As a guy who writes a hockey blog, I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the hockey media over the years. A lot of them are great, inquisitive guys who are genuinely interested in knowing more about hockey and understanding things. Those guys generally do great work and help those of us who are interested in understanding hockey and the NHL better. Then there’s a chunk of guys who, to be blunt, sort of seem like message board posters who somehow happen to have media gigs. They don’t seem interested in understanding things and don’t seem to follow the game particularly closely.
This isn’t really a problem most of the time. You can just choose whose stuff you’re going to read or watch. If someone never breaks news and says nothing interesting, you don’t read him or her. When it does become a problem is when those people have the power to do something that impacts on the history of the game. I’ve written at some length before about the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association’s process when it comes to handing out awards and why I find it dubious. If you haven’t read it before, you can read it here. In brief, it’s a non-transparent process that puts ballots in the hands of people who may or may not know the first thing about hockey and may or may not suffer from major geographic bias. The outcome of the voting plays a role in the history of the game – the writers are supposed to be identifying the best players, and this gives us a sort of shorthand when it comes time to describe a guy’s career.
Worse, if you’re a player, there’s money tied to this. For players who aren’t on an entry-level contract, there’s money tied to a bonus for winning an award. For a player like Taylor Hall, who was in the third year of his ELC, there was a bit more at stake. I have previously explained my belief that Hall’s contract likely provided that he could receive the maximum bonuses payable under the CBA. As I said in that post:
Hall’s not going to finish top five in Hart or Selke voting. He seems unlikely to win the Conn Smythe. I think he’s unlikely to make either the First or Second All-Star team. Those teams are voted by the PHWA – Hall may have $2MM on the line in a vote conducted in an utterly opaque fashion by a voter group that is not publicly identified and, in the NHL’s lesser markets, includes all sorts of people who may not know very much about hockey.
At the time that I wrote that, I was of the view that Hall’s best chance to hit a $2MM bonus was to finish in the top ten in goals, assists, points or points per game amongst forwards. Hall ended up in a tie for eighth in assists amongst forwards with 34. One fewer assist would have dropped him out. He was ninth in points. Two fewer points and he would have fallen out of the top ten. He was eighth in points/gm. Two fewer points and he would have fallen out of the top ten. Hall had a goal and four assists in his last two games. Two fewer points and he wouldn’t have hit the bonus. It was that close. He had two points in his last game. He needed them both. (For further discussion of this, see Ken Campbell’s piece at The Hockey News.)
Which brings me to the absurd voting for the PHWA All-Star teams. Justin Bourne has the voting breakdown here. You’ll note that Hall finished third in the voting for left wingers, with 205 points. He narrowly lost out on a spot on the second All-Star team (and, with two fewer points, a $2MM bonus) to Alexander Ovechkin. Surprised that Ovechkin, who won the Hart Trophy, ended up playing LW on the second All-Star team? Well, it’s actually pretty impressive, as he was also voted the RW on the first All-Star team.
How does this happen? It’s pretty easy. The Capitals famously switched Ovechkin’s wing this year. This was not updated on NHL.com. 45 PHWA writers were unaware of the change. Out of about 179 voters.
Is that defensible? Well…I’m told that PHWA ballots went out at 1PM on April 20, 2013. This is what that looks like:
Early on April 22, 2013, this email went out:
This wasn’t the only problem:
It seems to me like the ballot and the positional clarifications are coming from different sources. The ballot came from the league and was returned to Ernst & Young. The clarifications as to position appear to have come from PHWA leadership, after they were alerted to potential issues with the position that players played.
To date, only one of the 45 voters who had Alex Ovechkin at left wing has been identified: Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune. He explained his position in a series of tweets:
In fairness to the NHL, this year’s ballot doesn’t seem to say anything about using the positions on NHL.com on this year’s ballot. What last year’s ballot said, I have no idea.
This whole thing has led to a bit of crowdsource effort to find out which PHWA writers voted for Alex Ovechkin at left wing, which kind of relates to a longstanding question that the PHWA has refused to answer: who votes on these things? I’m maintaining a Google doc listing what can be found out; feel free to pass along any names who aren’t on the list or any names that you think can be moved to a different column. You can comment or email me. There’s a similar effort going on at HF Boards. Some of the Edmonton voters, whose votes may have cost Taylor Hall a spot on the second team (and, although not $2MM, a $50K bonus) have been conspicuously silent. Many of these people have spent years making snide remarks about the lack of accountability associated with those who aren’t writing for commercial outlets; perhaps they ought to demonstrate how that works.
That said, what’s done is done. What’s more important is what happens in the future. I know that there are members of the PHWA who are embarrassed by this and have been embarrassed by their process for a while. Part of the reason that I’m interested in analytics is that I think it’s kind of ridiculous to pretend that any one person can have a good idea about the games of all the players in the NHL just by watching; there simply isn’t enough time and there’s too much hockey. It’s absurd to pretend that beat writers who follow one team can have any idea what’s going on around the league, although you’d think that the Ovechkin story might have reached people.
Hopefully, this is another nudge towards a process like that which the Baseball Writers’ Association of America has in place. From their voting FAQ:
What do BBWAA members vote for?
BBWAA members vote for four annual awards in each league: MVP, Cy Young, Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year. The BBWAA created these awards. BBWAA members also vote for the Hall of Fame.
Which BBWAA members vote for the annual awards?
Two writers from each MLB city are recommended by the local chapter chairman and approved by the national secretary-treasurer to vote for each award. Writers from NL cities vote for NL awards, and writers from AL cities vote for AL awards, making 32 voters for each NL award and 28 for each AL award. Most traveling beat writers will vote for at least one annual award each year. In some chapters, columnists or backup writers may also vote. Any active member of the BBWAA is eligible to vote for annual awards, regardless of his or her number of years in the organization. Some Honorary members may also vote.
The BBWAA also publishes its ballots. A voting process like this, with limits on who votes, published ballots and writers not expected to vote for a bunch of different awards probably produces better outcomes, in that they can focus on one award (or two awards) rather than being forced to become familiar and make judgment calls on players in a variety of different areas. There’s also something to be said for publishing the ballots in that it probably forces you to exercise a bit more care when you know that you may have to defend it and that, for example, going to NHL.com and seeing who the highest scoring left wingers are won’t suffice.
In any event, these people are entrusted with creating a bit of the history of the game when they hand out these awards. I don’t blame any writer who doesn’t feel that he or she has the necessary knowledge to cast a ballot – I think I pay reasonably close attention to the NHL and if I was handed an awards ballot, I’d need a few hours work to feel comfortable with casting it. Hopefully the PHWA makes some meaningful change to this so that this doesn’t happen again. It’s a shame that it will take at least the loss of some well deserved recognition for Taylor Hall for that to happen.
Update: After I published this post, I received a copy of the PHWA’s statement about this, which I’m adding to the post:
It was the Professional Hockey Writers Association’s recommendation that its members vote for Alex Ovechkin on the right wing, the position he played in the vast majority of his games this season.
Prior to ballots being issued, we emailed a memo to our members reminding them of Ovechkin’s position switch in 2012-13. But 45 of our members chose to vote for him on the left wing, the position he had played for many years. It is also the position listed for him on NHL.com.
We are troubled by the all-star voting results, and plan to take a closer look at the events that led to Ovechkin winning All-Star acclaim at two positions. We know we got this wrong, and our objective is to make sure it never happens again.
Even before this confusion was revealed, the PHWA had already planned a study of our voting process. At our annual meeting in New York, a committee was formed to look at all voting issues, including transparency and eligibility. The committee includes Mark Spector (Sportsnet.ca), Craig Custance (ESPN.com), Mike Russo (Minneapolis Star-Tribune), Nick Cotsonika (Yahoo.com), Bruce Garrioch (Ottawa Sun) and Frank Seravalli (Philadelphia Daily News).
That group will also review this situation to see what can be done to eliminate this in the future.
The reference to the memo being sent before the awards ballot went out seems wrong – multiple people have told me that the ballot went out on April 20, 2013 and the clarification on Ovechkin went out on April 22, 2013. I’ve asked for some clarification.
I’ve talked to Craig Custance and Nick Cotsonika on Twitter a fair bit and both seem like thoughtful guys. I’m less familiar with the other guys involved in this but hopefully they’re thoughtful guys too. This really does need to be fixed.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org