Research Stories: Albert Cohen and His Professorial Assistants Use Sports Analytics to Improve D1 Hockey Team Results

March 12, 2022

PAs

When first offered Professorial Assistantships with Dr. Albert Cohen, Honors College students Jordan Hofbauer and Derek Lasker didn't know their lives would drastically change forever.

“There’s no one doing what we are doing,” Hofbauer, a sophomore double majoring in data science and statistics, said. “It’s been an unreal experience… I didn't know any advanced analytics when I was a freshman, but now, I'm working with graduate students. It’s been amazing seeing my abilities evolve. It's just opened up a lot of doors. And that was my goal. I want to have as many doors open as possible… such as in the sports field, which is something that I'm passionate about.”

Hofbauer and Lasker work with Michigan State University’s Division One Hockey Team, doing sports analytics – attending games and providing the team with data.

They record face-offs and mark or record shots, categorizing them based on several different things. Every game, there is a game report consisting of six sheets; all the data is tracked by hand.

As the season winds down, Hofnauer and Lasker have also begun looking at long-term projects – like using data to solve long-term problems the team may have.

Their mentor, Cohen, is a mathematician; his job entails using mathematical tools to solve others’ problems. He is also the Director of Program Development for actuarial science at MSU.

Cohen maintains his students do all the work. He is, simply, a guide - connecting them with resources and answering questions.

“I connect the dots as best as I can… I gather students and opportunities, supervise them, help them with whatever I can,” he said. “Sports analytics is so new. It's mostly experiential project-based learning, which lends itself perfectly to the Honors College as their students are used to taking the course and then doing an honors project, for example. So, they're kind of geared for that. But we're trying to also incorporate that.”

Lasker, a junior majoring in statistics and minoring in data science, continued working with Cohen after his assistantship formally ended. He began playing hockey when he was four years old, Lasker said. He developed a passion for hockey and research was an opportunity for him to solve problems with new approaches.

“I had never done research like that, until college - taking one big problem in a field of interest, and then, being able to work at it for months on end to see what you can find,” Lasker said.

As an upperclassman, Lasker said working under Cohen has fostered his leadership skills. He is now able to explain complex topics like the game itself, for example, to new team members. Lasker tells them what they need to know quickly yet efficiently.

Much like himself, Cohen’s older students have become mentors to the research team’s younger members.

“They get all the credit because these kids are doing all the work,” he said. Seeing these students as humans is the biggest part of my job. All our students have passion. Part of that mentoring is to help open pipelines, so if there's an opportunity that they're interested in, I can tell them… just having their interests at heart, but also knowing what their passions are… just trying to unite the two.”