Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: Stat Shot (2016)

By Rob Vollman with Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe

The revolution continues.

Someone I know once wondered how easy it would be to create new numerical ways to look at the sport of hockey, because the game was played a lot like jazz - improvised as it went on.

But a lot of people, a lot of smart people to be more specific, are trying to prove that people wrong.

Rob Vollman has been at it for several years, and he's produced books in one form or another for the past three or so. Here's his latest offering for the fall, "Stat Shot."

Basically, Vollman and a couple of friends in Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe go through some big themes, step by step, in these pages. The subjects include building a team under the current cap restrictions, judging goalies by save percentage and other metrics, faceoff success, junior hockey statistics' validity, shooting, and figuring what trades are the most one-sided in relatively recent league history.

Vollman jumps in quite early and points out that the information covered in these pages is at least a year old. The problems of trying to say something significant between the time that the Stanley Cup playoffs end and the start of the season would cause any publisher to cringe. I believe it. So at least here, some of the studies aren't completely up-to-date - but then again, the points that are made still seem relevant. Luckily, the group of statisticians does have a e-book out with more relevant information. I would guess that the e-book would find a larger audience than this, which is a bit more theoretical in nature.

Vollman and Co. certainly take their time in presenting information, and they make a good case for some of their arguments. The question that comes up from non-analytical types is - will I be able to understand it? That varies to a degree on the reader's openness to accept the information, and to put up with some new concepts and anagrams. From my viewpoint, I did have my eyes glaze over a few times, particularly in the description of shooting.

Personally, I think I'd rather read the updated version. This comes across as something that would be good in a special blog for a narrow group of people that wants the information. But the authors at least are doing some good work here, and NHL teams are noticing. Most front offices have a department doing such research.

My reaction to "Stat Shot" was rather lukewarm, because I don't follow the sport closely any more. (Is there anyone thinking about indoor lacrosse for this stuff?) But if you see it in a bookstore, and pick it up,  you might find yourself entertained and informed.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: One Night Only (2016)

By Ken Reid

The National Hockey League Guide and Record Book comes out every fall, and one part of the book that always fascinates is the player register in the back of the book. Everyone who has ever played in an NHL game gets a line of type - from Gordie Howe to Trent Kaese.

Howe played in 1,767 games, while Kaese played in one. They get the same amount of type. (I don't mean to pick on Kaese; I just remember him from his days with the Sabres.)

In an odd way, it's almost like being a member of a club. You are in or you are out. The numbers are simply different. And how many young boys grew up wanting to see their name in that list?

Ken Reid probably has looked over that list, and he became more curious than most about the guys who had "one" in the games played column. So he tracked them down, which must have been a difficult task in some cases.

Eventually, Reid found enough one-game wonders to fill a book. "One Night Only" is that book, a nice little tribute to those who briefly served.

The stories generally follow a pattern. During the course of a season, someone on the NHL team gets hurt and a replacement is needed - usually in a hurry. The call goes down to the minor leagues, and someone collects his sticks and heads to the NHL city for a moment of glory. Some of the players take it all in stride, perhaps because they took part in preseason games and figured they would have plenty of more opportunities. Then there are those who know they are catching a break in the middle of a season, and enjoy the ride.

The goalies might draw the most sympathy here. Frequently they are called up as a backup, and essentially needed to fill a uniform and not expected to play. NHL teams keep lists of goalies who had a uniform number but never got on the ice except to pay the starter on the back at the end of the game. But a few did make it into a game in a relief role. One goalie got to go into a game with four minutes left. That's not long, but it was good enough to put him in the club.

As you'd expect, most of the guys are relatively anonymous. The big exception is Don Cherry, who turned up in a Bruins playoff game in Montreal in 1955. Cherry, who became famous as a player and coach, hurt his shoulder the following summer playing baseball and never got another chance. Don Waddell, who worked as a general manager and coach in the NHL, might be No. 2 on the fame list of those in the book. But otherwise, the players returned to the minors and in many cases headed to Europe for a chance to play regularly.

Most of the players here are a bit proud of the fact that they reached the NHL at all, even if they take a little kidding about it. Others just considered it part of their hockey experience, and don't exactly brag about it.

If there's a drawback to the format, it's that the stories start to read the same way after a while - and this isn't a long book. After all, there are only so many ways that a one-game career can take shape. My guess is that a collection of such stories from all sports might have worked a little better for some readers.

On the other hand, limiting the subjects to hockey players might make it more interesting for those who follow hockey closely, and thus would be a good target for purchasing. "One Night Only" is pleasant and easy reading, and those who read it probably will come away satisfied.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: Any Given Number (2014)

By Bill Syken

When it comes to ideas for Sports Illustrated's books, this was something of a lay-up.

Have someone pick out the greatest "uniform" number (NASCAR numbers are included as well) for every number from 0 to 99. Then go through the files to find pictures, and add a few facts about unusual circumstances for a few of the sports figures and their numbers.

Presto. Instant book.

There are no right or wrong answers here, but all of the choices seem as if they can be justified pretty well. Author Bill Syken (you have to look really hard here to find out that he did the writing) supplies plenty of facts to go along with the top candidates, and each number has a flurry of "honorable mentions."

From there, let the arguments begin. For example, let's look at No. 7. Old-timers always will think of Mickey Mantle, while younger people will lean toward John Elway. That's a pretty tough call.

The standards seem to change a little bit when it's convenient to make an argument. At certain points players get credit for being the best ever in their sport or at a position, while at other times they don't. For example, Gordie Howe probably is at worst in the top three of all-time great hockey players, but falls short on No. 9 to a baseball player named Ted Williams. Both are legends, and baseball is more popular. Williams gets the nod in the book. On the other hand, Bobby Orr is picked over Brett Favre at No. 4. As I said, it's an inexact science.

The packaging is fine, as there are plenty of good photos from the SI files. They did a good job of players who popped up in unusual numbers for one reason or another - players who took numbers for the date they were born or date they arrived in a new country or for their old neighborhood.

Basically, there's one big drawback - the price. In hard cover, it checks in at $19.95 new. There's really not much to read here; you can zip through it all pretty quickly. For that sort of money, you need more to read - and it's not coming. Maybe a paperback edition would have been the route to use.

However, the book has been out for a couple of years now. I picked up a copy at a discount store for $1.99. I've paid more for a bottle of soda pop at a baseball game, and this is well worth that.

We're all a little fascinated by the numbers that athletes wear; it almost becomes part of their identity. "Any Given Number" capitalizes on that so that it's best possible treatment of a relatively silly and fun subject.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.