Home Ice Disadvantage?

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.


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  1. ah says:

    perhaps hockey wives are particularly unplesant to be around.

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  2. Chris says:

    Far fetched try: If home court advantage was a matter of different light installations and other technical stuff it might be true that ice hockey players who look DOWN and not UP are confused less by the unknown environment.

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  3. ms. non-militarist says:

    history speaks- when the greeks sent their military away from home by boat- they were free of the sorts of social attachments that kept the fight down at home- there’s a price however- greater distructive potential.

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  4. todd says:

    it is mental. the home team typically has the mental edge during the game as they “should win” and get energy from the crowd. as the game goes on and into overtime, that edge shifts to the visitor as they are now almost in a “nothing to lose” situation because technically, they should not be there still, they should have already lost. this translates into the home team playing “tighter” and leads to mistakes. since it is hockey, a single mistake can lead to a goal and the game.

    in this game, detroit had it won until the lat .35 seconds and could clinch the cup at home. that increased the anxiety on their part. a pittsburg win would allow them to go back home for the next game….

    the margin of error in hockey in overtime is the smallest of all sports…

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  5. NSK says:

    I would think that road-teams have an inherent advantage in the lack of distractions, motivation of succeeding on foreign turf and a there-is-nothing-to-lose mindset.

    However, because home advantage comes to the “better” team during the regular season, road teams may be going into games with somewhat of a negative or defeatist attitude (kind of conceding the game to the home team).

    So, the 2nd point probably negates the 1st to some extent.

    However, in hockey where so many players are from Europe or Canada, every game – home or away – may be perceived as on the road … which brings us back to the 1st point.


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  6. Dan says:

    There aren’t a lot of tangible benefits for being at home in the NHL – you get last change, and a bit of an edge of faceoffs by putting your stick down last. So any perk (like most sports) is just psychological. I’m not sure what the regular season numbers are, but I’d guess the home team doesn’t win more than 52-55% of the time.

    Any playoff stats for “home ice advantage” are probably skewed because the better team gets more home games. If you just took the stats from the first four games, I doubt you’d see a large effect.

    As for overtime…that’s probably just a fluky streak – I can’t think of any real reason for it, other than maybe the home team has more pressure to win at home.

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  7. Gary says:

    Having played hockey for more than 2 decades now, you have to wonder if you’d get a bit rattled at your home rink, with fans shouting “we want the cup” in double overtime, with one of the oldest, most historic awards in professional sports on the line. Hearing the fans chanting (as a Ranger fan with nothing on the line) gave me chills. I can’t even imagine the kind of stress you’d be under playing in that situation. It seems the visitors would be less distracted by the spectacle going on around them.

    It’d also be interesting to see what impact home ice has on officiating. Crowd pressure didn’t seem to get to Paul Devorski… as a referee, I’ll give him the second goaltender interference penalty, and the 4 minute high stick was blatant, but the first goaltender interference penalty was a pretty weak call (though, in fairness, it was a lesser punishment than the 5 minute kicking major that should have been called).

    My guess is the Penguins will win game 6. Their younger roster is plainly better suited to playing again in less than 48 hours.

    The real question: If the Pneguins were to win the Stanley Cup, do they make Crosby drink sparkling apple juice from the cup? After all, despite being the team captain, and leading his team to the finals, he won’t be old enough to drink until August!

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  8. dd says:

    A very quick calculation of the entire season shows that (excluding ties) the home team won 60% of games. The standard error on that is about 1.5%, so we can say that the home team wins between 57% and 63% of the time.

    Does anyone know how this compares to other sports?

    The data for overtimes in finals is a tiny sample, but it is also the result of data mining. It was only reported because it looked funny. I’m willing to bet a large sume that the next 12 overtime games (i.e. out of sample) will have far fewer than 10 wins for the road team.

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