Practical Concerns: Why analytics is politics (and what you should know if an NHL team ever comes calling)

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Yesterday, I had a nice chat with a member of the hockey media whom I respect a great deal for his habit of “seeking truth from facts” despite often sitting on panels where his co-hosts did not share the same attitude. He reached out to me with questions regarding something I previously published on Hockey-Graphs, and we spent about 20 minutes exchanging information – something I enjoy doing anytime with people who like to think the game.

At one point, his line of questioning turned to the specifics of the work I was doing, some of which I wasn’t really keen on discussing. So I told him:

“Look, what I do for our staff is pretty simple. I do things either to save time, or to reduce guesswork. That’s all there is to it.”

When I later shared that moment with our head coach, he chuckled and said: “You should’ve told him that what we’re doing is way too complicated for anyone to understand.”

But I stand by what I initially said to this journalist, because I think there is fundamental truth in it. A hockey program is a bit like a political party. Just as each party has a pre-determined stance on things such as abortion, gay marriage, taxation, immigration or drug enforcement, every hockey program (the soundly managed ones with staff continuity, at least) has their own priorities when it comes to acquiring, developing, deploying and coaching hockey players. As a cog in that wheel, I’m here to facilitate and occasionally inform, not to change the party line. It’d be a waste of my time/energy to think otherwise.

Looking through the lens of politics is useful in understanding the behavior of people in professional hockey, too. When you think about it, the electorate as a whole doesn’t really judge a political candidate by the logical merits of his/her platform. What the average person seem to value more is the power of a politician’s conviction and the consistency of his/her positions. It’s good to accept new evidence and be flexible in one’s beliefs. Except when you’re in politics. Or when you’re an NHL head coach who thinks change equals an admission of prior guilt.

Which is to say that, if you ever get offered to work in analytics for an NHL coach, you should interview him as much as he interviews you. By and large, NHL players “are who they are” past a certain point, and perhaps the same holds true with coaches. The ones I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and speaking at length with were all friendly, interesting people I’ve learned things from, but I wouldn’t work with all of them. Some I’d rather just talk about food, or cars, or family with. It would be an uphill battle in trying to facilitate for them, because the presence of someone with my background would be more of a distraction than an asset. Sometimes you need to say “no.”

So if you get called in for an interview, do some research on the coaching staff – not only will you get to know them better, but their composition and backgrounds will tell you a lot about the priorities of the front office, too. Some things I would pay attention include:

  • How do the head coach and the GM know each other? What’s their relationship like? (A team’s results are much more dependent on player acquisition and player deployment than whatever you can do, so make sure you’re not stepping into an impossible situation from the get-go.)
  • What is the coach’s highest level of education? (You don’t need someone who can reverse-engineer the Saturn V rocket, but you want someone smart and open-minded enough to potentially meet you halfway on technical issues.)
  • In which leagues has the coach worked in? (A plus if he has coached NCAA, CIS, internationally, in an European league, or a women’s team)
  • What is his age? How old are his assistants?
  • How his teams have fared historically according to their results and advanced statistics.

There are other things that are important to consider, but the five things above are a start. I’ll be forever grateful for Coach Peter Smith for bringing me onto his staff at McGill, but in this sense, I picked him every bit as much as he picked me. Knowing that I’m in a unique situation gives me an extra bit of motivation when the work gets tough, and helped make some tough career-related choices relatively simple in the end (the whole “saying no” part).

In any case, if everything checks out and you are about to sign on the dotted line with an NHL team, please do yourself one last favor and ask for more money.

An upward pressure in compensation is good for all employees (hence the usefulness of the NHLPA and publicized salary figures for NHL players), and who wouldn’t like to make more money? But there is also the Post-Purchase Rationalization (AKA the Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome): your perceived value to the team will increase in value proportionally to the size of your paycheque. Every team has a couple of bad-value contracts that managers can’t trade and coaches can’t keep off the ice. So might as well make that phenomenon work for you. Don’t be worried that the team will go and hire someone else. Because if you’re just “some guy” to them, you’ll probably be miserable working with them anyway.

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Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.

3 thoughts on “Practical Concerns: Why analytics is politics (and what you should know if an NHL team ever comes calling)

  1. I find the following two sentences somewhat conflicting:

    “As a cog in that wheel, I’m here to facilitate and occasionally inform, not to change the party line.”

    “Because if you’re just “some guy” to them, you’ll probably be miserable working with them anyway.”

    A “cog in the wheel” just there to tow “the party line” sounds a lot like “just some guy” to me. If an NHL team offered me a job where I couldn’t express my opinion and challenge others I don’t know why I am there. I get the listen to the coaches and learn from the coaches message you are saying and I fully support. I am a believer that coaches, scouts and “hockey people” can contribute to analytics as much and probably far more than analytics can contribute to them. That said, I am also a believer that the final product will be better with the two sides working together with both sides wiling to express their opinions and take opposing opinions under consideration. If an organization doesn’t want to hear an analytical viewpoint then don’t bother spending money on hiring an analytics person, or at least don’t bother hiring me. I have no interest in being a grunt worker just there to tow the party line.

    My expectation for any NHL team I’d be so lucky to work with is they would at least be open to hearing what my analytics driven opinion is (whether they choose to accept it or go a different direction is their prerogative but I would expect open mindedness towards analytics). My commitment to them would be to be open minded and accepting of everything they have learned in hockey over their careers and work to integrate all that knowledge into whatever analytics work I am doing.

    Only when the hockey side and the analytics side work together with mutual respect do I believe an organization will truly benefit from analytics. Trusting the analytics may take time, but being open to what analytics to me is a prerequisite for hiring an analytics consultant or team.

    • I think what Jack was saying was that you *can* be a cog in the wheel if you do your research, and choose the team just as diligently as they choose you. If you do the research beforehand, you can find a team where being a ‘cog in the wheel’ also allows you to do your job effectively.

      But of course, I defer to Jack to fully explain what he meant. That’s just the way I read it!

    • I think you raise some fair points, David.

      “A “cog in the wheel” just there to tow “the party line” sounds a lot like “just some guy” to me. If an NHL team offered me a job where I couldn’t express my opinion and challenge others I don’t know why I am there. I get the listen to the coaches and learn from the coaches message you are saying and I fully support. I am a believer that coaches, scouts and “hockey people” can contribute to analytics as much and probably far more than analytics can contribute to them. That said, I am also a believer that the final product will be better with the two sides working together with both sides wiling to express their opinions and take opposing opinions under consideration.”

      I’m not sure how much cooking you do, but the best way I can describe it is pretend that you’re making custard. You want to add the warm milk gradually into the egg yolks to get custard, not the other way around, because then you’d get warm milk and scrambled eggs.

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