Thursday, June 6, 2013

Offseason Musings: Date of Birth and Hockey Success

I love it when my wife comes to me with hockey stuffs. She picked up a book the other day by Malcom Gladwell called Outliers: The Story of Success because it peaked her curiosity as a math teacher. The book's premise was to search for mathematical patterns to people's success, perhaps outside the normal ideas of family, socioeconomic status. An early chapter discusses a correlation between the birthdays of hockey players who make it into the NHL, and the author specifically mentions Red Wings Gordie Howe and Darren Helm.

In fact, Gladwell attended a minor league game where Darren Helm played, and mentions him as his team's "top goal scorer". If that isn't mind blowing enough, there's more! Gladwell's wife pointed out to him an interesting trend - apparently hockey wives point out really interesting things to their hockey husbands - that there was a disproportional number of players whose birthdays came in the beginning months of the year. 

My wife did the number crunching and found that out of the 850 players listed on the rosters of the 30 NHL teams, 331 of them had birthdays in January, Februrary, March or April. That's means 39% of NHL players were born in the first four months of the year. Turning our attention to the Detroit Red Wings, at one point 14 out of the 27 players listed on the Red roster were born in the first four months. That's 51.85%

Terry Sawchuck, doomed to obscurity and mediocrity because of his birthday
Five NHL teams (Detroit, Carolina, Colorado, Minnesota, and San Jose) have rosters with 50% or more of their players being born between January and April. 7 teams who have 40% or more. Dallas had only 3 players out of 20 listed on their roster. Carolina and Minnesota are tied with the most at 55%. 40% of the league has rosters with at least 40% of their players having been born in the first four months of the year.

So what's the point?

According to Gladwell, the correlation is fairly simple. In Canada, the cutoff age for hockey leagues is December 31st. Meaning that players who are born January 1st, 2013 will be placed in the same league as a player born December 31st, 2013. A player born January 1st, 2014 will play in the younger league. Well there are spring leagues and there's workouts and training and camps and practices you can do all year long, the bulk of the hockey season is played usually between about October and April, similar to the NHL's schedule. That's when my hockey seasons ran when I played. Therefore, when puck drops for Midget Hockey in October, a kid who was born in January is playing with kids who were born in December of the same year. 

When you consider the religious status that hockey has in Canada and other parts of the world, you understand why it is that kids who want to play hockey (or parents who want their kids to play hockey) start off at a very young age. Some kids learn to skate along with learning to walk. So the kids born January through April have four months of development and practice before the kids born later. This means when it comes time to join organized hockey, the early kids are slightly bigger, slightly faster, slightly more developed than the later kids. Of course, since they have the edge, those are the kids who will get the attention from coaches, and be pushed to develop that much more quickly. They're more likely to be selected to go to the elite leagues in Canada, which radically increases your chances of being drafted to and playing in the NHL.

So how do the Red Wings break down? Well when we look at the roster of players who were featured this season:

In the 86 years the Red Wings have been in existence, 37.66% of all the players who have played for Detroit were born in the first four months of the year; 334 out of 887. Notable Red Wings who fit the bill: Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Gordie Howe, Larry "This is a Guy" Murphy, Vladimir Konstantinov, Sid Abel, and Mike Vernon. What about some of our Red Wing greats who don't? Chris Osgood, Sergei Federov, Mickie Redmond, Slava Kozlov, Igor Larionov, Shawn Burr, Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuck, and even Oh Captain, My Captain Steve Yzerman.

So what asinine conclusions can we come to from this information? Well obviously Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg need to be traded immediately, along with Nyquist, Tatar, Eaves and Lashoff, but we should definitely keep Val Filppula. And we should never draft anyone born past April 31st. But in reality, what would be interesting is to find out the age cutoffs for leagues in Europe and Russia and see if they follow the same pattern as Canada.

Naturally, you can't gurantee that a certain birthday will bring hockey success, and of course, when we look at guys like Hank, Pav, Goose and Eaves, the obvious conclusion is that with some luck and a shit ton of work, you can overcome the odds.

Having said that, I think what we can certainly conclude is if you want to give your kid the best shot at making it into the NHL, especially if you're a Canadian, you should do the bulk of your fucking between April and July. 

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