When we study the successes of hockey players throughout the NHL we look at their natural skill set, their size and their power. We judge them by their production level throughout their career and analyze their work ethic and character. Based solely on natural ability alone, some players are just simply better than others while there are those throughout the history of the NHL who achieved their success through dedication and hard work.
No matter what skill level they have, any player in the NHL is going to be considered one of the elite in the world. While they may not be the best of the best at this level, it's impossible to argue that intense hard work and talent led them here above all others. Sometimes, however, luck has to do with that success as well.
In his bestselling novel Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines the outlying factors that led some of the most successful people throughout history to make it above everyone else. Rather than just study the person themselves, he looks at the contributing factors of these people's lives, including educational advantages, socio-economic advantages...and even date of birth.
Why date of birth? Find out why after the jump...
The Matthew Effect.
For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. - Matthew 25:29
Gladwell dives into a study that resulted from the success of the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, a major junior hockey team in Canada. As he looked at the roster, he realized that the majority of players on the team were all born in the early part of the year with very few having been born past July. In fact, looking at most players at the CHL level in Canada - the highest level of junior hockey in North America - he noticed that this was true for nearly every player in the league.
The reason for this, several studies have concluded, starts when hockey players are very young. At every single level of hockey in Canada - and this is true for most levels of hockey in the United States, but not all - the date of birth cutoff for each league is December 31. This means at each level of hockey, even at a very young age, players born in January are playing and competing against players born nearly 12 months later of that same year.
Gladwell calls this the "Matthew Effect"..."the rich get richer while the poor get poorer."
As players are evaluated and separated as the best from each league, it's only natural that the older, bigger and more experienced players will be selected first. When you're talking about players between the ages of 6 and 12, a difference of 10-12 months can be very significant in the physical, emotional and intellectual maturity of players in a single league.
Those players that are initially singled out as the biggest and best are then given preferential treatment, placed on the best teams with the best coaching. From the very start, a player born in January with similar talent levels as those born in November will get an initial boost against his competition. That extra level of attention and coaching will eventually distance himself from his similarly-talented competitor who did not get that initial help and placement in the best teams in the best leagues.
This phenomenon is not true 100% of the time and the theory isn't an exact science. When you look back at the best players throughout history, however, you'll see that most were indeed born in the early part of the year - especially Canadian hockey players. It's not always true - Ray Bourque was born in December - but it certainly raises some interesting ideas.
What about the players that have run the gauntlet, were drafted and made it to the NHL yet were born in the latter part of the year? Is it more natural talent that allowed them to stand out against older players at a natural age? Perhaps they just had to work harder to get past those earlier biases and this is what led to their successes in getting to play hockey at the highest level. There's also a good chance that those players born in the latter part of the year were just that much more naturally talented.
The ratios of players born in the early part of the year on teams in the NHL is certainly less than what is found on Canadian major junior hockey teams. NHL teams have U.S.-born players as well as players from around the world. The birthday cutoff phenomenon is not the same in every country that kids pick up a hockey stick, although it's true for most leagues.
What about the Dallas Stars? Where do they stand when it comes to players born in the early part of the year?
Krystofer Barch - Mar 26, 1980
Jamie Benn - Jul 18, 1989
Adam Burish - Jan 6, 1983
Loui Eriksson - Jul 17, 1985
Brenden Morrow - Jan 16, 1979
Steve Ott - Aug 19, 1982
Toby Petersen - Oct 27, 1978
Mike Ribeiro - Feb 10, 1980
Tom Wandell - Jan 29, 1987
Of the 17 players currently on the roster, over half were born in the first five months of the year. Seven players were born before April, with four born in January. What is most interesting is that players like Jamie Benn and Steve Ott were all born after July, and both are two of the hardest working players on the team.
Jamie Benn's case is very interesting. He was born in July and has always been a very big forward with great offensive capability. Yet he was greatly overlooked in the 2007 draft and fell all the way to the fifth round, where the Stars snagged him. The next season, he exploded offensively and took the CHL by storm in 2009, leading his Kelowna team all the way to the Memorial Cup.
Benn has had to work hard to prove himself as a hockey player and he takes nothing for granted. Was that work ethic instilled in him at a younger age, when he had to overcome the bias naturally given to players that were older than him at the same level? Obviously he showed tremendous ability at an early age, but he still wasn't as highly touted as his current talent level would suggest he should have been.
What about last year's draft? Perhaps this idea of the date of birth of a Canadian player truly has an impact on the players getting the most attention and getting drafted ahead of so many others.
Looking back at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, six of the first nine Canadian hockey players selected were all born before May. The top pick in the draft, Taylor Hall, was born in November.
Jack Campbell, the Stars' first round selection is a U.S.-born player. His birthday is in January.
The study of the effect of a players' date of birth is not a perfect one, but it's tough to deny that majority of players that make through the top hockey leagues in the world were in fact born in the early part of the year. If you really start analyzing the birthdates you'll notice that not only are most players born before May, but more players are born in January and February than any other month.
This doesn't apply just to hockey or sports, either. You see in academics, where the cutoff date for a grade level is generally around August. Children born in September and October generally do better in school at an early age than those born in June or July, leading them to get placed in advance classes and get a better education from a very early age. This is why you sometimes see parents of children born in August hold their kids back a year, so as not to be at an academic disadvantage to children nearly a year older.
There's no telling whether a player born in January is going to be better than a player born in October. At the NHL level, the playing field is nearly the same.
Sidney Crosby was born in August and I doubt anyone will question his talent or worth ethic.