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Lineup and score sheet from Game 7 of the 1987 Patrick Division semifinal between the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders. The Isles won 3-2 in quadruple overtime with a goal by Pat LaFontaine.
Early on during the preparations for the 2017 SIHR Fall Meeting, I contacted Frank Brown, the NHL group vice-president, communications, but also a SIHR member who has been known to sometimes post replies on the group’s online discussion forum, the SIHR e-List. I had asked him if he would be a guest speaker, and he agreed to do better than that, promising to bring along Gary Meagher, executive vice-president, communications, and “Uncle” Benny Ercolani, statistician and information officer.
Ultimately, the NHL emissaries had last-minute changes of plans and were not able to travel to Montreal, but generously agreed to set aside close to an hour to address the group by Skype and answer many questions. A last-minute roster change also saw Frank Brown be replaced by Brendon Crossman, manager of communications, and the person who perhaps spent the most hours in the NHL project of digitizing all its game sheets, as well as verifying existing stats to be sure that they matched those game sheets.
Meagher explained how the project had been initiated six years earlier by Gary Bettman, who directed his group to see what they could do to bring to life the league’s rich history in a lot of different ways, but with a particular emphasis on what could be done with the statistics. Both Meagher and Ercolani had lots of experience on the subject, the former, who grew up in Montreal, having been with the league for 36 years (working first in statistics and research), and the latter (also having Montreal roots) for 41 years and, in his case, always working exclusively in statistics. Crossman was brought in first on a part-time basis from Halifax’s Dalhousie University. He was the one who directed the project, working with Ercolani.
They explained how difficult it was to factor everything in, considering the rule changes: overtime used to be longer and would continue to be played even if goals were scored; there used to be three-minute penalties; and many more. A lot of things needed to be altered for the stats to make sense. A number that has been bandied around is “6,000 corrections.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that 6,000 pieces of information were incorrect. In most cases, it was more a case of providing information that was available but had not previously been entered. Still, there were some true changes, like Maurice Richard getting an extra assist, which an incorrect transcription had awarded to Emile “Butch” Bouchard instead (so the Rocket’s gain was Bouchard’s loss). But most other “true” errors were much more minor than an assist given to the wrong player: there were many instances of erroneous transcribing of minutes on ice or plus-minus figures. There was also a lot of missing information, like power-play stats for individual players.
Very fortunately for the NHL, nearly all of the league’s game sheets have been preserved in a state that allowed the project team to input the data on a game-by-game basis. The handful of game sheets missing were all from the league’s first three seasons, so that the stats are 100 percent complete since 1920. For those few missing ones, researchers who had worked with the league in the past were called on, in particular SIHR’s Bob Duff, whose involvement with researching early stats is well documented. It was later also mentioned that another fortunate aspect of the NHL’s stats is that the league never outsourced them to a third party, choosing instead to always deal with them internally. For that reason, there has never been any loss of contents as all the original information has always been at the league’s offices.
Crossman explained how exciting the project was, getting involved in the nitty gritty of every game, every goal, every assist, setting up the roster for every game and cross-referencing everything. We’ve all seen Bobby Orr’s famous goal [Stanley Cup winning goal of 1970], but to hold the game sheet on which it was reported is, in his words, “really neat!”
The playoff game summaries appeared on the league’s website in April, followed by the regular-season games in September. At the time of the meeting, the league was looking for ways to mine that data, to give fans, media and broadcasters the tools to make the best use of it. As part of that effort, the league is transitioning its Guide & Record Book to electronic format, which will allow it to vastly expand the record book, allowing the fans to “go as far as they want” in it (this part is scheduled for next fall). They are also working on a game-by-game coaching record, and a possible general manager log as well.
Now that the stats have been posted, it will be possible to complement them with video, in order to bring the game summaries to life and “tell the story around the statistics of the game.” As Meagher stated, “this is not the end point by any means.” Mention was made of the NHL’s centennial video, for which SIHR member Eric Zweig’s contribution was highly praised.
Following a first question from Alain Usereau, the attendees learned that international statistics are being added to the database, to include the Canada (and World) Cups, the Olympics, the World Championships, i.e. any international tournament in which NHLers participated. The NHL representatives were, however, noncommittal regarding WHA stats, without ruling them out.
Answering another question from the group, Benny Ercolani made it very clear that the official game sheets were considered “the gospel” and that no amount of evidence would lead the NHL to deviate from those primary sources of data. So even with undisputable video evidence to the contrary, the official scorer’s view will always prevail, with no exception.
The subject of the scans of the game sheets themselves also came up. The NHL is hesitant to put up the scans of all games on its website, in a desire to protect the league’s intellectual property. It prefers to use them in many different ways, like “This Day in NHL History.” For sure, many fans could be interested in acquiring a high-quality copy of the game sheet of a game he/she remembers fondly from his/her youth.
A final question had to do with players who dressed but did not play. There did not seem to be immediate plans for those, but the data exists, so it might be made available to researchers at some point. There are certainly some interesting stories to be found there—in particular for goalies who dressed, some of them possibly for several games, but never got to see any action, and therefore do not have written evidence of their “near-achievement” for their descendants.
Thanks again to Gary Meagher, Benny Ercolani and Brendon Crossman for making the time to join SIHR’s group on that weekend.
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