From Neuroscience to the NHL

Carolina Hurricanes data scientist Margaret Cunniff took an unexpected route to working in the analytic department in the world's top hockey league
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By Ben Raby

Margaret Cunniff readily admits she never expected to be working in the NHL. “It’s not an area where I thought there would be space for someone like me,” said Cunniff, a doctor of neuroscience, who was hired by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019. “It’s not something I had on my radar.”

When she enrolled at the University of California at San Francisco, Cunniff figured she would pursue a career in academia and become a professor. During her six-and-a-half years on campus, though, she casually kept tabs on the growth of analytics in the NHL through social media.

Among those she followed on Twitter was Hurricanes vice-president of hockey management and strategy, Eric Tulsky. Tulsky joined Carolina in 2015 and laid the foundation for the team’s analytics department. Four years later, he posted a job opening for a fourth full-time member on his staff. Across the country, Cunniff, a longtime hockey fan, jumped at the opportunity. “I kind of stumbled into it,” she said. “But when I thought about it, I realized it was tailored to my skill set.”

There was just the matter of convincing her graduate advisor. “I wasn’t sure how that would be received,” Cunniff said. “But I was lucky. He’s a big Houston Rockets fan and they’ve done great statistical work in the NBA. So, he was onboard immediately. He was actually one of my references. So, thank you to the Rockets. That was a relief.”

While a job with the Hurricanes may not have been the traditional landing spot for a UCSF alum with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, Cunniff said her academic background had her well prepared for the workload and expectations in Carolina.

Cunniff’s primary focus with the Hurricanes’ analytics department is on player and puck tracking. Because it’s new, and given the open-ended nature of analytics data, the information could be overwhelming. Navigating through it, Cunniff said, is among her strengths. “A lot of developing a thesis is figuring out how to narrow a topic and what to pursue. [Analytics] can be daunting, but it has a lot in common with where I came from. With these kinds of things, there are infinite questions we can ask, so trying to break them into pieces is in itself a skill set.”

Cunniff, 29, said it’s one thing to quantify event data like shots and goals, but it’s a different beast to use player and puck tracking to help explain what led to those events. Cunniff measures facets of the game that she says team personnel are already watching for, but haven’t necessarily been able to confirm through statistics.

“When you talk about players getting in the corners and playing with grit, you can now ask, ‘what would that look like in numbers?’ ” said Cunniff, whose official job title with the Hurricanes is data scientist. “Science, whether it’s computational science or hockey data science, is about trying new things. It’s not just going from a list of shot locations the NHL provides and repackaging it. It’s about getting new insights and answering new questions.”

The ideas are fresh. The ways to track them are fresh. And the team employees now trusted to sift through them are fresh. Between Cunniff and Tulsky, the Hurricanes analytics team boasts two Ph.Ds. "A lot of this is still really exploratory and that’s one of the great things about my position,” said Cunniff, currently the only woman working hockey ops with the Hurricanes.

“With player and puck tracking, we’re going to have a ton of information. The key is to cut out the noise and figure out how to get interesting stuff out of it. It’s really about providing novel insights to the team.”

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