Which is the Greatest Olympic Hockey Team of All-Time Based on Stats and Computer Simulations?

04/13/2017 10:52 pm ET
The 1980 USA Olympic Hockey team defeating the defending gold medalists, the Soviet Union in what has come to be known as “Th
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The 1980 USA Olympic Hockey team defeating the defending gold medalists, the Soviet Union in what has come to be known as “The Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY on February 22, 1980.

Co-authored by Carlton Chin, founder of CARAT / Adamah Capital. Carlton, a graduate of MIT, is a quant researcher focused on portfolio strategy and sports analytics. He has worked with various sports organizations, including the Sacramento Kings on their Analytics Advisory Council.

With the 2017 NHL playoffs underway and the 2018 Olympic Games coming up in less than a year, we thought we’d take a look at the greatest men’s Olympic Hockey Teams since hockey became an Olympic Sport in 1920. Several years ago, one of us wrote an article on the Miracle on Ice -- and used Monte Carlo analyses to study how miraculous the 1980 US gold medal actually was.

In this article, we use Monte Carlo simulations, along with various other metrics and sports analytics tools to study the best Olympic hockey teams in history. In particular, we use the well-known ELO rating method, along with performance during the corresponding Olympic Tournament, and performance against the gold medalist’s strongest opponents.

For the purposes of this tournament, we took every Men’s Gold Medal Hockey Team since 1932 -- as well as the 1980 Russian team that lost to the 1980 Miracle on Ice team. We included the 1980 Russian Olympic team since some hockey analysts consider this team to be the middle -- or transition -- between the 1964 to 1988 Russian period of dominance, with greatness bridging the great Russian teams of the 70s and 80s.

Note that prior to 1932, hockey was pretty much a one-country sport (Canada), so that various metrics make it difficult to compare Olympic teams. For instance, in 1924, Canada outscored its opponents 110-3 over five games -- an average of 22-1!

Professor Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-born American physics professor at Marquette University, created the ELO Rating System in the mid-20th century that has become popular not only in chess (FIDE), but also FIFA soccer, and other sports.

Based on ELO ratings for national hockey teams, we can rate Olympic Gold Medal teams over the years. Some of the standouts include: the great Russian teams of the 1970s and 1980s and the Canadian teams of 1952 and 1948. In particular, the 1976 Soviet Union team tops the chart with an ELO rating of 2821, with the 1980 Soviet team at 2818. The 1952 and 1948 Canadian Olympic hockey teams come in at 2665 and 2593, respectively.

This is just one method we used to rate the greatest Olympic hockey teams of all-time. We also wanted to evaluate actual performance during the Olympic tournament, as well as performance versus the strongest teams in the tournament. This research is based on - but not limited to - scoring, defense, goaltending, and goal differential. Standouts in overall tournament performance include: the 1948 Canadian, 1984 Soviet Union, 1964 Soviets, and the recent 2014 Canadian Olympic hockey teams.

Finally, we studied team performance versus the toughest competitors in the Olympic tournament. This method is regularly used in power ratings developed for college football -- by sports analytics folks such as Jeff Sagarin, amongst others. The teams that performed well even against their toughest competitors included: the 1984 Soviet Union, 1948 Canadian, 1956 Soviets, and 2014 Canadian teams. The ‘84 Russians and ‘48 Canadians, performed particularly well in this category, outscoring their three closest competitors by a combined score of 11-1 and 9-1, respectively.

In Part 2 of this article, we will organize a computer simulation hockey tournament based on Monte Carlo approaches to study the best men’s Olympic hockey team of all-time. Stay tuned.

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