Sunday, November 23, 2008

Picking the brain of Sportsnet's fantasy guru Chris Nichols

There are not many people I blindly trust. One of those people is Sportsnet's fantasy hockey guru Chris Nichols.

The guy's been the ace up my sleeve for YEARS and his advice gives me almost an unfair edge on the competition. Perhaps the most useful thing he does is liveblog every game, every night. For comparison's sake, I struggle to bathe on a daily basis. This man is a beast.

Since he is an absolute fantasy hockey force, it seemed only natural to e-mail him a few of my snark-laced questions. The result: a neat little look into the life of NHL's answer to The Talented Mr. Roto.

Q: Your bio gives a nice rundown of how you got started, but what do you think made you gain recognition? Was there ever a moment when you thought, "you know, I might actually be able to make a living doing this"?

I don't think there was really one moment, at least for me. It has all just sort of evolved over the years.

Aside from working for several high profile sites over the years (, and now, word of mouth is really how anything spreads really effectively on the internet these days.
When people post links to my blog on whichever message board they frequent or just talk about the blog at work; it all helps. A hockey player makes his money by putting points up on the board or playing good D, but someone in my position relies on daily hits.

I think anyone who reads me for a few days can tell how much I love what I do and how hard I work. If they like what they see then they'll come back for more.

Maybe if I had to name one thing that has helped set me apart is the relationships I develop with readers over the years. I think people appreciate the care that goes into each Q&A answer and since I first started doing this I've always made it a point to answer as many emails as is humanly possible. People notice that sort of effort and it has helped to grow a really loyal base of readers.

Seeing the same names pop up year after year is pretty cool, actually. In some sort of weird, new-age Internet way it's like an extended family.

Can a fantasy hockey writer relate to Ron White's family dinner experiences?

Q: It seems like you legitimately live blog each game every night. Is there ever a Saturday when you'd rather roam the streets and huff paint (like I do most Saturdays) instead of examining Marian Gaborik's wonky groin and updating Mats Sundin's comeback?

I definitely do live blog every single game and it's a big time commitment, for sure. It also certainly puts a crimp in making plans to do much else from October through the later rounds of the playoffs when there aren't games every night, but this is absolutely what I want to be doing each night.

There are generally a few nights each week of light games and there's also the Christmas and All-Star breaks, so it's all good. Better this than having to do something I hated every day.

Q: Sometimes I wonder if fantasy writers read each others' material. It seems like most are divided into two camps: the "I won't spoil my opinions with the thoughts of others" camp vs. the soaking up every little bit of information camp. How do you approach that situation?

That's actually one of the benefits of doing so many blogs live daily... it's just an instant reaction to the events of the time, which also ideally helps my readers get a jump on everyone else in their pool.

The trade deadline and the first week of free agency are excellent for that as well because when readers look at live blogging they can get a sense of which writers get it and which ones don't. Then they can decide for themselves which material they find most useful.

Although I make it a specific point to avoid other fantasy articles, I do think it's great for the industry in general that the internet and the popularity of fantasy sports overall have each grown immeasurably since I started doing this professionally in 2002.

Q: Are you able to make this your full-time job or do you do something else on the side?

During the season I work 12-16 hours a day, seven days per week and in the off-season it's more like regular job hours. So there'd be no time for anything else if I wanted to do it. Fortunately there's a good market for what I bring to the table, so I don't have to worry about it.

Q: Even the wisest and most talented writers have articles they wish could be deleted from the archives. Over the years, what endorsements do you find most embarrassing and what breakthroughs gave you the greatest "I called it" feelings?

I learned a long time ago that you just have to let that stuff go and move forward each day. Don't get too high with a great pick and don't sweat the ones that don't work out. When you do this every day, year after year there are going to more than enough of each to go around.

Whatever I write is what I feel at the time based on the information available... let the chips fall where they may.

With a smile like this, who wouldn't love Hemsky?

Q: On some level, I think everyone has some bias. Sure, it seems like my bias is killed when Todd Bertuzzi ends up on my team year after year (seriously, I hate Bertuzzi) but rarely will my team include a Philadelphia Flyer. Are there any guys you cannot stand or never seem to draft, rationally or not? Any players that you'll give unlimited patience, even though you know you shouldn't?

I guess by definition we each have some bias because there's always something in our own experience that leads us to act/ react the way we do to anything in life.

I usually have virtually unlimited patience for players I believe in, so if that's the case then it's really not a case of knowing I should punt them to the curb. Even though I've got favourite players, I think I do a pretty decent job of putting the bias to the side when it comes to actual fantasy output expectations.

Ales Hemsky is probably the perfect example in the blog. Hemsky Nation has been a running theme since his rookie campaign and I always say that when choosing between Hemsky and an equal player the tie goes to the Hemsky; but there are plenty of examples where I'll tell a reader to choose someone else if they'd make a better pick for that person's roster.

In terms of avoiding or picking certain players in any given draft, it's generally just a case of picking certain types of players more than anything else. Power forwards, scoring D with good peripherals, etc are guys I tend to target, so often it'll be the same core group of players year in and year out.

Q: Being that you do a twice-per-week Q & A, you probably get some pretty dumb questions (mine included). What are some of your biggest pet peeves with those sessions and about fantasy hockey in general?

There really isn't anything that bugs me and keep in mind that until this year the Q&A generally ran five days a week, so I've literally answered several tens of thousands of questions over the years. I really don't think there are dumb questions because there are different experience levels of fantasy owners, so I try to treat each of them as such.

Every poolie has to start somewhere and I'm actually fairly proud of the fact that I've created a forum that can cater to both newbs and seasoned vets and offer something substantial to each.

There is one thing that bugs me though, since you asked. When I see a read receipt attached to an email in my inbox it makes me want to hit "delete" right away. It's almost Pavlovian.

Q: How do your friends and family react to your job? Do they understand it at all? Cannot help but picture a situation like that of comedian Ron White: Thanksgiving dinner is awkward as his brothers and sisters talk about their jobs as doctors and lawyers and he's ... a comedian. When you got the job, did your father just furrow his brow and say, "you're doing WHAT to hockey???"

Some get it and some have no clue. And when I say no clue, I mean no clue. Like, they grasp that hockey is involved and I do my work on a computer and that's about it.

Then the people who do understand what it's all about razz me regularly because even though they know what sort of hours I put in, it still basically just involves watching hockey and writing about it. This job doesn't suck, to be sure.

I also think it's hilarious when people write in and tell me that my blog has been blocked on their work computer because the word "fantasy" appears in it and that's interpreted as dirty content... never mind the fact that they'd be wasting countless hours studying up for their poolie teams.

Q: How do you feel about PIM as a stat?

I'd say I've generally been in the 80% "it's a positive" and 20% "it's a negative" camp. In the past year or so I'd say it's much closer to 50/50. The thing that has really turned me off the PIM category in general for fantasy has been how 10-minute misconducts are sometimes handed out so quickly and they make such a huge difference in pools over the course of a season. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like there have been a lot more handed out in the last year or so.

I'm still more or less ok with it because you could make an argument against second assists or the validity of a game winning goal in a 6-2 route or any number of things.

I'm pleased at the rising number of instances I see average time on ice included as a pool stat though.

Rod Brind'Amour sports a -14 yet not too long ago he won a Selke trophy. Hmmm.

Q: What about plus/minus? In real hockey terms, do you think it's relevant? Is it a good stat at least in fantasy hockey or is just all around worthless?

It's not worthless, but it's fairly obvious that there are average players on great teams that have a better +/- than some great two-way guys on horrible teams. Put Rod Brind'Amour on Detroit and he'd challenge the league leaders.

But that's life. There are average guys skating in a top six slot that benefit from playing with stars and they're more valuable than someone who's perhaps a better player but has little talent surrounding him somewhere else.

Q: Describe the perfect fantasy hockey setup from categories to head to head vs. Roto.

I can't equate anything H2H-related with the word "perfect" unless there's a realistic cap placed on the amount of games played each week. Some people swear by it, which is fine, but I'm not a big fan of adding/ dropping so many players each day and week. I'm a roto guy through and through, although I can understand the attraction of the playoff system in H2H.

I'm not a big fan of stat modifiers when it comes to fantasy either, so any league I created would treat goals/ assists/ GWG/ PPP all evenly.

As an example, in my own keeper league we use fairly standard stats of G, A, +/-, PIM, PPP, SOG for skaters and GAA, SV% and wins for goalies. I wouldn't mind shutouts either, but it wasn't an option when we started it years ago and we didn't feel it'd be fair to include it now after the stud goalies had already been spoken for in the league.

I also prefer leagues with daily transactions as opposed to setting line-ups once per week.

The bottom line though is that whatever works for each group of owners is perfection.

Q: Feel free to add anything I might have forgotten. Is there anything else people should know about blogging and Mr. Nichols in general?

There's not really a whole lot to tell. I really, really enjoy what I do and aside from judging cheerleader competitions there isn't much else I can think of that I'd rather be doing professionally.

I think the most rewarding thing for me in this job is actually making a small difference in someone's life. Although people go into pools to have fun, they want to do as well as possible and being an extremely competitive owner is more fun than losing badly.

If a few tweaks that I can help implement and philosophies that I can pass along end up taking someone from third to first place or even eighth to fourth... then it's a good feeling.

1 comment:

Mr. Plank said...

Excellent Q & A Mr. O'Brien, that was a pleasure to read.