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Blue Jackets bringing analytics community to Columbus for conference

CBJHAC to allow participants to learn more about the sport they love

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Like any new thing, it might sound scary at the start. 

The word "analytics" conjures images of spreadsheets and math, not the athletic feats that draw so many into sports.  

And yes, there will be spreadsheets and math when the Blue Jackets host a hockey analytics conference for the first time this weekend at Nationwide Arena. 

But Josh Flynn, the Blue Jackets assistant general manager who is also the team's czar of analytics, says there's no reason to be intimidated for fans who are interested in dipping their toe into the waters this weekend as some of the smartest minds in hockey come to the capital city.  

"I think that's part of why we've geared the theme of this whole conference to everybody presenting should present something that can be used practically," Flynn said. "I met some people at The CannonBall last night who are coming to our conference and they're big fans with an interest in the sport. Some of them have studied statistics in school before and have that background, but some of them just want to learn more about this. 

"Our goal is not to make this Computer Science 302 or Math 450 in college. We don't want to bore people with a bunch of math. The theme of the conference is, how do these numbers help you understand the how and the why of the game better?" 

That's been the driving force behind the analytics movement in all sports, one that has hit hockey with gusto over the past handful of seasons. Just about every team, including the Blue Jackets, have invested time and money into trying to use the numbers to better understand the sport, with the team hiring Zac Urback over the summer to help Flynn and add depth to its analytics department. 

Goals and assists will never go out of style, but there are so many more ways to understand what is happening in a hockey game. Research over the past few seasons has impacted the game as analysts have been able to dig into which stats and strategies that truly drive wins and losses.  

Along the way, analytics conferences have become more and more commonplace over the years, but Flynn never could make it to one based on his busy schedule. For years, he had discussed bringing one to Columbus with Alison Lukan, a Columbus-based writer for The Athletic who is one of the leading voices in the analytics community. 

Flynn also had been talking with Urback about how the organization could make data more available to bright minds in the public sphere who wanted to perform their own research. The solution was to deliver a subset of data to the public as part of a team-sponsored data contest and let them present their findings. 

It will all take place this weekend in Columbus. Saturday will include a series of expert panels and research presentations by those in the analytics field, and Sunday, the finalists in the data contest will describe their findings to representatives from seven NHL teams including the Blue Jackets, with the top three earning a cash prize. 

"I had been toying around with the idea with Alison for a couple of years, and then this summer Zac came up with the idea for the data contest," Flynn said. "We were talking about, how do we lure the best talent to come and present their work, and come to Columbus, Ohio, to do it? 

"We're not really at the center of where a lot of these people live and work. How do we incentivize the best people to come and share their work with us and showcase themselves and want to do it? So we said let's get a bunch of NHL teams involved and build a while conference around it." 

Panelist topics will range from hardcore research into the strategy of the game to ways to project how prospects will do in the NHL to whether sellout crowds have an impact on shots on goal totals. 

It's a varied list of research, and it will come from some of the smartest minds in the hockey analytics community. Included is Andrew Thomas, who serves as Director, Data Science at SMT (SportsMEDIA Technologies), where he is working to help bring puck and player tracking technology to the NHL. There also will be appearances from CBJ general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, Avalanche assistant GM Chris MacFarland and Craig Custance, The Athletic's editor in chief for U.S. NHL coverage. 

"I'm personally really impressed with the people we were able to attract to come out here for the first time we're hosting this conference," Urback said. "It's a new thing for everyone. The support we got from online was incredible. The people that are attending, the people that are participating in the data contest, the actual quality and caliber of the presentations is going to be amazing." 

It's an exciting time for those interested in analytics, especially with player and puck tracking data expected to be implemented by the playoffs, and data is on track to be collected in all games starting next season. 

The Blue Jackets already receive similar data from Sportlogiq, and as Flynn detailed to over the summer, the Blue Jackets have developed their own methods to analyze such data, with the numbers informing decisions on subjects ranging from player evaluation to a one-page analytics report that is created off of each game and delivered to players and coaches.  

"We've always been a progressive organization," Flynn said. "We have a buy-in from the top down. Jarmo has really embraced analytics and data. The organization is always looking for new and exciting ways to advance its product, so we've had a great buy-in from the organization into this event. I'm not surprised by it. It's been great." 

The event is at capacity with 260 tickets sold, and Saturday's presentations will be streamed online and archived by the organization. Fans can also follow along by using the hashtag #CBJHAC on social media, and attendees will also attend Saturday's Blue Jackets home game against the Avalanche. 

It's a unique opportunity for people to learn about their favorite sport and foster community while doing it, which should make the franchise's efforts to bring analysts from around the world to Columbus a success. 

"What people should come to expect is a welcoming community, a possible new group of friends who really are interested in teaching other people and answering questions and educating," Lukan said. "I think you should expect not to understand everything, particularly if this is your first one. We've all been there, but I don't want people to think that's what this event is all about. It's about helping people understand and no longer feeling intimidated no matter what their level of understanding is right now." 

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