Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Being Fair to Players From Earlier Eras

Here are two facts about hockey history that are essentially self-evident:

1. Objectively speaking, as far as we can be objective, the average quality of high-level hockey players has increased since organized hockey began; and

2. Since organized hockey began, old-timey players have talked about how players in their day were better.

How do reconcile these two contradictory statements? That's easy; only the first is true, while the second is the result of human cognitive biases. But that's not why I'm bringing this up. I really just want to discuss the first point, as it applies to the Point Allocation system.

This is important because one of the objectives of the system, one of the main reasons for its very existence, is to allow players from different eras to be compared to each other on something resembling equal footing. Some might ask the question, "Should we even be doing this? If modern players are objectively better than historical ones, why would we put the historical ones on the same footing? Shouldn't they be ranked lower than modern players?"

My answer to that is no, they should not. Why not? Because we have to consider the reasons that modern players are better. It's all about the context. Modern players are better for a variety of reasons: better training, better equipment, better coaching, better almost everything. These are all facts. But they don't matter. Historical players did not have access to these advantages. Why in the world would we punish them for not having things that didn't exist in their day?

The best we can do is analyze each player in the context in which he actually played. Anything else is unfair to one or more groups of players. It's almost certainly true that some players, if they were transported from their own era to another, would be either better or worse off in the new playing context. But that's irrelevant, and any such consideration would ultimately be guesswork. All we can do is recognize the context the player actually played in, and evaluate him based on that.

This means that according to the Point Allocation results, the very best players in an era will be valued at approximately the same level as the very best players in any other era. Doing otherwise would be inherently unfair. Players have no control over the conditions of the game at the time they played. Why in the world would we include those in the evaluations?

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