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What Comes Naturally To Brad Timmins
Even after his hockey analytics site became popular, the Natural Stat Trick creator still considered his audience "a bonus."
Brad Timmins' first in-person taste of hockey analytics adulation caught the Ottawa native by surprise.
"That was definitely a weird feeling," Timmins said.
Years have passed since that interaction. Natural Stat Trick's audience has grown. Commentary opportunities about the state of the Senators abound. Yet Timmins still accepts most attention sent his way at conferences or online with a bit of curiosity.
"I wouldn’t say it’s become normal," he said. "It happens a little more, for sure. But when it happens, it’s still kind of ‘Huh? I didn’t see that coming.’”
Sports analytics websites and blogs/newsletters still serve as passion projects for most creators. For a fortunate few, published work opens doors to career opportunities. Teams, leagues, media outlets, oddsmakers and fantasy sports organizations will eventually need individuals who can deal with the increasingly vast amount of data in sports and provide cogent analysis.
Timmins never aspired to go pro in hockey analytics, though. He's not big on notoriety, either.
"The audience is more of a bonus," he said. "I definitely enjoy that part of it. But I still enjoy doing this whether the audience is there or not.
"When you start getting into this stuff, you’re going to get a question in your head about whether the sources of information out there quite have the data you want to look at. So that’s where Natural Stat Trick really started. I was getting into the analytics, and I was coming up with questions where the data on Extra Skater and the data on Behind The Net didn’t quite provide me a way to get to my answer. So it started off as just a database for myself.”
"This isn't necessarily needed at this point"
Not long after finishing his time at Carleton University, where he majored in computer engineering, Timmins started a part-time job at a market research firm.
It served as a useful testing ground for Timmins' analysis skills. He needed to convince his managers his abilities went beyond working the phones for surveys first, though.
“Let me tell you, that’s not a fun job sometimes," Timmins said. "But one of the things a market research or any research company has is a need for people who can think analytically and are good with computers, right? So I managed to get a position in the back of the house, so to speak, dealing with the data coming out of the surveys rather than being the one on the phone trying to collect the data.”
A Silver Seven blog post about Corsi introduced Timmins to hockey analytics. Another season or two passed before Timmins began his quest to gather, organize and analyze NHL data -- a project that combined his passion for the sport with the tools of his trade.
"I hadn’t done any serious programming in a few years at that point, so I was a little rusty at the time," he said. “I had a scraper working within a week or two. One of the things I had to pick up is, while I was doing that, I thought ‘Oh, maybe I can generate some custom charts for Silver Seven, so I learned how to do graphics generation, which was something I’d never done before. … I could make charts in Excel, but that was about it.”
Aside from his first attempt at data visualization, "a truly terrible donut graph for Corsi,” Timmins approved of his new creation. He still questioned whether anyone other than him and maybe a few close friends needed to know about the site.
"Around the time I was considering whether to do something public is when Extra Skater really took off," Timmins said. "So it was a case of me thinking ‘Eh, this isn’t necessarily needed at this point.' But then, that following summer is when Extra Skater went offline."
Might Natural Stat Trick exist today as a public site if the Toronto Maple Leafs hadn't hired Extra Skater's creator, Darryl Metcalf, in August 2014?
"I might’ve come around to the idea of doing something public, but I don’t think I would’ve made a public website when I did," Timmins said. "As I would’ve progressed and built more and more tools for myself, I might’ve reached the point where I felt I had a bunch of different things here that aren’t available anywhere else, and I’m going to put them online. There’s a decent chance that still would’ve happened at some point.”
"It’d be like any other company calling to try to hire me.”
Though Timmins has not yet presented research at the annual Ottawa Hockey Conference, he participated in several of its panel discussions. In 2018, he nearly became the topic of discussion for a moment.
Graeme Nichols, who has written Senators features for The Athletic, sat beside Timmins during the panel discussion. At one point, while assessing the aftermath of the Erik Karlsson trade and the Senators' struggles as an organization, Nichols noted the abundance of talented analysts doing public work who either live in Ottawa or root for the team -- he later wrote a story that delved deeper into the topic. Ottawa needed to tap into its local talent market, Nichols concluded.
Timmins kept a straight face during Nichols' speech and let the moment pass.
“It was never something that I was specifically setting out to get to,” Timmins said of working for a team. “Especially at the time I created Natural Stat Trick, the reputation around the league and in most sports leagues was that it was almost a passion job. They knew that and paid you accordingly. So the reputation was that it had to be something you really wanted to do and something you loved, because you weren’t going to get paid as much working for a team versus taking those skills and working somewhere else.
"Ottawa has a fairly strong tech sector, so in a sense, part of launching the site was that it might help me get a job, but it wasn’t really aiming at a job in hockey.
"The impression I get now is teams are paying a bit more in line with what you’d get in other sectors for similar skills. But there are a lot of different factors that go into it. If a team comes calling, I’m not outright saying no, but it’d be like any other company calling to try to hire me.”
Few hockey analytics sites have lasted as long as Natural Stat Trick while remaining free to access. Several popular sites went dark when their creators were hired by teams. HockeyViz, Evolving Hockey and others operate publicly via subscription models. Timmins is at peace with a few ads on his site and a Patreon link for those who want to send funds. He notices when certain users get overzealous with scraping his site to fill their own databases, but he doesn't see a need to alter his supply-and-demand dynamic.
“The site pays for itself," Timmins said. "I’m not making nearly enough that it could be a primary source of income for me. But I’m not trying to have it be a primary source of income either.
"In my head, I keep telling myself I’ll do it as long as it’s not costing me a bunch of money and I enjoy it. ... Seeing other people make a run at (subscriptions), the thought has crossed my mind. But it’s never something I’ve seriously considered.”
"It was a reason to really think about the team"
Timmins' memories of the modern Ottawa Senators' first season in 1992-93 are a bit hazy. His recollections of the hockey team and players that first captured his attention haven't faded quite as much.
"I’m just the right age to have been in that range where most kids were huge Wayne Gretzky fans," Timmins said."I was 6 when they started winning the Cup in Edmonton.
"I can look back and appreciate the other players on those teams, but it started with Gretzky. Maybe a little bit of Grant Fuhr in there as well. If it’s not the superstar forward that’s grabbing your attention, it’s the goalie, right?”
The Senators came along at an ideal time for Timmins, as Gretzky's trade to Los Angeles a few years earlier made watching The Great One logistically more difficult.
Through Timmins' teenage years and well into adulthood, he stayed loyal to the Senators. His dive into the deep end of the hockey analytics community gave him a new perspective on ways to talk about the franchise and contextualize its performance within the NHL, but he didn't plan to become an authority on every team and player's metrics and trends, regardless of what tools he had at his disposal.
Silver Seven, Twitter and Ottawa's hockey conference panel discussions have sufficed as platforms for Timmins when he wants to weigh in on a topic. He's able to stir up discussions about subjects that interest him, but he's also able to step aside and let others take center stage.
"It's a reason to really think about the team, rather than just cheer for the team," Timmins said of his work at Silver Seven. "You think about the team, think about the moves they’re making. You follow it more in depth. You put those thoughts out there and see what conversations came from those."
He's happy to have those conversations at conferences too -- an audience is welcome, even when it catches him by surprise.