26

On Last Week’s Feud and Stats vs. Mainstream Media

As I’m sure most of you are aware by now, I authored an article last Thursday regarding a prominent media member’s commentary on the Canucks’ rebuild and fan perception on TSN 1040 AM.

In the days that followed, the piece sparked more controversy and generated more discussion than anything I’ve written in months. That was an unexpected development. When I originally posted the article, my assumption was that a few people would get a kick out of it, it would quickly get bumped down the front page in favour of higher-calibre content, and that would be the end of it. Instead, it causes what could be described as a bit of a stir on Twitter, and the article was even featured in Saturday Night’s edition of Jason Botchford’s Provies.

Then this happened:

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I won’t linger here, but given the context, I think it’s fairly obvious what drew that comment from Iain MacIntyre. If we read between the lines, the message was pretty clear: “I’m not going to engage, because it will only give you more undeserved attention.”

So, MacIntyre did what anyone who’s looking to de-escalate a situation would do: he devoted an entire 700+-word column to rebutting Canucks Army for the Province.com.

Let’s dive in.

MacIntyre’s Thoughts: Cannibal media, the analytics altar, and a game of poetry 

A perspective. 

It most certainly is.

My name in vain

We’re off to a great start already. MacIntyre, to his credit, appears to have a flair for the dramatic, which becomes increasingly apparent as his piece continues.

I read Friday on Twitter the headline: “Don’t believe what Iain MacIntyre tells you about the #Canucks and rebuilding.” 

Let’s get this settled right off the bat. As Botchford alluded to in Saturday’s Provies, the headline was the weakest element of my article and by a wide margin.

There was probably a way to frame the piece without singling out IMac in particular. In a perfect world, it might have been titled, Why Iain MacIntyre’s take on the Canucks’ rebuild, while popular, is not only misguided but also a misrepresentation of the Canucks’ fanbase on the whole, and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

If your eyes glazed over while you were reading that, I don’t blame you. The truth is, what initially was meant to be more of an exploration of a popular take got much more specific. There’s a small part of me that regrets putting MacIntyre’s name in the title, but I stand by my decision. You also can’t deny it caught the attention of a lot of people — a desirable effect, in this field.

Seemed a little over the top, but it’s hard to say because I’d never heard of the writer. 

I can’t help but perceive this as a veiled shot at my status. I’m not sure it’s entirely relevant. It should be the words that matter rather than the source. There was once a time no one had heard of Mr MacIntyre either.

 

It was not the first time I was vilified in print by another media outlet.

During the Vancouver Canucks’ 2000 training camp in Stockholm, I noticed these words prominently in the pink stock of the Swedish-language national newspaper Aftonbladet: “Iain MacIntyre.” Curious, I took the tabloid to a bellman at my hotel and asked what the story was about.

He read for a minute and informed me, aghast: “Some Canadian reporter ripped the Sedins. He said they can’t skate.”

 

Really?

“It says he’s a Canadian hockey expert.”

I, too, was aghast. Canadian hockey expert.

The Sedins were 20-year-old rookies Daniel and Henrik, who had snowshoed around the Globen Arena in their first National Hockey League practice. I devoted all of a couple of paragraphs to their skating in a notebook for the Vancouver Sun that said, essentially, they didn’t “yet” skate like NHLers.

Not knowing who was empowered to tip him, a cab driver mentioned the story to me. It was referenced during a reception at the Canadian ambassador’s residence, to which I was mistakenly invited.

To this day, former Canuck assistant coach Jack McIlhargey greets me with “Here’s the Canadian hockey expert.” Then he laughs.

I never shook that story. But the Sedins proved me right. 

This is a good story. It’s precisely the kind you’d expect from someone’s who’s been on the Vancouver beat for as many years as MacIntyre’s been a staple in Vancouver’s. I’m not sure what he’s trying to illustrate here, other than that this isn’t a first for him.

That’s a relief.

Today, a friend and colleague is fighting cancer for the second time. Our owners just announced that 29 dedicated journalists, perfect fools who still believed in this profession, will be laid off. I have children who are going to inherit this dying planet. 

This is where things begin to take a very dramatic shift. I’m normally reticent to talk about my personal experiences in a professional setting, but it seems only fair that we operate on a level playing field.

First of all, the cancer thing. My heart goes out to Steve Ewen. No one should have to fight that type of battle at such a young age.

I think we’ve all been touched by cancer. It took my grandfather; it took my music teacher; it took a dear friend of mine, Tony, who left behind a wife and two children, one unborn at the time of his passing. I can sympathize. I don’t understand how this disease pertains to this situation, but cancer undoubtedly pales in comparison to anything involving the innocuous world of sports.

Second, we’ve got the massive layoffs in the Vancouver sports media industry. Again, I can sympathize. When my only contributions to Canucks hockey came as a consumer, I had a simple motto: more is always better. I couldn’t get enough Canucks-related content. I still can’t. I would read everything from blogs to papers to message boards, much of which I didn’t particularly enjoy, just to satiate my desire for more content. I would never begrudge somebody their right to earn a living doing something they and I enjoy so dearly.

The reference to climate change is just weird. Please don’t take this in any ageist fashion, but Iain has been on the Canucks beat longer than I’ve been alive. I’m inheriting a dying world, too.

A blogger’s attack on my character? Pretty sure I can survive that. 

Ah, now we’re cooking with fire. MacIntyre is granting perspective into where hockey fits in the grand scheme of things, and I think we can both agree it’s somewhere off to the side. I don’t know what about my article, in particular, draws these remarks into the fold, though. Certainly not in the context of a column devoted almost in its entirety to squabbling with us.

If we were so inconsequential, wouldn’t the best way to illustrate that be not engaging us? I wonder.

What’s most important, is that my article was, without question, not an attack on MacIntyre’s character. I’d argue comparing someone to a farm animal veers closest to that distinction. I just went after his opinion — that’s different. I fancy MacIntyre’s take on the fanbase’s attitude towards rebuilding is at best misguided and at worst tone-deaf. That doesn’t make him a bad person.

I’ve never talked to him, nor have I met him in person. I get the sense he’s a nice guy. I don’t like the implication that I’m not. The idea that I might come across as a snarky jerk in this space is something I’ve contemplated, but away from the keyboard, I’m not hard to get along with.

At the analytics altar

One thing I have learned during the rapid rise of advanced statistics, which have impacted the game and how many people judge it, is that the analytics community, generally, attacks and defends with ruthless fervour. It is easy to understand why. 

At face value, there’s nothing to disagree with here, but I have to wonder about the relevance of so-called “advanced” statistics to the current situation. In my original piece, there was sparse reference to statistical analysis. It was, at its heart, a logical argument. I referenced a couple of simple metrics that have already permeated the mainstream and that’s it.

My knowledge of statistics woefully lacks compared to most of the writers who’ve graced the pages here. Being categorized as a “stats guy” will always feel strange.

 

What has an analytics blogger at his disposal? Some are trained journalists or, at least, writers. Many are not. Many – and this is not their fault – have no access to players, coaches and managers to ask questions and seek input from people whose lives and livelihoods are devoted to the game.

To be brutally honest, however, for some bloggers the idea of seeking input from their subjects is not just unfathomable but inconvenient. Questions? Accountability? 

Again, we come back to the question of relevance. My argument was mainly about the fans, whom I engage with frequently. Why would I need player quotes to talk about that?

MacIntyre does have a point, though. There’s a certain awkwardness to being in the same room as someone you’ve openly criticized in the past. We’re all adults, though. I’d relish the opportunity to talk to players and coaches, as it would only deepen my understanding and help improve my perspective, as it’s done for my friend and colleague J.D. Burke, who does have access to players.

A hobbyist-blogger may or may not be able to craft a shopping list, but he can probably churn out a 2,000-word dissertation loaded with impregnable figures arguing how a young fourth-liner who doesn’t know shit from Shinola at the NHL level isn’t being properly optimized and a coach the blogger will never face is an idiot for using a veteran who makes $6 million US this season and scored 30 goals last season ahead of the prospect on the second-unit power play. 

The implication that I can’t write a shopping list is totally out of left-field and much more closely resembles an ad hominem attack than anything I wrote. Once again, it’s equally strange for analytics to come up when I am not chiefly an analytics writer, and the piece in question wasn’t about analytics.

Just as importantly, Iain is misrepresenting the argument I made. I have issues with the process that led to the Canucks signing Loui Eriksson, but I have no issues with him on the team’s first unit. He should be in front of the net, where he scored most of his goals last year, but that’s neither here nor there. J.D. and I were just discussing the other night how Eriksson has probably been the best Canuck this year in every way excluding traditional boxcar stats. For all his faults, he’s been an analytics darling. My issues lie with more with Jayson Megna and Brandon Sutter getting first unit time and playing above where their skill set indicates they ought to be.

To be clear, there are good hockey-stats bloggers, too – often a journalist who has embraced the movement and attempts to make it digestible for readers. 

Considering how many former stats-bloggers now write for the mainstream media, I think this is a bit unfair. It’s not merely a matter of professional journalists opening themselves up to new ideas, stats bloggers have earned their keep, too.

But what is the only resource available to most? Numbers. Statistics.

Heaven forbid.

They have at their finger tips a vast ocean of data, unprecedented and endless and compelling when used in proper measure.

And when you make an argument that conflicts with what must surely be unassailable data, it is viewed not as contradictory view but an attack on the ideology of analytics. And this religion will be defended at all costs. Because if the numbers fail, what else is there? 

I’m going to wear out the word “irrelevant” before I finish this piece, but that’s precisely the word that comes to mind. This wasn’t primarily about statistics, but as long as we’re here, I’ll dive in.

Stats vs. MSM is such a tired narrative. It is not and does not have to be a simple dichotomy of old school/new school. Any so-called “analytics guy” worth his salt knows the numbers have limitations; that there are human elements to the game, or that there are some things that are unknowable at present. Any member of what we call the mainstream media with a good head on his shoulders should see that there is significant value in what the analytics community is doing.

More importantly, it doesn’t have to be a dogfight all the time, either. I had the pleasure of meeting the producer of Hockey Prospect Radio and friend/critic of the army Aynsley Scott this weekend at the Vancouver Hockey Analytics conference. We had jousted on Twitter before and based on the woefully inadequate discourse we’d had on Twitter I was expecting a more stereotypical old-school scout.

Instead, the man I met was not only affable and charming but also open-minded. More importantly, we were capable of disagreeing politely. I learned things from our discussions. I didn’t talk nearly as much as he did, but I’d like to think there are things he could learn from me too.

I’m personally more interested in situations where the numbers fail than I am in situations where the numbers predict what I was expecting. The purpose of hockey analytics should be to search for objective knowledge about hockey. It’s the opposite of religion. Our minds change with the data. That’s the point. If we didn’t believe that, we’d still be arguing shot quality doesn’t exist.

The beauty of the game

With regard to hockey and stories and arguments about it based largely on analytics, I leave you with this verse from the great American poet Walt Whitman. The poem is When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer. If you do not understand the reference, I’m sorry, I can’t help you. But I do appreciate you reading this, and reading me. You won’t find either on CanucksArmy.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer.

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 

A Walt Whitman poem. Have to admit I didn’t see that coming. I’m more of a Robert Frost guy, and when it comes to Walt, I prefer O Captain My Captain. I bristle at the notion Canucks Army is in any way poetry illiterate. As someone who dabbles in songwriting, I’m a literally a poet (albeit a mediocre one) in my spare time. J.D. Burke literally has the words of Dylan Thomas permanently scrawled on his right bicep.

I’m familiar with this one, believe it or not. I learned about Leaves Of Grass in grade nine English class, along with the advice that it’s usually unwise to end your work with somebody else’s words.

For those of you that don’t understand the reference, that’s fine. There are only so many hours in the day to consume literature, and only so many opportunities for exposure to the 19th-century father of free verse, especially if you aren’t a fan of Dead Poets’ Society or Breaking Bad. 

My interpretation of the work he’s referencing is that it’s a representation of the trade-off that occurs between the deepening of one’s understanding of something and their ability to enjoy it. A naturalist at heart, Whitman favoured a more romantic outlook on life over an analytical one.

He probably could have just said that, but I did say he had a flair for the dramatic.

While I think it’s normal for a person to favour one outlook over the other, I disagree wholeheartedly that a person’s deepening understanding of the game through a statistical lens has any sort of adverse effect on one’s enjoyment of it. The passion and humour I witnessed at VanHAC this past weekend made it clear that it’s just the opposite.

Micah Blake McCurdy, easily the most intelligent person working in the field of hockey analytics, exhibited the type of bliss and enjoyment when talking about hockey that is rarely seen in anyone over the age of about seven or eight.  It stood in stark contrast to the remarks from Iain that I would read later that evening.

Parting Thoughts

There’s so much more that I could say on this topic, whether it’s regarding appeals to authority, or Twitter feuds, or literary allusions, but I want to close by addressing one last thing.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but the overarching feeling I got from the discourse that’s taken place over the past few days, from the negative feedback I received, was that some people thought I wasn’t entitled to my opinion based on my level of experience and schooling.

The faster hockey gets over this idea, the faster the sport can grow its fanbase.

There are significant barriers to going to school for journalism (or to being a professional hockey player, for that matter,) that include time, money, and access. I think it’s pretty unbecoming for people to use the argument of qualifications when we aren’t all playing on a level field. Not everyone can afford to spend years in school studying literature; not everyone can afford over a decade of minor hockey, and the equipment replacements that come with it. That doesn’t mean people aren’t entitled to their opinions, especially when information is as readily available as it is now in the internet era.

That’s why I also think it’s unwise to insult the fanbase’s intelligence. They are the ones that cash our cheques. We owe them a basic modicum of respect.

At the end of the day, IMac is right. I’m just a hobbyist. I’ve never had so much as a second of formal training in this field. Somehow, some people are still interested in what I say. One of those people appears to be MacIntyre.

When a hobbyist can elicit that kind of response from a 25-year professional journalist, I think that says a lot about the current landscape.

  • Dirty30

    Good article, but one would seek to ‘elicit’ a response and hope it is not an illicit one.

    iMac flubbed his response to you and might have made a better argument had he addressed the changing landscape of what passes for journalism these days. I’d hate to walk into my bosses’ office to defend my job and salary when I had just been spanked by some blogger in a public call-out. But he didn’t defend his position from the perspective of his formal education, his on the job training or the quarter century of developing leads and contacts in the community.

    He decided to try and spank you.

    Bad move on his part.

    His reference to Jim Taylor was also unwise, because Jim could slaughter, enviserate and BBQ any ‘pig’ he crossed paths with and invite said pig to the BBQ and show him a good time. Mr. Taylor was an inspiration and set a very high standard for IMac to emulate — and he came up decidedly short in his attempt.

    Everyone has a right to an opinion, to a view of the world and a reasonable expectation to express it. Making things personal between a professional journeyman and a blogger learning his trade is never going to look good for the professional. iMac should have taken a page from JD and simply thanked you for reading his work. He could have been generous and he could have been professional. He seems to have chosen neither.

  • wjohn1925

    I really enjoyed this piece. I went to the Province first and read MacIntyre’s article in its entirety and then came back to read your response. I think you defended your perspective admireably and respectfully, which I think was your intent. Good luck to you if your ambition is to do this for a living.

  • Jabs

    I remember an episode of Coach’s Corner a number of years back where Don Cherry made a comment that when a player disagrees with a referee, the worst thing to do is to come back to him and argue. The best thing to do is to skate away shaking your head. I know it’s a bit different with writers/bloggers since neither is in a position of authority over the other but the principle of credibility remains the same. It look silly and desperate to stand in the middle of the ice and argue, such as it does in any forum.
    Rather than getting into a sparring match, often the best thing to do is to take the high road, declare that you agree to disagree and walk away…..much to the same effect as skating away shaking your head.

    As it stands, I see little to no credibility in what you have done here today.

    • Chris the Curmudgeon

      Not a fair comparison. This isn’t like a player arguing with a referee. If you want an on-ice analogy, it’s more akin to a young rookie sparring with an old veteran. The old veteran can back down and play the “you aren’t worth my time” card, but the rookie needs to stand up and prove himself, otherwise he looks “soft” and gets a reputation for it. I think Jackson had a right and prerogative to defend himself here and he did an admirable and level-headed job of it.

  • Steamer

    Criticism has greater validity when not focusing on individuals. People see things differently, they may be wrong, they may be right, not worth incurring enmity – life is too short:) If the original article had focused on establishing points based upon data, analysis, etc., then nobody is personally offended & focus is – rightfully – on the merits of your claims
    or insights, lending weight to the article, rather than detracting and getting bogged down in petty spats that neither inform nor elucidate. Result of personalizing criticism: readers lose.

  • apr

    I thought you made some excellent points in your original article, although I disagreed with a lot of them. But as Botchford noted, and you have alluded – putting IMac’s name in the headline was wrong. For me, you’re “I’m standing by it” position comes off as a little defensive however. Unless you plan to make it a habit of calling out journalists in your headlines (which I think you are better than that) – a little reflection of lesson learned next time would be more ingratiating to your narrative in assessing IMac’s article. As Botchford noted, the more viewpoints on assessing the team – the better. And while I can do without the personal smarmy attacks, I too am grateful that I live in a community where there is a Canucks Army. That said, I still disagree with what you said, and if you look all across the league there are several instances when all young prospects chucked into the fray for the sake of getting experience. Ho-Sang looked great with Tavares. I could not imagine the disaster putting Goldy with the Sedins given how slow the Sedins are these days.

  • Qualicum Wayne

    Jackson, your initial rebuttle of Ian’s perspective was unnecessarily personal in nature. You could have presented your perspective without making it a personal attack on Ian. The personal attack is what caused the ramping up of hostilities; the qualities of tabloid reporting.This is what separates a decent reporter from a hack of a blogger. Guess it makes for good click bait though, if that is your priority. Cheap.

    • Anthony

      I wouldn’t call him a ‘hack blocker’, but I would agree, the first piece was a bit of a ‘hit piece’, probably hoping to solicit this type of reaction (he basically says in the body of this post he was looking for clicks thanks to the title)

      • Qualicum Wayne

        I wouldn’t call him a hack blogger, but am suggesting his writing in this case was that of a hack blogger. Whether he learns from this mistake is what will reveal what kind of blogger he actually is.

  • Anthony

    ‘ But what is the only resource available to most? Numbers. Statistics.

    Heaven forbid.’

    I keep hearing ‘Analytics are only part of the solution’, everyone who writes about analytics agrees with this on the surface. So what MacIntyre is saying is that you don’t have all the facts here. Sarcastically replying ‘heaven forbid’ proves his point and proves that the ‘analytics is only part of the solution’ is simply lip service.

    I like Canucks Army, but this is silly. You took a shot, he shot back, why keep this going, unless clicks > content?

  • TheRealPB

    I think this became (and continues to become) far too personal and defensive on both sides. I actually thought your original article was a fair critique, even if I didn’t agree with a lot of your conclusions. It was just that you had a headline that was needlessly provocative (and personalized). Not particularly surprising that IM took umbrage at it, though he simply made the situation worse with a petty and petulant set of responses. The only thing I find as frustrating as the uber-snark often on display at CA is the insider-homerism of some of the ‘old school’ beat writers — as if experience alone gives one special insight or more credibility. If that were the case Mike Milbury, JR and any host of ex-players/ex-execs would have had far more success than they have had. It’s why I hate it when the defense of Benning playing/calling-up/not-playing Subban has to do with the fact that he was a defenseman himself — it should really only be about his knowledge and actions as a GM. Similarly, I don’t really care if a sports writer or a blogger has more or less access to the team or has been around the team longer or whatever — if you’re writing an article that is about the viability of a rebuild in a market like Vancouver, that’s no essential. Sure, you might get some pithy quotes from vets who’ve gone through a rebuild here or elsewhere before. But you could easily write such a story without that access.

    I think one of the challenges for CA has actually been the proliferation of unsubstantiated opinion pieces rather than evidence-based analysis. I appreciate articles that demonstrate the value (or lack of value) of a particular draft pick over a certain period of time and performance. But simply dismissing a pick definitively based on assumptions — or worse, a dogmatic adherence to a series of orthodoxies (whether proxies like shot metrics or something else) — is no better than believing in truculence or grit or anything like that.

    Anyway, I hope the feud dies down. I thought this article, though a touch defensive, was a good entry.

  • myshkin

    I don’ care what you had for breakfast, I don’t don’t care what your favorite sit-com is and I really don’t care what MacIntyre thinks about you. I come here to read about the Canucks, not your relationship with a writer. (I only read about half your post)

    • Cageyvet

      Half? You made it that far? Once I scrolled ahead and I realized I was going to have to read The Never Ending Story part 3 I took a pass and headed for the comments, it seemed reading a couple of dozen replies would be far quicker.

  • TimfromAnahim

    The fact is, you initiated this discourse and you went too far. You got what you deserved in return. To try to justify yourself now only makes you look worse. This has little to do with numbers vs. MSM. It has a lot to do with simple respect. You disrespected someone who has a valid opinion and much stronger credentials than you do. You’ve seen the result.

  • Naslund

    IMac is understandably upset that journalism is changing so much, and the days of the daily newspaper are disappearing. He believes that his education and years of experience are worth something, yet he worries that the reality is quickly becoming otherwise. He, and other writers, are threatened by the internet and how it allows a forum for everybody to express their opinions and get followers.
    As a result, it’s clear that he feels very much that blogs like this and bloggers like Mr. McDonald are the enemy. That’s not necessarily the case, but writers will have to work harder to market their work and to get good compensation for it. A more difficult world is certainly out there for aspiring writers.
    The old argument of tried and true ideas vs newfangled ones surfaces once again. The tried and true people like Benning and IMac rely on their years of experience and intuition, the newfangled people trust in logic and their own intelligence to find a better way. Like most things, there is often truth in both points of view.
    Analytics works if the people using analytics place the right value on the appropriate stats, and the stats are reliable enough to produce consistent, verifiable results. Fenwick and Corsi certainly aren’t good enough to base all decisions on. New approaches may be very soon. Keep an eye on Arizona and Florida to see.
    At any rate, it’s been an interesting debate. I prefer Seamus Heaney to American poets though….

  • krutov

    jackson,

    you should have quit while ahead and apologized for the crappy headline. the article itself was really not that bad and i don’t think would have caused an issue.

    a couple of comments

    1. what was crossing imac’s twitter feed when he made the pigs getting dirty comment? seems like a relevant question.

    2. mcintyre’s article was well written and much less nasty than it might reasonably have been given the shot you took at him with that headline.

    3. to reiterate, you got off lightly. next time you use a headline to frivolously impugn the integrity and professionalism of someone, i hope they tear you a new one.

  • JohnnyCanuck62

    I would much prefer to read about the Vancouver Canucks and the NHL than long winded articles such as the one above. I’ve read the Province and Sun and have followed the Canucks for over 30 years, and more recently have enjoyed reading much of, if not all of the content on this site. But I don’t come here to read this crap and I don’t care about your opinion on IMac’s opinion. I do come to read about hockey and hockey players. Please put your efforts into covering the Canucks & their Affiliations. If you have a different opinion about something you have a forum to voice it without throwing someone under the bus. Base your articles on your own ideas as apposed to judging someone else’s ideas. I’ve enjoyed much of your content but not this.