The story of HockeyDB

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The story of HockeyDB

Postby T15D23 » Mon Mar 25, 2019 4:42 am

The story of HockeyDB: ‘It sort of changed the world’
Craig Custance


It​ was like​ walking​ into​ sports collectibles​ heaven. For Scott Coates,​ who​ made the trip​ from Quebec​ to White​​ Plains, New York, this was the ultimate experience. He’d read about it in hobby magazines but to see it in person, well, this was something else altogether.

“I was just floating,” Coates said. “This was the big leagues.”

There were over 300 tables of sports collectibles. Baseball cards. Hockey cards. Autographs. Jerseys. Figures. Anything you can imagine. He walked up and down the rows, in complete awe. One vendor let him try on an authentic Oakland A’s sleeveless jersey from the 1960s. Later, he discovered Parkhurst hockey cards from the early 1950s. Those came home with him.

On later trips to White Plains he was on the other side of the aisle. A friend let him rent half of his table and he started selling from his collection.

This is where he often ran into Ralph Slate.

Slate was the guy always looking for hockey stats. The more obscure the better. Like some collectors try to complete a set of baseball cards from a certain year, Ralph was always looking to complete the set of stats from a certain league. The most effective route was to discover old programs or media guides from leagues all over the hockey ladder – the Central Hockey League, the USHL, the AHL, the IHL – anything that wasn’t covered in the NHL’s annual guide and record book.

Coates remembers finding programs from the Eastern Amateur Hockey league from the 1930s and knowing he’d have a buyer in Slate.

It was part hobby, part obsession. And now, Slate’s passion and dedication is a complete necessity.

“It sort of changed the world,” said a friend of Slate’s and fellow stat collector James Karkoski.

Ralph Slate is the creator of the Internet Hockey Database. Or as we all know it, It’s a website so ubiquitous in the world of hockey that it took Slate recently joining Twitter to remind people that there was an actual human being behind it, that it wasn’t just some automated entity gathering statistics from the clouds and into a search box.

Now, more than ever, we’re realizing just how important that human element is. That someone with an obsession for accuracy, for confirmation, for detecting bullshit is pulling the levers on a website everybody from NHL GMs to the newest fans uses daily.

The human behind the data, as it turns out, is everything.

It can be hard to pin down the origins of a life-long passion. Why do we love what we love? What drove Slate to travel throughout the northeast to find a program from a minor league hockey game four decades ago? Or to retrace the steps of a stats pioneer like Charles L. Coleman, who was commissioned by the NHL in the 1960s to write a book called The Trail of the Stanley Cup, detailing stats and data from the earliest days of the league?

Sometimes it’s a family connection, an attempt to reach up the branches of an ancestral story to connect with the past. Slate’s grandfather was a ballplayer. A relief pitcher named Harry Slate. In the 1920s, he bounced around in a B-league called the New England League, playing for teams like the Albany Senators, Nashua Millionaires and Brockton Shoemakers.

He was once called the strikeout king of the New England league by the Van Wert Daily Bulletin. He pitched for Springfield Technical High School, where he graduated in 1923.

A few years later, chasing his baseball dream, he’d allow 22 earned runs in 180 innings in the Eastern League.

All this statistical history is now easily available with a 30-second search on the internet. But to a kid who only knew that his grandfather was a professional baseball player from family stories, those numbers were a mystery.

Harry Slate died on January 29, 1958.

His grandson Ralph was born in 1969. Those innings pitched and strikeouts accumulated in the 1920s were already fading from baseball’s memory.

For most of time, that’s how it worked with the stats generated by athletes playing on the lower rungs of professional sports. They didn’t exist in one place. They only existed in yellowing newspapers, in game programs sitting in attics. Or in some cases, the collection of a passionate fan drawn to gathering them all in one place, in an attempt to centralize these numbers before they’re lost in time.

But mostly, they disappeared.

Ralph Slate remembers sitting in his dorm room with friends at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the early 1990s, and they would talk about old players from the hockey program, curious as to what happened to them when they left. Guys like Tony Hejna, Derek DeCosty, Ryan Kummu and Brian Ferreira – they loved watching them play for RPI. Then they found it really hard to track what happened next in their hockey careers.

An idea was sparked.

There had to be a better way to share sports history than late night conversations in the dorms or in media guides impossible to find.

Slate started to kick around the idea in his head that he could gather this data into one place. Maybe it was a book but that didn’t seem right. Especially in a time when the internet was just starting to launch.

At the time, there was an underground world of hockey stats collecting but it was still a very closed group. If you wanted obscure hockey stats, you had to offer something back. Verified statistics were mailed back and forth in negotiated deals.

James Karkoski, who now lives in Japan, was a part of that world. He’d get frustrated when the big stats collectors wouldn’t trade with him. He was reliant on the kindness of collectors who weren’t so stingy with the data. To help build out his collection, he’d write the NHL a letter asking for stats from specific seasons. They would photocopy the numbers and mail it back.

Karkoski connected with Slate, who was looking for RPI stats, and still remembers getting an email from him announcing his intentions of changing the way this stats underworld operated. “He said, ‘I’m going to put my database online,’” Karkoski said from Japan. “He wanted to collect data on players who went to RPI. When he told me he was going to put stuff up I said, ‘This is going to be different.’”

He was completely on board. Trading wasn’t going to be necessary. He was going to send anything he had to Slate to help build this public database.

“Open on the internet is better,” Karkoski said.

In 1997, nearly 40 years after Harry Slate died, HockeyDB was born.

With a steno pad yellow background and a picture of a goalie taken from an RPI program in the 1950s at the top, was launched with enthusiasm.

If you want historical information on hockey players or teams, you’ve come to the right place!

It wasn’t just stats. There were old hockey team logos, scanned in manually by Slate. There were hockey card checklists. It was early internet at its absolute best.

The NHL stats came from the annual guides. Slate would drive to the Night Owl News convenience store in Troy, New York, on Wednesdays when the latest issue of The Hockey News came out to look for more obscure stats. There were trips to White Plains, Toronto and Burlington, Massachusetts, for big collectibles shows to find obscure programs. There were trips to the library to search old newspapers on microfiche.

“It’s a lot of research, a lot of investigating, trying to make contacts,” Slate said. “People would email me and say, ‘I have this program,’ and I would scan it.”

For something that didn’t exist at any other point in history, the reception was exactly what you think it might be. People loved it.

He’d get emails from hockey fans saying it was the best thing they’d ever seen. Each day, there would be a new batch of emails waiting. Five or six emails each day early on. Much more as the word spread. The ratio of people who visited the website and then reached out personally was remarkably high.

They also contributed to it. The database grew and Slate focused both on filling it out and zeroing in on data to find even the most minute discrepancy.

“For the first couple of years, we had to recreate the early NHL stuff. There were researchers out there but people don’t realize the early information wasn’t kept well by the NHL then,” Slate said. “When they published their guys, if a player didn’t score or get a penalty, he didn’t get included in the list. It would say, ‘Here are the Bruins in 1935’ and it wasn’t a complete list … there are six missing players, guys who played two or three games and didn’t take any penalties.”

Finding those players, and adding them back into hockey history, became part of the fun. In recent years, the NHL has undergone a massive statistical overhaul in digitizing old scoresheets that updated their public database.

It also changed stats that data collectors found on their own through independent research.

“They’ve made it all electronically available, the data,” Slate said. “This is a really interesting thing, they’ve changed a lot of the numbers. Now, you come into the question – who is right? For 75 years, they were saying this player had this many assists. What’s right? I suppose the NHL is right because it’s their information. They’re going through a flux. It’s still all up in the air.”

That’s one of the challenges that has evolved. Another has been attempts by outsiders to change the numbers in the HockeyDB database. Sometimes it’s a simple correction in the bio. Slate once got an email from Zach Hyman’s father while Hyman was playing for the Hamilton Red Wings. The father wanted to share a more accurate height or weight. This happens all the time, especially when it comes to prospects who want to be drafted.

Sometimes, the attempts at changing the database aren’t as innocent.

He’s had people print out a hockey team’s webpage, change a name on the printout and mail it to him in order to try and get themselves included in the database. He’s had people Photoshop themselves into other statistical listings.

One time, someone sent a notarized letter from the State of Illinois saying that he had officially changed his name. He asked Slate to make the adjustment to his HockeyDB page, one that included stats from playing days at Western Michigan, to reflect his new name.

It all looked very official and legitimate. So the name was swapped out.

“A couple weeks later, I got an email from the original person – ‘How come my stuff is under a different name?’” Slate said.

He reached out to the first guy, who fessed up. He was going through a divorce and he wanted to coach his kid’s hockey team and they wouldn’t let him do it unless he could prove that he had playing experience. He knew a page on HockeyDB would do it.

“People go through amazing lengths,” Slate said. “That was one of the key moments.”

It’s not just hockey dads trying to change the data. Slate said a team executive reached out with inflated stats he wanted included on his page. They were close to the truth but didn’t mesh with the documentation Slate gathered in his research.

“The guy said, ‘Hey, I lived it. This is definitely the truth,’” Slate said. “Sorry, I need more than that.”

He’s become a guardian for accuracy. A protector of the data. More and more, that seems like such a necessity.

But the result is an ironclad trust between and the hockey world. There’s no second thought when any of us go to the website and type in a name for a quick stat. Or look for a draft result or award result. It’s a resource used by everyone.

But it’s not the only result of his work.

Now, because of the same statistical progression in other sports, his grandfather’s legacy is recorded for posterity. Click a link on Harry Slate’s baseball-reference page and it takes you to a page with an old black and white photo.

There he is, posing in what looks like a high school team picture from the 1920s. He sits on a folding chair, stockings pulled to the knee, a baseball glove no bigger than a small oven mitt covering his left hand resting on his lap. His small brimmed hat pulled down just above his eyes.

Harry Slate’s spot in baseball history is safe, staring back through time on a screen. Uploaded by a grandson he’d never meet.
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