Canucks and Beyond

NHL Birthdays and Their Impact on Success

11/26/2008 at 6:58pm EST

A Google search today produced a seemingly unrelated link in the world of hockey news when it pointed me to a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. But looking a bit closer it seems Gladwell explores, in part, a topic that is indeed very relevant to the hockey world: players’ birthdays and the inherent statistical oddities as they affect drafting and other selection processes used to ‘create’ a successful NHL hockey player.

From Kevin Carey’s review:

The first chapter deals with the fairly well-known phenomenon of birthdays and Canadian hockey players. A hugely disproportionate number of elite hockey players have birthdays in January, February and March. That’s because the age cutoff for entry into junior hockey leagues is January 1. A five-year old hockey player born on that day (they start early in Canada) could be as much as 25 percent older than his youngest competitors, giving him a major advantage in size, strength, and coordination.

Since junior league hockey is a ruthless meritocracy, that success would lead to selection in more elite leagues, and thus more opportunities for practice, better coaching, more success, even more elite leagues, and so on. What begins as an arbitrary age-based difference evolves into actual differences of skill and technique, masking the original injustice.

Gladwell notes that this problematic in two ways. First, it’s patently unfair to children born at the end of the year, who have virtually no chance of advancing to the highest hockey ranks. Second, it’s really inefficient as a means of matching training with talent. Canada has effectively cut its pool of potential hockey stars in half.

I actually hadn’t given any thought to this phenomenon until 2006 when I read this brief post at the Freakonomics blog. Author Steven Levitt cuts the discussion to the NHL briefly in his post, and the comments provide a fascinating analysis of the topic. (Including some suggestion that there might even be parents who are actually lying about the dates of their children’s birthdays because they also see the trend for hockey success showing up in the early part of the year).

Anyway, I also just wanted to mention the Gladwell book as I’m a bit of a fan of his, and I’m intrigued to see the NHL birthday issue come up in his study of what makes people “successful.”

Perhaps something I need to read—and memorize—over Christmas holidays.

Update:Gawker had something to say about the book back in May, long before it was released:

Gladwell is seriously becoming the “thinking” CEO’s Stephen Covey. Here he is at the New Yorker Conference (which is the business-oriented sell-out version of their “festival”) delivering a talk presumably based on the book. It’s about how to hire great people, a topic he’s sure you wrestle with at your organizations. He uses an elaborate sports analogy. You see, he went to the NHL scouting combine. You would think scouting combines would be great predictors of future success. BUT THEY’RE NOT. Conventional wisdom… overturned!

See? Told you this was a hockey book. Sorta. ;)

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