Why Chris Watkins Goes Against The Grain
The self-described "full-time troll" is vocal about hockey's flaws, but he still believes innovation and inclusion will play big roles in the sport's future.
The criteria Chris Watkins used to choose his grad school destination resembled the considerations of many ambitious 20-somethings -- at least until the third item on the list came into play.
"It was like name recognition, location, and then, ‘Do you have a club hockey program?’” Watkins said.
He found what he sought at Yale University. Classes helped him pursue his goal of becoming a Wall Street quant, although he ultimately started his career at Google, where he did valuation analysis on tech start-ups. And Yale's recreational league made it possible for him to play hockey for the first time, years after the sport first grabbed his interest via an NHL video game.
The hockey experience proved satisfying -- "You’d pop a cold one, get out there on the ice, don’t get hurt, and everything was all good," Watkins said.
He didn't go out of his way to explain why he lacked previous playing experience. He didn't shy away from spelling out the reason and realities when asked, though.
"As a lower-income Black guy, I assumed I was their first minority friend without money who played hockey," Watkins wrote on Raw Charge in 2017.
Moving hockey culture in a progressive direction -- one that embraces innovation and inclusion -- requires far more than the 'old college try,' and Watkins in recent years has been as ambitious as anyone in the sport's analytics community when using data to publicly argue for change within the NHL and other institutions responsible for the game's growth.
It's an investment of energy and emotion that provides little in return. Yet Watkins refuses to waver.
Whether he's testing his hockey skills at Yale, pivoting from graphic design to finance to data science as a career choice, or contacting NHL decision-makers to discuss organizational strategy, Watkins is not bothered by what-if fears and worst-case scenarios.
"I think within the analytics sphere in particular, you have to be willing to go against the grain and push back against the status quo," said Watkins, who has also analyzed lineup strategies and developed a player perfomance model. "I have thought a lot about whether or not it would be advantageous to try to assimilate more into hockey culture, but I thought it would be more worthwhile to push the envelope and help the sport to embrace people of all backgrounds and personalities. If I lose access or clout, so be it! It's been a good run, regardless.”
"I always felt there was more to the game than I saw"
As a Chicago native who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, Watkins treated the Bulls and Michael Jordan as must-see TV.
SportsCenter highlights stirred his interest in a variety of leagues, though. His grandfather worked security for the Chicago White Sox, so Watkins had a mild MLB rooting interest. And video games gave him a way to taste test sports unavailable to him locally.
Watkins credits a version of NHL97 on a Playstation demo disk for his serious interest in hockey. Who knows how his fandom might've evolved had he received NHL98 for Nintendo 64 as a gift the following year. His gift wish ultimately came with a twist: Watkins got his new console, but it came with "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time."
"I just ended up playing that instead," Watkins said, "and I didn’t think about hockey for like another five to ten years after that.”
The way in which Watkins thought about sports, even in pick-up settings, usually worked in his favor. He tried to offset any athletic shortcomings with intelligence and initiative.
"My game was the little things, playing defense and rebounding, all of that," Watkins said. "I used to joke with my friends that I wished we kept a win-loss record in pickup basketball, because I’d be a Hall of Famer. They’d be like ‘You didn’t score any points.’ And I’d say I didn’t need to. I always felt there was more to the game than I saw. But it wasn’t until the analytics movement started that I understood my intuitions were correct.”
“The only way to understand the problem is to find the root cause"
Watkins went to his first NHL game to complete a college class assignment.
The sports journalism program at Morehouse College in Atlanta granted tickets to the local pro teams' games with the stipulation that students write stories about their experiences. Watkins said most of his classmates chose to attend a Hawks game. He wanted to see the Thrashers.
Watkins and a friend watched hockey in person for the first time as the Thrashers stumbled through a lopsided loss to New Jersey. He said sparse attendance at the game allowed him and his friend to move from their nosebleed seats to a spot at center ice, right on the glass.
He attended a couple more games while at Morehouse, whose campus sat just minutes away from the Thrashers' arena. Aside from the perk provided by the journalism program, Watkins never noticed any other attempts to promote the team on campus.
At Morehouse, one of the country's best known historically Black colleges, Watkins had become very mindful of the ways in which large and powerful institutions ignored, oppressed or misunderstood people who looked like him.
“It was really helpful to go there, because it just wasn’t something that I was thinking about before," Watkins said. "I had experienced several racist incidents growing up. My parents witnessed a lot of that growing up on the South Side of Chicago. So it wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of it. But I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t realize there was a lot more to what I already understood until I got to Morehouse.
"One moment of awakening was when I realized half of my dorm mates didn’t make it past the first semester due to financial struggles. So it was like, 'Oh, I know a lot of people back home as well that aren't afforded these opportunities.' And even the ones that make it this far don’t always get to see it through. So there was a lot more urgency to do some of the stuff I’m doing now. That’s been a big motivator for me to keep an open mind but also keep my voice loud and try to bring attention to issues I’ve run into and other people have gone through.”
Years later, when Watkins started writing for Hockey Graphs and Raw Charge, he took characteristically ambitious approaches to the topic of race in hockey.
In one story published on Raw Charge in 2018, characters from "Black Panther" discuss their lineup options for a team to represent Wakanda in the Olympics.
"The one message I was trying to send was that there’s a tremendous amount of talent among people of color within the game," Watkins said.
"The other point I was trying to make was that, often times, we don’t hear about these players until something happens. I can’t remember what incident had recently occurred -- I think it was the Devante Smith-Pelly incident in Chicago. It was important for me to be able to say ‘Let’s talk about black players in a way that celebrates them and doesn’t necessarily focus on their race but does shine a spotlight on how good they are and their talent level.’
"I’d already written a couple serious articles about racism for Raw Charge, and it’s a common refrain in the Black community: When we go to movies, we don’t always want to see tragedies or the pain of being Black. There’s a lot of celebration and joy in that too. That joy permeates in that article, because yeah, there’s always serious conversations going on about race in hockey, but there’s a reason why these men and women play this sport, so we should focus on that when we can as well.”
In July, with examinations of systemic racism already underway elsewhere online, Watkins published an article on Hockey Graphs titled, "Racial Bias in Drafting and Development: The NHL’s Black Quarterback Problem." He deconstructed the issue into five components -- barriers to entry into the sport, bigotry and rigid culture, skill set bias, positional development bias, locker room bias -- and used data from a wide array of sources to analytically shed light on the structural flaws preventing hockey from more substantive social progress.
"It was an idea that I had been thinking about for quite some time," Watkins said. "I think Josh Ho-Sang in particular was one draft pick who I was really excited to see, just because I thought he brought not only a different skill set, but a different character and persona to hockey. That would’ve been really interesting to see at the NHL level. So seeing his struggles to get on the ice and get along with his coaches, it started to spark in my brain that this seems to be a familiar story with a lot of players of color.
"I didn’t realize it’d be as deep of a conversation as it eventually got, but obviously the numbers, without calculating them, you couldn’t see the full extent. ... It’s one of those things that you can say and sort of guess about, but you need proof. People are going to have a healthy level of skepticism about the assertions you’re making. So I was thinking, well, if there aren’t Black centers in the NHL, there has to be a place where they’re falling out of the pipeline. Do they never enter the development process because they’re not interested in the sport? Do they start playing and then decide to play a different position or something else? Where does that happen? The only way to understand the problem is to find the root cause. So I sort of unpeeled each layer.
"The process took about a month, which was two or three weeks longer than we had planned. Trying to peel apart all of the parts about juniors and college hockey and midget programs and bantam programs, it was really hard to get the data on that, but it was worthwhile to find out what was going on.
“I think the biggest (revelation) for me, and the one I’ve had to defend the most, is pointing out that a Black player was twice as likely to get traded before their age 25 season as a white player. That one, I had a sneaking suspicion, particularly when P.K. Subban got traded. I was curious as to what happened in that scenario. Looking at the data, I was like 'Oh yeah, this is a recurring thing that’s happening over and over again.' That was a big aha moment where I realized there might be something more systemic here than what I originally thought.”
Watkins' story made the rounds on 'Hockey Twitter.' It generated plenty of page views on Hockey Graphs -- Watkins joked he'll need to find a way to top himself with his next article. But the only clicks Watkins really cared about belonged to people in powerful positions within hockey.
“The part that was disappointing to me was I’ve talked with the NHL about the diversity initiatives," Watkins said. "I’ve talked with coaches and GMs about that. But my point was to drive action. So I would’ve preferred to have less public focus on it if it would’ve gotten to the right hands and inspired someone to say ‘This is something we need to consider changing.’ I’m not quite sure it did that, and that’s disappointing because I was having those conversations with the powers that be without the data in hand. And now, with the data, I didn’t see anyone saying this is an opportunity to change things going forward."
"I enjoy hockey enough as it is, so it can only get better from here"
Watkins wonders how many new fans the NHL could add if it developed a campaign to get a hockey video game in the hands of more young people of color. It worked on him. Why not others?
That's one of several ideas he's pitched to people who have the ability to change marketing tactics. He's yet to find a willingness to change, unfortunately.
Might it take a non-white player with generational talent to break through the marketing barrier? Watkins agrees that would help considerably, but he hopes hockey can evolve without relying on random chance and a rare individual.
"It's about having that openness and willingness to say, even for purely financial reasons, the best way to increase the bottom line is to be innovative, think outside of the box, and bring in outside-of-the-box thinkers that challenge the status quo and force the NHL to go past its natural boundaries," Watkins said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who have their hearts in the right place and want to do the right thing, but then I see the execution of it, and I think I probably wouldn’t have done it like that.
"One of the key things that I tell people is you sort of have to find people where they are. A lot of these initiatives are focused on ‘Hey, we have an open door policy. We don’t discriminate against anyone. If you’re interested, just come apply.’ That works for the most part, but the situation sometimes requires you to go where people are. Even this past summer, they’re saying they want more people of color to apply or more women to do this, but the channels they were advertising it on would probably never fall in front of that demographic. So there are things where we need better awareness and better institutional knowledge."
Before he went to work for Google, Watkins interviewed with the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. The desire to bring about change in any pro sport from a position within the power structure lingers for Watkins, though it's less pronounced these days. He's more at peace with what he can accomplish behind the scenes and publicly on Twitter, where he's a self-described "full-time troll."
“If you asked me four or five years ago, (working in sports) would’ve been my number one" career choice, Watkins said. "I’d do anything at the drop of a hat to make it happen. I put in a lot of work to try to figure out if that was a path I wanted to pursue. Now, with a baby and being more established in my day-to-day career, it’s no longer something I’d drop everything to do.
"What I’ve said in talking to teams and organizations, I’m not as worried about being a part of pro hockey. I just wish the opportunities available to me now were available to me then. I want to pave the way for the next person who looks like me to get that opportunity. So I’d much rather use any influence I have to reach out to people, educate them, and figure out a way to help them open that door.
"Hockey is unfortunately not the only place where racial inequality exists. There are a lot of other places where I can use my time to impact that. But hockey will always be at the forefront in terms of passion. I love the community. I love talking to people about the sport. That won’t stop.
“As frustrating as hockey is, I can only see a future where it gets better, and that’s the part that I’m always excited to see come to fruition. I’m generally very glass-half-empty, but I think in that situation, it’s like it can’t get any worse. I enjoy it enough as it is, so it can only get better from here.
“I look at a sport like baseball, which has had a very diverse player base and at times a very diverse fan base. But in many ways it has gone back on the diversity in the front office and the decision-makers and the player ranks as well. That, for me, makes it harder to get involved. Baseball is very ahead on the analytics and quant revolution, which happened decades ago at this point. In terms of diversity, they’ve had Black GMs. So it’s almost harder to put pressure on a sport like baseball, because they can say they’ve had the opportunities. They’re not doing anything wrong, it’s just a blip on the radar. Whereas with hockey, you can go in from the ground up and say, ‘Outside of Bill Guerin, you’ve never had a GM of color. You’ve never had a woman with major decision-making responsibility in the league.’ You can point to those issues and say that because you’ve never even seen one of these, it’s much easier to make that initial impact.
“I think that’s what keeps me coming back. There’s a way here, and I’m so close to figuring out what it is. I’m so close to sort of helping get that pipeline where people can come in and run with it from there. But it’s a question of what is that last step which will bridge that gap? ... It feels like it’s right there, around the corner.”