Love of sports, math lands SFU alumnus job with Seattle’s NHL franchise

July 13, 2020

By Lauren Borean

Simon Fraser University’s grad Dani Chu grew up surrounded by sports and with a passion for math. He dreamed of pursuing a career that combined the two, but wasn’t quite sure how they fit together.

It wasn’t until he walked into professor Luke Bornn’s statistics course on linear modelling that his journey into sports analytics was sparked, eventually leading him to land a dream job with Seattle’s fledgling (and yet unnamed) NHL franchise.

Chu describes sports analytics as taking a data-based approach to player evaluation, strategy evaluation and salary cap evaluation. He first learned about the field from reading articles on basketball analytics by ESPN writers like Zach Lowe and Kirk Goldsberry. In 2014, he came across a job posting for the Philadelphia 76ers that was intriguing, but he didn’t recognize a lot of the language being used.

“I wanted to learn these statistical terms,” says Chu, who finished his masters degree under the supervision of Tim Swartz at SFU this fall.  “I made a list of the words I didn’t understand, then searched up SFU courses containing those keywords and chose my classes based on that.”

Chu explored his options by taking courses in computing science, statistics and math. This led to a class with Luke Bornn, who currently is the vice president of strategy and analytics for the Sacramento Kings. When Chu learned about the research Bornn had done alongside ESPN writer Kirk Goldsberry, Chu immediately went to Bornn’s office and asked how he could get into sports analytics.

With Bornn’s mentorship, along with Tim Swartz, Chu led a sports analytics club at SFU, hosting several hackathons funded by the Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute, the Faculty of Science, the Department of Statistics, the Simon Fraser Students’ Society and SFU’s Big Data Hub. The hackathon was organized by students, for students. Teams analyzed different sports team data sets and were assigned different problems to solve, such as injury prediction, player performance assessment, match prediction and athletes’ future performance prediction.

The event allowed participants to display their skills and meet with potential employers. This is exactly what happened for Chu. He met his current manager (for NHL Seattle) for the first time at the Vancouver Hockey Conference in 2016-17 then at the Cascadia Symposium on Statistics in Sports (CASSIS) at SFU Harbour Centre for the second time in 2018. He was hired by Seattle in 2019.

When asked to reflect on his time at SFU, Chu says, “the work that I’ve been able to take part in at SFU has gotten me where I am today and has all been because of the work of a bunch of different people. I have been so lucky to have worked with such a great group of professors, friends and students.”

Chu is still currently involved in the sports analytics events that take place at SFU and is passionate about teaching and creating opportunities for the next generation to learn the necessary skills to pursue a career in sports analytics.

“If we can make that beginning pipeline as open and low barrier as possible, we can educate a diverse group of students, so that when an organization like the NHL comes knocking at the door we have a great group of people that all have had access to the same resources and were given the same opportunity to grow skills early on.”