As we’ve pointed out numerous times, people say odd clichés when speaking about hockey that aren’t really accurate, and they go unquestioned. Usually, you hear sports announcers say these stupid things. It’s not their fault entirely, as sports broadcasting in general has become more visual and less “theater of the mind,” so what you get are announcers telling you what’s right in front of their faces, like “this team needs secondary scoring” when the star player isn’t scoring. They even get help from the color commentator, the guy who usually reinforces the original crapola spewing from homer announcers. We say usually because the Islanders tend to use an intern from Hofstra radio to come in and work for free on their broadcasts. There’s a general lack of hockey experience for those guys to comment about, so they parrot the announcer. To quote Magic Johnson, “You take the college kid. We don’t want him. He can’t do nothing for us.” But we digress.
Announcers are stupid. Not Joe Buck- he’s emotionless and stupid. But listening to Butch Goring say Josh Bailey is the best player in the NHL when he’s on his game? Really? Josh is a nice guy and all, but there are at least 7 players ON HIS TEAM that are better when they’re on their game. Matt Moulson had a 4 goal game in Dallas. John Tavares dumped 3 points a game on the Carolina Hurricanes last season. Lubomir Visnovsky is outscoring Bailey at a rate of 2-1. At this point we think Doug “Coach Proctor” Weight could still outplay Bailey. We could go on and on, but it’s just more of the same. We’ll let twitter handle @Orange_BlueAve sum up Goring’s comment: “Lay off the sauce Butchie.”
Anyway, sometimes we hear announcers talk about the size of a player as if tall automatically equals good. Yes Zdeno Chara is good. Yes Mario Lemieux is good. Yes Chris Pronger is good. They’re all tall dudes, so tall must equal good. But is Matt Carkner good? Eric Cairns? Branislav Meizi? Kristian Kudroc? Brett Lindros? Wayne Primeau? Mark Eaton? Milan Jurcina? They’re all tall dudes. What gives? Is tall good or bad?
Lets go to the other end of the spectrum. Marc Andre Bergeron is too small to be anything other than a power play guy. Nathan Gerbe is an elf with skates. Mugsy Bogues has no place…oops, sorry wrong sport! So we decided to once again use the “talent is a barometer of production” thesis to dispel this horsecrap announcers spew.
First off, what’s tall? The NHL draws players from all over the western world, and each nation has differences in average heights. What’s average in the Rick DiPietro United States (5’10″) isn’t average in Franz Neilsen’s Denmark (6′) or Miroslav Satan’s Slovakia (5’10.5″) or Olaf Kolzig’s South Africa (5’6.5″), so we’re going to create our own benchmark. Let’s say 6′ is tall- about 3% taller than an average North American male.
Does height make you good?
Well, Wayne Gretzky at 6’1″ was tall, and his skills were superhuman, so…no. Height didn’t make him good. At a generous listing of 5’11″, Bryan Trottier won more Stanley Cups than Wayne Gretzky. Not saying Gretzky wasn’t great, but considering that he played with an all star team for much of his career surely helped those assist stats- Coffey, Messier, Kurri, Tikanen, etc all put up numbers when they were NOT playing with Gretzky. And most folks said this about Gretzky – he’s slow and weak for his height. Size didn’t give him its supposed gifts of strength and stride.
The Russian rocket Pavel Bure? 779 points in 702 games, 437 goals- 3rd all time in goals per game. All at 5’11″.
Statistically, the greatest American scorer ever was Pat LaFontaine. An Islander! A Sabre! A Disgusting ranger! Talk about a New Yorker! 468 goals, 1,013 points in 865 games. Imagine what he would have done at a size greater than his 5’10″?
Steve Yzerman? 5’11″. Martin St. Louis? 5’8″. Paul Kariya? 5’10″. Saku Koivu is SHORT by Finnish standards at 5’10″ yet put up 776 points in over 1000 NHL games AND kicked cancer’s ass in the 2001-2002 season.
Why is height considered important in the NHL? People say that the physical style of play gives size an advantage, and anyone watching the Kings checking line in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season would agree. Height helps give defensemen like 6’9″ Zdeno Chara reach and the ability to body check/take up more space. Also, height helps create leverage for more powerful shots- see Chara. And size helps bodies take a beating.
So why does Marc Andre Bergeron at 5’9″ have a better shot than 6’2″ Mark Eaton? Why was 5’10′” Brett Hull’s slap shot better than that of 6’4″ Eric Lindros? Michael Peca was known as “Captain Crunch” for his brutal body checks but surely wasn’t bite sized at 5’11″. Yes, that was awful. And if taller means more durable, why are taller players frequently injuring knees, ankles, shoulders and concussions?
Fact is, our thesis stands time and time again- talent is a barometer of production. 2 inches of height does not automatically make you better. Let us continue.
2012 Free agent prize Zach Parise plays a big man’s game at a whopping 5’11″. Ziggy Palffy was over a point a game NHL player at 5’10″, and STILL is putting up 40 goal seasons in Slovakia. “Crackhead” Theo Fleury checked in at 5’6″ when they put his name on the Stanley Cup. Joe Sakic seemed like he should be taller than 5’11″ but he’s not. Phil Housley brought all 5’10″ of his defense to the all star game 7 times. Cliff Ronning put up 869 points at a whopping 5′ 8″.
When it comes to fighting, taller players do have an advantage- it’s called reach. Except someone forgot to tell that to Tie Domi, who at 5’10″ racked up 100 goals, over 1000 games, and most importantly the third most penalty minutes in the history of the NHL.
Why are there not more short players? Bias. A shorter player has to significantly outperform a taller player to be recognized. It’s like how a rookie has to be way better than the starter, or you have to beat the champ in boxing, or you need to Lou Gehrig out a Wally Pipp. A 5’10″ player with equal talent to a guy 6’2′ will not win the job. It’s really that simple. How do we know? Look at rosters around the league for guys of “average” height versus guys with over average height. Are you saying that EVERY SINGLE TIME the taller guy was just better than a shorter counterpart? Is 6′ Mark Streit a better offensive defenseman than 5’10″ Lubomir Visnovsky? Hell no. In fact, Viz has been one of the best offensive defensemen in the league for a decade, but was drafted when he was 24 after 6 seasons in Slovakia where he averaged half a point a game on D. Sorry, Aaron Ness- you’re not going to be here for a while.
And of course, looking at the Islanders top 4 defensemen- 6′, 6′, 6’2, 5’10″. Their lack of remarkableness has absolutely nothing to do with height. It has plenty to do with an 6’3″ unremarkable general manager… and former goalie that wasn’t a good player. And as long as the myth of the giant player being better exists, expect rinks to look smaller, scoring to continue to go down, and players getting crosschecked in the back of the neck…or as we prefer to say, more of the same.
About the Author: We are two long time hockey fans who certainly have our own opinions and points of view. Feel free to share yours. Follow on twitter @joshbarely