I stayed up way too late last night watching the first hockey game I’ve watched this year — Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Detroit Red Wings were up 3 games to 1, playing the Pittsburgh Penguins at home, hoping to clinch the title. The Pens won in the third overtime.
It was a phenomenal game, with great action, dramatic swings in momentum, and otherworldly goal tending (especially by the Pens’ Marc-Andre Fleury, especially in the overtimes).
Reading through this A.P. game report (do you, like me, often find it more appealing to read about an event you’ve already seen?), I was struck by this sentence:
Road teams have won 10 of the past 12 overtime games in the finals and are 15-4 since 1990.
Yes, it’s a pretty small sample set but too large to be completely dismissed. It’s also true that home ice doesn’t necessarily mean all that much in the regular season — a quick look at this season’s final N.H.L. standings shows that both Montreal and San Jose won their divisions with worse home records than road records.
But even so, especially considering how much talk there has been recently of home-court advantage in the N.B.A., I am wondering if anyone out there who understands hockey well can explain this startling fact?
[Addendum: Leonard Newman, an associate professor of psychology at Syracuse University, sent along a fascinating paper from a 1984 volume of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called “Paradoxical Effects of Supportive Audiences on Performance Under Pressure: The Home Field Disadvantage in Sports Championships,” by Roy F. Baumeister and Andrew Steinhilber. It seems that there’s such a thing as “the home choke,” as Newman put it in his e-mail. (He also said that the pattern in baseball, which you’ll read about below, evaporated in subsequent years.) Here’s the abstract of the paper:
On the basis of recent research on self-presentation and self-attention, we predicted that the presence of supportive audiences might be detrimental to performance in some circumstances. Specifically, the imminent opportunity to claim a desired identity in front of a supportive audience might engender a state of self-attention that could interfere with the execution of skillful responses. Archival data from championship series in two major league sports supported this reasoning. In baseball’s World Series, home teams tend to win early games but lose decisive (final) games. Supplementary analyses suggested that the pattern occurs when the home team has the opportunity to win the championship and that it does involve performance decrements by the home team. Similar patterns were found in semifinal and championship series in professional basketball.