In a world where statistics in sport are an assumed asset, ice hockey analyst Alyssa Longmuir is grumpily forcing grassroots data to exist in Australia.
Nowadays sport and statistics go hand in hand, and there’s an assumption that they’re readily available (well, for men’s leagues anyway). When Alyssa Longmuir became a fan of ice hockey and noticed there weren’t consistent stats available for Australia’s AWIHL and AIHL (the local women’s and men’s leagues respectively), the answer was obvious—she simply needed to start collecting them herself.
Alyssa is a ball of energy and nervous excitement. We’ve spoken periodically through email and Twitter private messages throughout 2020, first coming across one another thanks to my fellow Siren co-founder Danielle Warby who eagerly told me we would get along at one of the very first Siren meetings. Alyssa speaks fast and enthusiastically. We joke about finding hammer alternatives to help her finish building a flat pack shelf (“I hung my whole body from it!”) and how many spreadsheets I have open on my desktop behind our video chat window.
Danielle wasn’t wrong.
Turning a negative to a positive
It was while studying abroad that Longmuir first discovered ice hockey, specifically North American hockey. She credits a Canadian friend for the introduction. “She essentially was getting text messages from her dad about a game that was happening and she’s like ‘okay, we go for this team and we hate this team purely because of where they live’. And as someone from Newcastle I was like, ‘oh buddy, I can do this’. I’ve been raised my whole life exclusively to do regional rivalries.”
From there, she was hooked on the sport of ice hockey. A fan of mathematics, Longmuir is a STEM educator, working on her Masters in STEM Education and—in non-pandemic times—the key analyst, statistician and expert commentator for the AWIHL. But it’s a childhood limitation that has really allowed her to excel in the space.
“I was always in sports… it turns out I’m not good at team sports, not because I’m not good at being in a team. But the reason I’m so bad at team sports is because my eyes don’t track properly. So I wasn’t just uncoordinated and not able to catch a ball, I physically couldn’t track it coming at me.”
Played at lightning speed, ice hockey seems like one of the more difficult sports for someone who struggles to track objects in motion.
“I started watching the play first, which I guess is level two. The more I know about hockey, the more I know where to expect the puck to be. The more I learned about plays and being able to recognise what formations they’re using going up the ice, the more I’m able to guesstimate where the puck is going to go. I’ll watch the puck leave the player’s stick and I’ll immediately look at the goalie.”
By not focusing on the puck flying through the air, Longmuir has a better understanding of key metrics ‘shots on goal’ and ‘shot attempts’ than most in her position.
“Because I swivel straight to the goalie, I don’t know if I find it easier than most people but it came more naturally finding that distinction because I’m not watching the puck’s path, I’m just watching where it’s landing.”
A non-trendy, non-traditional market
Getting rinkside to make the most of this unexpected advantage wasn’t simple for Longmuir. There were countless YouTube highlight packages to watch when the budding fan didn’t know how to watch live NHL. There’s been the seemingly endless disappointment of being an Oilers fan (“yeah, I go for the Edmonton Oilers, which is unfortunate because we suck”). There was some self doubt when dipping her toe into the world of analysis. But it was numbers and statistics that helped cure that doubt.
“I found that hockey analytics existed and I found it really handy to validate my opinion. Particularly as a female in sport, but then as a female from a non-trendy, incredibly non-traditional market, but it was really helpful for me to be like ‘yes, I do know stuff’.”
At this moment I could not have related more.
The stats helped Alyssa find confidence in what she saw in game play, and for the NHL the numbers “just seem to exist… but what if the numbers aren’t on the website? Do I do them?”
This led Longmuir back to school. While on the hunt for a teaching job—which wasn’t proving fruitful—she enrolled in a graduate certificate in sports analytics. The way she explains this hits me with a pang of admiration.
“So I did that partially to learn things and partially because I was sick of men telling me I didn’t know anything about the sport. So I was going to get a spite degree. I very willingly admit it was a spite degree.”
From there Longmuir began her own tracking and “manually making the numbers [she] wanted to exist.”
This led to plenty of time next to the ice, first with hand-drawn rinks and marks where shots were coming from, and has slowly graduated to her own personally-designed rink sheets bound in notebooks and “adding more information as [she] got better at is because it’s very much a muscle.”
Longmuir simply went about tracking the data she wanted to see, and is proud to be famously picky with how she records those stats.
“AIHL I believe blanket tracks basic box score, so that means you have the number of shots on goal for the entire team, but that also includes saves—which is an ongoing argument I have with goalies. Some of them understand, some of them just want to pump their stats, which I completely understand. If your glove goes above the crossbar to save the puck, yes that is a save, but that’s still not a shot on goal,” Alyssa speaks as fast as the puck moves across the ice, but it’s in a way that even a hockey novice (me) can completely follow the train of thought. It’s one of the attributes that makes her a perfect expert commentator.
A realistic perspective
Now, in theory tracking all the stats she’s interested in is a great idea, but in reality Alyssa is just one person and it’s just not feasible. This has become even more difficult with the NWHL’s website further limiting which statistics are freely available. While frustrating, Longmuir is incredibly realistic about the state of women’s sport worldwide.
“I understand with women’s sport, in the scheme of things, what you want to spend money on. Giving me fancy stats is probably pretty low down the totem pole… women’s hockey, they’re already just trying to pay the players a decent wage… no-one’s being like ‘we need quantitative analysis’.”
Which means, for the time being at least, Alyssa is content to balance her teaching life with part-time analysis wherever her services are required.
“I love being a teacher. Also, just the fact that people who work in men’s sport are significantly better at the math and coding side of things than me. I’m really good at the grassroots, grumpily forcing data to exist that has no right to be there.”
This lends itself beautifully to a focus on encouraging children’s interest in data. As part of her Masters in STEM Education, Longmuir is combining her love of sport analysis and data collection to make students appreciate data in a new way.
“The fact is, the way data is taught is boring.” Longmuir is frank, “sports data is right there, we do not have to be making children look at census data… I completely understand why no kid comes out of school being like ‘wow, I love data’, nothing about what you’re doing is interesting.”
As part of this, Longmuir has developed her own web application that allows students to create a kernel density plot (or, heat map) and compare their own performance in their community sport to that of their favourite player, “giving them that point of comparison without having to necessarily do the gross code-y math in the background.”
Longmuir might claim to be grumpily forcing data to exist, but her passion for both the statistics and the sport shines. In a year where hope and motivation is at a premium, I leave our conversation with endless supplies of both.