Monday, January 20, 2014

Luck and the Olympic hockey tournament

There are twelve countries represented in Olympic men's hockey.  They play only three or four games each before getting to the quarter-finals; then it's single elimination after that.  

In the NHL, it takes a huge number of games -- 36 or 73 games per team -- to get to the point where talent is as important as luck.  But the entire Olympic tournament takes only 30 games.  Not 30 games per team, but 30 games period.

If that's the case, then how can the Olympics possibly filter out the best teams in such a short span?  

That's the subject of my article in the Ottawa Citizen today.  If you don't want to read the whole thing, the answer, basically, is:

1.  There is a much wider range of talent in the Olympics than in the NHL.  The top teams are almost as good as an NHL all-star team; the bottom teams are below minor-league.  That makes it much, much easier to separate good from bad.

2.  The IIHF (which structured the tournament) created an unbalanced schedule -- the bad teams disproportionately face the good teams, and vice-versa.  This makes it easier for the good teams to rise to the top.

3.  The IIHF noticed that, roughly speaking, there are six strong teams and six weak teams.  Therefore, luck will affect the middle of the standings more than the top or the bottom.  So, the teams in the middle get an extra game (against the bottom), in order to make it more likely that the better teams rise and the worse teams fall.

My conclusion is that the IIHF did an outstanding job in terms of squeezing the most "talent information" out of so few games.  For the full argument, check out the link.

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At Monday, January 20, 2014 8:58:00 PM, Blogger Don Coffin said...

What's interesting is that the organizers apparently recognized the problem and attempted to find a solution for it. Which is a good thing; it would have been easier *not* to deal with it. Now, if only FIFA would do something similar for the World Cup...

At Tuesday, January 21, 2014 10:52:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good article, and nice to see it in the Citizen (not sure why it wasn't in the sports section).

I wonder if there may be a couple of other reasons for the IIHF taking the approach that they do. If they were really focussed on getting the good teams to the final four, would it be even better to have two 6-team groups, with the best teams equally distributed between the two groups? They could have a simple round-robin within each group, and then have the first place team in each group play the second in the other group in the semis. I think it would work out to 34 games total instead of 30, which wouldn't seem like a deal breaker.

One problem with this, though, is that it could lead to ties in the standings that would be hard to break without resorting to something like goal differentials. Another problem is that it would lead to more games involving teams that have been eliminated from medal contention.



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