Tech startup scores big-league deal with NHL team

HockeyData providing Washington Capitals with AHL player analysis ahead of 2017 draft

Cole Gawenda’s HockeyData recently landed a contract with the NHL’s Washington Capitals to analyze player data | Chung Chow

For every American Hockey League (AHL) game played this season, video analysts at HockeyData Inc. have been poring over each movement, examining the locations of players on the ice, where they make their shots or take their hits.

The Vancouver-based startup requires two analysts to watch each game and compare notes to make sure blocks, assists or other actions are not being attributed to the wrong player.

Following HockeyData’s launch a year ago, that attention to detail finally landed the Simon Fraser University spinoff a deal with its first National Hockey League (NHL) team, the Washington Capitals. Under the deal, which was announced this month, HockeyData’s in-house system will turn the flood of big data coming out of the minors into something useful for the big-league team and its scouts ahead of the NHL’s June draft.

“Even if teams are going to make the right decision anyway, data will help you back up that decision and also prevent you from making the wrong decision,” said HockeyData co-founder Cole Gawenda.

This year’s HockeyData revenue sits at more than $100,000.

Gawenda said the company is looking for other teams that want further insights into players coming up through the minor leagues.

The company has a mix of about two dozen part-time and full-time staff supporting the in-house hockey event tracking system that the analysts rely on.

The system also uses machine learning to improve its data collection and analysis of players’ on-ice action.

“It will show you which players are valuable relative to how much they’re being paid,” Gawenda said. “It can show which players are being overvalued.”

And all the data, he said, has the potential to shape big-league teams as they make decisions in scouting and drafting based on data collected on more than 1,000 AHL players.

Ray Walia, managing partner at Victory Square Ventures, said the market for sports tech startups has been growing exponentially for the past two years.

“You see a lot of the consumer side – how do you engage fans, how do you do food delivery within the stadium, different ways to leverage fan experience. But really, the B2B [business-to-business] products are the ones that are really moving the needle for these teams,” said Walia, whose company has invested in sports tech over the past year.

“Everybody is understanding the value of the data they have and what they can generate with that, how they can optimize their business.”

Randy McInnis, co-founder of Sports Betting Dime, said demand for sports analytics will continue to grow as younger general managers enter various leagues and the “Old Boys clubs” that prefer to rely on their instincts start to disappear.

“If the market for sports analytics firms was properly served, teams probably wouldn’t be poaching analytics bloggers directly – something Canucks fans might remember,” McInnis said, referring to multiple Canucks contributors who’ve been hired as analysts for NHL teams.

“While the MLB [Major League Baseball] has long been on this trend, the NHL is following [even though] many involved in the sport still fight it.”

Meanwhile, Gawenda said the market potential for providing hockey teams with data analytics has yet to be fully realized.

“As you look at basketball, baseball, soccer, football, they’re all a few years ahead of hockey, and a lot of ideas in the hockey industry – specifically the hockey analytics industry – are coming from those sports. There’s definitely an impact to be seen there.”

Note: Cole Gawenda initially told Business In Vancouver, “Our [HockeyData's] revenue as a whole for this year, with Washington as a main portion of that, is over $100,000.” He has since said the deal with the Washington Capitals does not account for a main portion of the company’s revenue.