NHL Fan Experience in 2020

Source: SB Nation

Before the season began, the NHL announced that players would now have their numbers stamped on the front of their helmets. In the past, player numbers were on the back of their jerseys, their arms and behind their helmets. Some teams have even begun placing numbers on the front of their jerseys. Numbers on the front of the helmet, however, was a league-wide policy. This could be done for fans to recognize their players or perhaps, as some have noted, to get people used to having more advertising on player equipment.

Bottom line: fans now have another piece of visual information required to track and analyze games.

I think it’s a matter of time before the current technology available combined with the dedication of hockey fans influences the availability of information. I can see a fan being able to snap a picture of a game, either live at the stadium or on television/web, to retrieve data about who is on the ice, how long they were on for, and what they did with and without the puck. This data can be analyzed to produce a real-time, customizable visual diagram for fans to save and use how they see fit.

I also think it’s possible that a cooperative relationship can exist between these active fans and the NHL. For example, teams and players could use the information and knowledge generated by fans in exchange for their availability for questions before, during and after games. Instead of viewing fans as consumers of the game, the NHL should recognize the fans produsage capabilities and how a cooperative relationship that harnesses their knowledge could benefit both parties.

NHL Needs to Provide More Data

It would be in the best interest of the NHL to begin generating and providing more advanced data for fans to work with.

The amount of hockey statistics has come a long way. Along with goals, assists, points and penalties, the league now provides even greater details, breaking down results by period, by division, arena, etc.

Fans have demonstrated a high demand of statistics which are used in debates with other fans, their own blogs/commentary, fantasy leagues and gambling. Some have even used statistics to create visual representation of the game. For example, TimeOnIce (ex. game number 30311) shows which players were playing with and against  to give fans an idea of who the coaches tried to match up.

To really stay relevant and remain a valuable source for information, the NHL needs to join the community of fans who use stats regularly for their own purposes. Two things need to be done:

1. Expand the amount of data being captured. For example, tracking player mistakes, similar to what the Cult of Hockey does, could be done. For an example of advanced hockey analytics, see BehindTheNet.

2. Make the data easy to work with and share. Provide the statistics, but also tutorials on what it is and how to use and share it. Anyone with basic computer skills should be able to learn some export and embedding functions to use the information on their blogs.

The object of these statistics should be to encourage fans to do something with it. Hockey fans are more than just consumers. Blogs and fan videos demonstrate the creativity of a community passionate about their sport. Sport fantasy social clubs show us that fans are involved and committed. Some even bet on sports! Look at this, CompareTheBets’ List of Promo Codes. From that, we can all deduce that lots of people do it!  It’s also imperative to reach out to new fans and teach them about the game. The best way learn is to be active and engaged with the material available.

If the NHL doesn’t provide the content fans need to create their own material, it won’t matter. Fans will find a way to get things done. The league can either be a part of the community’s movement towards active fandom or a spectator of creative content.

Advanced Statistics and Hockey Analytics

Traditional hockey statistics have been around since the birth of professional leagues. The NHL’s first game was on December 19, 1917, with the Montreal Canadiens defeating the Ottawa Senators 7-4. According to hockeydb.com, the Canadiens went on to win the league championship that year after winning 13 games in a 22-game season. Assists were not tabulated, but Joe Malone did score 44 goals. The accuracy of these stats is sketchy, but there is evidence that basic stats were tabulated early on.

Today, the NHL publishes hundreds of statistics. Aside from goals, assists, penalties and shots in a game, the league also provides ice time, hits and faceoff percentages and breaks it down by power-play time and even strength. The amount of information the NHL provides has increased over time, and reflects a growing demand for statistics.

These stats can be used for a variety of reasons. They can used by game broadcasters to give more detail about a player or team and to add to the narrative of a game. Fans can use these stats to build their own fantasy league rosters and track favorite teams. Players can use these stats in contract negotiations as they provide more detail about a player’s ability. Coaches can use statistics to focus on specific competition and develop a game plan for their team.

Recently, advanced statistics have surfaced, to supplement these traditional stats. The site behindthenet.ca, a leading provider of advanced statistics, supplies data on where the player starts when play begins, the quality of the teammates he plays with, quality of the competition the coach plays him against, among others. Combined with the basic stats the NHL provides, these statistics provide more insight into the game. An FAQ regarding advanced stats can be found here.

Gabriel Desjardins is the individual behind the site and was recently interviewed on Nation Radio (Team 1260, Edmonton). Alan Mitchell, or Lowetide in the Oilogosphere, hosts the new show and talked to Desjardins about advanced stats, how it started and where it could go in the future.

Regarding how behindthenet.ca started:

“There wasn’t really much interest or much to do in terms of hockey analysis during the lockout (2004-2005 season). Then the NHL started publishing ice time in a much more usable format. Charts with green boxes showing who was on the ice. So they switched that into a text format that I could much more easily process into a website and once I saw that, there were a lot of ideas that sprang to mind. A lot of things that we could borrow particularly from basketball in terms of analyzing players and analyzing what they do on the ice.”

According to Shirky (2008), when the barriers to getting things done drop, more and more people will participate and contribute online. As soon as the league made their stats easier to use, fans were all over it to produce and share high quality data and information. Today, the NHL.com site has data sets that are detailed, updated regularly and easy to use.

Regarding where hockey statistics are going in terms of the data:

Desjardins believes that acquiring more detail about the game at the micro-level is the next step. Examples would be tracking passes and tracking exact pass location.

“Step after that is where you would have every single player and the puck tagged electronically at all times. So you know where absolutely everybody is. And obviously there’s some massive, massive database construction and programming problems to get any useful information out of this. But I think we will really push forward in terms of understanding some of the things that confuse us right now about how the game works.”

If hockey analytics is to expand, the NHL needs to get on board. Fans can take the data that the NHL provides and apply countless mathematical formulas and theories to develop new, innovative, information. There is the possibility that fans can collaborate with one another to begin tracking their own data, as done by Cult of Hockey and mc79hockey.com. But it would be in the NHL’s best interest to be involved in the accumulation of data.

Regarding the visitors to the site:

“Usually I only get a lot of request for things that aren’t there or are things that are broken down. It’s a pretty broad distribution of the pages that people look at. But I think the biggest thing people look at are the Oilers, and then they look at the Flames, and then they look at the Leafs, and that’s basically the bulk of the traffic is going to those three pages.”

“Much more interest in Canadian teams. Which is interesting because I think that the notion that advanced stats in hockey, a lot of people look at it as an American baseball idea, whereas its Canadians who are really pushing it and are really interested in it.”

Canada being hockey obsessed is already known. Recent studies have also shown that Canadians spend a lot of time online. But the fact that the Edmonton Oilers’ advanced statistics gets a majority of the traffic is interesting since the market is considered much smaller than cities such as Montreal and east coast hockey markets such as New York and Philadelphia. Why the Oilers content draws traffic would require research before drawing any conclusions.

Advanced statistics in general will continue to grow since we’ve seen in the past a growing desire by fans to get more involved in the game. Fans are moving from simple observers of the game to participants as they collaborate with other fans to build new information and share knowledge within an online community. The next step may be electronic tracking of professional players, but it’s more likely that a crowd-sourced method of building data sets is much more closer. Mobile technology continues to improve and could give fans the ability to share their observations and data instantly with others. New statistical methods and theories will continue to drive how the data is analyzed, but it will be the collaboration amongst fans that take hockey analytics to the next level.

Behind the Net (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2011 from http://www.behindthenet.ca.

Hartley, M. (2011, March 8). Canada maintains title as world’s most engaged Web nation. Financial Post. Retrieved from http://business.financialpost.com/2011/03/08/canada-maintains-title-as-worlds-most-engaged-web-nation.

HockeyDB.com. (n.d.) Standings for the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL. Retrieved from http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/display_standings.php?tmi=6929.

McGourty, J. (2007, November 26). NHL celebrates 90th anniversary today. NHL.com. Retrieved from: http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=369827.

Mitchell, A. (2011, February 19). Interview with Gabriel Desjardins. Nation Radio. Team 1260, Edmonton. Retrieved from http://oilersnation.com/2011/3/3/nation-radio-february-19-2011.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin Press.

MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

MIT Sloan School of Management recently held its annual Sports Analytics Conference in Boston focusing on Sports Analytics. Its goal is:

To provide a forum for industry professionals (executives and leading researchers) and students to discuss the increasing role of analytics in the sports industry. MIT Sloan is dedicated to fostering growth in this arena, and the conference enriches opportunities for learning and understanding the sports business world.

Different panels discuss a wide array of topics related to their field and take questions from attendees. Examples of panel topics are sports gambling, golf analytics and referee analytics, among others. What’s interesting is that the conference provided, for the first time, a hockey analytics panel, which consisted of representatives from teams that have had a fair amount of success in recent years. Whether they attended because they value hockey analytics, or because other teams had more important matters to attend to is unknown. It was definitely encouraging to read that professionals and students had an interest in the topic of hockey analytics.

This conference made me think of online hockey fan communities and their connection to the game and active participation online. Using blogs, fans have developed, shared and utilized sports analytic techniques to predict games, measure player performance and analyze season results. At the same time, professional sports teams in the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL employ their own methods to measure performance to make business and roster decisions. Hockey analytics is important to both the online fan community and the professional team, even though it’s for different reasons. This common interest of hockey analysis and value of the field may be why fans dedicate their time and energy to the cause. It’s a feeling of connection to the sport they follow regularly. Most fans won’t ever become owners or managers of professional sports teams. But to see the game from the eyes of a manager is what connects a fan to the game.

Cullen, S. (2011, March 11). Hockey at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. TSN. Retrieved from http://tsn.ca/blogs/scott_cullen/?id=357614.

Dizikes, P. (2011, March 8). Strength in Numbers. MIT News. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/sloan-sports-conference-0308.html.