Practical Concerns: A Better Way To Talk About Hockey?

“The Pittsburgh Penguins won.” “The San Jose Sharks lost.”

Do those statements have the same meaning? The answer depends entirely on what you mean by meaning.

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Following the suggestion of my friend Arik Parnass, I’ve began re-reading the book Thinking Fast And Slow, which explores many ideas that can be applied to hockey.

One of the chapters in the book deals with the concept of framing – how people can be influenced to think about a certain situation depending on the words used to describe it. Going back to our initial example, did the Penguins win the Stanley Cup (because of their superior tactics, teamwork and talent level)? Or did the Sharks lose the Stanley Cup (because of their reliance on defensemen who are slow and can’t make a pass)?

There is no right or wrong answer, but we can see how a simple difference in phrasing can lead us down different avenues.

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If an experienced scout referred to a player as “tough to play against,” we may expect that player to be taller and heavier than average and to be more involved physically. But when I think of a player who is “tough to play against,” I think of a player who suppresses zone entries and keeps the puck away from opposing players by maintaining possession – no matter his/her physical stature or taste for body contact. The same words can mean different things coming from different people, which is not a good thing if our objective is to convey meaning.

Many of the expressions we use to talk about hockey are passed down from previous generations and may not reflect objective truths we have subsequently discovered about the game. For example, “getting the puck deep” is an unhelpful concept if we fail to make the distinction between controlled and uncontrolled entries.

It is also careless to copy the language of the media if we want to describe and advance the understanding of our game. Below is an example from the financial industry, but it rings true in sports as well:

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So here’s what I suspect: to think about hockey more intelligently, we need to change how we talk about hockey.

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Instead of talking about breakouts, I would rather talk about controlled, uncontrolled or failed exits. Because hockey is a probabilistic game. While every team breaks out, the best ones create more controlled exits, and fewer uncontrolled and failed one.

Instead of talking about grit, I would rather talk about enthusiasm. Because hockey is a team game. It’s more about what we do, rather than who we are. Enthusiasm can come from anyone, and it’s infectious.

Instead of talking about save percentage, I would rather talk about a goaltender’s rate of failure. Because it provides an apple-to-apple comparison with any skater’s shooting percentage. It also explains why elite goalies are not just 1% better than average ones, but more than 10% better.

Instead of talking about toughness, I would rather talk about courage. Because while toughness primes you to think about the size of a bicep, courage denotes an ability to make mistakes and keep moving forward.

Instead of talking about loss of focus, I would rather talk about cognitive strain. Because failing under pressure should not be an indictment of your personality, but rather a suggestion that your environment may not have been conducive to peak performance.

Instead of talking about defensive structure, I would rather talk about offensive volume. Because in a world with no regulation ties, failing to win is no better than losing.

Instead of talking about playing fast, I would rather talk about playing a high-event style. Because flipping the puck in and skating your bags off to chase after it is a good cardiovascular workout, but nothing more.

Instead of talking about having the will to win, I would rather talk about the patience to find solutions. Because a game is a series of small problems to solve, and victory is inevitable once you overcome them.

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Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.

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