Friday, January 7, 2011

The Greatest Sports Statistic

Statistics serve a lot of different purposes in sports, but for most spectators they serve as something to argue about over nachos. They are fodder for definitive statements and though, like all statistics, they can be made to prove just about anything and a stat can be found for just about any statement, there is some primal joy we get out of arguing about sports by throwing numbers at each other. (The source of that joy, though, is another essay.)

With the birth of fantasy leagues and the easy access to data provided by the internet (especially now that the internet can be easily accessed in bars) the world of sports statistics has grown even larger, whether the casual spectator actually gains any addition insight into the sport of their choice or not. (Hi Bill James. That's a nice new car you've got. Anyway, catch you later.)

Not all statistics are created equal though, and what distinguishes the insightful spectator from the rest is knowing which statistics actually communicate useful information in evaluating or enjoying whatever you're watching. For all our hyper-specificity (my personal favorite is from baseball: batting average with runners in scoring position in the 7th inning or later with the difference in score 2 or fewer runs. Hi, David Ortiz. Glad to see you're hanging out with Shawn Thorton. He's good people.) it's hard to argue that anything tells you more about a batter in baseball than batting average, or about a running back in football than yards per carry, or a basketball player than field goal percentage. There's a reason why those show up on standard players displays on TV. However, one statistic rises above the rest. Its uniqueness in sport, its rarity in occurrence, and its communication of the character of the player make it far and away the greatest sport statistic.

The Gordie Howe hat-trick occurs when a player, in a single game of hockey, records a fight, a goal, and an assist. There isn't another statistic like it. No other major sport has institutionalized fighting like hockey does, and though I supposed one could argue that pitchers in baseball hitting batters is a form of enforcement, I don't think there is a statistical way to differentiate plunking a guy in the back in response to a cleats-up slide from a curve ball that slips out of the hand. In other words, no other sport has a clear enforcer statistic, so no other sport has a statistic that keeps track of when enforcers score or when scorers enforce.

As in all sports, hockey players have roles and specializations within the game. Since offense and defense flow into each other, hockey isn't as specialized as American football or baseball, but it still has its roles. To put it bluntly, fighters don't usually score and scorers don't usually fight. Most of the time a Gordie Howe hat trick is evidence of someone doing something they don't normally do, and most of the time, it's the fighter doing the scoring. In this case, the Gordie Howe hat trick is a reward for spending most of one's time willingly getting punched in the face.

Perhaps what makes the Gordie Howe hat-trick so special is how it encapsulates the entire spirit of the game of hockey all in one stat. In all other sports, the relevant statistics describe particular aspects of the sport, and you can build a picture of the sport through the accumulation of statistics; but hockey is a sport that mixes moments of profound violence fluidly with moments of profound dexterity. To earn a Gordie Howe hat trick a player needs to individually demonstrate that fluidity. And this fluidity is at the core of what is entertaining about hockey. That not only can grace and violence can exist in the same space of sport, but they flow back and forth into each other as the game moves.

And to make it even better, it's not an official statistic. Though one could crunch the numbers and figure it out, no one will be inducted into the Hall of Fame because they have the most Gordie Howe hat tricks. The stat is a pure expression of what fans find exciting about hockey. And there's something interesting about the term “Gordie Howe hat trick.” The stat is named after Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, one of the game's first superstars and ambassadors to the world. He scored goals. He recorded assists. He hit people. He got in fights. He was tough and fast and skilled. He was the embodiment of hockey, so naturally, a stat that embodies hockey would be named after him. The interesting thing, is that Gordie Howe did not record that many Gordie Howe hat tricks. Despite his lengthy career, he only recorded two.

In a way, one of sports most important roles is conversation fodder. Being social animals and being verbal social animals, we are often in situations, with strangers, co-workers, friends, and family, where we are compelled or even obligated to converse whether there is something to talk about or not. Sport is often perfect fodder for those moments. In fact, a worldly and astute individual could simply offer a “Did you catch the game?” and then figure out what the game is from the context of the conversation. And if someone then mentions a Gordie Howe hat trick, not only do you know the game was a hockey game, you will also know that the game included one of hockey's perfect expressions.

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