Monday, June 16, 2008

Eastern Bias At The Awards?

When the NHL Awards were announced last week, it didn't take very long before people noticed that nobody in the west (for the sake of this argument west of the Mississippi River) won any awards. This was claimed to be an eastern bias among the voters. Is this interpretation an accurate one?

There are nine teams west of the Mississippi River in the NHL. The entire Pacific Division and all of the Northwest Division, except for the Minnesota Wild, are western teams. The Mississippi River flows through the Twin Cities and St Paul (where the Wild play) is east of the river. Nine out of thirty teams should win some awards if they are distributed randomly throughout the league. Of course, awards are not distributed randomly. They are given (hopefully) to the most deserving player. The same voters who did not give any awards to western players gave half of the first all star team positions to players from the west (Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf of the Calgary Flames and Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks). That fact alone argues against an eastern bias. The west if over-represented on the first all star team.

When we look at individual awards, how many should have gone to western players? If my votes distributed the awards, the answer is only one. Owen Nolan of the Calgary Flames should have won the Masterton. Of course, he wasn't even nominated. Of the nominees, I would have supported Fernando Pisani of the Edmonton Oilers. He is another western player. Nevertheless, Jason Blake of the Toronto Maple Leafs won.

I don't think this shows an eastern bias. I think it shows a cancer bias. People are scared of cancer and will give the Masterton Trophy to any player who gets cancer and survives to continue his career. It doesn't matter how serious the cancer is. It doesn't matter what happens to anyone else in the NHL. Cancer seems to win this award. Last year, Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins won. He missed a month due to testicular cancer and his career was never in serious jeopardy. He had cancer and that seems to be the bias of the voters. Anyone with cancer wins. This year, Jason Blake has chronic myelogenous leukemia. As serious as cancer may be, it didn't keep him out of any games this year. Owen Nolan missed two years with a knee injury. Fernando Pisani's career (and life) was in jeopardy with ulcerative colitis that kept him out for a few months. The better candidates may have been western players, but they didn't lose due to an eastern bias. They lost due to a cancer bias.

The award most often cited as being incorrectly decided due to eastern bias is the Vezina Trophy. This trophy was won (correctly) by Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils. Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks came surprisingly close to winning it, but that was a poor choice of the voters. Nabokov did not have a saves percentage that was well ahead of the pack. He did have a league leading win total, which comes from the fact he played on a very good team. In fact, I wouldn't have nominated Nabokov at all for that award. I would have nominated Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks and Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Anaheim Ducks along with Brodeur. I don't think that could be argued to be an eastern bias. Two of the three nominees play on the Pacific coast. Here is another argument for that case from James Mirtle. Nabokov did not deserve the Vezina and he came alarmingly close to winning it.

There isn't a large noticeable eastern bias in the award voting results. That doesn't mean that no eastern bias exists in the NHL. Clearly one does. Seventeen teams play in the eastern time zone. The majority of writers are in the eastern time zone. Many of them don't bother to stay awake long enough to watch the west coast games on a regular basis. It is very common for a player to get more publicity when he moves from the west to the east, despite being the same player on both coasts. Part of this is laziness. The hockey headlines are often written before the west coast games have even finished. Therefore, the big story of the night cannot be in one of the western games. However, in the awards this year, there is no discernable eastern bias.

It is common for people to claim they are discriminated against. It is an attempt to earn sympathy for their situation. Sometimes the discrimination is real and other times it isn't. In the case of the 2008 NHL Awards it isn't real. Fernando Pisani or Owen Nolan may have lost out on an award and they are western players, but that is due to a cancer bias in Masterton voting. Evgeni Nabokov did better than he should have in the Vezina voting and even made the first all star team. That is no bias against Nabokov. He did better than he should have done. If anything, I think Nabokov benefitted from an anti-Brodeur bias. Brodeur has won the Vezina Trophy enough times that people are looking for a change. They were looking for a reason to not give it to him - even though he deserved it. They almost found their reason in Nabokov, but it was a poor reason. It was a mistake for Nabokov to come as close to winning the Vezina as he did. It is definitely wrong to claim that Nabokov's loss is evidence of an eastern bias among voters.

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