Joshua Weissbock, B.Sc. 2010

 

Joshua Weissbock has turned his twin passions for hockey and programming into the kind of career many might only dream of. A sports analytics consultant – currently on contract with the NHL’s Florida Panthers – he collates and reports on data that helps teams strategize as well as find up-and-coming star players.

“Our main focus for the team at the moment is on looking at prospects for the draft,” says Victoria-based Weissbock, adding that he and his colleague work hard to crunch disparate data from player records and diverse junior leagues to try and uncover future Wayne Gretzky’s before anyone else does.

“It’s challenging because this kind of information is hard to collate – different leagues collect different data in different ways, for example.” And while increasingly nimble programs can be created to address the problem, there’s often a need for human intervention to make the data meaningful.

That’s not the only challenge of Weissbock’s work, though. While some teams have actively mined stats for years, others feel the game can’t be usefully captured this way. “Sometimes, we have to educate people about what we do. But teams like the Florida Panthers get it and they are already very data driven.”

It’s a description that applies equally to Weissbock. “I was really interested in hockey during my SFU years but because I’m such a geek I was always reading blogs that analyzed the game from a data perspective,” he recalls, adding that he eventually began writing for these grassroots hockey blogs, establishing his name in a close-knit community.

While he nurtured these interests at SFU, they finally came to fruition during his M.Sc. at the University of Ottawa. Thesis title? Forecasting Success in the National Hockey League Using In-Game and Textual Data. Since then, he hasn’t looked back, deploying his programming talents to polish approaches to data mining and machine learning – and lay the foundations for an unusual career.

After some initial consulting work for smaller teams, Weissbock landed the plum Florida Panthers contract in early 2016. And while he’s currently fully focused on hockey, he notes that football, baseball and basketball also deploy data-driven experts. Would he expand into these areas? “I wouldn’t say no but you really have to know each game deeply to take this kind of approach.”

It’s just as likely, he says, that he’ll eventually turn his attention in a different direction. “I really want to do a PhD one day. It could be about hockey or it could be about criminology – my SFU minor – but I’d really like to pursue it in the future.”