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The AHL is considering making time on ice data public

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If this move starts a revolution in how North American leagues produce their standard game stats, we’ll have so many more opportunities to learn about the game of hockey.

Truth is, I just want ice time for Liljegren and Sandin.
Credit: Thomas Skrlj

At the AHL All-Star Game held Sunday to Monday this week, the AHL Commissioner David Andrews gave his state of the AHL address as usual. Amid a mostly ‘stay the course’ set of announcements that included no major changes, this nugget of information was dropped:

Anybody who regularly follows the AHL or writes about it will understand the capslock. The lack of time-on-ice data is one of the biggest barriers to greater understanding of the league, its function as a development environment, and the players themselves. Without any TOI data, you can only guess at how much each player plays and rating out stats on an all-situations per-game basis is all we can do.

The lack of real shot data is a serious detriment to understanding AHL hockey, but trying to do without TOI data leaves analysts guessing about team tactics and player usage. The tradition of not sharing TOI data, even when it is tracked, is shared by the ECHL, the Canadian junior leagues, the CWHL and the NWHL, the NCAA and the USHL. I have never had to look up a prospect in European men’s or junior men’s hockey that played in a league that did not report TOI.

I know why I want it, but telling the AHL to make this data public because I want it is not a convincing argument. The AHL is also not the government. They aren’t “accountable to the public” with an obligation to make public data public, and they aren’t even accountable to their ticket buyers in that sense.

Players, teams and the league itself have privacy rights to be considered. Teams might believe that keeping the TOI aspect of their player results private allows them to control the information and gain a competitive advantage over other teams. Teams here being primarily the NHL teams whose players make up the prospect portion of the AHL.

Teams might also want the players to have access to less data, or more properly, their agents. Managing the salary cap sometimes means overcooking a prospect in the AHL, playing him checking line minutes with bad linemates to learn a few lessons, and delaying his entry into the NHL enough to keep him a little cheaper to pay at key times.

NHL: Preseason-Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Deep down, I wonder if the AHL hasn’t been keeping this information a secret because NHL teams don’t like annoying bloggers going on about the guys they aren’t playing:

“I am sick and tired and listening to bloggers and others talking about Brett Ritchie, Julius Honka, or Gavin Bayreuther, or Taylor Fedun, pick a guy,” Lites said. Source

Let’s unpack that idea. What the CEO of the Dallas Stars is saying is that he wants the public discourse about his team to be focused on the stars not any old Star and certainly not the Texas Stars. Speaking as someone who has very limited patience for blogger obsessions with marginal players of no real impact on team outcomes, I think Lites misses the point here that he doesn’t get to decide how fans engage with the thing they are fans of. He wouldn’t be the first person in charge of an entertainment product who was disappointed in the sorts of people who enjoyed his product. Usually the issue is one of desiring the fans with the disposable income and disdaining the ones without, but sometimes its just the plain old nerds aren’t cool sentiment taking over.

So why should the AHL go in a different direction to Lites and release this information?

The AHL has largely operated in a kind of obscurity where their focus has been on marketing only to the ticket-buying fans. They also reported this weekend that the revamped AHL TV, which is better quality and much, much cheaper that the old product, is a hit. Innovation paid off for the AHL there, and they’ve learned that there are fans who want to watch the AHL as a hockey product, and those fans might just want to engage with the league like they do the NHL.

Offering more avenue for fan engagement just means more fans, and more fans means more money. The first place to look for the value of engagement as a driver of information flow is the NHL and its data-driven approach to partnerships with gambling and fantasy hockey operations. Both of these things are big business, and if they’re overlooking the AHL as a viable partner, it’s because the AHL is overlooking the fans who engage the game that way and failing to open the door.

The Financial Times did an article on the concept of the value of free public information, and while the value added to public data doesn’t always translate to private data, this example is useful:

The United States makes complete weather data available to anyone at the cost of reproduction.

True, the information is initially provided for free, but a thriving private weather industry has sprung up which takes the publicly funded data as its raw material and then adds value to it. The US weather risk management industry, for example, is ten times bigger than the European one, employing more people, producing more valuable products, generating more social wealth. Another study estimates that Europe invests €9.5bn in weather data and gets approximately €68bn back in economic value - in everything from more efficient farming and construction decisions, to better holiday planning - a 7-fold multiplier. The United States, by contrast invests twice as much - €19bn - but gets back a return of €750bn, a 39-fold multiplier. Other studies suggest similar patterns in areas ranging from geo-spatial data to traffic patterns and agriculture. “Free” information flow is better at priming the pump of economic activity.

So the analogy here is that if the fantasy hockey sites start covering more AHL players, more people may become interested in the AHL and watch the games, buying the AHL’s new and improved streaming product as a result. If a blogger blogs about the AHL in any way, after all, that’s free publicity for the AHL itself. It’s not so much economic activity the AHL gains from, but attention.

But beyond that sort of knock-on effect of increasing fan engagement, releasing this kind of data increases the knowledge base around the sport. It’s not just hockey bloggers or journalists who will pick up this data, it’s people like the Queen’s Sports Analytics Organization or the many individuals in statistical or sports management programs in universities all over Canada and the United States.

Giving students more data to work on produces the next generation of people who will one day run AHL teams and the league itself. It also advances the general state of knowledge about the sport in ways that keeping data proprietary doesn’t. If the data and the resulting research is as open as possible, you get better science, and just because analysis of hockey isn’t crucial science of social importance doesn’t mean it’s valueless. It may very well end up valuable to teams and the league someday.

Nerds need role models too, so, come on AHL, draw back the curtain on this one small bit of information so we can start examining player usage, coaching tactics, player results, development growth or just argue over who is better. You don’t know how many new fans we’ll make of the AHL in the process, but it won’t give you fewer, that’s for sure.