On Dec. 21, underdogs everywhere will celebrate National Underdog Day, which falls on the third Friday of every December. It’s a fitting date for the NHL. After all, only 6.6 percent of players in league history have been born in December, tied with November for lowest among all months, compared to 10.4 percent for those born in January, which is tops.
Yet new research may give hope to December underdogs across the hockey world.
That’s the upshot of what professors Ben Gibbs and Jonathan Jarvis of Brigham Young University found in their study, “The relative age effect reversal among the National Hockey League elite.” Gibbs and Jarvis employed 20 students to crunch data for North American-born NHLers (excluding goalies and undrafted players) from 2008-09 to 2015-16. They divided players into four quarters by birth month – January-March, April-June, July-September and October-December– and then looked at points and salary.
What they found was surprising. Although more players are born in the first quarter of the year, those born in the last quarter score more and make more money. Not only that, the gap between first-quarter players and fourth-quarter players increases as you progress up the scoring and salary charts. When you get to the top 10 percent of scorers, those born in October-December average nine more points per year and 51 percent more in salary than those born in January-March.
How is this possible? Gibbs and Jarvis call it the “underdog effect,” and they give three reasons for this seemingly bizarre anomaly: resiliency, talent and the age cutoff for the NHL draft. And it all begins back in minor hockey.
Throughout Canada and the U.S., the cutoff age for minor hockey is typically Dec. 31. This means that kids born in the fourth quarter of the year lag six to 12 months in growth behind those born in the first quarter. These runts of the litter are quickly culled out of competitive hockey because the cutoff age is artificially skewed to favor first-quarter birthdates.
In academic lingo, it’s called the “relative age effect.” Since kids born in January-March are usually bigger than those born in October-December, Gibbs and Jarvis suggest coaches mistake size for talent and discard the younger, smaller players. “The kids that are small just never get a chance to be coached long enough to be able to put in the hours, and so we lose kids who could possibly make it to the NHL because they’re just not chosen to be on their 11-year-old all-star team or 12-year-old minor hockey team,” Jarvis said. “They never get the chance to develop and are dropped from competitive hockey.”
But here’s the kicker for underdogs. For those born in October-December who manage to make it through minor hockey and then junior, they become psychologically stronger because they’ve had to deal with more adversity because of the cutoff age than those with January-March birth certificates. By the time they make the NHL, they’re more resilient. This, in turn, makes them better players. “Of course you need talent to overcome the arbitrary age cutoff in minor hockey, but you also need more resiliency,” Gibbs said. “The results show that this artificial advantage for those born in the first quarter doesn’t carry over into the NHL, because resiliency and true talent eventually take over.”
It’s a scenario that happens all the time in minor hockey. There’s one spot on the team and two kids of equal talent to choose from. Which one will the coach take? Almost always the bigger player, who’s usually also the older player.
Given kids born later in the year are generally smaller, they can’t just be as talented as those born early in the year, because they’ll get cut in favor of the bigger kids. Instead, they have to be even more talented if they want to overcome the size bias of coaches. As a result, those players born in October-December who remain in competitive hockey are often athletically superior. They have to be, otherwise they’d get cut. “For them to stay in the game and stay on those teams, they have to be super skilled,” Jarvis said. “If they’re a little bit smaller, they’re going to have to come up with tricks in order to stay on the ice, to stay on the team.”
So, we know kids born in the last three months of the year are constantly playing catch-up size-wise throughout minor hockey because the cutoff age is Dec. 31. But if they make it to the NHL draft, a curious thing happens. Suddenly, they go from being the youngest among their peers to being the oldest.
Since the cutoff date for the NHL draft is Sept. 15, those born in October-December are among the oldest players available from the pool of first-year prospects. By the time the draft rolls around, they have up to an additional year of development over the rest of their draft cohort, which gives them an edge when they get to the NHL. “Age cutoffs might be administratively efficient, but they’re inefficient for assessing talent,” Gibbs said. “Of course, you need to draw the line somewhere, but it actually produces unintended consequences, because when players are young, coaches tend to stack their teams with kids who are slightly older because they’re generally bigger. It suggests there’s something exceptional about the younger, smaller players born later in the year who make it to the NHL despite the age cutoff.”
Add these three consequences together and this is why Gibbs and Jarvis have found what they call a “relative age effect reversal” among elite NHLers born in October-December. Essentially the disadvantage these late-birthday players face throughout minor hockey becomes an advantage if they reach the NHL – the underdog effect.
While Gibbs and Jarvis point out that more research needs to be done, the initial data suggests NHL teams should put more stock in a prospect’s birth certificate. Who knows? They just might find a hidden gem born in the underdog days of December.