The first time I scored a goal, a real goal on a real goalie, I scored two. Two goals, in the same hour of the same shinny time, imagine. They weren’t pretty, a rebound and a redirection, both scored so tight to the goalie that I could see the frayed edges on her pads, but they were real nevertheless. Over the line and in. A fucking miracle.
If somewhere up on high some color commentator had been watching the growth of my game up to that wondrous two-goal evening, he might have said she’s breaking out. My shot was improving, as was my positioning, my body aligned better and better against the twisting torsos of the others, against its own shifting blades. I may have looked like I had somehow figured it out, as though my misfit pieces had suddenly snapped into place to make the spitting image of a shitty-goal scorer.
I won’t lie, I had hopes. For a day or two I fussed over the memory of those goals, rewinding and replaying them inside my head, slowing bits down and picking just the words I might use to describe each little motion, each tenth of a second. I had daydreams of turning into garbage goal machine, no good from a distance but deadly in close. Learning how to play is really about discovering the type of player you already were. Like Michelangelo supposedly said about his sculptures, you just get a block of stone and chip away all the unnecessary bits until you’re left with the image that was always was inside. I thought maybe, inside, I might be the ladies’ non-contact shinny version of a power forward. Maybe that’s the player I was meant to be.
It wasn’t. After that lovely night I came back a week later and my stick felt limp, as if it had atrophied from six days of disuse. I scored nothing, assisted on nothing. I never got within ten feet of a puck going into a net. The week after was much the same, and the week after that. The whole summer points trickled in irregularly, one this week and none the next. They amass in no predictable way. Some days I’d play like shit and nevertheless somehow cash a two-on-one, others I’d be flying and the puck never came my way. It made no sense.
If you look at my goals and assists from session to session, there is no trajectory. My scoring neither improves nor declines. Every time is an isolated incident, one speck on an erratic scatterplot. If you look at my traditional counting numbers, my game is going absolutely nowhere.
Fortunately, I don’t give a shit about my traditional counting numbers.
I care about my microstats.
Some people call them advanced stats, but that sounds pretty elitist for such relatively basic ideas. Others like fancystats, which is fun but perhaps too frivolous to take upstairs to a GM. I myself like the term microstats, though, because the essence of them is no more complicated than the counting, averaging, collating and correlating of small things. In hockey, the small things (the passes, positioning, timing, speed, the many failed attempts) build up to a critical mass that creates the potential for big things (goals), but it usually requires a little lightning bolt of luck to make the goal a reality instead of a potential. Microstats are about measuring the accumulation of that potential rather than just waiting for the lightning.
Once upon a time microstats meant Corsi, but since then the field has exploded and now there’s work being done with every kind of count. There’s shot attempts and scoring chances, zone starts and zone entries, projects so fine-grained that they count right down to puck battles won/lost and passes completed/failed. In NHL discourse, the popularity of these various numbers fluctuates as more accurate information appears and older hypotheses are discarded, and not every researcher is equally happy with all the work being done around them, but none of that is material to the present article. We’re not trying to figure out whether Shea Weber or Ryan Suter contributes more wins, we’re not trying to weigh the fine distinctions between superpowered cybernetic hockey professionals. This ain’t about using microstats to play moneypuck and game the NHL. This is about what thinking in microstats can do for you. Or, at least, what it’s done for me.
When I go out to play, I count myself. I count the small things I do. Today, I think, I am going to work on passing, and I count how many of my passes connect and how many go awry. Another day, maybe, I count the scoring chance plus-minus for my shifts, remembering the count on the bench in the thick curved fingers of my gloves. Left for them, right for us. Everything I’ve heard of someone counting in the NHL I try to count for my own little games, and every new thing I count gives me a new perspective on the player I am becoming.
I can’t speak for all of you, but in my experience, after the first thrill of learning new skills- look mommy I can do a crossover!- hockey-development goes through some terrible doldrums. Neither the way you feel playing nor the outcomes you get seem to progress, and you could drive yourself mad asking whether or not your stopping has finally gotten hard enough or whether you’ve really got that wrist snap down. It can feel like going nowhere, and going there slowly. Like, maybe, a giant waste of time.
It’s the little numbers that keep me going. The goals and the points come in flurries and droughts, but in the microstats I can see the slow growth of my game, day to day, week to week. I count my puck battles won/lost/drawn in mid-June and again in late August and, pleased, note that the ratio has crossed the zero line to the positive in the intervening months. I count my zone entries, dump-ins vs. carries/passes from one Thursday to the next, and find that I’m marginally better every time. In every number that might go on a Jumbotron, my game floats aimlessly in an ocean of indifferent mediocrity. I need to look small to see any kind of progress.
Some people contrast the wisdom of eyes with the wisdom of numbers, as though they were irreconcilable truths, but in my own game I find the places where the two intertwine. The numbers are not exactly objective- not with the irregular and inconsistent way I count- but they rationalize my subjectivity. Maybe some can do this without counting. Maybe the great watchers of the game, the best scouts and coaches, the most cerebral players, are just doing fancystats without numbers, their eyes sharp enough to catch the small things and their experience sensible enough to weight them proportionally. But for an average watcher and terrible player like myself, the counting balances out the distortions of emotion. For I feel my game very strongly, the screaming frustration when a pass of mine gets intercepted, the smug superiority of a good poke check. But the way I feel about a play depends largely on the outcome. If the intercepted pass results in a breakaway and a goal, it will dominate my memories of my passing for that session. If, on the other hand, the player who picked off my pass is immediately forced into a turnover by my teammate and the gears switch back to offense, I might not remember it at all. Without counting, my sense of how I play will be entirely determined by the two or three most satisfying or painful moments in a session. The count forces me to notice a facet of how I play in the whole. It shows the round entirety of my abilities.
This is not to say I count everything all the time. I’m not lurking on the bench with an iPad and a spreadsheet tapping in numbers and graphing as I go. Nothing I do in my personal microstats play is serious enough to pass scientific standards. It’s not giving me a rigorous, objective assessment of my game. Rather, it provides a series of different lenses through which to look at what I’m trying to accomplish when I play and a different set of yardsticks by which to measure my successes and failures. Far from shutting down my sense of joy in playing, I’ve found that these small counts and averages actually add a whole other layer of pleasure, for in addition to the game against the opponents, there is now the game against myself, played not for big goals but for my wingers’ tinny shot attempts. It’s the only part of hockey where, lately, I’m starting to win more than I lose.