"Good luck. As Allan Mitchell likes to say, you don't call Vic, he calls you." -Email from ESPN NHL writer Corey Pronman, April 18, 2013
Vic Ferrari. If you're old enough to remember the late, brilliant Andy Kaufman, you'll know the name. Vic Ferrari was one of his characters on the sitcom, Taxi (ask your parents).
This is a different Vic Ferrari, one of the cornerstone thinkers of NHL analytics. When I began learning about this wild and wacky world, the best advice given was, "Go to timeonice.com, figure out how to use it and go from there."
That's his website and a great place to start. There's no copy, but head-to-head shift charts, shot totals, breakdowns of what players took faceoffs in what zones. When first trying to differentiate the Corsis from the corners, it was an invaluable resource.
His writing was at a blog called Irreverent Oilers Fans. It contained deeper pieces like "The Shot Quality Fantasy" and "Likelihood and the Way Humans Think". Interesting stuff.
Of course, he didn't exist.
As the 2013 NHL season resumed after a lockout, there were occasions timeonice.com was slow to update. There were a few Twitter jokes about it because Vic Ferrari obviously wasn't Areal person. So who was this guy?
Pronman, who does excellent work identifying prospects, was one of the tweeters.
"I can find his email if you want, although I think that email leads to another pseudonym," he wrote back. "Vic is arguably the pillar of the recent advanced stats movement, being the key innovator for things such as using Corsi, value of quality of competition, effect of zone starts, shooting-percentage regression, how valuable team-level Corsi is and how close it relates to team-level scoring-chance differential.
"[But] almost nobody in the stats community knows his real identity. He hides behind one, if not more pseudonyms, and, over the last few years, he's barely written and is tough to get in contact with."
A few minutes later, Pronman wrote back with the email address of an Andrew Johnston.
"Disclaimer: last time he emailed me was July 2009, so zero clue if this is current ... And like I said, I suspect Andrew Johnston isn't his real name as well."
Spoiler: It isn't.
"Vic is the 'ghost' of advanced stats and a driving force behind the Oiler blogs from the beginning," emailed Mitchell, another Oilers blogger who hosts The Lowdown With Lowetide on TSN 1260 in Edmonton. "I don't know who he is ... [His) stuff is brilliant, have you read it?"
Why, yes. But now I wanted more.
Ferrari/Johnston/John Doe/whoever didn't respond to an email request for an interview. As the playoffs began, the chase lost its importance. Until Tuesday.
It's been a good summer for The Temple of Hockey Analytics. The New Jersey Devils hired Sunny Mehta, who shared a blog with Ferrari. The Oilers hired Tyler Dellow.
It made sense to reach out one more time. Of all the people who celebrated these hires, Ferrari should be near the top of the list, right? As it turns out, both Mehta (a close friend) and Dellow knew his true identity.
"Andrew," I emailed at 11:25 a.m., "I wanted to ask Vic about Tyler Dellow's hiring in Edmonton and what a huge accomplishment that is for the analytics movement. Could this be arranged?"
The reply came back one hour and 20 minutes later, from someone named Tim.
"Sure Elliotte, would some time after 9:00 p.m. Central time tonight work?"
A phone number followed.
This was good. But who the heck is Tim?
Hello? Is this Tim?
The first online search I tried with the phone number registered it to an Enrique Martina. That didn't seem right. The second try brought up a Timothy Barnes. That had to be him.
So, when the time came, it went like this:
"Is this Tim?"
Pause. Then me.
"Who am I talking to? Are you Vic?"
"Yes, that's me."
The only Timothy Barnes I could find in the area code was a bankruptcy judge from Ohio with zero ties to the Oilers. Maybe this guy helped Cal Nichols save the team or something. But he wasn't listed among the investors and it didn't look like Edmonton ever employed anyone related to him.
Tim Barnes is 47. He is not a bankruptcy judge, but an engineer who moved into finance. He's from Alberta, went to university in Calgary and lived in England, Toronto and Edmonton before settling in his current Chicago.
He grew up a Calgary Flames fan who switched to the Oilers when Todd Marchant scored to eliminate the Dallas Stars in 1997. In some areas of Alberta, that could get you flogged.
"I was at a business dinner and snuck out to a bar to watch overtime," he said. "They were an easy team to cheer for. An underdog is easy to vote for."
Barnes is a Roger Neilson acolyte. In the late 1990s, he got his hands on an article written in The Journal of Sport Behavior by Kevin J. Leonard entitled "The Development of a Data Base Management System for a National Hockey League Team." Leonard worked on this project with Neilson in New York.
Barnes would find things Neilson said, "apply reasoning" and see if there was anything relevant to predicting future results. The Oilers had a hardcore online presence. Their fandom, a blogging dynasty.
The funniest thing about Barnes' beginnings was that he had two online pseudonyms.
"I used another handle -- Igor, after Igor Larionov," Barnes laughed. "What a great player. "Those posts were sensible, reasonable. The Igor posts never really got much reaction."
Vic, though, was over the top, just like Kaufman's character on Taxi. That got response.
"I was never really into it for notoriety," he said. "I was into it to talk to other smart people. Who knows what makes people tick?"
Barnes played it up, going lengthy stretches without writing.
"That was part of the mystique," he said. "I would not post for awhile, then bang out of a few posts. People would ask, 'Who is this guy?' Some people would ask if [Vic Ferrari] was Nick Foligno or Ray Ferraro ... I preferred it that way."
Eventually, real life got in the way.
"The Oilers were not as much fun anymore and I got busy with real work," he said.
A comeback is possible
Vic Ferrari retired - but a comeback is possible.
"I'm thinking about it," Barnes said. "Maybe in another month ... It's taken off so much. At the time I started writing, there was no analysis you'd want to be betting money on. Now that's really changed."
Yes, it has. And in an hour-long conversation, it's clear Barnes/Ferrari has a lot to offer.
*He is a huge believer in NHL coaches. "They have a hell of a grasp on who is bringing what to their team." He admits some have "blind spots" when it comes to favourites or least favourite players, but "most are smart guys who spend all day working on it."
*"The next big thing (in hockey analytics) will be to define the context of ice time ... quality of competition. Who you play against matters a ton." Barnes said where current hockey executives need help is how to use this to determine salary value, but those execs are far better at "weighing" players than those who rely solely on analytics. "If a 'hockey guy' comes out and says, 'That player was always [hidden],' they tend to be right. If you were to give me five hockey analytics versus five GMs or vice-presidents of hockey operations or five coaches -- five coaches especially -- to weigh a player, I'd take [the latters'] opinion ... A lot of analytics would have very young teams that won't win."
*His thoughts on goaltending have changed. "Goalies are so good now, it's hard to justify a big, long-term deal for anyone. There are no bad goalies like there were in 1992. There were some terrible ones then. Now everyone is so close."
*The biggest mistake is separating offensive play from defensive play. "Madness. Both happen at the same time."
*Bill James, the Godfather of baseball analysis, claims baseball players "never change their spots," Barnes said. "He says a player at 28 will be better than at 23, but still the same. Hockey players are different. They change all the time."
Hockey itself is changing, too, opening its doors to a new era, and two of Barnes' friends are at the forefront.
"I'm really happy for them," he said. "They have a good sense of how to bet on future outcomes, not just old data, but to look at new results. Sunny is diplomatic and articulates himself well. Tyler is bold and articulates himself well.
"If those teams listen to them, [those teams] will benefit."
Follow Elliotte Friedman on Twitter @FriedgeHNIC
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