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Fancy Stats are Dead, Long Live Fancy Stats

Let's move the dialogue on hockey analytics out of the Stone Age

There are going to be more Tyler Dellows in the ear of the John Davidsons of the world
There are going to be more Tyler Dellows in the ear of the John Davidsons of the world
Bruce Bennett

Yesterday marked something of a reckoning in the on-going #fancystats battle that's been waged across the hockey world for some time now.  Hockey's most well-known proponent of Corsi and all things fancy, Tyler Dellow, was hired to work with the Edmonton Oilers' Hockey Ops department. This is a big deal and worth writing about. I mean, Bob McKenzie broke the story -- while he was on holiday!

The landscape is shifting, so we should think about where we've come from as a hockey community and where we're going. To say that things have occasionally become heated would be an understatement, even if I understand why both sides have said some of the things that they did. For those firmly entrenched in the "eye test, gut check" camp, it cannot be fun to be told you are wrong about things you were so sure to be true. Hockey's no different from any other topic that people care passionately about: when you believe your ideas to be under attack, there's a good chance you'll be offended and respond in kind. On the other hand, I can also sympathize with those trying to advance new ideas who have been consistently subjected to ridicule. There's only so many "mom's basement" jokes one can endure. That being said, I see this as one of those seminal moments: hockey got a little bit smarter today. We've reached a tipping point and it's going to be hard to go back to the way things were before. Fascinating avenues of discourse lie before us, and there's no reason we can't have more productive conversations.

The analytics revolution has already come and gone to baseball and, to a lesser degree, basketball. As a fan of both sports I've been through this same fight many times over. It's always been the same, and it's always been asinine. Hockey has held out for so long because it's a beautiful game with an old boys club mentality and accompanying group-think, "We hold these truths to be self-evident" stuff. Hockey is a conservative sport, and that's not necessarily bad thing: this game has many great traditions. But the trade-off has always been an inability to think outside the box, and a deep mistrust of so-called outsiders. There are fascinating debates to be had about so many aspects of the game, but they're made so much harder without the necessary data foundations. The proliferation of analytics throughout NHL head offices will hopefully serve to broaden the dialogue among everyday fans. As the casual fan becomes familiar with what's readily available, there will be a dawning realization that there's nothing "fancy" about these stats anyways.

Yesterday's news was a step towards breaking down some of hockey's agreed upon conventions. That's exciting because I firmly believe there's so much we don't know and so many new ways to think about the game. We don't need to all agree on the exact merit of Corsi vs. the eye test, but we should all agree that the conversation can be broadened.