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Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract 2017 sticks with what works

There are few things in life more anxiety-riddling than joining a conversation mid-stream and feeling utterly, completely lost. The rise of the first wave of hockey analytics writers occurred as I was going through high school and university, and by the time I turned my attention away from other pursuits and onto figuring out what all the fuss was about, there was a lot of stuff to wrap my head around.

Thankfully, people like Rob Vollman were around to dumb things down for so I could get a foothold on the topics. Vollman’s arguably best known for his player usage charts – and they’re awesome – but he’s been a prolific author whose profile has risen in recent years. He’s following up his recent book Stat Shot with a return to his roots with Hockey Abstract 2017, the fourth edition of the publication that put him on the map, and an afternoon spent with the book should easily catch up stats novices and junkies alike on the ongoing analytics conversation.

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If you’re jumping into Hockey Abstract 2017, you’re arguably in one of three camps: you’re curious about analytics but don’t know where to start, you’re a stats junkie wanting to keep up to date on things, or you’re just looking for more information on your favourite team wherever you can get it.

If you’re a neophyte, Vollman and his collaborators do a great job breaking things down to their constituent elements without talking down to the reader. The early chapters in particular – framed by Tom Award under the umbrella question “How Good Is Your Team, Really?” – do a great job of breaking concepts down to their building blocks and then stacking things on top of each other to explore more intricate concepts. The constant use of footnotes to link to the work of others makes it easy to circle back and dig into any concepts that you have problems wrapping your head around, while the book also features a handy glossary at the back.

A print book (or PDF) probably doesn’t seem like the best way of staying current on the newest trends in analytics. While Vollman definitely had to cut things off at a certain point in terms of “current-ness” to allow for enough time to prep for printing, the discussions are generally pretty up-to-date and the footnoting is extensive enough that it should put any curious souls on the right path to finding anything that’s emerged since the book went to press.

Finally, if you only care about your team and learning more about them, Hockey Abstract 2017 is peppered with specific tidbits and factoids throughout to keep you engaged – a large chunk of the book is dedicated to detailed examinations of the 31 NHL clubs, complete with player usage charts and categorical evaluations. It’s detailed enough to provide some insight, while digestible enough for casual readers to grab a factoid or two to throw out about their team (or about their rivals during water-cooler arguments).

If there are criticisms to be made of Hockey Abstract 2017, they probably lie in its density and layout. For lack of a better term, the book is as chock-full of hockey information as a five-course meal is of tasty food. It’s great if you’ve got a voracious appetite, but if not at some point you’ll find yourself reaching capacity with a lot of book left to read. When in doubt, block off a Sunday afternoon to dive into Vollman’s stuff with a big cup of tea.

The other criticism, the layout, is somewhat related. By this time in his writing career, Vollman has found a formula that works: text, tables, occasional cartoons from Josh Smith, and player usage charts here and there. Considering that arguably the most useful advances in hockey communication in the past few years have been on the data visualization side, it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity to accentuate the strengths of Vollman’s previous work with some recent advances.

After over a decade writing about a topic he’s obviously passionate about, Vollman’s found a strong niche in the hockey writing community and knows his strengths. Hockey Abstract 2017 is an accessible, informative read that will catch the analytics rookies up with the conversation while engaging veterans with its depth.