Using algorithms for better realignment in the NHL?

The NHL recently announced realignment plans. However, a group of West Point mathematicians developed an algorithm they argue provides a better realignment:

Well, a team of mathematicians at West Point set out to find an algorithm that could solve some of these problems. In their article posted on the arXiv titled Realignment in the NHL, MLB, the NFL, and the NBA, they explore how to easily construct different team divisions. For example, with the relatively recent move of Atlanta’s hockey team to Winnipeg, the current team alignment is pretty weird (below left), and the NHL has proposed a new 4-division configuration (below right):

Here’s how it works. First, they use a rough approximation for distance traveled by each team (which is correlated with actual travel distances), and then examine all the different ways to divide the cities in a league into geographic halves. You then can subdivide those portions until you get the division sizes you want. However, only certain types of divisions will work, such as not wanting to make teams travel too laterally, due to time zone differences…

Anyway, using this method, here are two ways of dividing the NHL into six different divisions that are found to be optimal:

My first thought when looking at the algorithm realignment plans is that it is based less on time zones and more on regions like the Southwest, Northwest, Central, Southeast, North, and Northeast.

But here is where I think the demands of the NHL don’t quite line up with the goals of the algorithm to minimize travel. The grouping of sports teams is often dependent on historic patterns, rivalries, and when teams entered the league. For example, the NHL realignment plans generated a lot of discussion in Chicago because it meant that the long rivalry between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings would end. In other words, there is cultural baggage to realignment that can’t only be solved with statistics. Data loses out to narratives.

Another way an algorithm could redraw the boundaries: spread out the winning teams across the league. What teams are really good tends to be cyclical but occasionally leagues end up with multiple good teams in a single division or an imbalance of power between conferences. Why not spread out teams by records which then gives teams a better chance to meet in the finals or other teams in those stacked divisions or conferences a chance to make the playoffs?b

The sport of hockey has a sociology department?

Here is a quick look at recent happenings of sociological import within the sport of hockey:

Hockey’s sociology department is really having a hell of a year. There was the banana thrown at Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, a black player, during a pre-season game in London. Ont.; there was Simmonds caught on camera calling Sean Avery of the New York Rangers a “faggot” a couple days later. If you wanted to go further, there is the visor debate, which boils down to a sort of libertarian approach to personal safety, much as, say, seatbelts did. We all know how that one turned out.

And then Sunday, there was Raffi Torres and Paul Bissonnette. Bissonnette, the Phoenix Coyotes forward who has become a Twitter celebrity as @BizNasty2point0, who has over 150,000 followers, put a picture of his Coyotes teammate and his wife in their Halloween costumes as Jay-Z and Beyoncé. They had coloured their skin to appear black…

Hockey is a closed society, in a lot of ways. Diversity exists – Russians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs, etc. – but racially, it remains the least diverse major sports league, unless you get into NASCAR, tennis, or golf. That’s demographics as much as anything, and it is slowly changing. Bissonnette’s mother is half-black, but Canada has no notable tradition of blackface, and it is not exactly taught in our schools. For many Canadians, how would we know?…

Some jokes never get funny. Here’s one more chance to learn.

It sounds like some hockey players could benefit from a social education. Also, they might want to discuss what exactly they do in public or voluntarily post online.

I wonder how much all of the major sports do this kind of training. I know some have increased training for rookies and young players in recent years but how much involves social issues such as race, social class, and gender?

Sociologist who studies sports riots tries to explain Vancouver riots

On Thursday, I threw out a few ideas about the riots in Vancouver after the Canuck’s Game 7 loss. A sociologist who has studied over 200 sports riots suggests what happened in Vancouver was quite unusual as it followed a loss rather than a win:

In fact it is so unusual that Jerry Lewis, the author of Sports Fan Violence in North America, told CBC News that what we saw Wednesday night “might be called the Vancouver effect.”

An emeritus professor of sociology at Kent State University in Ohio, Lewis has looked closely at over 200 sports riots in the U.S. and none of them followed a loss by the home team.

That little quirk aside, however, Vancouver’s night of rampage does fit relatively well with the overall pattern of sports riots in North America. From his research, Lewis has identified five common conditions:

  • A natural urban gathering place.
  • The availability of a ‘cadre’ of young, white males.
  • Championship stakes.
  • Deep in the series.
  • A close, exciting game.

It appears that the riots in Vancouver followed some of the patterns of sports riots (the five cited above) except for the fact that they came after a loss. Lewis and another academic go on to suggest that the rioting in Vancouver “was simply an expression of frustration.” Another academic also suggests that North Americans tend to pout after sports losses while European crowds are more liable to cause trouble because they see it as an attack on their identity.

If all of this is true, then the real question to ask is why this happened in Vancouver (and also happened in 1994)? Lots of cities go through big sports losses and there are a lot of frustrated sports fans every year as only one team can win a championship in each major sports. What leads to a different reaction in Vancouver? This sounds like it could be a very interesting case study.

Championship wins and losses as an “acceptable” time to riot

It has become a somewhat common ritual (though it doesn’t happen in all instances): a team wins a championship and happy fans celebrate with small riots and civil disturbances. But the script got flipped Tuesday night in Vancouver after the Canucks lost Game 7 to the Bruins:

Almost 150 people required hospital treatment overnight and close to 100 were arrested after rioters swept through downtown Vancouver following a Canucks loss to the Boston Bruins in the decisive Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals…

Rioting and looting left cars burned, stores in shambles and windows shattered over a roughly 10-block radius of the city’s main shopping district.

Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said “organized hoodlums bent on creating chaos incited the riot” and noted the city proved with the 2010 Winter Olympics that it could hold peaceful gatherings. A local business leader estimated more than 50 businesses have been damaged…

“The destructive actions and needless violence demonstrated by a minority of people last night in Vancouver is highly disappointing to us all,” the team statement read. “We are proud of the city we live and play in and know that the actions of these misguided individuals are not reflective of the citizens of Vancouver or of any true fans of the Canucks or the game of hockey.”

The rest of the article goes on to suggest that people in Vancouver are shocked that this happened. But this brings up some interesting questions:

1. Why riot after the outcome of championship series and not so much at other times (like at the Olympics)? Sports do invoke a lot of emotions but as a friend suggested to me recently, sports help channel passions into non-destructive channels. So people these days get so worked up over sports that it spills into civil disobedience? Perhaps we are taking sports too seriously.

2. Could there be small groups of people in cities that are looking for excuses to do things like this and then seize upon the circumstances of a sports championship? If this is the case, then there are larger systemic issues to deal with. At the same time, it means that a city can blame some “bad apples” (“organized hoodlums” in the story above) rather than admitting there may be bigger problems.

3. I wonder how much stories like these continue to push people toward the suburbs.