professional women’s soccer team, the Boston Breakers. I’ve been to one game so far this year and it was a lot of fun. Held in a Harvard University complex convenient to most of the greater Boston area, Breakers games provide high-quality soccer in a thoroughly enjoyable atmosphere. I’m going again this Sunday when the Breakers take on the Western New York Flash at 5 p.m. Tickets are available and affordable. Join me!

There’s really no excuse to continue watching only male sports. There are successful women’s basketball and soccer leagues: the WNBA and NWSL, and later this year, a brand new professional women’s ice hockey league, the NWHL will begin. The WNBA is carried on television by the ESPN family of channels and you can buy streaming access to all the games for only $15. The NWSL goes a step further and puts all of its games on Youtube for free! If you’re reading this post now, you can watch those games. So join me, over the next year and more, in supporting women’s sports by putting our eyes and our wallets were our mouths are!

Why don't hockey teams announce injuries like football?

Dear Sports Fan,

Have you been watching the Stanley Cup Finals this year? I’m curious about the Tampa Bay Lightning goalie. He’s obviously injured but no one will say how. All they say is that he has a “lower body injury.” Why don’t hockey teams announce injuries like football?

Thanks,
Meredith


Dear Meredith,

I have seen some of the Stanley Cup Finals this year. They’ve been exciting! Among the most suspenseful parts of the series has been watching Ben Bishop try to play through whatever injury he has. During Game Two, he was forced out of the game twice. He made it through Game Three despite seemingly struggling to move side to side or get back up to his feet from the ground. He sat out Game Four completely and watched his backup, Andrei Vasilevskiy, play only moderately well in a loss. At the time of writing this post, his status for Game Five, tonight, is still unknown. Equally unknown is what, exactly, is wrong with him.

Information about injuries to hockey players is usually hard to come by. That’s never more true than during the playoffs. Since 2008, teams have not been required to give the media or the league any information about player injures although they are required not to release misleading information. Most of the time, teams do give out some information. The “lower body injury” language that you referred to in your question is a hockey classic. “Lower body” or “upper body”  is all we normally get. Sometimes, as is the case with Bishop, teams don’t even specify the hemisphere of the injury. The only thing the Tampa Bay Lightning have officially said about Bishop is that he has an “unspecified injury.”

Theoretically, the reason for this stonewalling is to protect the injured player. It’s commonly thought that if an opposing team knows that Player A’s left knee is hurt or her right arm, they will target that specific spot for extra abuse in the form of legal checks or illegally thrown elbows or slashing sticks. There could also be tactical considerations. Some injuries limit what a player can do on the ice — maybe a player with in injured wrist will have trouble lifting the puck on shots. If that news gets out there, the opposing goalie will know to concentrate on covering the bottom of the net.

Of course, with the availability and malleability of video these days, every play of every game can be dissected from any number of angles. If a player gets hurt in a game, it’s usually going to be obvious what limb or joint is the injured body part. Even when that is the case, most teams continue the upper body/lower body charade. I’ve seen obvious injures, like when a player blocks a shot with his left foot and then limps off the ice. What then, could be the point of classifying that injury as a “lower body injury” instead of a “left foot injury.”

In cases where the injury is obvious, the obfuscation can only be for one of three reasons:

  • As security theater. I don’t think players are dumb enough to believe that if their coach doesn’t tell the media the nature of an obvious injury, no one will know what it is, but it probably still makes them happier than hearing their coach talk about it.
  • It’s a way to create and maintain a team identity. Taking a stand against the media is a classic page in every coach’s book for creating a sense of team.
  • It’s easier. Instead of talking about the obvious injuries and going mute when a non-obvious injury happens, it’s just easier to say nothing about everything all the time.

The only reason we expect teams to go public with the nature of injuries is that the National Football League requires their teams to do so. Why? Is it for the enjoyment of fans? Not really. It’s all about gambling. Sports books cannot and will not set lines if they don’t know whether an important player will play in an upcoming game. Forcing teams to release injury information facilitates sports betting which always has been and continues to be one of the big drivers of attention to sports. Even though the NFL refuses to endorse gambling on their sport, their policy on injury information suggests otherwise. Betting on hockey is big business but it’s not nearly as big as football betting is, and perhaps the NHL doesn’t feel quite the same pressure to pander to the gambling industry.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Dear Sports Fan joins the real world: Meetup

Watching sports with someone who knows more or less than you can be a frustrating proposition.

If you’re the person who knows less about sports, you probably have a lot of questions. How many can you ask before the sports fan you’re watching with gets annoyed? When is the right time to ask? You don’t want to ruin the game for your companion by asking a simple question right at a suspenseful moment. Talking about simple questions, it can be difficult to learn when it seems like the answers to all your questions contain vocabulary words you’re not completely clear on. Words and concepts that are second nature to a sports fan, like offside, holding, second set, third and seven, or two and two, are not easy sailing if you don’t know what they mean. It often feels like a choice between pestering your companion incessantly or accepting that the sporting event can only be pleasant but indecipherable background noise.

Being the person who knows more about sports can also be tricky. Knowledge often comes from passion, so the person who knows more often wants to focus more on watching and less on talking. It can be legitimately difficult to explain the components of something you may have learned very gradually from an early age or from the altered perspective of being a participant.

It’s difficult to watch sports without understanding them but it’s impossible to learn without watching. It’s a Catch 22 of Hellermanian proportions — at least it was, until now. After four years of explaining sports online, Dear Sports Fan will be making its first foray into the real world. I’ve started a Meetup group called Dear Sports Fan Viewing Parties for people who want to watch sports with explicit permission to ask question and for sports fans who want to help create a supportive setting. Our first Meetup will be this Monday, June 8, at 7 p.m. to watch the U.S. Women’s National soccer team play its first game of the 2015 World Cup against Australia. We’ll be gathering at Orleans bar in Somerville near Davis Square. If you or anyone you know lives in the Boston area and would like to be a part of this experiment, let me know or sign up here.

Why isn't a shot that hits the post a shot in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

Over the past three years, I’ve become an ice hockey fan but there’s one thing that still really annoys me. Hockey fans and commentators often talk about “shots” as a meaningful statistic but it seems totally meaningless to me. Apparently a shot that hits the post doesn’t count as a shot — just the same as a shot that goes twenty feet wide. That distinction should mean something! What does the shot statistic means and why I should care about it?

Thanks,
Sonja


Dear Sonja,

Sports are full of statistics. From the outside looking in, it might seem like sports fans are just obsessed with statistics for no reason. That’s probably true for some sports fans but the purpose of a stat, the reason why it exists, is to represent some aspect of the game numerically so that it’s easier to know how well a team or player is doing. Stats are supposed to help the viewer understand what’s going on in a given game and to compare the performance of their favorite teams and players not only against their opponents but also against their own past performances. The sports world is in the midst of a thirty year statistical revolution during which many of the older statistics have been torn down and either replaced by new ones or simply discredited. Shots are one of ice hockey’s oldest statistic. Why don’t we examine what the shots statistic is, what it’s trying to tell us, and what some potential replacements could be.

The full name of the statistic which is commonly referred to as “shots” is “shots on goal.” In some ways, this helps explain what the statistic means and in other ways… well, in other ways, it probably serves only to further the confusion. “Shots” sounds like it should include any time a player winds up and shoots the puck, intending to score a goal, even if her shot is blocked or goes three feet wide. When you use the full name of the statistic, it becomes more understandable why shots that are blocked or miss the goal aren’t counted. That’s good — a stat’s name should reflect what it actually is. What you point out about hitting the posts or the crossbar is true though. Those shots are not counted in the shots on goal statistic even though they may feel like they should.

My totally unfounded guess about how this game about is that goalie statistics are a little bit older than skater statistics. Perhaps the shots statistic was created in response to an older goalie statistic. Saves — the number of times a goalie catches or deflects the puck away — makes sense. Want to know how active a goalie has been during a game? How many saves did he make? Shots seems like the reverse of saves plus the number of goals a team scores. Every time the goalie makes a save the opposing team registers a shot. Every time the goalie doesn’t make a save and a goal results, the other team registers a shot. Combining metrics like these would make the life of an early statistics keeper much easier. A shot that hit the post and didn’t go in is clearly not a save, so it didn’t get counted as a shot either.

The problem with the shots on goal statistic, which I think you are getting at by objecting to the way shots that hit the post are treated, is that it doesn’t do a very good job at telling us anything meaningful about the game. At first glance, it seems like it’s trying to show how well a team or player is doing on offense. Alas, it doesn’t distinguish between a puck that hit the crossbar and one that missed by six feet, even if those two acts are very different from a successful-offense perspective. It counts a harmless, non-threatening long-distance wrist shot but it doesn’t count a puck that nearly goes in before being blocked by a desperate defender. If a team wanted to inflate their shots statistic, they would just wildly throw the puck at the net every time they got near the offensive zone. That’s not a good offensive strategy for winning, so it seems like an offensive statistic shouldn’t encourage it.

Before we get to ideas for replacing this statistic, it’s worth mentioning that in real life, over a large sample size, which the 82 game regular season in the NHL is, shots is not a terrible statistic. Oh sure, in any given game it could be problematic for the reasons we just mentioned, but over time the better offensive players and teams do tend to generate more shots. This past year, the team with the most shots per game during the regular season was the Chicago Blackhawks, now playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, and the player with the most shots was Alexander Ovechkin, who also had by far the most goals. Shots don’t have to be a perfect statistic to be useful in part because no reasonable player or team actually modifies their behavior based on the shots statistic. It’s not perfect but I am still happier when the team I’m rooting for has more shots than the other team does.

One of the reasons players and teams don’t optimize for shots is because they probably don’t even use that statistic anymore. Although it’s still a mainstay of television production and newspaper columns, almost every team has its own group of statisticians who work for it. These folks create and keep much more meaningful proprietary statistics that they hope will give their team an edge over the competition. I have no idea what their statistics are but here are some other stats could replace or augment the shots statistic. In addition to shots on goal, you’ll sometimes see a “shots attempted” statistic. This counts any shot that misses or is blocked as well as ones that count as shots. That’s good because it’s basically not subjective and it’s process driven instead of outcome driven. A team that has the puck more and is playing better offensively will generate more shots, even if the majority of them miss or get blocked. Another stat that I like is “scoring chances.” This one is totally subjective. It counts any time a team looks like it legitimately might score, even if that moment doesn’t result in a shot. Virtually every time the puck hits the post, it would count as a scoring chance because if it had been an inch to the right or left, you’d have had a goal. Sometimes a scoring chance could happen without even an attempted shot. If a player is wide open in front of the net and whiffs on a pass to her and never makes contact with the puck, it’s still a glorious and missed scoring chance. The problem with scoring chances is that what you or I might think of as a legitimate chance, someone else who has more confidence in the goalie might consider a routine save and not count.

Statistics create a representational model of the sports they seek to quantify. Like drawing a stick figure, a statistic doesn’t need to be perfect, or even good, to be helpful. The shots on goal statistic isn’t a very good one, but when combined with others, it can give a general sense of how a game is going.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer