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KEVIN PAUL DUPONT | ON SECOND THOUGHT

In sports, numbers can’t tell the entire story

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

By Globe Staff 

At my advanced age, the Brotherhood of Senior Sportswriters demands that I all but dismiss hockey analytics out of hand. If the calculation can’t be made on the deluxe slide rule tucked inside my DeWalt Power Tools plastic pocket protector, I mean, c’mon, what’s the point?

I also realize, because time marches on faster than a Rocket Richard breakaway, that half of my Second Thought audience likely never heard of a slide rule and believes a pocket protector is a cellphone holster.

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Whatev, as I often said in geometry class, in those seconds just before I hyperventilated over the mystery of angle-side-angle. Or was it side-angle-side?

I’m not going to fake the numbers here and say I get it, but I also won’t say I’m an analytics hater. Numbers are important, and they tell a story, albeit an incomplete one.

Numbers and narratives are much the same in that way.

I was working a Bruins game almost 40 years ago in the Montreal Forum when Don Cherry was caught with an extra man on the ice and the Bruins’ dream of a Stanley Cup careened into the ditch. Didn’t take much to convince me that night that numbers count in hockey, and in that case, six was not greater than five.

If you want to explore the hockey analytics galaxy a little bit — and be warned, it’s a black hole that could swallow a Sherman tank, a stealth bomber, and a fleet of Zambonis in a single gulp — then try these two websites: Corsica.hockey and naturalstattrick.com.

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A pal of mine in charge of hockey analytics for an NHL team (name withheld to spare him the public humiliation of knowing me), directed me to both those sites recently. Days earlier, I had been totally hosed during my appearance on the Bob Ryan Podcast when the revered host sprung the dreaded analytics issue on me. I left there figuring it was time to get good with the numbers, even if Ryan, a fellow BSSer, professed he didn’t much care for analytics, either.

Well, I’m here to tell you, I tried, with very limited success. The numbers are dense, and I followed along for a while, until it began to feel like it was April 14, 6 p.m., and I was trying to unpack the entire US tax code before the IRS broke through the door and seized my vintage leather Tacks.

For the hour-plus I spent on the phone with my pal the NHL analytics expert, I felt I was getting the hang of it. I was actually interested. Focus on the big numbers, he said, those related to even-strength (five-on-five) play and special teams (both power play and penalty killing). They are the redwoods in the numerical forest, and therefore the easiest to wrap arms around.

The Canadiens, dead last in the Eastern Conference at the time, ranked fourth in the league for number of shots on the power play. But only two of the league’s 31 teams had scored fewer power-play goals. Numbers like that, he said, helped to underscore the Canadiens’ “complete crisis in shooting confidence.” Not hard to understand.

He then readdressed the power-play shots, noting that while the shot total is important, it does not reflect how the shooter received the puck prior to firing.

“Unless the puck hasn’t moved side to side into the shooting zone,” he said, “then the shot’s most likely not going in the net; the number’s nearly meaningless.’’

Which led to another subject. Many employees who crunch numbers for NHL teams, he said, never watch the game. Instead, they work exclusively with the numbers, like diamond miners who never see the inside of a jewelry store.

“That’s not to say they’re wrong,” he said, “but I think it’s important to see the game played.”

My advanced mathematical term for that: amen. After all, it’s the people who play, not the numbers.

Overall, he estimated the 31 NHL teams have upward of 35 full-time staff members devoted to analytics, with scores more employed as part-timers. The Maple Leafs lead the way with a department of six number crunchers, headed by 31-year-old Kyle Dubas, who was hired three years ago by Leafs boss Brendan Shanahan. It was the Dubas hire that kicked off the game’s 200-by-85-foot analytics lovefest.

Here in the Hub of Hockey, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, 52, is a believer, as is general manager Don Sweeney, 51. They both grew up in the pre-analytics NHL, but both see it as a valuable tool, their numbers provided by Bates graduate Jeremy Rogalski, the club’s director of hockey analytics.

“I’m a numbers guy,” said Cassidy. “I think there’s some value in getting into certain areas of your game. If you can’t put your finger on something with the eye test, then . . . do the numbers tell a different story, or do they support your eye test?”

Engaged as he is, though, Cassidy isn’t convinced clubs one day will build their teams strictly around the numbers.

“I still think you have to have your own opinion as a coach,” he said. “How do you want to play the game? What’s your identity? Use the numbers to support that as opposed to the other way around. But to grab these numbers and say, ‘OK, this is going to be our identity . . . the numbers say we are good at this, let’s make this our identity’ . . . ”

Cassidy continued his thought.

“Blech,” he said.

A big part of me believes that, across all sports, the focus turns to numbers when the game and the people who play it become less entertaining, less human. With media access to players ever more restricted, and the athletes trained to spew clichés and distrust reporters, storytelling has become minimized, stale, repetitive, at times feckless.

In too many stories now, it’s the numbers, not the people, that drive the narrative. Spare me.

The controversial quote — please come back, Mike Milbury — has given way to recounting possession time in the offensive zone. The backstory of a kid who once bagged groceries, then grew up to live his NHL dr eam (hello again, Terry O’Reilly) has segued to faceoff success in all three zones.

I’m not giving up, though. I know analytics is here to stay, some of it valuable, some funny, some absurd. The sport itself will force everyone to have a better understanding of the numbers. Fine, I’ll get there. I only hope, in the final analysis, our focus remains on the players and the games, and not the numbers behind them.


Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.