Tuesday, January 31

Sporting fallacy

Toronto Star columnist Damien cox has had an opinion piece on ESPN.com for several days, which I've been meaning to write about since I read it over the weekend. I don't follow the Leafs as closely as many of my good friends, some of whom are regular readers, so I would like to hear their take on Cox's diagnosis of the Leafs' ills. The reason I wanted to write about the article is that it exemplifies a bafflingly common error in sports writing: the fallacy of team continuity, for want of a better phrase.

The fallacy consists of the attribution of a team's historical results or actions to its current incarnation. Every fan knows that there is rarely a connection between today's teams and the teams that have gone before them. Who cares if, for example, the Seattle Seahawks had never played in a Superbowl before this year? Anyone who thought that that statistic was helpful in betting on the NFC Championship game deserved to be fleeced. Or take the old announcer's saw that "[insert team name] has never won a playoff series against [insert second team name]." So? How many of the players from those previous teams are on the field today? By this thinking, no team should ever win a championship for the first time. This lazy statistical anaylsis is particularly specious in college sports, in which an entire team turns over every four years or so.

Returning to Cox's article, he writes:

For the Leafs, however, it's possible this [failure to adapt to the new salary cap regime] was, at least to some degree, predictable. Historically speaking, working with change has not been this organization's strongest point.

Toronto didn't fare well in the years after the NHL's 1967 expansion, which doubled the number of teams to 12 from six. Indeed, when the WHA started up in the early 1970s, the Leafs were also one of the teams that misjudged the new league most, and ended up needlessly losing a series of quality players.

As bad as that was, the Leafs were even worse in their response to the merger with the WHA in 1979, and soon were the worst team in hockey after briefly becoming competitive in the latter part of the '70s under Roger Neilson.

When Europeans started pouring into the NHL in the late 1980s, meanwhile, the Leafs were among the teams that reacted least effectively.

Now, with the constant presence of a salary cap hovering over the operations of each and every NHL club for the first time in the league's history, the team that Conn Smythe built is once more struggling to adjust to the winds of change.

To say that a franchise's failure to thrive under a new rule change can be predicted by the actions of a different General Manager and different coaches in a different era, between twenty and forty years ago, is just silly. In 1967, the team was under the triumvirate control of Stafford Smythe, Harold Ballard, and John Basset. And during the WHA's founding and merger into the NHL, and during the European influx, Ballard remained firmly, and bizarrely, in control. Because Cox doesn't explain how those events and Ballard's responses are relevant to Ferguson's misjudgment of the current salary cap situation, his "argument" proves nothing. It is sloppy journalism and should have been caught by a perceptive editor. Most of you know this already; it is a marvel that so many professional journalists don't.

Anyway, I would be interested in hearing any opinions about the state of the Leafs, and their prospects for recovery in the short and long term, that don't make irrelevant reference to the Ballard era.