Beer league hockey is the term applied throughout Canada to adult rec hockey. It's usually played at night by amateurs for fun. Experience and skill levels vary widely. It is the backbone of the hockey equipment industry. Although more money is probably spent per player per season on minor hockey players the important fact to remember is that adults play hockey much longer than kids do, and so they are a much longer term customer for the industry. Furthermore, at least in Canada, most kids get into minor hockey because their parents introduce them to the game. Beer league hockey is the unsung hero of the sport.
Beer league hockey teams are generally made up of friends, but have a wide range of skill and talent. The challenge faced by the majority of teams (that is, those who don't dominate everyone else) is to bring those skills and experience to bear in a way that delivers wins. Playing hockey is fun, but losing gets old fast, especially when teams go on losing streaks or feel over matched on a consistent basis.
There is a simple way to accomplish the goal of getting more wins. It consists of playing as a team and using a system. The system is based on a combination of numbers and two time honoured sports adages. The numbers are goals for and goals against. The adages are "Offence wins games but defence wins championships" and "You can teach anyone to play defence but you can't teach scoring skill".
Let's look at the numbers. Goals for are the total number of goals your team scores over the course of a game, season or series of seasons. Goals against are the total numebr of goals other teams score on you over the same period of time. More goals for tends to equate with more wins, and more goals against equates with losing. If you can reduce the number of goals scored against you while increasing the number of goals you score against other teams you obviously increase your chances of winning.
Two questions pop up immediately. First,what are the hard numbers? How many goals against do we have to get rid of, or how many more goals for do we need? The second question is: what's easier? Reducing goals against or increasing goals for?
Let's look at the first question first. What are the hard numbers? I play on two teams. One is younger, faster and more talented, and plays in a higher division. The other is older, slower and less talented, and plays in a lower division. As of today the younger team is in last place in its division, with 2 wins, 7 loses and 1 tie and 1 overtime loss over 11 games. Our win percentage is .333. Goals for are 43, and goals against are 55. The best team in the league has 55 goals for and only 33 against, which translates into 6 wins, 4 losses and 1 tie, But here's the interesting stat: there's another team in that division with 5 wins, 6 losses, no ties, and with goals for of 43, (the same as us) but with 4 less goals against, or 51. 4 less goals against has translated into 3 more wins for them. Over 11 games that's only 1/3 of a goal per game.
Does that even make sense? Let's take a closer look. My team has been outscored by 12 goals over 11 games. That's just over 1 goal per game. We've lost three games by 1 goal, and we've tied a game that turned into an overtime loss, which is the same as a 1 goal loss. If we reduced our goals against in each of those games by one goal we'd have a record of 2 wins, 4 losses and 5 ties, with goals for being the same, 43, but goals against being reduced to 51. That's not great, but it is an improvement.
What if we reduced our goals against, on average, by just one goal per game? 1 goal per game over 11 games equals 11 goals, which keeps our goals for at 43, but would drop our goals against to 44. The team in our division with the GF/GA ratio closest to that has 70 for and 73 against and a record of 5 wins, 6 losses and 1 tie. Much better than us.
What if we reduced our goals against by an average of 2 per game? We'd be 43 for and 33 against. That might not put us in first place, but it would ceratinly improve our record.
Let's look at my other team, the older, slower, less talented one. After 11 games we're 5 and 6, with 44 goals for but only 48 against. that's just like the team in the ther division with 43 goals for and 51 against. They've got the same record - 5 wins, 6 losses.
See the pattern? Each of the three teams has almost exactly the same number of goals for (43-44), but the two teams with better records have a few goals less against. My young, talented team averages 5 goals against per game. My old team averages 4.36 goals against per game. The third team I'm talking about averages 4.63 goals against. Obviously, a minor improvement makes a big difference.
What if we looked at increasing goals for? If we're losing games by 1 or 2 goals then it stands to reason that we need to score another 11-22 goals over the 11 games we've played. The fact is that we've been trying to score as many goals as we can and we've only scored 43. That's 4 goals per game. To increase our scoring output by 22 goals would be a 50% increase. But remember: you can teach anyone to play defence but you really can't teach scoring skill to most adults. You've either got it or you don't. If you want more goals in pro hockey you trade for better players. That's not an option for a beer league team made up of friends. It's easier, by far, to keep the group together but work on reducing goals against.
So, what's the conclusion? It's pretty simple. If you play as a team and emphasize your strengths while masking your weaknesses you can reduce goals against. Doing that will clearly improve your record. Can it do more? Can it turn your bear league hockey team into a powerhouse capable of winning championships? Of course it can, which is where the second adage comes in: offence wins games but defence wins championships. I'll explain how to prove that in subsequent articles.