Team leverages data analytics to be on cutting edge
Feb 5, 2018 | Atlanta, GA
Georgia Tech College of Engineering alumna Alexandra Mandrycky (ISyE 2013) had no plans to work in professional sports, but a unique series of events led her to the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. After she graduated, she wanted to keep her data analytics and programming skills sharp. Mandrycky discovered a huge set of hockey data online that she would play around with for practice, which led to her involvement in war-on-ice.com, a website dedicated to hockey analytics. When the Wild joined the growing number of NHL teams hiring in-house statistical analysts, they hired war-on-ice.com founder Andrew Thomas and Mandrycky to head up their data analytics efforts.
Historically, hockey has lagged behind other sports when it comes to data analysis. Baseball, and more recently, basketball, have long taken advantage of metrics and advanced algorithms to gain an edge over the competition, especially during the draft or in the analysis of players during free agency. Hockey has just begun to harness the vast amount of data coming off the ice, and Mandrycky is one of a handful of rising stars developing data analytics programs for NHL teams.
Mandrycky works with the Wild as a hockey operations analyst gathering and analyzing data for management, coaches and scouts to help them make better, more informed decisions. Mandrycky’s job has three components. First, she gathers data, including goals, shots, hits and faceoffs, creating a data set to pull from. She is instrumental in consolidating all the data into a single source in order to easily run queries. Second, she takes that data and analyzes it. From the analysis, management makes decisions about who to trade, how much someone should be compensated, draft rankings, coaching strategies, player usage, and more.
“It’s the analysis component that draws on much of what I learned at Tech,” said Mandrycky. “Engineering principles like optimization and machine learning come in to play on a daily basis.”
In the ISyE program at Tech, students are required to take a database systems class, which has been useful for Mandrycky when setting up the data warehouse for the Wild. But what has truly helped her excel are the principles of analysis learned at Tech, allowing her to compare players, develop rankings for upcoming drafts, and analyze coaching and team patterns.
The third part of Mandrycky’s job is presenting her findings to management, mostly in the form of graphical reports. She has parameters in place to generate automated reports that create data visualizations for management and coaching staff to review and easily synthesize the information. It’s Mandrycky’s job to set up the system so staff can get answers to their questions very quickly. She will sometimes get a text or phone call at 10 p.m. asking for information about a certain player, and, thanks to her system, she can answer with just a few clicks of the mouse.
“If the general manager gets a phone call and a player is available for trade, you don’t have a lot of time to think and react,” said Mandrycky. “That’s why it’s critical to have the infrastructure set up to already have analysis at hand, so we can feel comfortable and confident making decisions.”
Mandrycky has been in her role now for over a year. She’s much more comfortable offering her opinion on matters, and feels confident in the processes she’s put in place to mine relevant information.
“If we are talking about a trade, I’m involved in those discussions,” said Mandrycky. “Or we could be analyzing a free agent. I have an opinion on these topics that management wants to hear. I have a seat at the table, which is great.”
The fact that she has a seat at the table is a bigger accomplishment than Mandrycky lets on. The hockey business is dominated by men, most of whom played the game to at least the college or minor league level. As far as she knows, Mandrycky is the only woman in a front office job in the NHL who has an influence on the on-ice product. The rest work in media relations, marketing or administrative roles. Being in the engineering field prepared her to be in an environment historically dominated by men, so she doesn’t let gender stereotypes get in her way.
“I’ve always felt that being female was an advantage,” said Mandrycky. “When you're the only person at the table that looks like you, whether that is gender or race, it means you have a different viewpoint or a different way to approach problems. I try to use it to my advantage.”
Her advice to other women looking to get into engineering or sports is to not be discouraged by being the only woman in the room. She says women should think of it as an opportunity and consider how they can do the job better than men. Mandrycky’s competitive spirit has helped her along the way as well.
“You have to advocate for yourself so you don’t get penned into gender stereotypes,” said Mandrycky. “As a female, you can’t wait for someone to open an opportunity up for you. You have to make one for yourself.”
Mandrycky argues that women have many of the skills necessary to work in pro sports, from time management, to organization, to effectively communication – all strengths that she possesses that have enabled her to thrive in her role. The soft skills are just as important as the analytics and engineering skills, she concludes.
“I always say the most important part of my job is to make people want to listen to me,” said Mandrycky.
Mandrycky owes some of her confidence to the mentorship from Alisha Waller, a Tech lecturer in ISyE. Waller spoke very frankly to Mandrycky about the challenges of being a woman in the business world, as well as the balancing act of having a family.
“Dr. Waller encouraged me to pursue whatever I wanted,” said Mandrycky. “After I was introduced to the world of hockey, I just went after it. The best way to do something is to just do it. Hockey is even further behind the curve when it comes to inclusion of women, but it’s my passion. Hopefully, I’m paving the way for other women to come.”
Mandrycky plans to continue her career in hockey, and hopefully one day become an assistant general manager. She would like to be the person calling the shots for the team. Until then, she’s making a difference with her analysis and giving the Wild a competitive edge.