- its head coach leaves nothing to chance getting ready for World Cup of Ice Hockey
As the final push of the summer, warm weather rolled in over Göteborg, and the Swedish national hockey team "3 Kronor" stepped inside the city’s ice castle Scandinavium to practice and get ready. Saturday 17 September marks the beginning of World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. This version of 3 Kronor is not just any version. Just about everyone in the business will agree it’s the most competent group of hockey players ever to wear the Swedish jersey, extracted from the highest number of Swedish NHL players ever available. So it has not been without challenges to select the right set of players that collectively as a team has the highest chance of winning the tournament. Or, as I would put it, a team with the highest chance of delivering a performance that will yield the best possible result.
With players belonging to better or worse NHL teams, getting different amounts of game time on ice, being used differently, playing with stronger or weaker fellow players and against stronger or weaker opponent units it is difficult to compare their individual level of skills and performance. Selecting objectively *best* players is hard enough, to say the least. Selecting the *right* players for the team in this tournament is even harder.
Learning from 1,230 NHL games
To be sure to leave nothing to chance, the coaching staff headed by Rikard Grönborg brought in my SAS Institute colleague and data scientist Jon Blomqvist to support them in this process. As can be seen in this video Jon brought in all available data from 1,230 NHL games containing 400,000 events (shots, faceoffs, goals etc) along with about a million player shifts. This data has then been integrated, analyzed and visualized in order to as objectively as possible show each player’s contribution to its team. This information has then been used by Sweden’s coaching staff to evaluate each player in the selection process.
When meeting with Rikard Grönborg and some of his staff prior to engage on our joint “Analytics journey”, it was clear to me that he had an understanding, a mindset towards analytics that I would recommend any leader of an organization to have. He has also expressed this in interviews, as highlighted below.
Quantitative Analytics is a part of our process
Rikard and his staff know their business, they know their players. They have a grip on things that maybe can’t be fully measured yet, like what kind of atmosphere a player creates in a locker room and what that means to the team; the qualitative information. But he also knows that it’s crucial to base decisions on hard facts, that quantitative analysis needs to be applied, that they need to see things in “black and white”, without emotions, to get a full picture. He expresses it this way: “We need to combine “warm knowledge” (knowing the players) with “cold numbers” (analyzing the player’s numbers)”,"I firmly believe that the analytic department and the hockey department need to work together and create something really good"
It’s about raising the probability for a successful outcome
Ultimately, it is about being as prepared as possible, to know how to act in order to get the best possible odds in a certain situation. A single game is like a coin toss, the margin between a win and loss razor thin. This World Cup is a very short tournament, three group games to qualify for the second round, one semifinal and a final series best out of 3 means a maximum of 7 games against four or five different teams. The puck can bounce a lot of different ways with 8-12 players and four referees out there on the ice in full speed. Those familiar with stats will realize that it’s too small a sample size to have anything close to a “95% confidence interval”, but Rikard knows that his contribution is to do absolutely everything in his power to change the odds in his favor. All the way from tape, sticks, skates, via food, hotels, travel, practice schedules and coaching, and to utilize analytics to cut straight through all of that - to ultimately help improve in all those areas. Rikard knows you sometimes get the wrong outcome in a situation in spite of preparing correctly, but just like Brad Pitt playing GM Billy Beane in the movie “Moneyball”: “We’re card counters at the black jack table, and we’re changing the odds at the casino”. You don’t win every time, but you will be more successful over time by consequently acting based on the best possible odds.
Analytics is a process
Analytics is a process, a mindset, not a one-off. It’s about constantly measuring, evaluating, changing and then doing it all over again. When mankind eventually started to utilize that concept instead of just trying to figure everything out in the mind, the curve of innovation and progress took on a whole new direction. We’ve seen it in the fields of health care, medicine, transportation, energy, electronics, communication, manufacturing etc.
Ice hockey is no different than any of those fields as far as its possibility to capitalize on utilizing analytics. The difference is that analytics is still the most underrated and least developed area within the discipline of ice hockey. With Rikard Grönborg at the helm it has already taken a change in a new direction for Team Sweden. So let’s drop the puck, flip the coin and see if Team Sweden has managed to stack the odds enough to land with the bright golden side up!
If you want to read more on Why and How Sports should embrace Analytics, check out my previous blog posts and don’t hesitate to let me know what you think. It is feedback, evaluating and trying again that brings us forward so let’s move ahead together.
Read also Christer's other posts about sports analytics: