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Want to play in the NHL one day? Check your birthday!

Want to play in the NHL one day? Check your birthday!

Study Cited in Gladwell’s Outliers has insight for NHL goalies today – and the trend is getting worse

[Update: One reader noted that this is “old news” published by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers – true, but guess where Gladwell got his information? This study. And of course he doesn’t look at whether it holds true with NHL goalies or how the trend is changing. That’s what is new in here. So I added the sub-head above…because I know not everyone will read all of this!]

Several years ago I came across a research study out of the University of Saskatchewan. PhD student Lauren Sherar studied 619 boys aged 14 and 15 who participated in the Saskatchewan provincial team selection camps in 2003. The study was to be published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.

At that age, some boys have already had their adolescent growth spurt and are significantly bigger than their peers. An early bloomer could be perceived as being more talented at a selection camp, Sherar says, because their size gives them an advantage in strength, speed and endurance. (source)

[Update: One reader noted that this is “old news” published by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers – true, but guess where Gladwell got his information? This study. And of course he doesn’t look at whether it holds true with NHL goalies or how the trend is changing. That’s what is new in here. So I added the sub-head above…because I know not everyone will read all of this!]

The most significant finding was 31 of the 40 players who made the final cut were born in the first half of the year, January-June. As we classify players by age, a player born in January could be a full year older than others competing against them for a spot on a team.

As if it wasn't hard enough already, being born in October, the odds are even greater against this little goalie ever playing in the NHL.

Thinking about this recently, I wanted to look at NHL goaltenders to see if the trend carries through. I downloaded data on all goalies who had played at least one game in the NHL this year. There were 79 of them.

The goalies studied in 2003 would be 21 or 22 by now. Dustin Tokarski who has played two games in Tampa this year hails from Saskatchewan and was born in 1989 – he could well have been in this study. Interestingly, he was born in September – if he made that team he would have been in the minority.

As an aside Saskatechewan seems to be a good place to grow up if you want to be an NHL goalie. Six of the 79 players who had seen action this year in an NHL net are from Saskatchewan. It’s still a bonus to be from Quebec though as 12 NHLers are from Canada’s goalie-factory, including of course all three Canadian Olympians.

So how do the birthday stats hold up in the NHL?

The NHL Birthday Stats

TotalCANUSAFINSWERUSSVK
Jan-Jun512494441
Jul-Dec281534101

It isn’t quite the 75% / 25% split seen in the youth study, it’s closer to 65% of the NHL goalies who were born early in the year. The trend holds in most countries, except Slovakia which has too few to really be significant, and Finland, which is interesting but a one goalie swing would make it 5:3 and quite a different picture.

What’s the message?

In the original study the author encouraged coaches to consider new ways to select teams. The problem is a developmental one. The late bloomers will fall further behind. The best kids get selected for the best teams. Those teams play more, get access to better coaching, better opportunities and so forth.

One thing going for a late born goalie today is the fact that there has never been more access to good coaching, good specialty goalie coaches. It is possible that twenty years ago raw skill and size would have had a greater effect on a young goalie’s success. Still, it is concerning that not all kids will have the same chance to succeed at the highest levels simply as a result of when they were born.

Is it getting any better?

I wondered if things might be getting better lately. Perhaps we are now more open-minded and my idea about access to coaching might be apparent in the data.

I sorted the list by birth year and checked it again. I grouped the only active goalie playing who was born in the 60s (Guess who?) with the 70s and the only goalie to play in a game that was born in the 90s with the late 80s group.

70s1980-851986-90
npctnpctnpct
<=61556%2368%1372%
>61244%1132%528%

The trend is actually the opposite of what I guessed. In the 70s, age played far less of a role than for goalies born in the late 80s. The situation is getting worse for late-born goalies. It seems that the trend toward bigger and bigger goalies at the highest levels may be filtering down to youth levels and young goalies could be selected even more for size now.

The importance of birth month is only getting more significant.

About The Author

David Hutchison

David is one of the founders of InGoal Magazine which he began in 2009.Of course he finds time for some goaltending of his own as well, and despite his age, clings desperately to the idea that some NHL team will call him to play for them - though in his mid-forties (OK, late 40s) it'll likely be for a practice when everyone else on their depth chart has the flu and the shooter tutor has gone in for repairs.

5 Comments

  1. Jason Power

    Keep in mind, and not sure if this factors into the study at all, but up until around 2004 (I am close, but probably wrong on the exact year) USA hockey used to have the age groups NOT by birth year, but instead had the cut off date Aug 1. SO, a team of peewees could have a player born in August actually be the oldest person on the team.

    When they decided to make it easier “mathematically” for people to follow, they went to the year format. That same August born player then became one of the younger players for his age group.

    It will be interesting to see if that has any effect in the future.

    Reply
  2. Jason Power

    Also,
    Of the 91 goalies who have appeared in the NHL this season, 58 were born in the first 6 months (63.7%), with May being the biggest month of 13.

    Interestingly, all three of the goalies for the Islanders (Biron, DiPietro, and Roloson) were born in the second half of the year.

    Also, of the 6 active goalies who started for their teams and won Cups (Ward, Khabibulan, Brodeur, Giguere, Osgood, and Fleury) 4 were born in the first 6 months of the year.

    The last 4 months of the year comprise of the lowest numbers too. 6 for Sept, 5 in Oct, 6 in Nov, and only one single lonely guy in December (Dannis)

    Reply
    • David Hutchison

      For the record, Jason and I have exchanged a few notes this morning. His numbers (91 vs. the 79 goalies I reported) seem to be different because he was looking at goalies who appeared on an NHL roster, while I looked at those who actually saw some ice time.

      Either way, our overall percentage is virtually the same and Jason has added some very interesting extra information. As always, thanks Jason!

      Reply
  3. Tomas Hertz,MD,BA

    The data is interesting but the sample size is small. It would be interesting if this data was collected for a 20 or 30 year period, on a province to province basis and from other professional leagues such as Sweden, Germany, Italy and the Swiss league. that would remove some potential sources of error or skewed findings based on small numbers.I do believe in the trend and bais but everything should be based on science and not myth.

    Reply
    • David Hutchison

      Agreed! I would love to have access to all that data. Honestly I was just curious to see if the results of a peer-reviewed study on this same issue played out the same in today’s NHL – which they seem to though admittedly as you point out with a small sample size.

      Reply

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