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Photo Credit: TSN.ca

About That Authority You’re Appealing To…

The big news this week is obviously the re-signing of Canucks defenceman Erik Gudbranson. It’s everywhere, and you’d have to be actively ignoring all things Canuck-related to miss it (although no one would think less of you for it).

This news was such a massive deal that it’s only natural that everyone – from pro-Benning to anti-Benning, west coast to east coast, fan to blogger to national analyst – has an opinion on it. Everyone has a right to an opinion, and no one in this country in this day and age can prevent you from expressing it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all opinions are of equal value though.

No, I’m not going to get into a statistics versus eye-test type of debate today; I’ve already gone far enough down that road. My interest today is not about those two methods of forming opinions, but a third option: basing opinions off of what someone else told you.

Because every Vancouver hockey fan seems to have an opinion on Gudbranson, there is no shortage of people available to give you their impression of him. There is a natural inclination, however, to listen to those people who are in positions of power in a relevant area.

Around here, that typically means the management staff of the Canucks or some other NHL team. These are a group of people who have been involved in hockey for their entire lives. They played the game; they were in the dressing rooms; they battled out there on the ice. They are real, authentic Hockey Men. Therefore, they have an understanding of what it takes to win in this league, making them ideal candidates to assemble the right group of players and subsequently deploy them in an ideal fashion.

If you are one of those people that assumes that hockey executives always know what they are doing because it’s their job to know, you are engaging in a logical fallacy called the appeal to authority. This fallacy can be defined as “an error in reasoning which occurs when someone adopts a position because that position is affirmed by a person they believe to be an authority.” For instance: because Canucks Jim Benning is a general manager, then he must be an authority figure in hockey, his opinions on hockey matters are most likely correct.

(Note: it’s been pointed out that this wasn’t necessarily clearly worded before. Rather than implying that authority figured shouldn’t be blindly trusted, though the shouldn’t, the main goal was to suggest that perhaps general managers, specifically those that rose the ranks because they were former players, aren’t necessarily objectively qualified to be authority figures on the business aspects of hockey.)

There are some serious issues with this assumption. First and foremost, it assumes that experience in the hockey world provides one with a level of expertise in all areas connected to hockey, including management. There’s a pretty big leap of logic required to believe that playing a sport makes you automatically good at skills like business management, asset evaluation, and market analysis.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop fans and even media from countering criticism with responses like “he knows better because he’s played the game and been around it his whole life!” Worse yet is the throwaway line from NHL insiders that “league source X appreciates player Z, so why don’t you?”. I’m sure he’s not the only one, but I’ve caught TSN’s Pierre LeBrun dropping this one a couple of times concerning Gudbranson lately, most recently on Tuesday following the extension.

“I know what the analytics community says, they make some good points as well,” LeBrun told TSN’s Mike Halford and Jason Brough. “But all I can tell you is this. The first reaction I got from a rival GM yesterday when McKenzie put out the first parameters, was that he would do that in a heartbeat. And this is a playoff team.”

LeBrun very obviously expects this bit of information to be of great import and delivers it in a way as if it settles the matter. As if, because a general manager of a playoff team would pay  Gudbranson $12-million, that automatically makes it a wise move. Case closed.

Then there’s Mark Spector’s infamous, ill-advised, and widely mocked suggestion to “poll 200 hockey men” to get a concrete answer on a subject.

Now, I don’t always agree with the people that reject stats outright in favour of eye tests and instinct, but I can at least respect that they’re formulating their own opinion. Even if I don’t place the same value on specific traits, at least those people can defend their view using particular examples.

What I have trouble respecting is opinions that are formed solely by other people’s opinions: not just using an appeal to authority to justify your opinion but as the very basis of it. I believe that no idea should be above scrutiny, but before I get into that, I’d like to discuss why the opinions of hockey general managers, in particular, should be subject to reasonable scrutiny.

Hockey and Higher Education

Benning, like many NHL general managers, did not attend post-secondary school. Rather, he became a professional hockey player at the age of 18 and then dove directly into scouting immediately after his career ended. Is it possible that he learned a variety of business skills on the job? Sure it is. Does that mean that he’s objectively qualified to run a business worth nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars? Colour me skeptical.

I don’t mean to pick on Benning in particular. I’m sure he’s just doing what he thinks is best, using the tools he’s been given, and he can’t be faulted for taking a lucrative job offer in a field in which he has spent his entire life playing or working. Besides, this is par for the course in sports — or at least, in professional hockey.

Hockey, more than other of the other major North American professional sports that comprise The Big Four, keeps a remarkably tight in-group when it comes to management. According to some digging done by Jason Paul, the NHL easily has the highest proportion of former players among their league’s set of general managers.

While Major League Baseball has just one former MLB player in a GM seat (Seattle’s Jerry Dipoto) and the NBA has eight, the NHL’s collective general managers contain a whopping 19 former NHL players. (Note: I wound up with four fewer former NHL players-turned GM than Jason did, although three more had AHL experience.) Further, as Paul points out, the remaining general managers still have pretty strong ties to professional hockey.

Team General manager Highest Level of Hockey Team General manager Highest Level of Hockey
Anaheim Ducks Bob Murray NHL Nashville Predators David Poile AHL
Arizona Coyotes John Chayka BCHL New Jersey Devils Ray Shero NCAA
Boston Bruins Don Sweeney NHL New York Islanders Garth Snow NHL
Buffalo Sabres Jason Botterill NHL New York Rangers Jeff Gorton
Calgary Flames Brad Treliving AHL Ottawa Senators Pierre Dorion
Carolina Hurricanes Ron Francis NHL Philadelphia Flyers Ron Hextall NHL
Chicago Blackhawks Stan Bowman Pittsburgh Penguins Jim Rutherford NHL
Colorado Avalanche Joe Sakic NHL San Jose Sharks Doug Wilson NHL
Columbus Blue Jackets Jarmo Kekalainen NHL St. Louis Blues Doug Armstrong
Dallas Stars Jim Nill NHL Tampa Bay Lightning Steve Yzerman NHL
Detroit Red Wings Ken Holland NHL Toronto Maple Leafs Lou Lamoriello NCAA
Edmonton Oilers Peter Chiarelli NCAA Vancouver Canucks Jim Benning NHL
Florida Panthers Dale Tallon NHL Vegas Golden Knights George McPhee NHL
Los Angeles Kings Rob Blake NHL Washington Capitals Brian MacLellan NHL
Minnesota Wild Chuck Fletcher Winnipeg Jets Kevin Cheveldayoff AHL
Montreal Canadiens Marc Bergevin NHL

Of the 12 that never played an NHL game, three played in the American League, and three more in the NCAA. John Chayka, now the strawman for what happens when analytics take a choke hold on a team, was once a promising player who made it to the BCHL before injuries forced him to change his plans.

That leaves five GM’s without any real competitive hockey experience, but four of them introduce another common theme: nepotism in hockey. Stan Bowman is the son of Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s greatest ever coach; Chuck Fletcher is the son of former NHL GM Cliff Fletcher; Doug Armstrong is the son of a Hall of Fame NHL linesman; and Pierre Dorion is the son of a former head scout of the Maple Leafs.

New York’s Jeff Gorton is truly the odd man out: he went to university, then received a master’s degree in sports management, and has been working in the NHL since 1992. Seriously, the odd man out is the one with a master’s degree in sports management.

This research reminded me of an article by Sean McIndoe (a.k.a. DownGoesBrown) on Grantland a few years ago, and although the infographic below is now out of date, most of the overarching themes remain the system: the big bosses in hockey have deep roots in that sport.

Here’s where it gets even stranger, at least from my perspective, and ties back into what we were initially discussing: higher education. 26 of the 30 general managers in the NBA attended post-secondary school. In the MLB, a clean 30 out of 30 went to college for some period of time. Jason Paul didn’t have complete data on the NHL here, but from what I can gather, 15 of the 31 NHL GM’s have some college or university experience. Most of those are players who played NCAA hockey, with a couple of outsiders (John Chayka and Jeff Gorton) who studied sans competitive hockey. There are even a few with masters degrees, while Chiarelli earned himself a law degree.

The NHL has always been a bit slower to adapt to the education route compared to the other major spots. Consider this quote from George Kingston, the first coach of the San Jose Sharks and one of the founders of the NHL Coaches Association, on the evolution of coaching in hockey in a long-form article from Eric Duhatschek at the Globe and Mail last year:

What hockey in Canada missed in its evolution was what baseball, basketball and football had – the education route. All three of those other sports were played in the schools. Hockey, in the 1950s, was played outside of the schools. The other sports had coaches and leaders who were also teachers and wrote books about their sports. That was not part of the tradition of hockey.

Even though nearly a third of NHL players now come from the NCAA, that route has long been the primary non-professional league in other sports, versus the likes of the CHL in hockey, which not only isn’t coupled with education but actively prevents admission to the NCAA. And while the CHL is now doing better by its players with respect to education, that wasn’t the case 20 or 30 years ago, when some of these general managers were passing through: a time when coaches or managers might be as likely as not to encourage players to drop out of school to more effectively focus on hockey.

Again, I should stress that the point here isn’t to shame any of the current GM’s who didn’t have the opportunity of higher education, but merely to point out that a good portion of these people may lack training in areas that would be fundamental requirements in any other type of business. Does this mean that they have no idea what they’re doing? Absolutely not. But it also provides substantial evidence that they aren’t infallible.

Management that got where they are because they played the game rather than because they received professional education are always going to be predisposed to listening to their instincts and anecdotal opinions of like-minded allies over the reasoned conclusions of outsiders. It’s why hockey management groups often seem to be employing group-think strategies that appear as echo chambers, directly in contravention with what you see in the business world, where opposition fosters growth and development.

Sports management is never going to be functional without people who are intimately familiar with the sport, and there is always going to be a need for front office staff that can relate directly with the players on the ice. But the time may soon be coming when the NHL as an entity realizes that they don’t need liaisons at the top of the pyramid, where there is so much more going on that just understanding the game. The introduction of programs like the Business of Hockey Institute at Athabasca University, home of the world’s first hockey specific MBA program, could open doors for academic and business minded individuals to rise through the ranks of NHL offices in the near future.

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

So, my advice to the likes of Lebrun is this: come up with your own conclusions on players. I understand that insiders traffic in the comments of others, but there is a massive difference in usefulness between “what are team executives going to do?” and “what do team executives think of this individual player?”. I don’t know the quality of the source from which the information is coming from (nor would I expect to have it revealed, I know how the game works). Is this source the scout that found Jamie Benn in the fifth round? Or is he one of the scouts responsible for the Canucks’ draft in 2007 that brought them exactly zero NHL games played.

And should it even matter whose opinion it was? Even those with immaculate records are capable of overvaluing or undervaluing players, traits, et cetera. I come from a discipline where you’re taught never to take what you hear or read at face value. That’s why, even though a textbook might be written by a man or woman with a PhD, every assertion inside the book is given a citation to peer-reviewed research. No authority is so great that their opinion should go entirely unscrutinized, even if that opinion is within their field of expertise.

So no, at no point will I ever be satisfied with an appeal to the authority of Hockey Men™. Never will I immediately accept that NHL GM’s know better than me on a particular subject because they get paid to do it, and I’m just a lowly blogger. Do they know more about the intricacies of the sport and the psychology of the players than I do? Most likely. But that won’t stop me from asking questions and levying criticisms when I see fit. Frankly, any executive that is unwilling or incapable of defending their position shouldn’t be trusted. And to his credit, Benning has never, to my knowledge, taken offence to being asked to justify his actions (even if we aren’t always satisfied with his defence), so it mystifies me that some fans and some media members get their backs up when a GM’s moves are criticized.

In the end, the results will speak for themselves, and all of us will either be proven wrong or right. In the meantime, I strongly advise that everyone think for themselves, come to your own conclusions, enjoy the public discourse, and stop using the opinions of authority figures as conclusive evidence.

    • Big D, little d

      I think Jeremy might be more astute than I give him credit for. One article slagging the GM and he gets more comments than most Canucks games. 🙂

  • DJ_44

    The article’s logic (if you call it that) makes a big assumption that rarely holds true: post-secondary education equates to qualification or competency. It does not.

    I am a professional, with university degrees and professional standing. University does not really provide one with technical tools, or abilities (sure, it does a bit of that). What it does, in the end, is it teaches one how to teach themselves.

    Professional employment (including sports management) is not about the knowledge, it is about application of the knowledge. You learn by doing, not from books or from university professors. I have numerous Masters and PhDs working for me. They are all smart. But they, for lack of a better expression, “know” nothing about how their field of study is actually applied or operates. That comes from experience. Corner offices of large companies are often not occupied by those with a bunch of degrees. And there is very good reason for that.

    Do not make the second mistake of equating lack of formal education with intelligence. For GMs (who from my understanding are not responsible for an aspect of the overall business), I would think that being a professional hockey player provides the best possible education and training. You will have been exposed to all aspects of the business. Then, after the playing career, you get into the business….coaching or scouting; rise through that department….then management … assistant to hockey ops; Assistant GM, the GM. That is one heck of an education.

    Let me think: which would I rather have, and individual with a “Masters” — an online one at that— from Athabasca University, or and “uneducated” ex-player 30 years of progressive experience in the business.

  • wojohowitz

    The article does focus on who`s more qualified – the educated or the experienced but there is a third variable and that is personality type as in a GM who can admit to making a mistake. I`ve used the example before of Brian Burke as GM of the Canucks who employed eight goalies in six years because he could look himself in the mirror and admit he made a mistake and move on whereas Benning will double down on his errors in judgement. Trading Gudbranson for a draft pick would have sent a clear message – let`s move on.

  • Puck Viking

    Can someone tell me why he was signed now? Like what happens if Benning could have got a first for him at the actual deadline. Maybe a team looses a player to injury and gets desperate but needs that player to be a pending UFA due to contracts on the team. Then what??

    Like seriously why sign him now.. This Leadership group and I use the term loosely is garbage.

  • sloth

    Wow sure is sad the hockey illuminati won’t let the sun-allergic nerds run the teams…

    This is pretty weak. You acknowledge the massive structural differences in the way hockey is organized compared to American sports, but then proceed to yammer on as though that’s some minor detail and not the entire present and historical context. The whole prep-school to major-junior pipeline in Canada is so fundamentally different than the established highschool-to-college pipelines in US sports. The North American Hockey Industry simply doesn’t value education very highly, and that’s something that has been widely known forever. So to use it as shocking evidence that the GMs don’t know as much as they pretend to do is pretty disingenuous.

    But furthermore, isn’t your focus on academic credentials in and of itself just an appeal to authority? What is your bias that values an institutional accreditation that purports to be independent, yet was paid for, usually quite handsomely, by the recipient, yet devalues the ongoing evaluations of results-based businesses in an ultra-competitive industry? Is it the piece of paper that makes a degree valuable, or is it the experience that the person gained in earning that distinction? There is certainly a logical fallacy in a blind appeal to authority, but it is not illogical to accept that experience in a field yields knowledge. You are appealing to the authority of the Academy to devalue of the knowledge gained by non-academics through work-experience, in contrast with the value of the knowledge received in academic settings.

    Yeah Lebrun and Spector are making dumb arguments, but you are really lowering yourself to stand opposed. Obviously the opinion of one other playoff GM doesn’t really mean much, but it also doesn’t mean nothing. And obviously everyone should think critically and understand logical fallacies and come to form their own opinions based on their observations and experiences, but we’re dealing with very complex evaluations and incomplete information here. To a certain degree everything we base our opinions on is built upon a logical house of cards. I don’t understand exactly how pGPS or Expected Goals Above Replacement or Consolidated Pick Value work either mathematically or in practice actually running a team. I also don’t know exactly what scouts and GMs are looking for when evaluating players or management strategies. So I make informed decisions based on my limited understandings of these concepts. I know that no person is infallible and that the judgement of others could be just as shaky as mine, and I also know that statistical models and scientific methods are no objective truth either (spoiler, no objective truth exists!), so I respect the merits of different schools of thought and try to think for myself based on my observations and the information available to me. The reality of the situation is you, the blogger, are much more like me than the NHL exec, and pieces like this that seek to simply sabotage the credibility of the hockey establishment are doing you a lot more bad than good I think.

    PS, I wrote a very long rebuttal to Ryan Biech’s article about the Canucks’ management of consolidated pick value during the Benning tenure, in which I think I successfully dismantled his entire premise, and got no reply from the author, though some supportive comments from other thoughtful posters in this community. Yet a couple days later, that article got picked up and shared by Botchford and the Province, and his analysis has kept circling around the narrative that Benning has traded away picks like a fool. And then stat I believe I brought to light in those comments (that Benning has made the bang-average number of 28 draft selections in his 4 drafts) was subsequently quoted by this site’s editor in a recent piece to bolster his criticism of management, despite my belief that it was a pretty neutral stat stat that counters his narrative that the team has haemorrhaged pick assets. I gotta say I’m a bit disappointed with this site in the last couple weeks. CA should be better than this.

    • Big D, little d

      Nice comment, although the pedant in me wants to point out that it would be more correct to say that it is not possible to *know* that objective truth exists since all of our knowledge comes through our own experience or the experiences of others, communicated to ourselves.

      And although I agree that CA *should* be better than this, one has to acknowledge that poking the hornets nest has certainly generated a lot of traffic on this article.

      Anyway there’s a game tonight, so on to matters of much less philosophical import than questions of authority and objective truth. 🙂

    • truthseeker

      Yes I also find it funny that writers here try to equate what they are doing with the scientific method yet when confronted by a superior counter argument that deserves a reply, they seem to disappear and don’t defend their premise.

      It’s actually a bit disgusting that the draft pick “value” article had taken on the life that it did and is really a sign of intellectual cowardice on the part of the writer to not address the comments you made. Not too mention the totally flawed perception it creates in the public sphere. It is quite frankly at the level of what you see in the current state of American propaganda where rational discourse is abandoned when anything legitimate comes in to question someone’s views. The whole argument is one giant conformation bias that is now taken as a fact when it is a proven falsehood.

      Which is why anyone who respects the truth should, in all future articles or arguments, where it is claimed that Benning has “bled draft value”, call that out for the lie it is, and point to the counter argument you made.

      It wasn’t just Botchford either. It was also that Patterson guy I think? 2 articles sourced that flawed CA article. Frankly I don’t know what’s worse, a CA writer ignoring legitimate counter arguments to his claims out of conformation bias or 2 journalists for a so called “legitimate” news service like the Province, not even attempting any due diligence about the subject matter they are writing about by fact checking.

      Simple fact is CA seems to have a very ugly bias for their own “statistical analysis”. A “cover their ears, close their eyes and yell la la la la…I don’t hear you!” mentality when asked to support their points.

      It’s ironic how they would expect someone like Benning to (rightfully) admit a mistake with Gudbransson and cut bait, then criticize him when he doesn’t, when they do the exact same thing and can’t seem to admit when they are wrong about an analysis.

      If someone like Ryan Biech can’t provide a superior retort to the criticisms made against his article and show that he is correct, then he should have the basic integrity to print a full article explaining that his premise and conclusion was totally wrong and he owes Benning an apology for spreading a falsehood about his draft record.

      The silence is only slightly less pathetic than the Ad Hominem by Goon there.

        • truthseeker

          Yep….if you don’t respond to a legit criticism of your work that PROVES you made a mistake in your argument then yeah…you are a coward. He never called you a coward. I did. You don’t have to like me, but at least have the courage to back up what you say.

          Sloth presented a thorough thoughtful, logical debunking of your point. You ignored it, and then let it spread without addressing it.

          And if you took the time to get over your emotionalism about being called out over your work, you would have noticed that in the comments in that thread you were invited to prove that Sloth was wrong in his analysis of your analysis.

          I am still quite willing to hear you counter his argument with a more logical one that disproves his points. If you do, I’m sure he’d be quite willing to admit he’s wrong and I’d be willing to at least give you credit for supporting your position. At this point though, with your failure to address a legitimate critique of your argument in an appropriate time, I don’t think you would be deserving of an apology even if you proved yourself correct. Especially since your silence on the points implies you do not have a response to them.

          Oh, and I’m not implying it’s fake news. I’m straight out saying it. You made a point that was proven by a logically superior argument to be outright false. Your conclusion was a proven falsehood because you did not take into account all the factors, and then you just allowed it to go on. If that’s not fake news, I don’t know what is.

          Interesting how when you finally decided to comment on this issue you let it go again until it was off the main page. And interesting that you strawman this into blaming your non response in the original article, on me insulting you, when you were invited on the original article comments board to respond with absolute zero insults from Sloth or myself. Do you not see how illogical you are being? There were no insults directed to you. You simply didn’t respond. The insults came AFTER you allowed your flawed article to spread. And frankly I think I am totally justified in calling you those things. In terms of journalistic integrity, and can’t think of a more fitting example of cowardice. If that hurts your feelings, so be it.

  • Gampbler

    Interesting article for sure. The amount of prejudice against not receiving a certain level of education in order to be successful as a GM in the NHL is ridiculous. With an assistant GM, a CFO and a COO, and a legal and accounting team of four or five that negotiates contracts, researches the CBA, the cap and other minute details, not to mention senior advisors, scouts, coaches and an analytics guy, do we really doubt that Benning and Linden aren’t surrounded by incredibly edumacated people? The decision at the end is his or ownership, but there is usually a lot of work done by others before it comes to that point but education isn’t what makes the decision good or bad.

    • Fred-65

      Just imagine working daily with Mike Gillis erh…. Professor Mike Gillis. I can’t say I blame Aquaman for ditching the guy. In 2013 with or without Francesco authority he started the rebuild when he recognized that A) Mrs Luongo had put the leash on Lou’s off ice athleticism and he would fore ever be within stone throw of her and her family, lucky to get more than a bag of pucks. B) Gillis new the teams luxury was in goal so he made what has turned out as an astute trade by acquiring Horvat (22) for Schneider, he rightly realized that Schneider ( 31 )would not be at the top of his game when the rebuild was completed. Unfortunately for Gillis his barbwire personality along with Francesco need to play in the play-offs and generate more money combined to the down fall of Mr. Gillis. Mike was the combo of being a quality hockey player ( 1st round pick ) and a university Prof with his degree in Law.

      “The former Canucks general manager is ready to start a new job as a university professor in the spring of 2016, reports Metro News.
      The University of Victoria confirmed to the outlet that Gillis, 56, will teach a sports law course at the school’s Faculty of Law.”

  • canuckfan

    wow I can’t believe that I actually read this… time that I will never get back talk about a lot of blah, blah, blah. Why does the author feel that they need to question everything Benning does when it goes against the free advise they give Benning. Best part was the end when they said “the results will speak for themselves”. Yes they will I have been a big critic of Gudbranson but have been paying more attention to him and especially the Boston game have been actually liking him more. Time will tell hope he can play healthy so can take a good look at him. He plays an awful lot of time against the other teams better players and on the penalty kill.

  • truthseeker

    Critical thinking skills and logic are more important than university degrees or “on the job” apprenticeship learning like most in the NHL do.

    Unfortunately basic logic and critical thinking are the skills most lacking in modern society in practically every area.

  • Andy

    My summary/interpretation of the article’s overall message.

    1. The NHL has a strong bias towards executives who’ve “played the game” or are connected to the game.

    2. In the same way that not all NHL players are of equal skill because they’ve ‘played a game in the league’ before, not all executives are of equal skill in evaluating talent, managing rosters, or developing prospects.

    3. Any argument made (Hockey or otherwise) needs to stand on its own merits, rather than be cited as correct ‘because someone said so’, no
    matter how smart (or dumb) they are.

    4. Many of Jim’s defenders try and make up a rationale for his decisions because he’s “a hockey guy”. This is a slippery slope that can lead one to never question his decisions due to his credentials (on or off the ice)

    5. Everyone presume’s JD, Ryan and Jeremy perceive themselves to be smarter than traditional hockey minds; they believe their arguments are better than the arguments brought forth by traditional hockey minds. This looks lopsided because traditional people rarely cite models and replicatable data on measurable statistics, choosing instead to list cliches like “playing the right way, having good compete level” that are impractical to quantify, or even compare between players. Alternatively, they’ll focus on results-based statistics that ignore or downplay luck (goals, assists, hot goalies, plus-minus), despite the existence of models that examine the underlying contributors to those ‘macro-stats’.

    • Bud Poile

      My brother’s son runs a business employing six men and a woman.
      He grosses $4,000.00-$5,000 every day,six days a week.
      High school graduate.
      Mid- 20’s.
      Very hard worker.
      Canucks fan.