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Bettman, two GMs join MIT analytics conference

Friday, 03.02.2012 / 6:35 PM / NHL Insider

By Bob Condor - NHL.com Editor-in-Chief

BOSTON -- The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is staging its sixth annual event about cutting-edge statistics this weekend here in Bruins territory. Boston GM Peter Chiarelli served on a "Hockey Analytics" panel Friday to provide some insights on building a Stanley Cup winner, while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was part of a group of sports executives who provided perspective on how the management of professional leagues has evolved since Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was elected as baseball's first commissioner in 1921.

ESPN personality Michael Wilbon introduced Bettman as a sports leader who has accomplished quite a number of impressive analytics while running the NHL, including taking the League’s licensing revenues "from $275 million in the mid-1990s to $1.3 billion." Adding in all League and team revenues, the overall number was $2.8 billion for the most recent fiscal year.

"None of the leagues were in the businesses we are now," said Bettman, referencing that he began working in the sports leagues industry 31 years ago. "When I started at the NHL [in 1993] there was no NHL.com, no NHL Network, no NHL Radio. We have maybe 40 people working for the League. Now we have 500.

"All sports leagues were strictly scheduling arms and rules enforcement arms," Bettman said.

The businesses that professional sports leagues now pursue -- including owning media platforms, product licensing, expanding to European markets and much more -- are measured with their own sets of analytics. There were even research papers posted here delving into analytics for selling tickets.

The analytics for the MIT Sloan conference (trending on Twitter at #SSAC) are impressive too. This weekend’s attendance numbers more than 2,200, up 50 percent from 2011 and twice as many as 2010. In fact, there were more student organizers (47) and conference volunteers (60) than total attendees in the inaugural year of 2007.

"As we get better data, we will have more advances. Part of it is getting out here and speaking. We [hockey analytics researchers] have to get ourselves heard."
-- Michael Schuckers, associate professor of statistics at St. Lawrence University

For his part, Chiarelli discussed how he learned in Ottawa’s front office that a young prospect’s weight is a better predictor of NHL success than height. The Senators contracted with a university biology professor to analyze the effect of height and weight on whether a player succeeds as a pro.

Chiarelli added that members of Bruins hockey operations staff "recreate events for a statistical model to develop a matrix" of quality scoring chances in both the team’s and opponent’s offensive zones. Chiarelli was quick to add that hockey is "not as static with result A or result B" like, say, baseball’s balls and strikes calls.

The Boston GM pointed out the fast-paced and fluid nature of NHL games makes it hard to extract the type of data that can be computer-modeled. He drew nods on that point from fellow panelists Toronto GM Brian Burke, TV commentator Mike Milbury and panel moderator Kathryn Tappen of the NHL Network.

Michael Schuckers, an associate professor of statistics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., has devoted significant amounts of research time to whether NHL teams can control shot quality by opponents. He reported his findings as a follow-up to Chiarelli’s point: Teams exhibit small but not statistically significant differences in controlling an opponent’s quality of shots and, it follows, scoring chances.

"We found it is more important to decrease how many shots a team and its defense faces," said Schuckers.

The professor told the crowd of more than 300 that winning faceoffs doesn’t statistically drive how many goals a team scores over the course of a season. The mathematical result in this instance is that winning faceoffs doesn’t stand alone as a statistic that predicts scoring goals.

Any hockey fan who knows the candor and opinions of Burke will not be surprised to learn that the Leafs GM declared his disagreement and "he knows a goal can be scored right after a faceoff win" and that he has "seen too many of them lately" against his struggling Toronto club.

Burke and Chiarelli both talked at length about how hockey analytics data currently falls short at measuring a player’s character and heart or what Burke’s calls "bravery, willingness to play physical and tolerate the physicality."

After the presentation, Schuckers told NHL.com that it could "take 10 years to get teams to use analytics" in the same way that baseball has established -- and, interestingly, that soccer is not far behind.

"As we get better data, we will have more advances," Schuckers said. "Part of it is getting out here and speaking. We [hockey analytics researchers] have to get ourselves heard."

It's hard to walk into that locker room and look those guys in the eye when they've played -- clearly, that was our best game we've played in the series -- and I thought we deserved a better fate tonight.

— Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on his team's 3-2 loss to the Canadiens in Game 3 on Sunday