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

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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

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