Count this NHL guru as more than just a number
Jim Corsi came up with hockey shot measure adopted by stats fanatics
Buffalo Sabres goaltender coach Jim Corsi, the originator of a hockey advanced statistic that measures shot attempts.
Photograph by: Bill Wippert, Getty Images
NEW YORK — No sentient being wants to be reduced to a statistic, a formula or an equation, not even someone who invented one.
That certainly holds true for Jim Corsi, the Buffalo Sabres goaltending coach for 16 years whose name now is arguably better known for the statistical tool he invented to measure a goalie’s workload than for his own professional career as an athlete and coach.
His statistical measure, Corsi reckons, got batted around on the hockey seminar circuit and, over time, was adopted by the analytics crowd, who use it to measure a team’s shot differential at even strength, factoring in all shots attempted: shots on goal, goals scored, shots blocked and shots that miss the net.
The analytics adherents reverse the Corsi lens, as it were, to measure and compare how hard teams make opposing goalies work.
Thus has Corsi, the stat, taken on a life of its own, somewhat to the bemusement of Corsi.
After all, the 59-year-old Montreal native has been, variously, a crackerjack university hockey goaltender; a gifted striker for the varsity soccer team; a workmanlike pro goalie who played 26 games for the Edmonton Oilers in 1979-80; and an Olympian for Italy.
The real Corsi is not unaware that more than a few of the fans who see their sport through the prism of advanced statistics had, for the longest time, no idea there was a flesh-and-blood Corsi with a history in the game.
“Indeed, the people talk about it like I’m an inanimate object,” Corsi said in an interview in Buffalo this week. “Like I’m the box score, the Corsi score.
“I often tell my wife, ‘I’m a somebody, no? So we laugh about it.”
To Montreal rink rats of a certain age, Corsi was one of the more interesting and talented athletes ever to come out of Loyola, the small Liberal Arts college that merged with Sir George Williams University to form Concordia University in 1974.
In his final year, Corsi backstopped the Stingers to a 44-2-1 won-lost record, but Concordia lost in the then-CIAU semifinal game to the University of Toronto.
Corsi was an engineering student, a true student-athlete who counts as his mentors both Ken and Dave Dryden, briefly his Oilers teammate in 1979-80.
“When I graduated, Ken and I spoke for the longest while about college and pro hockey,” Corsi said. “I had a pretty good possibility with my (engineering) degree, you know.
“He said, ‘Jim, you know, you can always be an engineer in three years, but you can’t always be a hockey player. Give it a test, give it a go, and then see where it is. And here I am. No slide rule or calculators. I’m still in pro hockey.”
His status as a pro was most painfully underscored at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, where the issue of Olympic eligibility was the centre of a pre-Games controversy.
In the end, the IOC deemed any player who had signed an NHL contract and played so much as one NHL game ineligible. Corsi, with his 26 Oilers games, was out, along with two Canadian players and a cluster of others. They learned their fate the night before the Olympic tournament opened.
Meanwhile, Rick Cunningham, a Canadian with dual Austrian citizenship who had played more than 300 games in the old WHA, was permitted to compete for Austria.
A devastated Corsi did an interview at the time in which he said: “Evidently, the only amateurs here are the IOC.”
Those sporting badgers failed to see the humour in Corsi’s comments and sent him a stinging letter.
“For me, it was really an emotional time,” Corsi said. “I remember actually breaking down, talking to my wife. I was devastated. At that moment, on the eve of the Olympics, I was perhaps at one of the lowest points in my young professional career.”
Instead of sending him home, the Italian Olympic Committee stood by Corsi, kept him on as an assistant coach, enabled him to march in the opening ceremony, embraced him as part of their delegation.
“To this day, I appreciate it,” Corsi said. “So much so that I go back, I still work with the Olympic committee, I help with the hockey team.
“I’m going back to help with the World Championship. I’ve done all the Olympics for Italian TV, so I’ve always been there for Italy. I’ve been fortunate that way.”
He also counts himself fortunate to have coached for so long under former Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff, who learned from, among others, the late Roger Neilson, a hockey thinker ahead of his time in applying analytical tools, like video, to the game of hockey.
Corsi said he’s happy the analytic use of the Corsi stat is helping to break down the stigma of trying to measure the sport in new ways, gratified to see bloggers applying his tool to measure players’ contribution to the game, either collectively or individually.
“It was not enough for me to say, ‘OK, do a drill,’” Corsi said of his approach to coaching goalies. “I was trying to see where our weaknesses were.
”It (Corsi stat) was more about me finding out what work our goalies were doing, and should we give him a day off, should we work him harder? How much work should we give the backup? Where is this generated workload coming from?”
Shots on goal was insufficient to measure that. Goalies can’t relax, expecting a shot to be blocked, for example.
“Each time that action (a shot attempt) happens, is a goalie like ‘Nah, that’s not going to happen?’ No, he’s totally braced as much as you can.
“And subsequently, it has moved on to an area where (it’s about) what is my contribution in the game? How does a player contribute to the workload? If the goalie is absorbing the workload, the workload must be coming from someone else.
“As I often tell people, statistics are like a lamppost for a drunkard: They can either illuminate or you can use it to lean on.
“It’s value is in trying to illuminate. Let’s not lean on it. It’s part of the picture that we’re trying to paint in our game that’s so quick, to quantify what’s happening.
“I’m at once humbled but also thrilled that it’s going on. And worried, because I’m losing my identity. I don’t know who I am anymore.”
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal