My “Nontraditional” Path To Hockey

Growing up in rural Northwest Indiana (about 45 minutes outside of Chicago), we didn’t have cable TV. Basketball, baseball and football were the staple sports in my family. My dad coached basketball and tried his best to make me a much better player than I really was. I watched or listened to Cubs games with each of my grandfathers. Every Sunday was devoted to watching Bears games. I’ve played a lot of sports throughout my life, but focused mainly on equestrian sports for a long time.

Hockey was not a very big part of my life then. Blackhawks games were not on regular TV stations so casual viewership wasn’t really an option. Even in high school in the early 90’s, I was little more than a casual fan of hockey. It wasn’t until 2008 that I really started devoting any of my time to regularly watching hockey. In February of 2013, I joined Twitter because there was a contest to win Blackhawks game tickets on CSN Chicago. I know that seems hilarious, but it’s the awful truth. I quickly found there were lots of people like me who followed hockey on Twitter and started trying to figure out where I fit in that community.

Over the summer between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, I started learning about “fancy stats” as they were so often called then. I thought it was a cool way to gain more understanding of the game I had come to love. In late November of 2013, I had a bunch of thoughts in my head about hockey that were too long for Twitter so I created a blog on WordPress. I was just going to post that one thing and be done with it. The post was about Brandon Pirri and Chicago’s longstanding search for a 2nd line center, in which I gave Pirri the “fancy stats” treatment. I really thought only 3 or 4 people would read it, we’d discuss it on Twitter a little bit and that would be the end of it. As with so many things in life, it didn’t really end up that way.

The article was well received and the following day, I ended up being offered a spot to write at Second City Hockey (part of SB Nation) by Greg Boysen, who was the site manager at the time. I started learning more and more about stats, analytics, metrics, or whatever you want to call them. Midway through the 2013-14 season, I wanted to start tracking zone entries and was lucky enough to get some tutelage from Eric Tulsky, now part of the Carolina Hurricanes organization, to do so.

Looking back at that first post now, I have a bit of a chuckle at myself. I had only the most basic understanding of what I was doing, but hey, everyone has to start somewhere. I look at it now, not quite 2 years later, and, hopefully I can say this without sounding like a jerk, I think I’ve come a long way. I still have a long way to go of course, so please don’t think I’m saying that I know everything there is to know about hockey.

To start the 2014-15 season, I got a few paid gigs both writing about hockey and doing other hockey related work as well, which were a great confidence boost. Eventually, I decided to keep my work on my own site which is where you are reading this now. I also started trying to figure out things that would be useful and insightful to add to what I was tracking. That has been an interesting process that I’m still adding to and tweaking in order to find better ways to capture the game. Last season, I additionally dove into learning about and understanding the systems that coaches throughout the league and at other levels of hockey were using.

What this all boils down to I guess is that my personality drives me to want to learn and understand everything I possibly can about the things I love. Hockey happens to be one of those things. It’s pretty obvious that I am not cut from the traditional cloth of many hockey “analysts”, for lack of a better word. I’m a woman. I didn’t grow up around the game. I only occasionally play hockey for fun with my family and friends. Many people have told me that those three things make it impossible for me to really understand hockey. Maybe that’s true, but I tend to think it’s not.

In addition to my insatiable need to consume, learn and understand hockey, my mind works in a way that is analytically inclined. I’ve always been a critical thinker and law school followed by years of practice as a trial attorney only increased and sharpened that. It’s not unfathomable to think I would make the jump to applying those attributes to sports.

Being a “nontraditional” student of hockey comes with its positives and negatives to be sure. If you asked me to play a hockey trivia game, I’d probably lose in woeful fashion. Because I didn’t grow up playing hockey or even being around the game, I’ve had to learn essentially everything I currently know from scratch over the past few years. I’ve watched countless hours of hockey, read thousands of pages of articles and books, and talked with and listened to knowledgeable people. I suppose that could be looked at as a negative, because it required (and continues to require) a lot of time and effort. I enjoy it, so I don’t look at it as a drawback of my nontraditional path.

Another negative is that I really don’t know what is or isn’t fundamental hockey knowledge. I don’t know what people learn to understand the basics of the game when they are kids or how, or even if, that changes as they grow up. I don’t know what the commonly held opinions are of different ways to approach the game outside of a few principles established by analytical work.

Every time I hit publish on a post, I do so knowing that other people may have a very different understanding of the particular system or approach I’m writing about. I may get it completely wrong or only be seeing half of the story. Luckily, the times that I’ve failed to see all the angles on something, I’ve gotten great feedback from different people who are very knowledgeable and learned even more as a result.

There are many times that I notice something about the game that I think must be part of fundamental hockey knowledge only to discover it isn’t. There have certainly been times when I’ve explored a topic that I later find to be part of the collective knowledge base, but fortunately for me, because my exploration usually comes from an analytical angle, I’ve managed to find an additional way to examine or explain it and thus avoided the exercise being a complete waste of time.

I do wonder sometimes though if my nontraditional path isn’t also a positive. Hockey analytics are in an age of innovation. Innovation is often restricted when a person’s mindset is constrained by the framework of a traditional education in that area. Perhaps what I lack in a traditional hockey upbringing also frees me from approaching the game in the exact same way as everyone else. Maybe that is just wishful thinking, but so far, in my interactions with coaches, analysts and others in hockey, I get the sense that it is a positive thing.

Frankly, all of this good fortune I’ve had over the past two years is probably the result of having an interest, having the time to devote to it, having a personality that drives me to want to learn everything, and simply being in the right place at the right time. When I started using “fancy stats” to analyze hockey, there weren’t many people doing that in the Chicago blogosphere. Many fans were just starting to learn about them and I like to teach as well as learn, so it was a good fit.

At the time I got started, I’m pretty sure I was the only woman writing with an analytics focus, so it made me a bit of a novelty as well. (Granted, I can probably only list a dozen or so women who write with an analytics focus right now, so we are still a bit of a novelty.) All of these things went together to allow me to make a little bit of a name for myself, gain a bit of a platform and even make some money at it here and there. I’ve gotten support from many people in the “stats” community, which has been wonderful.

All in all, I’ve been very fortunate indeed.

Thanks for taking the time to read my posts and give me feedback on the work I do here on my little independent site. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for it.

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3 thoughts on “My “Nontraditional” Path To Hockey

  1. Jen, I have followed you for some time and I have enjoyed your posts. Keep up the good work. Maybe this isn’t the time or place and maybe I Should write a blog of my own, but I find twitter to be a bit repressive. I seems to me that many people don’t care to have a dialog of any sort. I have tried to engage people in a discussion only to be told to get off my lawn. Many take a strong stance and don’t care what you or anyone else has to say. I’m still here reading but I have to start editing those that I follow otherwise it is just depressing.
    Again keep up the good work.
    Rick

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