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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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


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?


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

Sports Stories: Waffle fries and victory

Everyone has a sports story. As part of my mission to create peace in the world between sports fans and non-sports fans, I am doing a set of interviews of people on both sides of the line. Whether you’re a die-hard fan with their favorite player’s face tattooed onto their body or someone who is not a fan but whose life intersects with sports in some way, you have a valuable story to tell. Sign up today to tell your story on our easy to use booking page.

To get things started, I’ll be sharing some of my own personal sports stories here.

Although we grew up in Central New Jersey, my friend James and I have been Pittsburgh Penguins hockey fans for around 20 years. Like many young people (read this New York Times article about this phenomenon) we jumped on the bandwagon of a winning team in that impressionable age bracket between 8 and 12. Back then, the Penguins were a skilled hockey team that played a wide open style of play. They didn’t care so much if their opposition scored five goals because they were convinced they could score six. This provided a striking contrast with our local team, the New Jersey Devils, whose tactical choice to turn hockey into a grapple-first, skate-second sport eventually sparked widespread rule changes. Not only were we rooting for a winner, but we felt we had the favor of the hockey gods.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2009 and James I were both living in New York City. We weren’t close friends but we hadn’t had a falling out, either. Call us, dormant friends. Then, the NHL playoffs started, and for the second year in a row, the Penguins began a deep run. In the first round, they faced their dreaded rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. We started meeting up for games at a bar convenient to both of us called Dewey’s. The Penguins beat the Flyers in Game Six of the series. After giving up 3 goals to start that game, the diminutive and much-loved Penguin, Max Talbot, picked a fight with a much bigger Flyer. Talbot “got his ass kicked” as he said later, but it seemed to snap the team out of their malaise, and they rattled off five straight goals to win the game and the series. It was glorious.

Over the next few weeks, as the Penguins progressed closer and closer to their goal of winning the Stanley Cup, James and I settled into a superstitious pattern. Go to Dewey’s. Sit in the back. Get the waitress or busboy (most of whom knew us by then) to turn on the game. Order a pitcher of Yuengling. At the start of the second period, order chicken fingers and cheese fries and share them. We even had roles to play. James was the optimist, I was the pessimist. “They’re not going to win,” I would say, “the other team is too big, too strong, their goalie is too good.” James would talk me down. Our act worked. The Penguins beat the Capitals 6-2 in Game Seven on the road to win that series 4-3. The conference finals were a breeze — a four game sweep over the Carolina Hurricanes. This set up a rematch of the previous year’s Stanley Cup Finals between the Penguins and the Red Wings.

The series was an epic. The Red Wings won two games at home, then the Penguins won two games at home. The Red Wings took game five, the Penguins took game seven. Before we knew it, we were looking at one last evening at Dewey’s for game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. There’s nothing better or more thoroughly nerve-wracking than a game seven. The only problem was — James was hosting a party in his apartment that night. Not to worry, he said, he would get a friend to open his door and we could join the party after the game. NO WAY was he going to be responsible for a Penguins loss by changing up our routine.

We went to Dewey’s. The Penguins won. We hopped into a cab and rode it to Red Hook, Brooklyn, screaming happy inanities periodically through the open windows.

Thanks for reading. Share your sports stories with me soon. Book some time today.

Stanley Cup Playoff Companion, April 17, 2015

The playoffs are a wonderful time in sports but they can be hard to follow, even for the most die-hard fan of a playoff team. They’re virtually impossible for a non-fan or casual observer! No matter who you are, Dear Sports Fan’s Playoff Companion can help. Sign up to get text updates each day for your favorite team or teams or just for the team or teams you feel you need to know about in order to be able to have a decent conversation with your wife, husband, son, daughter, parent, colleague, or friend.

Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators — Game 2, 7 p.m. ET on CNBC — Series is 1-0

Montreal Canadiens fans – Ignore the game outside the rink, all that matters is another win tonight.
Montreal Canadiens interested parties – This series has exploded into controversy thanks to a slash by Canadiens P.K. Subban that broke an opponent’s wrist. The controversy is fun but winning would be better.

Ottawa Senators fans – Vacillating between seeing red and wanting to keep calm and play on.
Ottawa Senators interested parties – Senators fans are up in arms about a slash that broke the wrist of winger Mark Stone. Anger mixed with disappointment is the cocktail of the day.

Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders — Game 2, 7 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network — Series is 0-1

Washington Capitals fans – Time to even it up. No excuses, no tomorrows.
Washington Capitals interested parties – Having a better record than your playoff opponent means you get the first two games of the series at home. This is usually an advantage but if you lose the first game, as the Capitals did, it really puts the pressure on to win the second.

New York Islanders fans – There’s nothing better than being a road team in game two after stealing game one. It’s literally all upside.
New York Islanders interested parties – The traditional goal of a road team in a playoff series is to win one of the first two games on the road. The Islanders already did that, so the pressure is taken off this game in a big way.

Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks — Game 2, 9:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network — Series is 0-1

Nashville Predators fans – Time to wipe the disappointed memories of double-overtime out of our heads. The positives will outweigh the negatives… if we win tonight.
Nashville Predators interested parties – Only the slimmest of margins separated the Predators from their opponents in game one. Fans will be hoping for the same kind of game with just a tiny bit more luck tonight.

Chicago Blackhawks fans – Win, rinse, repeat.
Chicago Blackhawks interested parties – The Blackhawks have been so successful over the past five years, that winning has become, if not expected, at least habitual. Spirits are high heading into game 2.

Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames — 10 p.m. ET on CNBC — Series is 0-1

Vancouver Canucks fans – Breath easy, relax, project confidence. Try to ignore your stomach starting to creep up into your throat.
Vancouver Canucks interested parties – It’s only been one game, but the pessimistic streak that typifies the true Canucks fan may already be starting to run rampant.

Calgary Flames fans – As long as the kids keep winning, maybe they won’t notice (and no one else will notice) that they’re in a bit over their heads.
Calgary Flames interested parties – The Flames are a young team that’s playing better than expected. Fans will be thrilled but with a tiny bit of reserve held for the moment things start going badly.

New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins — Rest Day — Series is 1-0

New York Rangers fans – See? The Penguins are soft. Oh sure, they made a game out of it, but they don’t have our discipline or depth.
New York Rangers interested parties – The Rangers should have won and they did. Today is a good day for Rangers fans. Game two is Saturday night.

Pittsburgh Penguins fans – Oh no! Same old, undisciplined, mentally lapsing Penguins. Although they did look good for the other 58 minutes…
Pittsburgh Penguins interested parties – Your Penguins fans may seem either unusually affected or unaffected by last night’s loss. Both responses are normal.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings — Rest Day — Series is 0-1

Tampa Bay Lightning fans – Every fear we had about the Wings came to fruition in one night. Still, the hope is to wear them down.
Tampa Bay Lightning interested parties – A game one loss won’t dampen a Lightning fan’s enthusiasm… yet.

Detroit Red Wings fans – The Magic Man’s got a little bit of magic left. All hail Pavel Datsyuk.
Detroit Red Wings interested parties – A perfect road playoff game for the veteran Red Wings have their fans strutting just a little bit today.

St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild — Rest Day — Series is 0-1

St. Louis Blues fans – Not the start we were looking for, but all roads to Rome weren’t paved in a day, right?
St. Louis Blues interested parties – Encourage the Blues fan in your life to take the longer view of things. The first game didn’t go well, but were they really expecting to go 16-0?

Minnesota Wild fans – Never a doubt! The Blues may be more accomplished, but our team is a bad matchup for them.
Minnesota Wild interested parties – The Blues were a scary opponent for Wild fans but now that game one went so well, a little bit of confidence will be creeping in. That’s good, nurture it.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets — Rest Day — Series is 1-0

Anaheim Ducks fans – One down, one to go. The best way to mute the Winnipeg crowd is to beat their team twice in California.
Anaheim Ducks interested parties – The Ducks looked very strong in their first game and win of the postseason.

Winnipeg Jets fans – Doesn’t matter, let’s steal game two!!! GO JETS!!! Although, I will admit that the Ducks looked strong.
Winnipeg Jets interested parties – Losing game one will barely have an affect on the near-berserker levels of enthusiasm of the Jets fans in your life.

How do trades work in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching Moneyball with my husband. We were curious how trading works in various sports. Can you explain the rules and how they are implemented. For example why do trades happen in the middle of the season for some sports, but not others?


Dear Sarah,

At it’s heart, Moneyball is a story about how careful analytical thought can provide an organization an advantage over its competitors. The team at the center of the story, the Oakland Athletics baseball team, exploited its competition mostly by making unexpectedly smart personnel decisions. In any sports league, teams have three main ways of acquiring players: by drafting players not yet in the league, by signing players who are free agents, and by trading for players. As you pointed out in your question, trades work a little differently in each major sports league in the United States. While an explanation of the exact rules in each league could easily give even the most long-winded Russian novelist a run for her money, I’ll try to lay out a few of the major differences in a few mercifully brief paragraphs below.

Hard Cap, Soft Cap, or No Cap?

One of the biggest factors affecting how players are traded in a sports league is the salary cap structure. A salary cap is a value, set before the season, against which the aggregated salaries of all the players on a team are compared to. In leagues with a hard salary cap, like the National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL), teams are (with very, very few exceptions) not allowed to exceed this value. In leagues with a soft salary cap, like the National Basketball League (NBA) there are a host of ways that teams can exceed the value set by the salary cap. Depending on how a team manages to exceed it, they may be assigned a financial penalty but not one that hurts them on the court. Some leagues, primarily Major League Baseball (MLB), have no salary cap. In baseball, teams can pay their players as much or as little as they choose and the market will bear.

These rules have a deep impact on the trading culture of the leagues. Having a hard cap restricts the possible trades teams can make. Any potential trade that would put a team over the salary cap is a non-starter. Having no cap, like in the MLB, means that teams are free to trade players pretty much however they want. The in between world of the soft capped NBA is perhaps the most interesting. NBA trades are often more about finances than they are about basketball players. Because teams are constantly in the process of manipulating their payroll in order to position themselves best within the complicated world of soft-cap exceptions, you’ll often see basketball trades that, if you don’t understand the financial and cap implications of them, seem totally crazy. For instance, one team might seem to give a player to another team for virtually (and sometimes literally) nothing. Or a team might send a good player to a team for a player who has had a career ending injury. In those cases, what the team is getting back is not the injured player or nothing, but some element of financial flexibility.

To trade a draft pick or not?

In all four major U.S. sports leagues, there are entry drafts each year where teams get to take turns choosing players who aren’t in the league yet. In all but one, teams can and often do trade their right to choose in a future year’s draft to another team. The one league where that is (again, basically) not allowed is the MLB. Teams in the other three leagues often get themselves in trouble by mortgaging their future for their present by trading a lot of their future draft picks away. One entertaining aspect of trading draft picks is that the order during drafts is set (more or less) by how teams did in the previous season. The worse a team does, the more likely they are to have a high pick in the upcoming draft. If the team you root for has another team’s draft pick, it’s order is still set by how that team performs, so a good fan will root against that team all year to optimize the chance of its draft pick being a good one.

Do the players get a say?

This all seems fine and dandy until you stop and think about players and their families who can get uprooted at any moment and forced to move to another city. This is definitely part of the business of sports and most players don’t have much control over their careers in this way. There are a couple major exceptions. When a player negotiates his or her contract, they can negotiate a full or partial no-trade clause. A no-trade clause, sometimes abbreviated as a NTR means that a player does have some say over whether and where they get traded. A partial no-trade clause means a player has to maintain a list of some number of teams they would be willing to be traded to. A full no-trade clause means they have complete veto power over any trade. Usually only veteran or star players have the clout to negotiate these clauses into their contracts. In the MLB, players who have played for 10 years and have been with their current team for five consecutive years are automatically given no-trade clauses. This is called the 5/10 rule.

How does the sport itself affect trading?

The final major factor that goes into defining the trading culture of a league is how easy it is for players to switch teams mid-season. You mentioned in your question that some leagues don’t seem to have mid-season trades. That’s only partially true. All leagues allow for mid-season trades (at least before a trade deadline) but there is one league where they rarely ever happen. That league is the NFL. This is mostly because football is so complicated and so reliant on the close-to-perfect collaboration of lots of interconnected parts. It’s really difficult for a player from one team to move over to another team in the middle of the season, learn their plays and their terminology, and make a difference to the team’s fortunes that season. Compare that to the NBA where teams often run similar plays and the individual talent of one player (of the five on the court at one time compared to the 11 in football) can make an enormous and immediate impact. NFL trades are rare. NBA trades are quite common.

— — —

Like I said, trading is such a complicated business in sports that a post about how it works from league to league could easily morph into an unreadably long essay. I think this is a good stopping point for today. These four factors probably account for the majority of the trading differences within the four major U.S. sports leagues.

Thanks for reading and questioning,
Ezra Fischer

What is a power play in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a power play in hockey?


Dear Deborah,

Hockey has one of the more innovative ways of penalizing a player and a team for committing a foul. When a player commits a foul, a ref raises his arm, and as soon as a member of the player’s team gets control of the puck, the ref blows a whistle to stop play. The offending player is then escorted to a small, isolated compartment on the side of the rink opposite from where the teams sit, called the penalty box. Depending on the nature of the foul, he must remain there for some time, usually two or five minutes, or potentially until the other team scores a goal. While she is in the box, her team must play without her and they don’t get to simply replace her. They have to play shorthanded or “down a man,” which usually means they have four players plus a goalie against the other team’s five players plus a goalie. On rare occasions, one team may play with four players plus a goalie versus the other team’s three. Five on three is also possible, but the rules won’t allow things to get any more lopsided than that. The team that is has more players on the rink has a power play.

Power plays are extremely important in hockey because it is easier to score during one than in the normal course of “full strength” play. During a power play, the team with the extra player is often able to keep possession of the puck in their offensive zone and pass amongst themselves until they are able to get a good shot on goal. This is much more difficult without having the man advantage. Teams also have special combinations of players who they play during a power play. These units are, intuitively, called power play units. They’re usually made up of the best three offensive forwards on the team and the best two offensive defensemen although it’s not uncommon for a team to play with four forwards and one defenseman while they are on the power play. If a team choses to do this, one forward plays in the position a defenseman would normally be, up near the blue line that marks the dividing line between the offensive zone and the neutral zone. This gives the team more scoring punch on their power play unit but may also leave them vulnerable to a counter-attack.

20% is generally considered to be the dividing line between a good and a very good power play unit. A team that scores on more than 20% of their power play attempts is an extraordinarily good team with the man advantage. There are currently eight of the 30 NHL teams whose power play percentages are above 20%. Most of the rest of the teams range between 15% and 20% although there are three woeful teams that average a goal on less than 15% of their power play attempts. It’s no coincidence that two of these three teams have the two worst records in the league. It’s important to be good at converting power play attempts into goals.

When hockey games are at their most exciting and the stakes are at their highest, power plays begin to loom very large in fans’ minds. If your team is trailing, you hope desperately to be awarded a power play. If your team is winning, you just want the players on your team to play clean hockey and stay out of the penalty box. Once a penalty has been called, fans are launched into an even higher state of nervousness. If your team is the one with the power play, you barely make a sound for two minutes, except to scream pleadingly for a goal. If your team is the one that is shorthanded and killing the penalty off, then you just don’t breath until your team clears the puck away from their goal.

Power plays are wonderful theater and they’re also a great way to discourage foul play. I don’t know of many sports other than hockey that uses this type of deterrence (soccer has a similar rule for players who get red cards, but their banishment is permanent. I think water polo and possibly lacrosse have similar rules but with so many more players playing, the loss of one is less impactful) but I think more sports should adopt it. I recommended that football look into it during my epic series of articles on how to fix football’s brain injury problem. Until then, we’ll just keep enjoying it in hockey!

Hope this helps,
Ezra Fischer