Monday, November 10, 2008


My favourite Oiler, Glenn Anderson, finally makes it to the Hockey Hall of Fame today. Long overdue. Here's a guy who won 6 Stanley Cups, and was crucial to the teams winning them. Playing alongside Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, Kurri and Lowe on the classic mid-80s Oilers, he was overshadowed. Stats-wise he was usually up there with Messier and Kurri, fighting for 3rd or 4th on the depth chart. With 498 goals he is 42nd all-time. But as his team mate Craig Simpson notes in his CBC Blog, Anderson's specialty was the big time goal. If the score was tied late in the game you could bet that Anderson would come out of nowhere, wobble down the right side at full tilt, rush the net and score.
The knock on Anderson has been his image as a "free spirit" on and off the ice. He didn't fit the standard role of sports hero, and lots of folks still seem to harbour resentment about him. He's an outlier perhaps.
Yes, outlier. Malcolm Gladwell defines "outlier" as "a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience". His new book, Outlier: The Story of Success looks at successful people, including hockey and soccer players, to determine the factors underlying their success. As with his other really interesting and really successful books, The Tipping Point and Blink, Gladwell undercovers patterns that make the reader think about accepted facts in a new way. In Outliers, he shows that successful people like Bill Gates or Mozart don't become successful through their genius and talent, rather "they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot." He shows that successful people generally have advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky."

Raised in small-town Ontario, educated at U of T, Gladwell uses hockey to make his case! With superstar hockey players Gladwell shows the importance of being born in the first few months of the year, January through March: Gretzky, January 26. Mark Messier, January 18. Bobby Orr, March 20. He explains in an interview in today's Globe & Mail:
"Hockey players and soccer players are overwhelmingly born in the early part of the year - hugely disproportionately - and the reason is that the cutoff date for hockey and soccer around the world is Jan. 1. When people start recruiting for all-star teams and rep squads, when kids are 8 and 9 years old, they pick the kids they think are the most talented. But at that age, the most talented kids are simply the ones born closest to the cutoff date because they're bigger and more mature. And then you give them special coaching and they play more games and they practise more, so by the time they're 17, 18 years old, they actually are better. ... Kids born in the second half of the school year also underachieve - which is why [parents] hold their kids back. What's curious is that it persists - that you see, if you have a cutoff date for school eligibility at Jan. 1, the December-born kids are underrepresented in college admissions 15 years later. So it's not trivial - it makes a lasting difference."
I thought I read about this idea in the Freakonomics book, but I think it may have been in the NY Times Freakonomics blog, where they focused on the January birthdates of World Cup soccer players. Regardless, here again, Glenn Anderson goes his own way - he was born October 2nd!

**Nov. 12: Excellent profile of Gladwell and Outliers in New York Magazine here.


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