Over the past several weeks, I've come across some great blog posts and websites, dedicated to hockey statistical analysis, otherwise known as the metrics of hockey...for example +/-, shooting %, save %, 5 v 5, etc.. The most recent of these being Daniel Lipson's post entitled "Why plus/minus is the worst statistic in hockey". I'm also an avid fan of Mad Men, a television drama surrounding main character Don Draper and his rise and fall thru the advertising industry during the fast paced and changing 50s and 60s. I'm also a big fan of Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife, (but that's just the english nostalgia in me, during the times of my grandparents and parents growing up in England) and the topic for another blog (some other time perhaps.). However, It got me to thinking, how did we get here? What got us from days gone by where gut instinct and brain power was used rather than a computer? And who started the revolution of managing a hockey team with numbers, sequences and algorithms? Before the great computer renaissance period we find ourselves in today, what would a general manager of a hockey team do to improve his team or draft a player for his club? What materials or information would he have at his finger tips, other than using his finger tips to dial the number of his scout on the rotary phone? All of this led me to think, what would John Ferguson do? After all, John was the general manager of the Jets during my time in elementary school, where I was first introduced to a push button phones and computers with 3 1/4" floppies with green icon screens. And it seems, the Winnipeg Jets have a strong connection to where we, the hockey statistical mad fans and bloggers, are today.
John Ferguson was general manager of the Winnipeg Jets from 1978-1988. John would have relied on word of mouth from his trusted staff, basic statistics like goals and assists, and gut instinct with a sifting of character analysis when trading and drafting. A good portion of the scouting and data reports of the time were submitted via snail mail or fax machine, which was just beginning to be used as a office tool to receive information instantaneously. Most times, John was successful (Hello Temmu Selanne, Dave Ellett, and Thomas Steen!) and, the odd time, not (Goodbye Jimmy Mann!). Now, we all make mistakes, as John was human just like the rest of us. But, what if there was a way to determine a players value based upon drilling just a bit deeper? Coincidentally, enter Mike Smith.
Mike Smith was general manager of the Winnipeg Jets from 1988-1994,and actually John and Mike's careers coincided for a few years, as Mike was assistant GM under John prior to taking the post. A university graduate with a bachelor of science, Mike would later become one of the pioneers of statistical analysis of hockey. During his time with the Jets, Mike was also fairly successful (Bonjour Keith Tkachuk, Nikolai Khabibulin and Alexei Zhamnov) and the odd time, not (Sayonara Sergei "Leadboots" Bautin!). Upon being let go by the Jets in 1994, Mike went to work for the Chicago Blackhawks and the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, it was after his time in hockey that Mike began to examine the game more closely. Enter Coleman Analytics.
Mike was on to something, as teams wanted to reach for the advantage, and we're willing to spend money to find it.
Now, here's where new school of thinking meets the old way of thinking...Enter John Paddock.
Mike Smith hired John Paddock to coach the Winnipeg Jets in 1991, and little did Mike know that in 1994, when he was relieved of his general manager duties, that John would succeed him and name Terry Simpson coach. During his time as coach, John would have been subjected to Mike's way of thinking. In becoming general manager, did John follow Mike's way of thought, or did John want to put his own stamp on things? Albeit the beginnings of the statistical age, did John still focus on draft reports and goals/ assists, or did he ask his scouting staff such questions as "How is he when the the opposing team puts out their best lines, or was he used against the best lines at all?" or " Did you happen to notice how much ice time he received or puck possession?" Who knows.
In closing, with John Ferguson passing away a number of years ago, we'll never know his thoughts on advanced analytics. We now know what Mike thinks, and he saw a need to fill. And what about John Paddock? Well, as an assistant coach of the Philly Flyers, you better believe it that he uses advanced analytics today. And with hindsight being 20/20, you can believe he wished he had them a long, long time ago. But there's always something to be said for gut instinct and character. Enter Shane Doan and the draft of 1995.
I'd like to express my thanks to the internet thingy and Wikipedia for helping me write this article, as well as my 3 1/4" floppy disk commodore desktop computer for not crashing!