Advanced analytics on a budget: UBC hockey embraces the challenge

When German-Canadian Sven Butenschön was playing for the Canucks in 2006, he didn’t think much about his stats beyond games played, goals and assists. No one did. But by the time he retired in 2013, a new trend was picking up in hockey worldwide.

In the early 2010s, amateur hockey bloggers who opposed the overuse of ‘mainstream’ statistics in hockey burst onto the scene. Beyond the traditional stats, these bloggers calculated expected goals, shot attempts and more. NHL executives and others in the pro hockey world met these bloggers with immediate hostility, but things have come a long way since then.

Many former analytical bloggers work in the big leagues today, and the career path from hockey blogger to professional analyst is well-established.

One of these bloggers turned NHL professionals is Rachel Doerrie, whose analytics blog led to a role as the youngest ever member of an NHL analytics department at 20 years old. After working with the New Jersey Devils for two years, Doerrie went to York University for her master’s of science in sports science and analytics. While at York, Doerrie was director of analytics performance for the York Lions athletics teams.

“Hockey analytics is essentially an unbiased way of evaluating team play and individual play,” said Doerrie. “It’s just a really good way to get more context into where you are in your process.”

Butenschön’s transition to coaching coincided with the abandonment of what many believed to be outdated methods of statistical evaluation. In 2015 he joined the UBC men’s hockey coaching staff as an assistant coach and has been at the helm of the program since 2016.

“My first year [at UBC] I was [introduced to] a couple of awesome young people who wanted to get involved in analytics,” said Butenschön.

One of those people was Dara Festinger, an English language and literature student with a passion for the numbers side of hockey. Festinger led the way in developing a program that has only grown in importance over the past six years.

“She was right on top of that analytical world,” said Butenschön. “She really got me into all of it … and it’s become a really awesome family.”

Festinger has since moved on, recently stepping into a role with the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League in senior management. Still, her innovation has left a lasting impact on the Thunderbirds program.

Butenschön has come to see a lot of value in the analytics his team collects.

“It solidifies what [we] see out there,” he said, “and over the course of the season it [provides] a database … that we can use to improve our team.”

In the heat of a game, when the goals aren’t coming, the intermission statistics report from the analytics team helps the coaching staff see what’s working and what needs to change.

Jordan Priest, the current head of analytics for the T-Birds men’s hockey team, got his start when he responded to a call for volunteers on Facebook. Today, he oversees five to ten volunteers at every home game who track statistical events, organizing them into a report that is run down to Butenschön at each intermission.

He also prepares extensive pre-scouting notes on opposing teams and wants to delve deeper into ‘hard analytics’ in the offseason.

“The more advanced model [based analytics] ... of play is very much in its infancy for us,” said Priest.

“But we’ve got people working on them right now, and I’m really hoping we can make some strong progress on that over the summer, and provide some quality material for the coaches.”

These analytical models like expected goals (xG) have only recently been welcomed into the mainstream hockey sphere. Despite being volunteers, Priest and his team understand the value they provide to the Thunderbirds’ on-ice results, and they’re committed to playing a part in the development.

“There’s no budget [for analytics] at the U Sport level,” said Doerrie, herself having spent time with York University’s hockey program in the role of advanced performance director. Tracking stats takes a lot of manpower and expensive software. “It’s very rare that you have a school that is able to fund [a department]... but it is absolutely valuable to track the data [at this] level.”

Doerrie considered that, though metrics such as xG are more indicative of the game flow, when they aren’t available, tracking other advanced stats like Corsi and Fenwick (USAT) can “give you an idea of who is performing and who isn’t, and how the team plays with certain individuals on the ice and their success rates.”

Fenwick is one such advanced statistic, that measures unblocked shot attempt differential by subtracting shots on goal and missed shots directed at a team’s net from the same shot attempts directed at the opposing team’s net. It is a stat that the T-Birds value highly not just in game evaluation, but also in season-long goal tracking.

“In between periods you only have 16 minutes to regroup,” said Butenschön. “You don’t want to spend it with your head down in the book, but that’s when I usually [take] a look at the Fenwick. It’s reassuring.”

Butenschön also said Fenwick is a valuable tool in telling the story of a player beyond the eye test, or the basic stats.

“Sometimes guys are just snakebit and you can just keep encouraging them and tell them the [analytics say] that if you keep [doing] what you’re doing, you’re going to be rewarded,” he said.

“I often track Fenwick during the game, but [we also] go and manually watch video and record our own Fenwick for [opposing teams],” said Priest. “It gets the full scope for the coaches … because if your team is strong on Fenwick, they probably win the game.”

With both Butenschön and his analytics department happy with their growth and contribution as of late, there are no plans to downsize.

“We always have a debrief meeting at the end of the year, and if Jackson Playfair, our [assistant coach] who’s had us on a solid system for a couple years, finds that he’s interested in or values an area more, we’ll add it to our repertoire.”

Head coach of UBC’s women’s hockey program Graham Thomas said his team has mostly been using video software VidSwap and Steva as well as the U Sports-provided InStat to track analytics.

“We have, over the years, used many different computer programs and different people,” said Thomas. “But this year, and even coming out of COVID, it’s really just been a little bit more simple.”

Thomas said that coaching staff use the analytics data on a day-to-day basis and hold meetings to go over stats with players once every three weeks. While he partially attributes a lack of budget to the team’s current approach, Thomas said that putting too much importance on tracking can be harmful.

“We found at times and early on we did get overly concerned about the numbers,” he said.

“We’ve kind of found a sweet spot of the numbers that we use. There are still some numbers and categories that we don’t have numbers for that we would like to track more. But again, [we] don’t have the budget or the man or coach power to have those tracked.”

Doerrie believes tracking analytics are invaluable, but cherry-picking to make stats look nice can be dangerous. She said it’s all about finding a balance.

“Analytics are not there to be the be-all and end-all,” she said. “They’re there to provide context.”