So that explains why I never made the NHL

Those of you who’ve read Malcolm Gladwell‘s latest book Outliers know the chapter about hockey players, where he describes the disproportionate number of hockey players with birthdays in the first few months of the year. Gladwell’s theory is that, because of the Jan 1 age cutoff between levels of minor hockey, those born earlier in the year have a size and development advantage over others as they have an extra 6-11 months under their belt. That doesn’t sound like much, but the difference between 6 years old and almost 7 years old is substantial enough that the older players tend to move into accelerated programs, which gives them an advantage. Gladwell then shows several examples of teams whose rosters skew to the early months of the year.

Tonight, after watching my Canadiens blow a late lead, and lose in the shootout to drop the ninth of their last ten on the road, I wondered if their roster followed the same pattern as the elite teams Gladwell described. Based on the 20 players they dressed tonight, here’s how it breaks down:

Jan: 2
Feb: 3
Mar: 1
Apr: 1
May: 2
Jun: 2
Jul: 0
Aug: 2
Sep: 0
Oct: 3
Nov: 2
Dec: 2

That’s 55% in the first half of the year, 45% in the second half. Not exactly overwhelming. Even if I include the other six players who didn’t dress tonight, it’s 58% to 42%. Still nothing to write home about. So I’m faced with three hypotheses:

  1. Gladwell is wrong
  2. Gladwell is right, but my team is an abberation
  3. Gladwell is right, and this explains why my team sucks

So I went looking for more data. My first stop: the Detroit Red Wings, defending Stanley Cup champs and by any measure an elite team. They’re also at 58% born between January and June, the same as Montreal. Then I checked the Boston Bruins, the top team in the NHL this season: also at 58%. Canada’s gold-medal winning major junior team, an all-star team for players in a very specific age range, clocked in at 64%, with 14 of the 22 players born before June 30, but even that isn’t exactly a drastic difference.

Anyway, I know that’s only a sample of four, but I’d prefer to think that hypotheses #1 is correct rather than #3. I’m not holding my breath though.

0 thoughts on “So that explains why I never made the NHL

  1. I would go with #1 as well.

    I enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, and he has some interesting hypotheses but many of his conclusions are supported by anecdotal evidence posing as science rather than any kind of rigorous statistical evidence.

    Now that doesn’t mean some of his conclusions aren’t correct (stopped clock phenomenon and all), and I haven’t read Outliers yet, so I may be wrong. But I’d be surprised if Gladwell suddenly turned into Nate Silver.

  2. A quick binomial test shows that only the junior team, with 14 of their 22 players born in the first half of the year, is a distribution that looks fishy to me.

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