Mike Murphy is single-handedly building the most comprehensive women’s hockey stats database to ever exist, and he hopes others will join him in paving the road to something better.
Source: Her Hockey Counts
“If you asked me five years ago if I would have been making a presentation about women’s hockey analytics at RIT in a lecture hall, if that was in my future, I would have been like, ‘You’re out of your mind,’” said women’s hockey statistics trailblazer Mike Murphy. “But I found myself getting passionate about it, and it was one of those things where I often felt like I was just in an empty warehouse just screaming into the dark.”
That feeling of screaming into the dark is certainly a common one amongst the brave souls who work to bring women’s sports into the mainstream, and it can be difficult to know where to start. For Murphy, the journey to finding his particular battle station in the long fight for gender equality in sports began in his writing. He was in New Jersey covering the New York Rangers for SB Nation and cheering for the few women’s sports he could find on TV in his spare time when the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters arrived in his neck of the woods.
“I was already doing a lot of work with stats just in my writing in men’s hockey in the NHL, but I got really into stats in women’s hockey because there wasn’t a lot out there. And as someone who looks to bring data into my work to look at analysis and to try to explain why events happen, I was like, ‘None of this stuff is out there.’
“But you do realize that in order for this to get done, you kind of have to pick up a shovel and start digging. I just wanted to know how many goals were scored this season by this player, and some of the stats were on a website called eliteprospects.com and some weren’t. And then I was like, ‘Oh, well in my experience in men’s hockey that would be unheard of that there would just be numbers missing.’ That’s just bonkers to me.”
Bonkers indeed, but far from uncommon. Looking at the stats sections of league websites across various men’s and women’s sports, the difference in available data is striking. A visit to the NHL’s site, for example, yields a massive database of complete stats going back to the 1917 inaugural season. The stats are searchable, with multiple filters that can narrow results to help you find precisely what you’re looking for. If you wanted to know who made the most wrist shot goals between 2015 and 2020, that information is available at the click of a button. (It’s Vladimir Tarasenko, by the way.)
A similar search on the NWHL site is a different story, where the database is much less fleshed out and certainly not user-friendly. It’s nearly impossible to compare players to one another across the league, or even across their own team outside of the current season. You can learn that Jillian Dempsey had 14 blocked shots last season, but you can’t compare that number to Allie Thunstrom’s without doing a separate search, and you can’t find that stat from the 2018 season for either of them because it wasn’t recorded.
Discrepancies like this are the norm in most pro women’s sports, and when you consider what those leagues are up against–from lack of media coverage to difficulty providing basics like health insurance to their players–it’s no wonder stats tracking tends to fall by the wayside. As frustrating as this can be to media members like Murphy, he has compassion for the difficulty of the situation.
“Unfortunately the reality right now in women’s sports, especially women’s hockey, is you have to ask those questions about how big of a slice of the pie can you really set aside for something like data and stats? … Because, as essential as it might be to be like, ‘Yeah we need to make sure we count who has goals and assists and what have you,’ there are other things that come before that, like, ‘We want our players to have health insurance and we want everyone to have a hockey jersey.’
“I think it’s such a miserable reality because it’s like why can’t we just have this? A joke I always say to people who work in women’s hockey analytics is ‘I just want nice things.’ It’s such a basic, simple thing, but it’s also understandable why it isn’t always there.”
Murphy does want nice things for women’s sports, and he’s decided to take matters into his own hands. He first started compiling stats for women’s hockey to fill out his own stories and to help other members of the media get a more complete picture of each game, but he soon developed a passion for stats in their own right. For him, stats are storytellers, capable of enriching the game experience for fans and players alike. They can provide a window into what happened in the tragic number of women’s games that weren’t deemed worthy of video coverage. They can look beyond human bias to see precisely what a given player contributes to each game, regardless of whether she scores a goal. They provide data that can be leveraged to create everything from training programs to fantasy sports, giving leagues more potential revenue streams and raising a sport’s visibility. Stats can elevate women’s sports to a whole new level, which is why Murphy has made them his business.
“It’s this way of looking at sports other than just, ‘Oh I’m going to watch the puck and enjoy the game.’ You can look at it from almost a scientific method perspective, where it’s research intensive and you get to look at how it plays out like a big game of chess.”
This love of stats and understanding of their importance to the big picture of women’s sports is what led Murphy to his latest endeavor: Her Hockey Counts. Born out of a massive collection of Google Sheets, the website is Murphy’s gift to the women’s hockey world–for media members and fans, players and teams. Anyone who cares enough to seek out these stats will finally have a place to find them.
“I really like the idea of using stats to tell those stories that are hard to tell. In the women’s hockey space in particular, I’ve gotten passionate about stats as a way to preserve history. It’s something I’ve been working on lately for the website–just trying to build a public database of the stats for every Women’s World Championship and Olympic tournament, which to me is like, ‘Of course that should be online and readily available to anyone who wants to see, like, who has the most goals in World Championship history.’ But it’s not that easy; it doesn’t exist in a way where you can access it publicly. And that’s a really frustrating thing to me, not only as a journalist but as a fan and someone who loves history. These are the best players in the world, and their story is not captured in something as simple as their stats.”
Their stats are certainly a good place to start though, and Murphy has made impressive headway in Her Hockey Counts’ short lifespan. The database covers the NWHL, CWHL, NCAA Division 1, and International teams. There are 48 stat metrics for each player, all fully searchable and filterable by multiple fields at the same time. It would be an impressive stats page for a professional league with paid stats keepers, so it’s downright stunning when you consider that one man entered every bit of this data. Murphy’s most recent project–recording the complete stats for every Women’s World Championship in the history of the game–highlights his dedication to this project.
“[It] means digging into a lot of resources trying to find all the data I can, and going back to tournaments that didn’t really publish things online because they were held in 1990 and 1994. Recently I’ve started to buy media guides on eBay to try to find some really hard-to-find stats. It kills me that, [for instance], I don’t have the goalie stats for the 1997 Women’s World Championship. And I’m only missing a few, but it’s like a puzzle that is missing a handful of pieces and you’re like, ‘Well I can’t sleep now obviously. My day, if not my life, is ruined.’ It’s a lot of that work, a lot of research. It’s a lot of doing things the old fashioned way.”
The amount of work that Murphy puts into creating such a rich resource is frankly staggering–at least five hours a day nearly every day of the week since the pandemic began, plus countless hours spent before that when he was still making Google Sheets. He’d rather not do the math on just how much time he’s spent, and his Patreon contributions of $86 per month are the only money he’s seen for his troubles, but he is not discouraged.
Her Hockey Counts is the definition of a ragtag operation, but Murphy joked that in women’s sports they’re used to putting things together with duct tape: MacGyver style. He mostly works alone with the exception of his friend Alexa Goldman, who handles the web design and is currently paid in Warheads and Sour Patch Kids. It’s a genuine passion project, one that will benefit generations of hockey fans for years to come.
“You do feel like everything you do is kind of putting a brick down in the road towards something that you hope is better. And that’s the rewarding part I think. Everything you do is new, and it moves the ball a little bit forward.”
It’s exciting to think about that road in which Murphy is patiently placing brick after brick: how it could lead to a world where women’s sports are equally respected, funded, and covered, how in that future world some young hockey player could go searching for the history of her sport, and how, because of people like Murphy, she will find that history carefully compiled and waiting for her.
“Hopefully by then I’ll be rocking in a wheelchair and explaining to the youngsters that, yeah, that’s what I did back then, back when you had to count everything by hand with an abacus.
“The thing that I would say to everyone, especially people who are interested in analytics and data in sports is: Give women’s sports a try with the data. Because I often describe it as a wilderness, and [with] every step you take into it you could be the first person looking at something and the first person trying to do something in that space. And that is really exciting to think about.”
As for Murphy’s future, he’s open to anything, as long as he gets to keep doing the work he started.
“I’ve told a couple of friends, if I could be paid by USA Hockey or something to be the analytics guy for the women’s national team (I mean I’ll also take Canada), something like that would be thrilling, but that’s not my end goal. My goal is I just want to move the ball forward as much as I can before I get exhausted. The goal has always been [to] make it public; make it free. And right now my goal is I just want to get all the major tournaments done, and then from there I can start to look at other stuff. This has to be available. It seems like a low bar, at least it should seem like a low bar, but it’s been a ton of work.”
With the level of dedication and expertise Murphy has developed over the years, he certainly would be a godsend for any major women’s hockey organization. But for now, he’s quite content.
“I guess if I could make a living doing this one day that would be great. But I am literally at the stage where when literally anyone says to me, ‘Hey this is really neat!’ I get choked up and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s all I need to keep me going for another week.’ That and the $86 a month, but I’m not complaining.”