In many ways, the NHL remains woefully behind on data collection. Possession Time—arguably hockey's most important statistic—remains unmeasured, while shot recordings are maddeningly inconsistent. And yet, when it comes to certain essential data, the NHL never misses a beat. For example: Consistently using the pre-draft questionnaire given to draft-eligible prospects in major junior hockey to ask about their favorite superheroes.
The NHL began administering this most important survey--viewable on each player's official draft bio--in 2009, after years of asking the wrong questions (Steven Stamkos shops at Hollister, while Drew Doughty prefers Abercrombie--it's a wonder the Lightning could even decide). Superhero comics, so embedded in our culture, and offering such a wide range of characters, provide more genuine insight into the makeup of potential pick than even the most strenuous interview.
Luckily for the many NHL front office types reading this post, I've gone ahead and compiled the data, crunched the numbers, and put together this guide to the deeper meaning of each player's favorite comic book character.
Data gathered from draft eligible prospects in the 2009-2013 classes shakes out in predictable fashion:
The consensus three greatest superheroes run away with the polling. Batman is No. 1--no one has ever disputed this. The Federer vote came from Nino Niederreiter, the Swiss winger, who was probably not being the least bit facetious the way they worship that guy over there.
Beyond the devotion of the Swiss to their tennis stars, the nationality of the respondents is telling:
The fundamental difference between DC and Marvel comics has always been the fallibility of their characters. While heroic in distinct ways--Superman classically, Batman darkly, etc.--the fundamental goodness of DC heroes never wanes. Marvel, by contrast, rose to DC's level of sales during the Silver Age of Comic Books with more deeply flawed, humanized heroes--e.g. the blind Daredevil, the angsty teenaged Spider-Man, the uncontrollable Hulk.
Marvel heroes face obstacles that lead them to doubt their own abilities. What could be less American? In spite of consistently losing ground by most academic measures, America's youth remain the most confident in the world. America's young hockey stars may have lost the most recent IIHF U18 World Championship, but like their heroes Batman and Superman, they never let a little thing like losing keep them from winning. Sidney Crosby may have put a dagger in the heart of Team USA with his golden goal in Vancouver, but America's rising stars only see the inevitable stronger-than-ever resurrection of a comic book death. Meanwhile, the Euro juniors, faced with austerity budgets and a nihilistic philosophical tradition, cry into their copies of Hawkeye.
The Big Three
Unsurprisingly, there's a strong positive correlation between breadth of superpowers and draft position. Players of less physical gifts tend to identify with more human characters. Players who favor Batman, mere mortal, were, on average, late second round picks (57th overall). By contrast, Superman and Spider-Man fans both averaged a 47th overall draft position.
Paradoxically, Batman also attracted much of the top talent. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, John Tavares, Jeff Skinner, Jonathan Huberdeau, Evander Kane, Erik Gudbranson, Seth Jones, and Mikhail Grigorenko round out a veritable Justice League of Dark Knight devotees. Such is Batman's broad appeal--he attracts the top talent by being rich and popular, while the unskilled players sympathize with his being the least powerful hero in the Hall of Justice locker room.
There's really only four ways to emulate Iron Man: wear a suit of hi-tech armor, sell weapons, get super rich, or develop a drinking problem. In the case of top goaltending prospect Zachary Fucale, the full-body armor appeal makes sense. In the case of defenseman Jared Cowen, the Ottawa Senators better hope for "get super rich."
As far as the rest of the Avengers go, it makes sense that Jordan Subban (5'8") and Vincent Trocheck (5'10"), two of the shorter prospects of recent years, would emulate the Hulk--a little guy that can play well above his size with the proper adrenaline. And no Blackhawks fan should wonder why Brandon Whitney, the tallest and blondest player in his draft, and wielder of a giant hammer-like goalie's stick, would go for Thor.
Any team with character concerns can go ahead and skip the background check if your potential pick cites the Joker, a murderous, psychopathic super-villain as his hero of choice. Mark Pysyk has emerged as a steady defensive presence for the Sabres at age 21, but fans should be on the lookout for any suspicious own-goals or other subversive acts in the future. With a impish smile like his, it's doesn't take too much imagination:
Just a little red marker and...
Just listen to Pysyk talk about his relationship with former Edmonton Oil Kings teammate Keegan Lowe:
He gets pretty fired up, so anything you can do ... put stuff in his bed, put stuff in his sheets, anything. He gets really mad and doesn't try to prank me back, just tries to beat whoever does it up.
It's the fundamental story of the character: The Joker pulls deadly pranks on Batman and Batman responds humorlessly by beating the Joker up. Rinse and repeat.
For most players Batman is a good story, an aspirational ideal. For Anthony Stolarz, Batman is a state of mind. Stolarz cites Batman not as his favorite superhero but as his favorite place to visit. It's a certain indication that Stolarz, the poised and talented Flyers goalie, is a big Grant Morrison fan and is making reference to Batman issue #681, in which the Dark Knight seals himself in a Nepalese cave for 49 days to excise inner demons through the ritual of Thögal meditation. Stolarz clearly regards the issues in which Batman accesses a back-up psychic personality under extreme duress---the "Batman of Zur-En-Arrh"--as a metaphor for the short-term memory and inner calm a goalie must achieve in his own crease. I'm not sure I totally agree, but it's an interesting comparison.
These findings are just a glimpse of the potential for comic-based amateur scouting. If you want your favorite player analyzed on the basis of an insignificant pop culture preference, you can reach me in my mom's basement via Twitter