So…Chris Jones wrote about hockey. For those of you who haven’t heard of the guy, Jones is a pretty famous magazine writer. He’s won a couple of National Magazine Awards which, according to Wikipedia, are like the Pulitzers for magazine writers. He’s not some guy pounding out copy at the Sun.
I’ve read a bit of Jones’ stuff before, although it isn’t really my style. He’s a compelling storyteller and a wonderful writer. He’s brilliant at conveying small moments, at describing them vividly. I’ve also had the odd exchange with him on Twitter. Prior to a few days ago, my most recent exchange was when he rather cryptically tweeted that he and Jonah Keri would be posting an exchange to Grantland shortly; I (correctly) guessed that it was about a piece that he wrote about Barry Zito.
I’d read the Zito piece and kind of rolled my eyes as I did because his premise: Barry Zito was awesome and then had his confidence destroyed by the fact that Scott Boras assembled a binder of full of selective data to prove this to the Giants. The Giants then gave him seven years and $126MM. I read Jones’ piece, and I read the Baseball Think Factory discussion of the article and I decided that I agreed with King Kaufman:
If some geriatric newspaper hack wrote a column saying that Zito was doomed by his big contract, which made him lose focus and confidence, everyone here would roast him. This is that article, just written more stylishly.
“MADDUXESQUE STUD TURNS INTO BUM” is a much more interesting story than “AVERAGEISH PITCHER TURNS INTO BUM.” It cries out more desperately for some explanation. Jones failed to acknowledge that there was significant evidence that the latter was the headline; instead, he focused on the Boras binder; a document prepared for a negotiation that was larded with statistical bullshit. It’s a better narrative – his story isn’t nearly as compelling if it comes with a caveat that Zito might simply not have been that good when he signed his deal with the Giants and maybe a crisis of confidence caused none of his problems; maybe the crisis of confidence simply came when he realized that he couldn’t get people out at at a sufficiently high rate anymore.
I debated writing something at the time but Jonah Keri said everything I would have said in his exchange with Jones.
* * *
It was against that backdrop (as well as in the context of my own thoughts about the difference between being a great writer and having great insights and the two not necessarily overlapping in any given person) that I read Jones’ piece about Stu Grimson. As I read through it, there was a section that I found jarring.
“Man for man, the guys I fought were bright, outgoing, good people,” Grimson says. “A lot of them also happened to be from Western Canada.”
There, the three lost fighters can be more truly linked. They shared the same geography. Boogaard and Belak were from Saskatoon, with its wide streets and bronze statue of Gordie Howe, his elbows up. Rypien was born and died in tiny Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. (Grimson is from British Columbia, played his junior hockey in Regina, and began his education at the University of Manitoba.) They were all Big Sky kids.
As sentimental as it might sound, Westerners really are shaped by their landscape. The expanses of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta, giving way first to folds, then hills, then mountains …
“Living there makes you humble,” Grimson says. “You spend every day of your life humbled by nature.”
That’s why Western Canada is an enforcer factory, why it continues to produce these men so well versed in the lost farm-boy arts. Being a hockey fighter requires bravery and balance and fast hands and a strong chin. But perhaps more than anything else, it requires humility. It requires reconciliation, an understanding of the limits placed on every one of us.
Western Canada is an enforcer factory? This seemed odd to me so I took a look at some data while sitting on the subway – fighting majors in 2010-11 – and it didn’t seem to support the claim. I tweeted the following:
It is obvious that @MySecondEmpire is a gifted writer. He writes beautiful prose. He lets the prose get in the way of truth though. In his Grimson piece, he turns a comment from Stu about the Prairies humbling you into elegant paragraph about West being enforcer factory. Gorgeous stuff. Gorgeous. So I went and did a two minute accuracy check. 4 of top 20 fighters in NHL last year from West. That doesn’t strike me as unusual. 50 percent of league is CDN and Euros don’t fight, basically…
(For those unfamiliar with Twitter, that’s actually a series of tweets. I’m combining it into a paragraph to enhance readability. I do the same with Jones below.)
Unsurprisingly, this drew a response from Jones:
Whoa, whoa, whoa, dude. That’s a terrible charge to level at a journalist. What are you talking about? Oh, Christ. All four guys in the piece are Westerners. You can throw out “Europeans don’t fight,” though? What if Belak, Rypien, and Boogaard were still playing, or had played full seasons last year? There’s 7 of 20. Is that enough? You take one season and turn that into “rigorous analysis.” False math to the extreme. But it was enough to accuse me of not telling the truth, the worst thing you can say about a journalist. Good to know. I’ve written 100s of stories over the last 13 years. No one—not once—has come back at me. I’ll take those numbers.
Let’s pause for a second. I said up front what I was basing my comment on; if you read this site, you probably have some idea of my process when I take a stab at doing something in a rigorous fashion. The four in twenty thing was a smell test and the smell was not good. Note as well his comment that “All four guys in the piece are Westerners.” That’s the first attempt to justify the claim. It’s nonsense – it’s like writing a story about four guys from anywhere who pursue a common career and declaring that place a mechanic factory or whatever; without further context, the claim can’t be evaluated.
The bit about nobody having come back at him in the last thirteen years is laughable too. I am, at best, vaguely aware of Jones – he’s written about five pieces that I recall having read, other than some entries on his blog. (I don’t say this as a slur on him; he’s clearly a very good writer just not really my style as he tends to write more long form narrative stuff.) One of them was the Zito piece, which was (politely and correctly) dumped on by Keri, on the basis that the narrative didn’t mesh with the facts, which was precisely my point with respect to this.
I asked Jones for whatever research he did in support of the piece. Zero response. I raised the point repeatedly in the ensuing exchange and never got an answer to it.
* * *
I think it’s worth actually trying to answer the question in a more substantive fashion than just looking at it from one angle. Is Western Canada an enforcer factory? There are a couple of different ways to look at the question.
One way is to look at players from which region are most likely to fight. Over the past ten years, players from Western Canada have fought once every 22.15 games. Players from Ontario are almost as likely to fight – once every 23.74 games. Americans have fought once every 37.6 games. Players from Quebec are slightly less likely than that to fight; they drop the gloves just once every 42.3 games. Unsurprisingly to anyone who follows hockey, players from Europe (“Europe” being defined as anything not in the Americas; the Regehrs are treated as European) rarely fight – on average, they’ve fought once every 141.7 games over the past ten years. The real fighters though, are the guys from the Maritimes. They’ve fought once every 17.7 games over the past ten years. Perhaps the lost farm-boy arts have been rediscovered by a generation of Maritimers, transmitted by oral legend from family members returning from the oil fields of Alberta.
That doesn’t really go to what Jones is talking about though – he’s talking about enforcers, not regional differences in how hockey is played. If the top twenty fighters in the NHL were all from Europe, I’d be fine with calling Europe an enforcer factory, even if the rest of the players it produced didn’t fight anyone. The data referred to above could easily represent those differences. If, for example, every player from the Maritimes fought four times per 82 games or, in a few cases, five, you’d end up with a number similar to 17.7 games but those wouldn’t be players who anyone would characterize as enforcers.
What about guys who’ve finished in the top twenty (including ties; golf rules apply) in fighting majors in the past ten years? This provides a pool of 228 seasons of guys who fight a lot. Of those, 76 are by players from Western Canada, 78 from Ontario, 21 from Quebec, 7 from the Maritimes, 36 from the United States and 10 from Europe.
You need to allow for context though. The proper context into which to put this stuff is games played by players from those regions. If every player in the NHL was from Alberta except for nine guys from BC, and Alberta had eleven players in the top twenty in fighting majors, no sane person would call Alberta an enforcer factory because it led the NHL in players who accrue fighting majors. You’d call Alberta a hockey player factory and BC an enforcer factory.
When you allow for context, you find that one out of every 15.8 seasons played by a Westerner involved a player who finished in the top twenty in fighting majors. This is fewer than Ontario (15.4) and almost the same as the Maritimes (15.9). I note that if I had included the Northwest Territories as Western Canada, rather than excluding it, there would have been a tie between the West and the Maritimes. Curiously, Quebec is next, at one out of every 22.6 seasons, followed by the Americans at one out of every 27.9 seasons and, bringing up the rear, the Europeans, at one out of every 172.4 seasons.
There’s nothing magical about ten years or top twenty so I ran the analysis for top five, ten, etc. all the way to fifty and did it again for the most recent five seasons. The results that this produced are as follows:
Just as interpretive aid: in the last ten years, players born in Western Canada have played 98247 games. This is 1200.329 82 game seasons (a player season). They have produced 14 seasons in which a Westerner finished in the top five in fighting majors. 1200.329/14 = 85.7. It has taken Western Canada 85.7 player seasons to produce a single top five finish in fighting majors over the past ten years.
Looking at this data, I don’t see how you can say that the NHL has been filled with enforcers from the factories of Western Canada in the past ten years. When you factor in the data from the past five years, if anything, Ontario seems to be establishing a clear lead in terms of producing enforcers, with the Maritimes producing more than its share of punchers as well.
I’m still not entirely satisfied with that way of doing it though. When I went through the names on that list, I came up with a lot of guys missing who I think of as being enforcers, simply because they don’t play enough games to rack up enough fights. Seven fights in 34 games, like Steve MacIntyre had last year, is different than seven fights in 80 games, like Nathan Horton had. I decided to run the analysis again, this time creating top five, ten etc. lists by number of fights per game, with a minimum of twenty games played, to avoid having a list populated with guys who came up from the minors for a few games and wanted to make an impression.
Again: context matters. We don’t just want to measure which region produces a lot of hockey players – we want to measure which region produces a lot of enforcers. There’s nothing notable about producing an average number of enforcers and a ton of hockey players. The appropriate denominator, in my view, is the number of players produced by a given region that played at least twenty games in the period in question. I ran precisely the same analysis as with the raw fighting major data and came up with the following:
In this case, it looks like the West and Ontario are roughly equivalent over the ten year period, although it’s an equivalence that puts them in a clear second place to the Maritimes – guys like Doug Doull, Gordie Dwyer, Dennis Bonvie and Eric Boulton brawled their way through the early aughties in numbers that are disproportionate to the number of hockey players that the Maritimes produced over the last ten decades. Over the past five years, the Maritimes hasn’t been much of a source of guys who fight at a high rate relative to the number of games they play. Ontario has produced a whack of those guys though and the West is clearly second to Ontario. As far as top fifteen finishes go, the Americans are in the discussion as well.
Colby Cosh took a look at the most recent NHL season and he can’t find anything to support the proposition that Western Canada was an enforcer factory.
Taken as a whole, the evidence of the past ten years doesn’t support the claim that the West is an enforcer factory (assuming a sensible meaning of the phrase – see below). All of Anglo Canada looks to have been where NHL enforcers come from over that period, with the Maritimes and Ontario each having periods in which they were the dominant source of enforcers relative to the number of players that they were producing. The USA, Quebec and Europe were left far behind, although the Americans have acquired a bit of a taste for blood over the past five years.
The best argument that I saw in support of Jones’ claim came from Sean Boulton and Aaron Wherry, who appeared to have arrived at it independently. They both noted that the top fifty of the career PIM leader list seems to be disproportionately dominated by Western Canadians. In Boulton’s case, he went a step further and classified players into goons and hockey players – Brendan Shanahan is in the top fifty, but he’s a hockey player. The disproportionate representation of the West is even more pronounced then. His criteria were subjective but seemed sensible to me.
I took a look at the list and noted that it contains relatively few players whose careers stretched into the last ten years, particularly with respect to the enforcers. In my view, the strongest thing you can say from this is that the West was once a meathead hotbed; on the basis of the evidence laid out above, I think anyone would have a hard time saying that it’s currently more of an enforcer factory than the rest of Anglo Canada; if anything, the trend seems to be away from Western Canada being a source of enforcers.
* * *
After spending a few hours rolling through some numbers, I tweeted a few things, some preliminary data, that involved looking at the question from a number of different angles, as I have above. Jones proceeded to seize on one of the points in respect to fighting rates in 2010-11, while at the same time ignoring the point that went along with it to the effect that when you considered the number of games played by Americans, Westerners and Ontarians, it didn’t look like Western Canada was an enforcer factory. He also, for whatever reason, chose not address the points that cast his case in a less favourable light.
I should say – I don’t think that the guy has any obligation to respond to anything I might have to say. He’s not my answer monkey. With that said, when you choose to ignore points that people make which cast doubt on your assertions, while taking a single point out of context to argue that it does, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw some adverse inferences about the strength of your argument. This was, in effect, the second argument that he came up with: that he was right and the data proved it. For the reasons set out above, as well as the fact that he was taking the point out of context, I don’t think that the data supports his case.
At this point, it started to get really bizarre, as he came up with two additional arguments to support his point. The first was this: “Grimson floated the humbled thesis, which I reported. The story was about his insights into this summer. He’s from the West, he’s played there. I haven’t. That’s why reporters talk to other people, to learn from them.”
Maybe Grimson floated the thesis but that’s not what the quotes say. Grimson says a) that he fought a lot of Westerners and b) that living in the West makes you humble. If he linked the two, Jones didn’t quote him as saying it. The statements about the West being an enforcer factory due to the humility that Westerners have by virtue of where they live is in Jones’ voice, not Grimson’s. At the very least, taking Jones at his word that this thesis belongs to Grimson, Jones appears to endorse it, writing it in his own voice, not that of Grimson. The word thesis is also curiously absent – it’s presented as truth. I also note, without comment, that this point was raised more than a day after I initially stated that I thought the point about the west being an enforcer factory was bogus.
The final point that Jones raised in defence of his point was this “Is a place where cars are made called a car factory? Or only biggest place cars are made?” This is a more subtle defence (again, without comment, also one raised more than a day after the initial complaint) but I don’t think it flies. If Jones intended to convey that Western Canada is no different than Anglo Canada as a whole, the language that he’s selected is awfully odd.
The explanation, founded on the humility of Westerners, seems pointless – there’s presumably something in Ontario and the Maritimes that drive those boys to fight then, something other than “This is the only shot I have at ever making $500K in a year.” If he intended to convey Western Canada as being not particularly unusual, the point seems meaningless: the West produces enforcers, charitably, at something approaching the rate of Anglo Canada as a whole? Because of humility? What evidence, other than a single quote from Grimson warrants such a strong statement about why the West is an “enforcer factory,” even by the apparently twisted definition that Jones claimed to have been using or that this is because of the humility instilled by the landscape? It’s a bizarre statement if that’s what he meant and one I wouldn’t expect from a writer of his calibre.
* * *
The word “truth” in my first comment seems to have been one that set Jones off. He subsequently suggested that I was calling him a liar and that I backtracked from that. I thought my position was pretty clear – the “truth” to which I was referring was the “truth” of the statement about Western Canada being an enforcer factory and this being somehow related to a landscape induced humility. One other person, who I perceive as being more reasonable than him, have suggested that there’s something to his perception that I said he was lying. I don’t see it – I was clear from the start.
“Truth” in journalism, it seems to me, has at least two meanings, only one of which calls the integrity of the author into question. The first meaning is accurately reporting what one is told and what one observes in the course of researching a piece. If you get this wrong in service of a narrative, you’ve got some serious problems. I have no complaints with him here.
For guys like Jones, the first set of truths with which he’s dealing are his interactions with Grimson. There’s no reason that he can’t also be dealing with a set of objective truths about where hockey fighters come from, although it appears that he chose not to do so in this case. For guys like me, the first kind of truths with which I’m dealing tend to be exclusively things like stats, the historical record of the game.
The second kind of truth is different. These are truths about the way in which the world functions or hockey functions or whatever. Things that are objectively true, rather than the perception of a given individual. To my mind, they’re a lot more important. In and of itself, “Stu Grimson says X” isn’t all that interesting to me. I’m interested in truths about sport and whatever Grimson’s personal perceptions may be, they’re never going to be enough to found a belief about anything more than what Stu Grimson believes. People have terribly flawed perception and are generally awful at assessing things.
These truths are a lot harder to discern. It’s easy to figure out Grimson’s perception of something. You ask him, he tells you and you write it down. It’s easy to figure out what percentage of fights involved fighters from place X. You check the historical record. It’s a hell of a lot more difficult to figure out what that tells you about the world or about hockey or about why fighters come from where they come. That’s the kind of truth that I think Jones blew in this piece. It’s the kind of truth that he blew in the Zito piece.
Like I say, it’s not easy stuff and it’s not easy stuff to have any degree of certainty about (well, it is easy to figure out if it’s sensible to call Western Canada an “enforcer factory”; not so much to explain why it is, in the event that happened to be true.) It doesn’t always make for an easy or compelling narrative. Sometimes, most of the time, the answer to these sorts of questions is “Well some years, more guys from Ontario fight and some years more guys from the Maritimes fight and the West produces more than some other places but not as many as Ontario and the Maritimes despite the landscape in the West always instilling humility in those who grow up there.”
Ironically, you probably have to be humble to admit that there’s a lot of stuff that is very difficult to figure out and that you, no matter how smart you might be, probably can’t figure it out on the basis of a couple of anecdotes. Finding truths, real truths, requires some humility about the limits of what you can ascertain with the tools available to you. It doesn’t always let you write with certainty. If you’re into crafting brilliant stories, finding larger truths may not be the thing for you.
When guys like Jones – and lord knows he’s not alone, he’s just one of the best at doing it – write this stuff as if it is certain and these truths are evident, they’re not telling truths. They’re accurately recounting the information that they have, so they aren’t lying, but they aren’t telling truths in terms of helping the reader understand the world any better. At best, if the set of affairs they’ve assumed to be true on the basis of the anecdote (“Western Canada is an enforcer factory”) actually is objectively true, they’re offering a guess as to why it me. A guess presented as a certainty.
As a piece of journalism, I think that this fails because it presents one man’s perception as truth and, despite that point being debatable, proceeds to offer an explanation as to why. (Incidentally, if anyone knows what “…more than anything else, it requires humility. It requires reconciliation, an understanding of the limits placed on every one of us” means, feel free to share. I find it incomprehensible. When I’m looking for a guy who can be a successful fighter, I’ll take a large man with hands of stone who can take a punch over a guy who has achieved perfect enlightenment any day.) If journalism is supposed to tell us truths, and there’s a chunk of something that isn’t truth dropped into the middle of the piece, to me, it’s a failure.