Meghan Chayka reconnecting hockey’s analytics community amid pandemic

Meghan Chayka speaking at the 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. (Courtesy: Meghan Chayka)

TORONTO — It begins the same way any social gathering does during this odd segment of our current timeline: a rectangular box at centre-screen, first blank and then flipping between slightly fuzzy, framed-up faces situated in their most presentable rooms. The Zoom era of our 2020 social life has been a case study in determining the areas of our homes we feel best convey professionalism.

On this Saturday night, it’s Meghan Chayka — co-founder of the analytics company Stathletes — leading the online video session, along with Alison Lukan, a group of panelists on deck, and a few hundred analytics fans tuning in from their own screens. This is the third iteration of the online video calls Chayka has been organizing for the past month on Zoom, a digital conference series dubbed ‘Hockey (Analytics) Night in Canada’ or HANIC.

“First up, we have coaching and analytics,” Chayka tells the crowd gathered online. “We really wanted to do something a bit different.”

Taking the digital floor soon after is Wes Wolfe, assistant coach for the OHL’s Erie Otters, followed by former NHLer Rob Schremp and then Rachel Doerrie, currently the director of advanced performance for York University and recently an analyst for the New Jersey Devils. The trio share their thoughts on how best to bridge the gap between advanced data-based thinking and traditional coaching methods, before Meghan Hall, a well-known voice in the hockey analytics community, takes over to close out the evening with a coding-focused keynote presentation.

The panelists are among a long list to have already graced the digital HANIC stage — the first online session on March 28 featured 15 speakers ranging from pro players like Sarah Nurse, Renata Fast and Natalie Spooner, to familiar voices from across the hockey analytics space like Micah Blake McCurdy, Asmae Toumi and Harman Dayal, with a number of others representing different corners of the hockey world.

In the beginning, before that debut session, the idea of reconnecting the analytics community through free, openly-accessible video calls was simply an effort to salvage what had already been planned and lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chayka tells Sportsnet.

“We were actually supposed to do a cross-Canada hackathon — there were five or six campuses involved and quite a large number of NHL teams as well, and it obviously got cancelled. So, my thinking originally was just bringing that online,” she says.

Chayka was set to give the keynote address at a hockey conference in Ottawa in May, too. And having also just spoken at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston — which only just barely escaped cancellation — she figured there were plenty of potentially lost discussions to still be had by shifting the conversation online.

But the change of venue also granted something more, the chance to “do something a bit different,” as she’d said.

“It’s not just ex-hockey players commenting on the game, it’s actually, you know, ‘Where is sport going in general? Where is sport tech going?’ And giving people something to think about on a Saturday night that’s maybe atypical for the usual hockey talk,” she says. “I feel like during quarantine, anything goes, so that was how it sort of snowballed from the original idea of keeping these conferences going.”

With a vision for the type of conversation she hoped to create space for, getting together the voices to carry it was a fairly simple task given Chayka’s unique place in the hockey world. “Because I work in the NHL and overseas, in all different facets — the tech world, the sports world, hockey ops, business ops — I feel like I have a lot of touch-points,” she says. The first step was bringing aboard those who were set to speak at the since-cancelled conferences previously dotting Chayka’s schedule. The next was reaching out to others in the analytics world whose work she felt deserved a wider audience.

“It’s kind of cool to shine a spotlight on different people who are doing really cool things, and maybe aren’t as advanced in their careers but still have a lot to offer that we can all learn from,” Chayka says. “It was actually a lot simpler than I thought to find people. I’ve been really fortunate, but also happy with how connective and open the hockey community, or sports community, is in general.”

Alongside Lukan, helping to organize and moderate the events, that led to a second iteration of HANIC featuring four-time Olympic gold medallist Jayna Hefford, as well as a keynote presentation from Matthew Barlowe, Application Developer for the NHL.

With three somewhat on-the-fly sessions now in the books, interest has only continued to grow. After an initial tweet sent out in late March to test the waters on the idea made immediately clear the potential interest, the HANIC sessions have seen 200 to 500 interested hockey lovers tune in to each call, learning of them only through a few tweets sent out to disperse Zoom links.

And keeping with the effort to do things differently, Chayka’s used the newly-created platform to ensure she’s highlighting diverse voices within the hockey community that have long deserved to be amplified.

“I think that’s where having these maybe non-traditional types of groups of work becomes interesting, because there can be that diversity, where it’s not just the white man who, you know, played in the NHL for 15 years,” she says. “There’s an element where people understand that diversity and background in thought is important, and not only moves you away from groupthink, but helps you become more of a well-rounded, well-put-together research group.

“It’s sort of a new environment, where there are no preconceived notions of what background makes the most sense.”

The Internet proved once again slow to accept progressive thought without incident, though, as the first HANIC session was hijacked by trolls offering up a tirade of obscenities — a disappointing, but not wholly surprising, result, she says.

“Any time you leave space on the internet for something to happen, you kind of open yourself up, especially the more popular things are. I had created a waiting room, I did everything to basically try to prevent any sort of interruptions. … I was hopeful that people would be a little more respectful than 10-15 minutes.

“Whatever came of it, I was just happy to have a bit more of a gender-balanced approach to talking about hockey.”

The impact of the online conferences on hockey fans, stuck in quarantine awaiting a far-off return to normalcy, has been clear to see. Photos have trickled in from viewers over social media voicing their appreciation, with everyone from young kids to Columbus Blue Jackets assistant GM Josh Flynn taking in the presentations.

It’s become a telling encapsulation of the passion for an analytics movement that’s been gaining momentum in the hockey world for years, and figures to only keep growing with player-tracking in the NHL’s immediate plans.

“I think it’s a lot broader of a field than maybe originally people think, or is talked about in traditional media. And that’s why I think it captures so many people with their interest, whether they’re from the engineering, computer science or math and stats side, there’s a lot of different skills that go into any one topic or any one group,” Chayka says. “So, I think it’s just even interesting to young people and students that have these types of skills and never really thought that they could work in sports, but now are seeing gaps.

“You can really see that it’s not going to go away any time soon. It’ll just become more and more about competitive advantage for whatever sport league or team or group can figure out how to leverage it best.”

As for how that movement ties into HANIC — the next of which goes April 25, highlighted by Lukan’s presentation on tracking in hockey — the goal is much simpler, Chayka says.

“I’m just happy that people are connecting and learning something from it.”


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