Asmae Toumi's Cure for What Ails Hockey Analytics
Hockey-Graph's editor-in-chief explains how she helps underrepresented people "feel at home and cherished" in sports.
With her mind on a potential career in medicine, Asmae Toumi needed to know what it felt like to assist and serve people in the midst of traumatic moments. She also wondered whether such scenarios would suit her skills and intellect.
Those questions led Toumi to become a volunteer emergency medical technician while studying biology and medical sciences as an undergrad at McGill University in Montreal and to work as an emergency department coordinator following graduation.
“I used that as a test to see if I was cut out for it,” Toumi said. “It turned out, I was. I did great in my first year as an EMT. I did even better working at the emergency department, where I was sort of the right-hand woman to nurses and doctors.
“But the eventual effect wasn’t me being more passionate about a career in medicine. It ended up, I was more passionate about, ‘How do I make the system better?’”
Solving systemic problems has become a preoccupation for Toumi in the world of hockey analytics too. Some solutions aren’t about on-ice adjustments or roster changes -- Toumi, a woman of color who was born in Morocco, places great importance on studying social, health and economic challenges and growth opportunities within the context of hockey. Fortunately for the hockey community, she remains very interested in doctor-style attentive care, which explains her motivation to stay engaged and active as the editor-in-chief of Hockey-Graphs and to serve as a mentor to many who are new to sports data science.
“I think what has kept me going (in sports analytics) was I saw a huge opportunity for myself and for the community in what I could bring to it,” Toumi said. “While many people in analytics have somewhat of a science background, and they’re excellent communicators, and they’re very good at community building, what I brought apart from those things was the fact that I’m me, and visibly, you’d think I don’t really belong, or you just don’t see many of me. I thought that was really unfortunate, and I knew that by ascending to a pretty important role in this community that I could bring other people just like me into it. That was the goal. I saw a lot of people like me wading into the community on Twitter, being really dismayed at the way we were interacting with one another, dismayed at the job opportunities, the classicism, the racism, the homophobia, the trans phobia, the misogyny, the list goes on.
“I went in knowing I was going to face my share of insults or uncomfortable situations. I specifically went in to remedy these things. I will continue to be in this community even if hockey is no longer my first and foremost love. I think I have a responsibility. What makes the shit that I get worth it is the fact that we’ve really succeeded in making an amazing community. Underrepresented people can join and feel at home and cherished.
“I remember sports being there for me when I needed to disconnect from the stress of school or the stresses of the exterior world, my relationships and whatnot. I could use sports as a way to evade all of that and get lost in the emotion of a game. I want that for people like me, people that are less fortunate to me, because sports have been so important in helping me deal with stress.”
“That’s how I measure success”
Toumi said her mother frequently emphasizes the need for honesty and candidness. Her mother’s Morocco-influenced preferred phrase is “come to people straight.”
A “take no shit” ethos and a willingness to have challenging conversations with allies and antagonists alike is how Toumi tends to follow her mother’s guidance.
“I really pride myself on always being honest with people about where I am, my expectations, my boundaries,” Toumi said. “While those things can be uncomfortable to communicate at times, I think I’ve gained a lot of respect doing so. Sometimes it was scary. It is scary to confront someone. It is scary to demand them to back off. It is scary to say, ‘I don’t like the way you spoke to me,’ or ‘I don’t like the way you handled this.’ What I learned from my mother is you’ll never truly lose by being true to yourself and communicating your needs. So even if it does end up with you being let go from a job or burning a bridge or losing someone who you thought was your friend, at the end of the day, that’s a net gain. … If those aren’t your people, you’ll find your people elsewhere. And that’s what I found in the hockey analytics community.”
Before she moved to the United States with her family at the age of 9, Toumi barely gave any thought to hockey. Moroccans cared about soccer. The parallels between sports made it easy enough for Toumi to take a mild interest in hockey while living in Washington, D.C., where she and her brother played as teenagers. She became a more serious fan of the sport once her studies in Montreal started in 2010. And the analytics component emerged when Toumi wanted to convince an online audience why the breakout performances of her favorite player, Boston’s Brad Marchand, in 2010-11 and 2011-12 did not largely stem from skating alongside first-line center Patrice Bergeron.
“Because I come from a scientific background, you’ve got to make your case, and you’ve got to check out the evidence,” Toumi said. “Where was the evidence? War-on-ice.com. David Johnson’s hockeyanalysis.com.
“I never really positioned myself as ‘analytics versus the eye test.’ Those things were not binary to me. … Being logical about this sort of stuff has led to me being in the analytics camp, even though I don’t think of it that way. And things went from there.”
Aligning with the analytics crowd only to quickly ascend in community prominence and influence gave Toumi a trajectory not unlike one her father followed years earlier. Though trained as an engineer, Toumi’s father briefly delved into local politics in Morocco before bringing his family to the United States, where he served as a telecom CEO. And just recently, he won an election in Morocco for a position comparable to a U.S. congress representative.
“He’s good with numbers, but when he ascended to the level of CEO, that’s a leadership role and a decision-making role, and I’m sort of his clone in that way,” Toumi said.
“When we have conversations where we argue about certain policies in politics, he’s very good at sort of narrowing down the problem and cutting out the noise to get at the heart of the issue.
“It’s certainly something that I’m learning how to do, and I’m slowly getting there as a data analyst now in the healthcare space. So I code all day, but also a very important part of my job is to interface with people who are not as technically or data literate as I am. It’s my job to explain things in a way that they understand, and most important, it’s critical to present it in a way that’s actionable to them. Whatever I present to them, we need to have a clear idea of how they can use it to do their jobs better.
“That’s in the healthcare space, but that’s also exactly what we need to be doing in hockey analytics and maybe in all of sports, really. We need to narrow down that gap between all of these quote-unquote cool and innovative insights. We need to make those actionable to the decision makers, whether they be coaches or executives.”
Toumi’s passion for sports analytics came as a surprise to her parents, but the desire to drive action fit with their daughter’s general audacity and ambition.
“My dad had all of these amazing opportunities in life, and to see him come full circle and help his community out, that’s how I want my life to be,” Toumi said. “I’ve been given all of these amazing opportunities so far, and I think ultimately what makes me happy is seeing how I’ve taken the opportunities I’ve been given to help other people. That’s how I measure success.”
“I saw an opening, and I busted the door open, as I tend to do”
When Toumi heard Hockey-Graphs co-founder Garret Hohl planned to step back from the site to focus on his consulting career, she jumped at the chance to assume a leadership role. And lead is exactly what she wanted to do -- she believed the world didn’t need more of her writing as much as it needed more underrepresented writers.
“I saw an opening, and I busted the door open, as I tend to do,” Toumi said. “Shooters shoot -- that’s one of my life mottos. That’s something I learned from my mother. I always have this saying in the back of my mind: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’”
Traditional web and social metrics testify to Hockey-Graph’s continued growth with Toumi at the helm. But pageviews, shares and follows only matter to the extent that they’re validation of Toumi’s vision for how Hockey-Graphs should evolve.
She established a rigorous editorial process that closer resembled those used by academic journals. But she also pushed her writers and editors to convey articles’ findings without getting bogged down in technical jargon.
“I wanted to have as many people as possible understand and appreciate the insights that we learn from digging into the numbers and building the models,” Toumi said. “I don’t believe those things are only for the meganerds. I believe these things help us understand the game better as casual fans or executives sitting on a team. I think they help make the game better on the ice. They improve the product. And I think it helps grow the game.”
Novel perspectives and article ideas emerged. In 2020 alone, the site published Chris Watkins’ examination of “The NHL’s Black Quarterback Problem,” Alyssa Longmuir’s handy piece on how to build a shot-tracking app using the R programming language, and a breakdown of how @ChatterCharts used Reddit game threads and Twitter posts to visually tell the story of a hockey game from an aggregated online fan perspective.
But Toumi’s arguably greatest impact on Hockey-Graphs and the larger community actually involved very little in the way of writing. In 2017, she created the Hockey-Graphs Mentorship Program, which paired experienced analysts or academics with individuals -- many from underrepresented groups -- who wished to develop their research and communication skills around a hockey-focused project.
“I just remember I expected 50, 60 people to apply, and it ended up being double that, so I was drowning in applications,” Toumi said.
Other organizations, including the NFL, took notice and have instituted similar programs to expand their audiences and emphasize diversity. But the program’s blueprint is only one ingredient. Toumi knows how much it matters for her to stay personally involved, which is why she continues to hand-pick all of the Hockey-Graphs mentors and determine who gets paired with who.
“I think when they see how I take no shit and I have no problem with voicing that I take no shit, that has led to a lot of women and underrepresented folks feeling comfortable entering hockey analytics,” Toumi said. “They know people like me have their backs. We will make sure that if something bad happens to them, it is dealt with swiftly.”
“Know your worth on the market”
As Toumi became known in the larger sports analytics community and earned opportunities to speak or present at high profile conferences, including the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, she started to get questions about if or when she might work for a team or league.
Toumi doubts she’ll ever want to steer her career from healthcare to sports, though. And she encourages anyone who will listen, but especially people from underrepresented groups, to think about sports analytics as a career gateway rather than a destination.
“Sports numbers are such an easy way to pick up data science skills that are immensely valued in other fields,” Toumi said.
“I hesitate in telling women and underrepresented folks in general to apply to sports jobs because I think there’s a lot of insecurity with sports analytics jobs. … It’s hard to outlast a GM that eventually gets fired.
“Just speaking personally as a woman of color, I can’t afford that financial insecurity, plain and simple. If I was a white male coming from a privileged background who can, for a certain number of years, take a paycut and, if things go sour, I have a safety net to fall back on, then sports analytics careers become a little more attractive. But for people that come from no generational wealth, that already face discrimination in the job market, a sports analytics career at this point is just not on par with the advancement or financial opportunities that exist elsewhere for this specific skillset. … I would encourage anyone, even if you’re a white male coming from a privileged background, to know your worth on the market.
“I like to work on high-impact projects most of the time. Am I necessarily going to want to roll out of bed to optimize an expected goals model? No. Am I going to want to get out of bed and know that I can study some of the issues that plague millions if not billions of people, like COVID-19, which I’m currently working on? Yeah.
“For me, sports is something I will continue doing. But it’s very important that I do it in the public and for the public sphere. Sports absolutely needs strong voices in the public sphere for the growth of the game and also because it’s preposterous to think that a staff of one or two people have all of the answers. We’ve seen incredible, innovative research come out of initiatives like the NFL Big Data Bowl. … I want to continue being at the cutting edge of that, and for me, that means staying in the public sphere. I’m not willing to sacrifice my public presence. I’m not willing to sacrifice the collaboration opportunities that you get from the public sphere.”