Where I’m Coming From – Part 1



And now for something completely different.

We’ll continue to add prospect profiles and other fun numbers based analysis over the next few weeks, but for now I’d like to share a few things about who I am and why I write about hockey. It recently occurred to me that FlamesNation has grown rapidly since I joined in 2009 and that a large-ish portion of the readership may not be aware of my background and my crooked journey from hobbiest to freelancer to editor-in-chief for the Nations Network. I’d also like to discuss why I tend to focus on critical, numbers based anaylsis in my writing.

I’m hoping a biographical bit will fill in the blanks for some folks, but I’m also aware it’s terribly self-indulgent so feel free to skip this article entirely. Fair warning.

Playing and Coaching

Like no doubt everyone else here, I grew up a Flames fan. A native Calgarian, I started playing hockey for PSA in novice and stayed in the game until I was about 16. The closest I got to playing at a high level was my second year in PeeWee, where I landed in the try-out group for the top 2 teams. Unfortunately for me, I was both undersized for my age and a December birthday, which frequently meant playing against guys who were older. In my final year of PeeWee, my parents lobbied the association to allow me to stay back one season given my size and the fact that I missed the birthday cut-off point by about 2 weeks. The effort was denied because my potentially making the top team would have been too difficult to navigate politically. Anyone who played hockey at a moderately high level as a kid – or who has kids playing at that level now – knows things get rather serious when you start getting close to "team 1".

I still loved the game even after I left the ice as a player. My brother, six years my junior, had grown up around the rink as a result of my involvement in hockey and was much more naturally talented than I was. I helped coach several of his teams with my father. He consistently made #1 clubs starting at the age of 6 and was a player on an Alberta selects team who went to compete in a European tournament held in Germany when he was a teenager.

My dad was a frequent coach of ours over the years. He started several summer hockey schools and eventually coached some high quality teams at Peewee and Bantam levels, independent of our involvement. Some future NHL hopefuls made their way up the ladder under his tutelage, including San Jose draft pick Michael Moore. He eventually ran the Bow Valley hockey association for several years.

My father was the first person who taught me to look at the game with a critical eye. We talked about line combinations when I was younger, be it on my own teams or on my brother’s. He told me why he would move guys who had played forward their whole life back to defense based on their package of skills. We talked about the importance of anticipating where the puck was going on the ice rather than focusing on where it was; or why you should look for the late man on breaks into the offensive zone; or how under-utilized the points were when it came to younger teams. As a smaller player who couldn’t adequately compete in certain physical areas of the game, I understood pretty quickly I had to learn and think on the cie at a high level in order to be useful. 

As a university student, long after my playing days were over, I helped evaluate and coach peewee level kids for a year or two, but the rigours of school and work made consistently commiting to that sort of thing untenable. I put my head down and concentrated on being rabid Flames fan for awhile in between homework and shift work.

After the 2003-04 cup run, blogs and podcasts were becoming a bit more mainstream. Some friends and and I discussed starting a podcast, but settled on a blog first since it seemed like a more natural initial step. I have always been 1.) opinionated on stuff and 2.) a writer, so I took to it pretty rapidly. Moving from university and wage slavery to the office also afforded me more opportunity to read and write about the game.

Thus began my blogging days.

It Begins

We started our blog, fiveholefanatics, on blogspot (which has since been mothballed) in the wake of the first modern lock-out in 2005. It was conceived as a group endeavour, with a few guys throwing in their two cents here and there. It wasn’t really a coordinated or organized effort, just mad scramble of articles randomly published. Because of my background and circumstances I was able to take to writing a bit more eagerly and inside the first few 6-12 months, I was the lone, consistent voice posting on the site. I think we maybe topped out at 50 readers per month that first year.

Some who have only read my work here may be surprised to learn that I didn’t arrive on the scene with a graphing calculator in hand and the unshakable intention of upending many of the games conventions. I had no aspirations of becoming a sports writer of any impact or notoriety. Like many bloggers, I was satisfied with sharing some rants, bitching about stuff and arguing with people in comments sections. I was fully in line and convinced of the general, received wisdom which still tends to dominate hockey discussions around water coolers: the need to build from the net out, the value of leadership, the absolute necessity of the enforcer, etc. I tracked traditional counting number religiously, engaged in easy snark and spouted angry mutterings at the team and the hockey gods whenever the Flames lost.

Of course, my blogging habit grew to include reading other material being generated by amateurs like myself. I stumbled on Battle of Alberta early in my travels and rapidly learned a couple of things:

First, that I needed to become a much better writer if I wanted to hang around the scene. And second, that I didn’t understand the game like I thought I did. Not really.

BofA was a gathering place for intelligent, erudite and influential writers. It was through that community I encountered seminal voices like Tyler Dellow and Vic Ferrari and was exposed to a growing discussion around the efficacy of both existing and new stats to track on-ice performance at a granular, quantitative level. Writers like Matt Fenwick (yes, the fenwick stat is named after him), Colby Cosh and Andy Grabia approached the game with a sharp, critical eye and discussed concepts like market efficiency, roster management and performance prediction that I found at once intimidating and fascinating.

I clearly remember my first true encounter with "new" advanced stats. The writers and regular commenters at Battle of Alberta began to toss around something called "ESP/60". I had no idea what they were talking about. 

Googling the term yielded nothing. It was inserted into discussions with familiarity and ease by those who used it, but it seemed like a foreign, secret language to me – a series of numbers and letters without useful context or referent.

I eventually learned by lurking that the term represents even strength points per 60 minutes of ice time for a skater. It was a relatively simple calculation designed to see how efficiently a player scored at 5on5. It was a way of instantly correcting for a players usage and a new manner to grade planners performances – one that struck me as more useful than simply reading his general stat line…

Next week, I’ll discuss the growth of advanced stats as well as how I went from hobby writer to "pro". 

  • So…you weren’t captured by a marauding horde of barbarians when your village was attacked and forced to live out the rest of your days being whipped while you turned a large mill, honing your stamina and building immense strength until the one day you made your escape into the countryside?

    Orrrr am I confusing you with Conan The Barbarian?