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Time Out: Q&A with Chris Snow

by Aaron Vickers / Calgary Flames

From a baseball beat writer, to director of hockey operations for a National Hockey League team.

It’s about as unlikely a path to a National Hockey League front office as one can take.

And the one that Chris Snow, director of video and statistical analysis of the Calgary Flames, managed to make.

But how?

“That was Theo Epstein’s question,” started Snow. “He said, ‘how in the world are you qualified to do this?’ Terry Francona said, ‘Apparently anybody can work in a hockey front office.’”

Snow covered the Boston Red Sox for half of both the 2005 and 2006 season for the Boston Globe, before being recruited by then- general manager Doug Risebrough about joining the front office of the Minnesota Wild.

And it was in Minnesota when Snow’s worlds collided.

“The day that I accepted the job, it was kind of a collision of the world I was living in and the one I was going to be in,” Snow said. “The Red Sox were playing in Minnesota, and, going back, I covered the Wild out of college and I got to know Doug Risebrough. I had a lot of curiosity, because I was young. He’s a guy who likes to teach and talk and tell stories. We would have lunches periodically and I really enjoyed that.

“Then I went to cover baseball and he stayed in touch with me because he was curious about the new wave of baseball of younger analytic people, and I was really curious about it because these people were almost my age that worked in the front office. I had always had more passion for hockey than baseball.

“The salary cap had just come along in the NHL, and all that rolled into Doug looking for someone who was potentially able to bring that dynamic to a hockey front office. He took a real risk hiring me because I had no experience, nor did I have any hockey playing experience. Recreational was it. He found that appealing because I wasn’t coming with any preconceived notions about how things were done and he knew as a reporter I would ask a lot of questions, which is probably an uncomfortable thing to do, but he said come on and do that.”

The decision to join the Wild wasn’t a slam-dunk.

Snow, from Massachusetts, already had his dream career.

“I had a really hard time accepting the job because I was living at home in Boston, covering the Red Sox,” said Snow, who joined Calgary in 2011. “It was an awesome job to have. I literally did not make the decision until (Risebrough) said, ‘You have to decide’ and we were going to Minnesota and I drove to his office that morning still undecided.

“When I walked into his office I decided I was going to do this. I went back to the Metrodome and covered the Red Sox-Twins game that night. That’s where those guys were making those comments. It was kind of a cool night. That’s basically how I went from what I was doing to what I’m doing now.”

CalgaryFlames.com had the opportunity to sit down with Snow and discuss his thoughts on his role with the Flames and the growth and importance of statistical analysis for a hockey club.

When you come in at 8 o’clock in the morning, what is the first thing you do?

“The first thing I do is scan all of the things that have happened across the league to be current, reading all the newspaper clippings and things. The next thing is reviewing our game, going through all the critical moments and inputting a lot of critical information into our database. We have an internal database, and it’s web-hosted, where Brad or myself, any of our scouts, Connie, our coaches can go in and look at information about any player on any team in the league. We also organize a lot of our scouting information there. Most days I’m working with our database architect, who develops the back-end of that in terms of where are we going next. I’m pulling in a lot of information on outside sources about NHL players. The day is almost always a constant combination of developing our database and collecting more information and analyzing it. A spot like baseball is so mature in the sources of information they have. It’s pure analysis. With us, so much of the information that we’re getting is new and evolving that it’s a mix of analyzing but also just kind of building this house. We’re not yet living in it all the time. We’re building it, and trying to make sense every day of our information and what it means about players. What is value? In hockey, that’s an evolving concept.”

“This time of year would be the beginning of emphasis on contract research and support with Brad (Treliving), and Brad Pascall. The two of them handle most of our negotiations. It’s my job to pull together all of the comparables and information to start that process and support and hand that off to them. It’s a lot of work in here.”

What’s been the most important technological advancement in what you do?

“When I walked into the Wild offices in 2006, there was basically no data or video supporting any kind of work in the front office. If the GM, if Doug back then wanted to see a player on video…lets say it’s the end of the season and free agency is a couple months away, he wants to watch the five or six guys the scouts are recommending. He had to ask the video coach to watch the games, manually cut the shifts out and give him a DVD. The biggest advancements…one would be a video system tied to data. If you want to watch a player’s shift. You want to watch a player in a certain situation or against other guys, certain matchups…any moment, you can query that video and watch it.”

“One of the first things I did when I worked for the Wild was visit some baseball teams and look at what they’re doing. The immediate need was a video system tied to data. We and a couple other teams worked with an outside company to build a system. We taught them hockey; they taught us software and build a system. That’s when PUCKS came about, which half the league uses. That was really significant. All of a sudden you could have a very specific viewing of what you were looking for. Before you watched a random DVD from the 25th game of the year, and maybe the 55th, and 75th. Now you can just watch a player’s penalty kill shifts, just watch his 5-on-5, watch him against a certain defenseman.”

“When you have a play-by-play file from the league with 60 minutes of events, the software ties those two together seamlessly. As soon as the game is over, you can call up anything from a player’s shifts to a 5-on-3 in the second period. That kind of thing. We hit a button when we leave here at night and all the games across the league are downloaded and available to view in that manner the next morning. We’ve got five years now of that. If we want to go back five years, lets say a player had an outstanding year in 2011-12 and he hasn’t been the same sense, we can watch that.”

“The other development would be the improvement in data that’s available. Five-to-10 years ago, all you had was the NHL play-by-play. You had goals, assists, shots, penalties, hits, and that was about it. Now there are vendors out there who, by way of their camera tracking or a manual approach, are recording moment-by-moment data, generating upwards of 3000 events per game…one per second basically. Consider every advancement or change of the puck to be a piece of data. There are vendors that, really in the last couple of years, have gotten really good at it.”

“They become big companies. It’s really expensive to do. If you want to gather information off every game, it takes a really thought-out approach that requires a good software program to enter it into. That takes training people and takes an enormous number of hours to record that. It’s people who have identified a need in hockey for more data. They were willing to build a company around that need and try to market it to teams. There are people…some are ex players. Some are people that are just business entrepreneurs who saw a need and are trying to fill it. IT’s really enabled us to have a much more comprehensive conversation about players than we could before.”

What’s your role when a trade offer is submitted or received?

My role is to try to give Brad as much information as possible about that. The information would be if we have data that I feel provided a narrative that I can tell and that I believe in. If I can give him some information that’s statistical but has a story with it. I never give him formulas or concepts that I think are abstract. Here’s what he’s good at, and I can explain that back, and here’s what he’s not good at. Then it’s going through a lot of the scouts reports and ratings and try to make sense of the player that way. Perhaps a player really has an attribute that stands out in relation to all the players in the league and the scouts are consistently saying that about him. It’s synthesizing all that information to paint as clear of a picture as I can using data. The idea is that we can do it quickly. That’s why it’s important to have a database. When things are in report form, you can read a report. But when you have years of scout ratings provided on players, you can really provide some context to where this guy fits in in the league.

Is it the same as in free agency?

“Free agency is good because you know who those players are going to be months in advance. You can really get a head start on that. Trades come up and move quickly. You try to help as much as you can, but free agency is a real good one because you can plan a ways out.”

From 2006 to today, how have you seen coaches and even GMs respond or adapt or accept what you’re trying to do?

There’s a lot of people today working in hockey in positions that didn’t exist five or 10 years ago. I think the reason is you look at the standings and with the exception of very few teams, everyone is packed together. The mere idea of getting a little bit better, and it doesn’t matter what it is…it could be in player development or psychology…there’s so many areas where teams are evolving because there’s the need to try to find a way to separate yourself. This is kind of a more public and interesting one to the media. It’s probably gotten a little more attention.

There’s no question that teams are welcoming this. They’ve seen other sports do it. Baseball has gone through this movement, and I think most GMs and coaches view this as inevitable, and they’ve been very willing to look for the value and see if it’s there.

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