Lies, Damn Lies & Spin

Paul Balm says you can use facts to prove just about anything…

I see Ervins Mustukovs was getting very excited on Twitter this week because statistically he’s the best netminder in the Elite League. At least if you go by save percentage. If you go by average goals against he’s in second place behind Ben Bowns (who he beats by one hundredth of a percent in save percentage). If you look on the Elite League website goalies are ranked by GAA so does that mean Bowns is actually the best? Mustukovs will cite his single extra win but he’s also played five more games or 400 more minutes than Bowns. So who is the better netminder? And, if I’m honest does it actually matter?

That’s the thing with statistics you can prove anything with them both good and bad. Great players can be humbled and the less impressive can become greats, if only on a sheet of paper or a computer screen. Take Shane Owen, a lot of people have been saying he’s had a great season in Fife but he’s fourth in the save percentage and eighth in the GAA. Only Travis Fullerton has let in more goals but (and this is a big but) Owen has saved more shots than anyone else in the league, over two hundred more than his nearest rival, Mike Clemente.

When it comes to statistics it’s all about context. You can prove anything you like with statistics but some statistics are better than others. Some are more relevant. They’re all believable because they’re based on facts but how much validity can vary. I’m starting to confuse myself now so let’s make it simpler by using some examples.

Do you remember Ian McDonald? Don’t worry if you have no recollection of him. He was an average import who didn’t exactly set the league on fire on a team that didn’t exactly come alive until after he was cut by the team. The only thing that possibly makes him stand out is that he was, in my mind at least, made the scapegoat for the widely reported shenanigans that went on in Belfast. Essentially in his time at the Panthers he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory. I don’t think much of our current team at the moment but I don’t think I’d swap any of them for Ian McDonald. The thing is with the exception of two players (one of whom has only played eleven games) no one on the current Panthers team has a better points per game average than McDonald had. This is what I was trying to explain, the statistical view doesn’t really match up to the reality very well does it? You have to delve deeper into the detail to get a better comparison. This season we have two players over a point a game (I’m talking about league statistics here by the way). In 2010-11, the season McDonald played for us, we had eight. But even that doesn’t give you the whole story. You have to look at the quality of the league, number of imports, other teams etc to get the bigger picture. A bare statistic like that just doesn’t tell you anything really.

The Panthers haven’t lost a play-off weekend game since 2010. That means that you can argue that they are currently on an eight game unbeaten run in play-off final and semi-final games. If you said that you would technically be right. Panthers haven’t lost since they were beaten back in 2010 in the semi-final by Belfast. It doesn’t take in to account the two years that they didn’t make it to the final weekend though, so is it right or is it wrong? It could be taken both ways.

Corey Neilson is Panthers most successful (I refuse to use the word winningest) coach in terms of trophies and games won but he’s on the verge of leading the Panthers to our third season out of four where they don’t make the finals weekend. I don’t have the figures to my fingertips but when was the last time we didn’t make the finals weekend three times in four seasons? He’s won the league once in nine seasons. OK, it’s the only time that I can remember us winning the league but one in nine isn’t much of a return is it?

Do you see what I mean now? For every statistic that proves something there’s usually another that, whilst it doesn’t contradict it completely can at the very least take the shine off it. You have to be careful to sift the wheat from the chaff when you’re presented with the “facts”. The word spin is only really used in sport when it comes to cricket but it’s out there in ice hockey (and every other sport) in its “political” context. You only have to look at the Panthers to see that (other hockey teams are available but I pay more attention to my own team’s media output). From the way there are often a glut of articles (often re-iterating the same thing) that appear on the website not long after a defeat to push the match report off the home page to the way that opposition goals at the NIC are almost always followed by an advert for the next home game the fans are constantly fed the team’s version of reality.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t expect my team to tell me how bad they were last night but there has to be some kind of acknowledgement that there is a real world out there and that reality isn’t black and gold tinted. Gary Moran isn’t Willy Wonka and I don’t want to see his world of pure imagination. There are plenty out there who do and there are plenty of Fickelgrubers and Slugworths who want to see the very opposite view all the time.

That’s how reality works, everybody’s is different. Write an article on a website and watch the replies if you don’t believe me. People pick up on individual parts or they’ll read things into it that you didn’t actually say. Now, that could very easily be due to me not explaining myself properly and you have to beware of that. The thing is that regardless of what you meant to write, if people think you’ve written something else then your initial intentions are null and void because to them your article is about what they think it’s about.

I think what I’m trying to say is that if you want to believe the statistics you will. It doesn’t matter if they are right, wrong or somewhere in the middle, it is how they are perceived at the time that counts. Or put it another way if Ervins wants to tell the world he is the best netminder in the EIHL who am I to disagree?

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