Friday 28 September 2012

An Even Earlier Stick

In the last post we had a quick look at the evolution of the early hockey stick, and the effect it may have had on scoring in the game. Today I give you a little bonus. I found a high-quality image of a stick from c.1880, five years earlier than the oldest one poorly illustrated in the last post. The 1880 stick is illustrated below, along with the 1885 and 1893 editions of the implement.

It looks like the first big change was in fact the shape of the blade, which went from a rounded shape (much like an early field hockey stick blade but with more surface area) to something more oblong in the early 1880s, which greatly resembles a modern blade.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Early Evolution of the Hockey Stick

We recently looked at the increase in hockey goal-scoring from 1892 to 1911, and hypothesized a reason for it. I wanted to go back a bit now, to look at another, rather more dramatic, increase in goal-scoring over time. I'll posit a hypothesis to explain this one as well.

First, to the facts. Organized hockey tournaments began with the 1883 Montreal Winter Carnival, which was won by McGill, and also featured only 1.13 goals scored per team per game. Such low scoring rates continued in the 1884 and 1885 Winter Carnivals, and the 1886 Montreal hockey championship (held due to the lack of a Carnival that year). In 1887, between the Winter Carnival games and challenge matches of the newly-formed Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), over two goals were scored per game, and starting in 1888 is was substantially higher than that, generally approaching three per game. The data is here:


Something clearly changed around 1887, and as well already know, it's nothing to do with the roles players played on the ice. My hypothesis is that it is largely to do with something that can be seen by comparing portraits of the Montreal AAA hockey teams from 1885 and 1893. First the 1885 club:

And now the 1893 players. Take note of the long wooden items in their hands.

The sticks are noticeably longer. The 1885 sticks seem more like field hockey sticks, and required players to hunch over quite a bit when stickhandling. The 1893 sticks, while still short by modern standards, are a fair  bit longer and the blades more closely resemble modern ones as well. I believe that the additional length of stick made stickhandling and shooting that much more accurate, and as such scoring increased all around.

By spending some time with some old hockey photos and a ruler, I came up with some estimates of the length of hockey sticks at various points in early history. We know that for the 1927/28 season, the NHL instituted a rule that sticks would be no longer than 53 inches, measured from the top of the handle to the heel of the blade. In earlier years, sticks were shorter than this, apparently increasing in length fairly steadily over time, except for a noticeable jump somewhere between 1885 and 1893.

In 1885, hockey sticks were about 33 to 35 inches, measured from the top of the handle to the heel of the blade.

In 1893, they were about 42 to 46 inches.

In 1901, they were about 44 to 49 inches.

In 1910, they were about 46 to 52 inches.

As an illustration of these differences, here are some badly-drawn hockey stick shapes:
So it seems to me that hockey sticks likely became substantially longer around 1887, and this in turn led to dramatically increased scoring as players were provided a much greater ability to control the puck, both on a rush and in a shot. Competing ideas are welcomed.

Monday 24 September 2012

Offensive Contribution from Defencemen

Recently we had a look at the evolution of positions in hockey. We noted that from about 1892 to 1911, the standard lineup could be called 1-1-1-4, being a goaltender, a point, a cover and four forwards. Even though this formation persisted for about 20 years, the results on the ice varied quite a bit over this time. In 1894, AHAC teams scored an average of 3.03 goals per game. This number trended upward, and spiked around 1904, reaching a high of 7.73 goals per game in the ECAHA in 1907.

Obviously there must be some reason for this, and looking for some answers should be interesting. I've got one hypothesis already: as time went on, the defensive players (point and cover-point) became more and more involved in the offence. As the seasons progressed, the proportion of goals scored by points and cover-points increased largely in step with the increase in goals-per-game. Note that I don't mean that as teams scored more goals, defencemen scored more goals in step with the forwards; I mean that as teams scored more goals, defencemen scored more goals relative to the forwards.

This does make sense; if your defensive players are focusing more on offence, your team will score more goals because you have more men trying to put the puck in the net. But of course, your opponents will also tend to score more goals, since you have less focus on preventing goals as well. For whatever reason the back players started to play offence more and more, resulting in more goals by their side and more goals by their opponents as well.

The following chart shows the year-by-year rate of team goals per game, divided by the average goals per game over the time period, and the proportion of goals scored by defencemen (which serves as a proxy for the defenders' relative involvement in the offence), divided by the average proportion over the time period. The goals per game ranges from a low of 3.03 in 1894 to a high of 7.73 in 1907. The percentage of goals scored by defencemen ranges from a low of 2.4% in 1892 to a high of 15.5% in 1908.

The relationship certainly isn't perfect, suggesting that there is more going on (not surprisingly), but it is quite a strong one. You can see this by looking at the chart; as goals per game increases, so does the percentage of goals scored by defencemen. The coefficient of correlation for these rates for this time period is 0.75, which is a very strong positive relationship.

So a big factor in why scoring increased so much over this time is that the point and cover-point, who previously focused on defence above all, became more and more involved in the offence. Whether this was a conscious decision on someone's part, or if it was a matter of the defensive players wanting to be more involved in the play, or something else entirely, we can't be sure. We know what was changing, but we don't know the true cause of the change.

Friday 21 September 2012

The Scope of History

If you've ever discussed historical hockey players online, particularly in the context of comparing them to modern players, you may have come across the following comment, or something similar: "You can't really compare players from the past with those of today, because you didn't actually see the older players play." Similarly, when constructing some list of all-time something-or-others, someone will invariably say something like "I can only comment on the players I actually saw play."

In the context of hockey history, I find this type of comment baffling. History is not defined as "what you have witnessed personally." In studying the history of the game, of course you will encounter people and events that you have no direct personal experience with. To suggest that you can only make educated comments about things you have seen yourself is counter-historical. History involves the study of, well, history - things in the past, oftentimes beyond the memory of any living person, much less yourself. But events of the past do not suddenly become unknowable when the last direct witness passes - you just have to study the record in order to know it.

If you limit yourself to what you have seen yourself, I suppose you might feel more secure in the knowledge you do have (although the fact that you're relying on human memory has problems of its own). But let me tell you, if you choose not to study the history of the game because you can't "know" it the way you can with modern hockey, you're doing yourself a disservice. The history of the game is fascinating, and well-worth the effort of studying it.

Of course, if you're here reading this, you probably already agree.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

1904: Rowing Club v. Senators

One reason Billy Breen may not be as well-known today as he deserves to be is that he was never a member of a Stanley Cup championship team. Perhaps Billy McGimsie wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame, wouldn't be known at all today, if the Kenora Thistles had failed in their Cup challenge against the Montreal Wanderers.

As captain of the 1904 Winnipeg Rowing Club hockey team, Breen led his club on his one and only Stanley Cup challenge against the mighty Ottawa Senators. The Ottawa lineup was just full of legendary players: goaltender Bouse Hutton, point Harvey Pulford, rover Rat Westwick, centre Frank McGee and right wing Alf Smith. That's five of seven in the lineup that are in the Hockey Hall of Fame today. The western squad had just one in rover Joe Hall, who really built his Hall of Fame credentials later in his career as a defenceman.

Realistically, Winnipeg would seem to have had little chance, and going into the best-of-three series they were given none by the experts. The first game bore this out, as Ottawa came away with a 9-1 win in a chippy game on December 30, 1903. But things turned around on January 1, 1904 when the Rowing Club shocked the capital city club by taking a 6-2 decision, with Breen scoring half of his team's goals. Suddenly, it was a series again.

Unfortunately for the westerners, Ottawa played an outstanding defensive match in the deciding fixture on January 4, taking it 2-0 to hold on to the Cup. The game was scoreless until the 41-minute mark, and was anyone's game until they scored their second with seven minutes to play. Winnipeg winger Billy Bawlf was given much of the blame for the loss, his poor performance being disruptive to an otherwise promising forward attack. This was Billy Breen's only shot at a Stanley Cup championship, and it slipped away.

But here's the thing. There's absolutely no shame in losing to this edition of the Ottawa Hockey Club. In the CAHL that season, the Senators went 4-0, scoring 32 goals and allowing but 15. It was a season of troubles, of course, which ultimately resulted in Ottawa dropping out of Canada's highest league before the year was done.

Quebec ended up with the CAHL championship, since they had a 7-1 record after counting two default wins over Ottawa after the latter had dropped out of the circuit. But the Montreal Victorias were really the class of the league (barring the Senators); taking out any Ottawa matches the standings for the season would have been:

Montreal Victorias65106834+34
Quebec HC65105037+13
Montreal HC62403140-10
Montreal Shamrocks60602764-37

The Vics and Quebec split their two matches, but the former outscored the latter 19-14. Montreal was arguably robbed of a CAHL championship because Quebec was credited with two wins by default over Ottawa, who would in all likelihood would have defeated them both times, while the Vics actually played the Senators twice and lost, ending up 5-3.

So the Montreal Victorias were an outstanding team in Canada's best hockey league in 1904, and yet lost twice to Ottawa, being outscored 14-7. They couldn't do what the Rowing Club did: beat the Senators.

The Oarsmen's 6-2 victory on January 1 was the only time Ottawa lost that season. And Winnipeg's 2-0 loss in the third game of their series was the second-best score any team put up against the Senators in 1904. The westerners' performance in games two and three of the Cup series was a major accomplishment given the quality of the opposition. "Lost the series" doesn't do their effort justice, not remotely. Billy Breen led his team on the ice, and on the score sheet, against a hockey leviathan and came away with more than just their self-respect. They won a match against a team that no one else could beat, and came within a few goals of taking taking championship away from them. That deserves to be remembered.

Monday 17 September 2012

Billy Breen

William Wright "Billy" Breen is surely one of the greatest hockey players that most fans of the game have never heard of. Even some historians conversant with the time he played (1900 to 1909) aren't familiar with him, likely because he played his entire career in Manitoba, a place that has long been overlooked in the study of the game's history.

Breen was born December 6, 1882 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Some sources list his date of birth as October 11, 1883 but the 1882 date is supported by both the 1901 and 1911 Canadian censuses, and makes more sense when you look at when he started playing senior hockey at any rate. He was an accountant by trade, and was one of the most renowned players in Manitoba, earning as much praise as the great Dan Bain, whose career was winding down as Breen's was heating up. Breen died fairly young in 1927, after an operation. He was apparently suffering from lymphosarcoma, a malignant cancer. His place of death is listed as Rochester, Minnesota, which suggests he was being treated at the Mayo Clinic at the time of his death.

Billy Breen was an excellent bowler and golfer, but where he truly shone was on the hockey rink. He was small by modern standards, but was of a fairly typical size for his time, and was noted as an outstanding skater and shooter. He was an exceptional rusher and would pour shot after shot in on opposing netminders, with a hard and accurate release.  His recorded hockey career began in the 1900 season, when he played for the Winnipeg HC second side in the intermediate section of the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association (MNWHA) at the age of only 16. His 16 goals in eight matches led the league, and he easily outscored Rat Portage's Tommy Phillips (a future Hall-of-Famer), who was about seven months older than Breen. He missed a few games of the following season's intermediate schedule, but on a goals-per-game basis he beat out not only Phillips (who played cover-point that season), but Hall-of-Famers Tom Hooper (who was the same age as Breen), Billy McGimsie (three years older than Breen), Joe Hall  (two years older than Breen) and Jack Marshall (six years older than Breen). Breen was a teenager playing against men, and was still the scoring star of the league.

He also played some senior hockey in these seasons, and performed well. The Pegs at this time were dominated annually by the Winnipeg Vics, though, so he had limited success at that level. However, his five goals in five senior matches in 1901 was enough to tie him for the league lead. In 1902 the Pegs were again terrible, but the 18-year-old Breen led his side in scoring once more.

Breen broke out in 1903, when the Winnipeg Rowing Club, replacing the Pegs, finally broke the Vics' hold on the provincial championship. He tied for the lead league in scoring, and outpaced another Hall-of-Famer in Fred Scanlan, who skated for the Victorias. In 1904 he was far and away the leading scorer in his league, recording 20 goals, when the second-best had 8. He was playing in a separate league from the Rat Portage Thistles in these years, however, so it was unclear how he stacked up against McGimsie who was busy leading Rat Portage to victories in the MNWHA.

When the two leagues finally came together again in 1905, Billy Breen was able to compete directly against McGimsie and Phillips, who had returned from studying in the east. The results make it clear that in terms of offence, it was Phillips, McGimsie and Breen, and then everyone else. Phillips scored 29 times in eight matches, one ahead of his teammate, while Breen managed 25 in nine games. No one else had more than 16, and that was in 10 games.

In 1905 it was more of the same, except this time Breen crept to the front of the list. He scored 26 times in nine games, ahead of Phillips' 23 in seven (a pace of over 29 for nine games). McGimsie scored 19 in in eight matches. After that, the next best was 11, scored by Breen's teammate Billy Kean, about whom we'll have a post sometime soon.

So in these two seasons of direct competition, Phillips scored 52 times in 15 games, McGimsie 47 in 16, and Breen 51 in 18. These three men were the MHL, offensively. No one could even approach them, not Tom Hooper or Si Griffis (another Hall-of-Fame Thistle) or Joe Hall, who was a forward at this time in his career, or even Cyclone Taylor, who scored three goals in three games as a rover for Portage in 1906.

When the Manitoba Hockey League turned professional in 1907, Breen remained an amateur while Phillips and McGimsie pursued (and won) the Stanley Cup. He was again a big fish in a small pond, counting 20 goals while the next-best total was nine, recorded by teammate and future pro Bert Boulton. Breen himself turned pro the following season, and although Kenora (formerly Rat Portage) was out of the league, there were a number of excellent pros in the league, partly due to the downfall of the International Hockey League.  The MHL was dotted with names such as Hamby Shore, Lorne Campbell, Fred Lake, Don Smith, Skinner Poulin, Barney Holden, Ernie Dubeau, Jack Fraser and Art Serviss, quality professional players all. Don Smith was third in the NHA in goals in 1911, Campbell had led the IHL in scoring in 1907, and Shore and Lake formed the core of the mighty Ottawa Senators defence in the early 1910s. The MHL in 1908 was easily the second-highest quality league in the country to the ECAHA, far outpacing the OPHL in terms of the quality of player.

Playing in the highest-quality league he ever had, Breen scored two goals per game, which ranked behind only Hamby Shore, and nearly one assist per game, far outpacing everyone else in that category. These assists are reconstructed from game reports, of course, because they were not officially awarded at the time. But the description of play was very detailed in the Winnipeg newspapers at this time, so these assists, while estimated, should be fair. Breen displayed his playmaking chops this season, and only his missing four games kept him from the very top of the scoring list. Here are the per-game figures:

BREEN, BillyWinnipeg Strathconas2.000.922.92
KENNEDY, HarryWinnipeg Maple Leafs1.920.502.42
SHORE, HambyWinnipeg Strathconas2.130.272.40
CAMPBELL, LorneWinnipeg Maple Leafs2.000.252.25
CHARLTON, RoyPortage Plains Cities1.730.272.00
KEAN, BillyWinnipeg Maple Leafs1.400.401.80
LAKE, FredWinnipeg Strathconas1.310.381.69
SMITH, DonPortage Plains Cities1.500.071.57
SWITZER, FrankWinnipeg Strathconas0.930.201.13
POULIN, SkinnerPortage Plains Cities0.800.271.07

Breen played only one professional game after this season, recording four goals in two assists for the Winnipeg HC before that team folded. The MHL did not survive after the 1909 season; just as with so many of the professional leagues at this time, that circuit's life was brief and volatile. Breen wanted to get back into the senior amateur ranks in Winnipeg, but now that he had played professionally that was not going to be easy. He became a coach and referee while fighting to get his amateur status reinstated, which took until 1913. At this point, he had not played for four years, and decided he was done as a player. He coached the 1913 Winnipeg Hockey Club, winners of the Allan Cup, and later coached the Toronto Rowing Club in the OHA.

His career by Point Allocation:

1900Winnipeg Pegs IIMNWHA (Int)9168016004.
1900Winnipeg PegsMNWHA516601200-1.5-0.80.0-2.3-1.92
1900Total (Prorated)5168016001.6-
1901Winnipeg Pegs IIMNWHA (Int)917469203.
1901Winnipeg PegsMNWHA45178016002.
1901Total (Prorated)45178016004.
1902Winnipeg PegsMNWHA5186012000.4-0.5-0.3-0.4-0.33
1903Winnipeg OarsmenWCHA5198016005.90.9-
1904Winnipeg OarsmenWCHA5206713406.90.0-
1905Winnipeg OarsmenMHL5217214404.10.0-
1906Winnipeg PegsMHL5228016006.10.0-
1907Winnipeg PegsWCHA4238016007.60.0-
1908Winnipeg StrathconasMHL5246012005.20.0-
1909Winnipeg PegsMHL42591800.

His defensive stats should be taken with a grain of salt. It's something of an artifice of the Point Allocation system that outstanding offensive players in leagues below a certain level of quality will receive little or no defensive points. Based on the descriptions of his play it seems clear that Breen was an effective checking forward as well as an offensive dynamo.

Writers of the time spared no compliment when describing Breen:
And then again it was a case of too much Billy Breen on the forward line. As brilliant a skater, and as effective a shot as ever, it was his dashing playing that unquestionably put his team on top. Four goals out of five comprised his scoring record, and that it about his usual average. He is a great player, and a gentlemanly little captain of the Rowing Club. As an effective forward he is in a class by himself to-day, and the game has seldom seen a better. (Winnipeg Free Press, 30 Dec 1904)
Billy Breen – a name to conjure with! The dashing little forward has long since made his reputation. He has been the hero of many a hard-fought content, so any more comment on his playing is almost superfluous. It can, though, be truly said he never deserved the plaudits of enthusiastic admirers more than he did last night. A fitting leader is he to a representative seven of Winnipeg's best athletes. (Winnipeg Free Press, 7 Jan 1905)
For the Winnipegs, Billy Breen was the bright particular star, just as the brilliant little centre forward has been in so many games he has played. His dashing, hurdling rushes could not help but ring applause from the most apathetic, and seldom has a finer individual exhibition been seen on Winnipeg ice than that put up by the only Billy Breen last night. And when another man carried down the ice, it was always Breen who was in front of the net to take the pass. (Winnipeg Free Press, 23 Jan 1906)
Breen and Shore made a brilliant pair in centre ice. It is doubtful if there are two faster centre men in the country, while in Switzer and Lake they have a pair of wings who work in well on goal, and are strong at checking back. (Winnipeg Free Press, 18 Jan 1908)
This last comment on checking back leads us to a discussion of Breen's defence. He was surely most noted as a dynamic offensive player, but it's clear he was defensively responsible as well.
One of the principal reasons for the Oarmen's victory was the system of close-checking adopted by their forwards [Breen, Claude Borland, Harry Kennedy, Billy Field]. Not only did they play together well, and shine individually when attacking, but every mother's son of them was after the puck all the time, and the gritty never-say-die spirit in which they hung to their checks, proved to be an important factor in bringing about the ultimate result. (Winnipeg Free Press, 7 Jan 1905)
Another important factor in the result was the splendid way the Peg forwards [Breen, Kennedy, Billy Kean, Harry Gordon] checked back. (Winnipeg Free Press, 5 Jan 1906)
While sometimes he would stop an opponent's rush directly, the most frequent mention of his individual defensive play is for intercepting passes. For example:
Breen stole a pass and went down but M. Brown blocked. (Winnipeg Free Press, 21 Feb 1906)
On a pass back from Campbell, Breen stole the puck and pressed [sic] over to Lake who slapped in into the net. (Winnipeg Free Press, 8 Feb 1908)
Based on these plays and others, it seem Breen had a particular talent for breaking up an opponent's rush by intercepting a pass, and immediately transforming it into an offensive rush of his own.

Although he was primarily a shooter, it's also clear that Breen had substantial playmaking/passing ability. Aside from his leading the MHL in assists in 1908, descriptions of his play make frequent mention of skilful passing.
Breen passed out from the corner to Shore, who slipped in a counter. (Winnipeg Free Press, 25 Jan 1908)
Breen got away with a magnificent dodging run, hurdled three or four sticks and passed over to Lake who shot an easy goal. (Winnipeg Free Press, 18 Jan 1908)
The next game was a short one. Breen rushed down the side, passed over to Haddock, who scored a pretty goal. (Winnipeg Free Press, 30 Jan 1906)
I also noted several mentions of Breen winning a faceoff before starting a rush, so it seems likely he was very good on the draw as well. All of this gives us a picture of an all-round hockey talent, one whose main talent is skating and shooting, but who was also a gifted passer and was at least responsible on defence, if not better. The one flaw in his game seems to have been that he played in Manitoba instead of Montreal.

Breen is a member of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, and may have some small claim to belonging in the Hockey Hall of Fame as well. The biggest question to my mind is why he is not as well known today as he deserves to be. Next time we'll discuss one possible reason for this.

Thursday 13 September 2012

All-Stars Versus MVGs

Following up on the last post, we want to figure out why Hart Trophy voting results for 1924 to 1930 seem more than a little sketchy (for goaltenders, at least) if they're interpreted as who was seen as the best player at the position each season.

Fortunately, we have many seasons in which we have both Hart Trophy voting and All-Star voting results. This will shed a great deal of light on this. We know the highest-rated Hart goalie for 1934, 1937, 1939, 1940 and every season from 1942 to 1957 and beyond. But for now we'll stop at 1957, giving us 20 seasons to work with.

In these 20 seasons, only six times is the highest-rated Hart goalie the same as the First Team All-Star (Frank Brimsek in 1942, Bill Durnan in 1944, 1945, 1946 and 1949, and Harry Lumley in 1955). It's the Second All-Star goalie six times (Roy Worters in 1934, Earl Robertson in 1939, Brimsek in 1943 and 1948, Chuck Rayner in 1950 and Jim Henry in 1952), and eight times the Hartiest netminder was third in the All-Star voting (Tiny Thompson in 1937, Robertson in 1940, Turk Broda in 1947, Al Rollins in 1951, 1953 and 1954, Gump Worsley in 1956 and Terry Sawchuk in 1957). Clearly, different standards are at play between the voting for the two awards. You might not expect 100% agreement between the two if the standards were the same, but with this degree of difference, where the third-best goaltender was the most likely to be seen as the most valuable, there's clearly something going on. And it we look at the results in detail, it's pretty clear what that difference is.

1934WORTERS, Roy.472GARDINER, Charlie.531
1937THOMPSON, Tiny.552SMITH, Norm.615
1939ROBERTSON, Earl.478BRIMSEK, Frank.779
1940ROBERTSON, Earl.354KERR, Dave.667
1943BRIMSEK, Frank.570MOWERS, Johnny.610
1947BRODA, Turk.600DURNAN, Bill.650
1948BRIMSEK, Frank.491BRODA, Turk.642
1950RAYNER, Chuck.486DURNAN, Bill.539
1951ROLLINS, Al.775SAWCHUK, Terry.721
1952HENRY, Jim.471SAWCHUK, Terry.714
1953ROLLINS, Al.493SAWCHUK, Terry.635
1954ROLLINS, Al.235LUMLEY, Harry.558
1956WORSLEY, Gump.529PLANTE, Jacques.734
1957SAWCHUK, Terry.618HALL, Glenn.629

In every season but one, when the All-Star Goaltender (ASG) is a different man than the Most Valuable Goaltender (MVG), the (ASG) was a winning percentage (W%) that is higher than that of the MVG, and sometimes the difference is enormous. The voters of the time clearly had no problem giving Hart Trophy votes to goaltenders on bad teams (see 1940 and 1954 in particular), but not All-Star votes. The only season in which the MVG has a higher W% than the ASG is 1951, when Al Rollins did not play a full season but was still considered MVG. So MVP votes could go to a netminder who did not play a full season, but All-Star votes would not; see also in 1957 (when the difference in W% is the smallest) when Sawchuk played only 34 games. So in every season in which both the MVG and the ASG played a full season, the ASG always had a significantly higher W%; he played on a significantly better team.

It seems absolutely clear to me, then, that the voters were applying the following standards to these votes, in general:

1. The All-Star voting was for the goaltender who was the most proficient at his position.

2. The Hart Trophy voting was for the goaltender who contributed the greatest proportion of his team's success.

So if you have two goaltenders, one worth 10 points on a team that recorded 40 points, and another worth 15 points on a team that recorded 70, the latter would do better in the All-Star voting while the former would do better in the Hart voting. The former was more valuable to him team in the sense that he contributed a greater proportion of his team's success. This is the only way that the voting results for Earl Robertson in 1939 and 1940, Jim Henry in 1952 and especially Al Rollins in 1954 make sense. For purposes of the Hart Trophy, it was often most valuable in the sense of "imagine how bad they would have been without him." This is not the modern attitude, when generally a player cannot be seen as "valuable" unless his team did well, but it clearly a prevalent attitude in the time period we're looking at.

Now, the best Hart goalies in the pre-All-Star seasons were John Roach in 1924 (.435 W%), Clint Benedict in 1925 (.333), Roy Worters in 1926 (.529), 1927 (.375), 1928 (.523) and 1929 (.553), and Charlie Gardiner in 1930 (.534). It's possible that some of these men would have been voted First Team All-Stars if there had been such a thing at the time, but given this analysis, it seems that at least in 1924, 1925 and 1927 these netminders would not have been named the best, rather than most valuable in the sense defined above.

So it seems that Roy Worters should not be considered the best goaltender of the late 1920s based on his Hart voting records. These votes were not intended to say he was the best goaltender, but that he was the best relative to his team. And since his teams were usually not good, that doesn't tell us much about his absolute standing among his brethren netminders.

Monday 10 September 2012

All-Star Goalkeepers

All-Star Team results from the past provide historians with useful information about how some players were perceived in their own time. Statistical records are of course very informative, but have their limitations. Things like All-Star Team voting records can help shed some light on things that might not be reflected in the stats. They tell us who was seen to be the best at their position at their time, which is particularly useful when it comes to defensive players.

The downside of NHL All-Star Teams is that the league only began these awards in 1931. We know Charlie Gardiner was considered the best netminder in the NHL for the 1930/31 season, but who was seen as the best in 1929/30?

Well, we may not have All-Star voting records from before 1931, but we do at least have the Hart Trophy records, which go back to 1924. (This is all thanks to work done at, see link here.) If we know who the top-rated goaltender in each season from 1924 to 1930 in the Hart voting, maybe we can consider them to be effectively First Team All-Stars. If they had such a vote at the time, we could figure that the goalies seen as the most valuable would also have been seen as the best.

I've certainly seen this sort of argument made, specifically that since Roy Worters received the most Hart Trophy consideration among goaltenders in every season from 1926 to 1929, he should be considered the best goalkeeper of his time. Interpreting this as the equivalent of four consecutive First All-Star Team selections, it's hard to see it otherwise.

As it happens, we do know which goaltender received the most Hart votes each season from 1924 to 1930. In chronological order, they are John Roach, Clint Benedict, Roy Worters, Roy Worters, Roy Worters, Roy Worters and Charlie Gardiner. The fact that Gardiner received the most Hart votes in 1930, and then was the First Team All-Star in 1931, suggests that we may be on to something here.

So maybe Worters was seen as the best goaltender of his time. Considering the competition, his being seen as the best each season is quite something. He was up against a variety of Clint Benedict, Alec Connell, George Hainsworth, Hap Holmes and Hugh Lehman in these seasons, Hall-of-Famers all. Of course, Benedict, Holmes and Lehman were nearing the end of the road at the time, but still, four straight seasons being the best of the best...

But hold on a minute. We also know which goaltenders received the second-most Hart votes in 1924, 1925 and 1926, namely Jake Forbes, Jake Forbes and Doc Stewart. Forbes and Stewart were both good goaltenders, but were not all-time talents by any stretch. And yet, in both 1924 and 1925 Forbes was apparently considered a better netminder than Georges Vezina, and in 1926 Stewart was seen as better tan both Benedict and Connell, if we see Hart votes as the same as All-Star votes. Now, if that is in fact what was going on, we really no longer need to concern ourselves with these voting results, because if that's how the voters saw things, then they shouldn't be taken seriously. Jakes Forbes was not a better goaltender than Georges Vezina.

So there must be something else going on. There is; and next time we'll look at exactly what it is.

Friday 7 September 2012

Evolution of Hockey Positions

If you're reading this blog, chances are that you know what rovers, points and cover-points are. Or were. They're part of the history of the game; before defencemen we had points and cover-points (or simply covers), the former playing close to the goalkeeper, and the latter being a conduit between the defence and the forwards. The rover was phased out of eastern hockey around 1911/12, while the point/cover positions morphed into side-by-side defenders soon thereafter.

But that's not all there is to the story of positional changes in hockey. If you go far back enough, specifically to 1875 when the first organized, indoor games between two opposing clubs took place in Montreal, there were typically nine men on the ice for either side, rather than the seven we're used to dealing with in early hockey history. They played four forwards as we're used to from the rover era, but had two extra men on defence. Not only that, but the defensive positions were not yet called point and cover, they were back and half-back, a clear indication of the fact that the rules of the game were adapted from football.

I can't be 100% of how the players typically lined up, but I think the following makes sense. The goalkeeper is marked with GK, the backs with B, the half-backs with HB, and the forwards with F.
The first big change in hockey positions came around 1880, when two men were dropped from the standard lineup. I'm not sure of the impetus for this change. The number nine had basically been chosen to fit the practical limits of the Victoria Skating Rink (which bequeathed its 200' by 85' rink size to North American hockey); when played outdoors hockey was played with more men than that. At some point they may have simply decided that 18 men on the ice made it a bit too crowded, and reduced it to 7-on-7.

However, they did not immediately adopt the seven-with-a-rover lineup. They dropped a back and a forward, still playing with two half-backs, thusly:
This standard seems to have lasted about a decade, after which one of the half-backs transmogrified into a fourth forward (the rover), and the other became the cover-point (CP), while the back was now called the point (P). This change from four defenders and three forwards to three defenders and four forwards probably had some effect on goal-scoring, which did uptick at this time, as we'll be looking at in the near future.
This was the standard in eastern hockey for about 20 years, when the decision was made, at least at the game's highest level, to eliminate the rover (as discussed here). That opened the ice up a bit, and brings us close to the setup we're used to today:
It took only another season or so before the point/cover-point setup gave way to the modern lineup, which we still have today...
...which, I think it's safe to say, is not going to change any time soon. It's worked well for almost a century now.

The usual caveats for this sort of general discussion apply, of course. The years mentioned may not be entirely precise, and it's unlikely that every team adopted the same lineup at the same time. Each change would have taken a bit of time to become standard.
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