In Conversation: Rachel Doerrie
Rachel Doerrie wants to be a general manager in the National Hockey League.
She's a video coach for the Sudbury Wolves in the Ontario Hockey League, and runs the popular blog The 1st Pass. Through thousands of hours of video analysis, she has learned to read, analyze, and develop the game at a high level. I spoke to Rachel about hockey media, the state of the modern NHL, and how narratives shape how we view both the game and the players who shape it.
I think I was destined for it.
I always had this ability to remember stats. I always had an affinity for sports. Once I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to play hockey for a career, I started to think about how I could stay involved in sports. That’s how I found the Laurentian program. The dream of being a General Manager has been with me since I was in grade nine, but it was only a dream until I started to map out how I could actually get there.
Was there something about video coaching that drew you specifically?
I didn't know that video coaches existed.
I never really thought about the coaching side of things, until a coach of mine suggested it. The person who was the video coach [current job] was resigning, and he knew some of the work I had done, and he had approached me and asked if I was interested. I met with the coaching staff, ended up wanting the job, and started that day.
I never watched hockey the way I do now. In a way it’s been kind of ruined for me, because I watch the games from a specific coaching perspective and I can’t turn that part of brain off
I was only supposed to be there for one season. Now I’m training my replacement, who’s doing all of the Sudbury games, while I travel with the team when I can. It has really been a stepping stone into analyzing video. I never watched hockey the way I do now. In a way it’s been kind of ruined for me, because I watch the games from a specific coaching perspective and I can’t turn that part of brain off when I watch hockey on TV.
It’s all about the eye test. How I trained myself to watch the video is to not watch the puck. I’m watching how the players are set up, whether they’re following the coach’s system, or if we get scored on, finding where the breakdown was. We’ll do that from a team perspective - maybe why the power play wasn’t effective, or the penalty kill. If you want to break it down individually, you have to look at if their in the right position, if they’re doing something they don’t realize. You can even take it to individual skills - skating, decision making, positioning.
There are times when we make tweaks to the system based on a player. If there’s a point at which a player is supposed to pressure, and let’s say that player isn’t the best skater, we’ll work on his skating but we’ll also give him a different path to the puck. It’s still effective, and it helps players avoid becoming a liability to the system as a whole.
How do you feel about how people normally talk about hockey? Hockey talk can be pretty divisive.
There are days…
I’m on twitter fairly often. I’m careful about what I respond to, because I’m cognizant of the fact that I represent an organization. I’m also representing myself and my family. There are times when I’m on twitter and I’m reading things that are just ridiculous. Some of the ‘hot takes’… The thing that annoys me the most right now is the analytics/non-analytic people, because they work so hard to make it a fight. It doesn’t have to be that way. Somebody quoted me, I think it was Charting Hockey (Sean Tierney), saying ‘we have all these tools, whether it’s the eye test or systems analysis, why don’t we use all of them? Because if you don’t use these tools, you may as well not have them.’ I think the conversation, especially on social media, revolves around people fighting because they see the game differently. What they should be doing is working together to marry what they both believe in because that will give you the optimal result. The more tools you have, the better off you’ll be.
Within the context of the NHL there are decisions that coaches make that I don’t necessarily agree with, but I can back up that opinion and support it. You have people saying this person shouldn’t be playing, and this person should, say Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick in Toronto, and saying that Marincin should be playing instead because of the numbers. The numbers do say that, but I’m also saying that from an eye test standpoint, Polak and Hunwick do some things that Corrado and Marincin don’t. You have to use everything.
I won’t get into the masculinity debate surrounding hockey, but it’s safe to say that it annoys me. I think people in hockey can be so old fashioned. We need to be more open to new ideas because that’s how we evolve and learn.
At least in my experience, those new ideas have resulted in more information for the viewers. I think that makes the game more exciting.
I think that with the numbers and charts and visualizations, people who are new to the numbers and aren’t mathematicians, it allows you to see very quickly and easily whether a player is performing well or not. The thing about numbers is that they’re completely unbiased. They’re just numbers. The eye test involves some level of bias, so the numbers give you something else to work off of.
I was involved in a legal competition that dealt with mock NHL salary arbitrations. One of the judges, former GM Brian Burke, apparently has some very strong views about relying on hits as an important statistic, since different arenas count different things as hits. It seems like even some numbers can’t escape some level of bias.
I’ll give you an example.
Whoever the shot counter is for the New York Islanders - I’ve never seen so many shots being given out. Every game in that building ends up with a shot count of around 42-39. There’s no way that the New York Islanders have 42 shots a night. There’s no way. That’s why I depend on shot attempts than actual shots. For me, a shot attempt is pretty black and white, whereas with a shot on net involves some interpretation. You see goalies catching pucks that would never had hit the net, but they count it. That’s not a shot on net. Shot attempts are more accurate. Same thing with hits - I don’t even look at the hit counter because I find it to be wildly inaccurate.
There are certain numbers that are biased. It all depends on the tracker in the arena.
It sounds like you and Brian Burke would get along great.
I like most of what he says. There are things, like the whole ‘truculence’ thing - it’s a little out there. I think the game is going in a different direction now. Look at guys like Johnny Gaudreau, Mitch Marner, Patrick Kane. With the speed of the game it caters more to the faster, smaller, skilled players. The big guys can’t keep up.
Do you think it’s fair that players get labelled with only one or two traits?
Do I think it’s fair? Not totally.
Hockey is, in terms of personality, the most boring sport on earth.
When I look at the players I’ve had the privilege to work with in Sudbury, or friends who play in the NHL, they’re different when they’re in front of a camera than when we’re playing road hockey.
Hockey players are so reserved in the media, because everyone says something they get destroyed in the media. In the NBA, NFL, MLB, you have players speaking their mind all of the time. Look at what Richard Sherman did this year. Richard Sherman is a good football player. You would never see someone like Toews or Crosby or Monahan speak so openly. I wish they would. The blame lies partly with the media and partly with the fans. We’re so unjustly hard on players. If I was a player, I’d be really careful about what I said. Even for me, I want to be a GM, and I understand that what I say to the public is going to be very toned down compared to what I would say in private. When I look at the players I’ve had the privilege to work with in Sudbury, or friends who play in the NHL, they’re different when they’re in front of a camera than when we’re playing road hockey. I’ll give you two examples - David Levin and Dmitri Sokolov.
David Levin has a neat story, he came over from Israel. I can easily say I have not met a more polite kid in hockey, maybe my entire life. He’s so reserved in front of the camera, and partly because english is his second language. When you get to know him, he is a delight to be around. He’s a great teammate. Dmitri is the same way. There’s often this negative narrative around Russian players, but Dmitri is the total opposite of that. He’ll see people around the rink and want to catch up and ask about family, and he takes a genuine interest in people. That’s something that a lot of fans don’t get to see. These players genuinely care. I don’t think the media does a good enough job showing that side of the game.
Anytime we get any player saying anything remotely interesting, it gets dissected and twisted. Maybe if we got more personality in the game all at once people would get over it. Until then, I can understand why players are so hesitant.
They definitely are.
When Connor [McDavid] came out and was talking about Brandon Manning and what he said on the ice regarding a particular hit, that made the news for two weeks straight. All he did was tell the truth. It’s hard for players to speak openly when they’re on the front page of the newspaper for four days. When we put our players through media training, we also say to make sure what you’re saying can’t be misconstrued, because I guarantee you it will be.
It’s the reason why hockey twitter is what it is.
What about reducing a player to one or two on-ice traits?
It’s not a fair assessment at all.
I watch thousands of hours of video, whether NHL or in Sudbury. You can’t make a qualified opinion on a player if you’ve only watched them once or twice. I have a rule of thumb - I take notes when I watch a player or team, and I won’t form any sort of opinion until I’ve watched them at least ten times. Then I’ll look back at my notes and form my opinion on that.
Auston Matthews was billed as a two-way, Anze Kopitar type of player.
That’s all we heard about last season.
Auston Matthews is not an Anze Kopitar type of player.
His shot is like Joe Sakic. The guy is on pace for forty goals. Anze Kopitar hasn’t sniffed forty in his career.
He’s a dog on the puck, and he get’s it back - dare I say it - almost like Pavel Datsyuk does. Kopitar doesn’t quite have that.
He does have that two-way ability, like Kopitar does, but he is far more offensive.
Well you can be a great skater and read the play well, but if you can’t pass the puck, what are you doing for me?
He displays so many traits that he’s not just a two-way centre. He’s been a scoring dynamo. That’s why I can’t stand when people say player x is a stay-at-home defenseman, or he’s a great skater and he reads the play well. Well you can be a great skater and read the play well, but if you can’t pass the puck, what are you doing for me? I think people stick to two or three traits that stand out, and that does the player a great injustice.
To some extent even Sidney Crosby gets that. If someone can find me even one weakness in Crosby’s game, I’d love to see it, yet he get’s billed as an explosive puck-protecting playmaker. Last I checked, he was leading the league in goals. Players are more well-rounded than most people think they are, you just have to take the time to watch them.
I remember watching a particular New Jersey Devils game- Ilya Kovalchuk had the puck on a two on one. The other Devils player was Anton Volchenkov - talk about a stay-at-home defensman. Kovalchuk had the puck and everyone is screaming for him to shoot because he’s Kovalchuk and, well, that’s Volchenkov.
Kovalchuk passed it, and Volchenkov ripped the puck and scored what was probably his only goal that season. It seems like at that level you need to have at least a certain level of proficiency with every tool in the NHL.
Exactly. Look at Erik Karlsson. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone rip on him because he’s “not good defensively”. I’ve give them this - that might have been true at the beginning on his career. Now though, he can go from attack to defence and from defence to attack quicker than anyone in the league. The only other player who’s even close is Brent Burns. Karlsson is so good at suppressing shots because he always has the puck. I’m of the mind that the best to protect the lead is possess the puck, and people don’t give him enough credit. He plays the penalty kill, so he can’t be that bad.
There isn’t always the interest to get past the simple two-trait way of thinking.
There isn’t always an appetite for change or adjustments or new ideas.
I have some things that I believe, but I’ll always ask someone to explain their point of view because (a) I might be able to learn from it and (b) it might open my eyes up to a different perspective. We need to be willing to listen to different perspectives.
People who don’t think Erik Karlsson is good defensively probably won’t ever think Erik Karlsson is good defensively, because they won’t listen. That comes from an older mentality where you’re only looking for one or two traits. Now, there’s so much information available to you and you have to adjust.
Is there still a case to be made for viewing people as role players?
Yes, but I think the definition of role player has changed.
With the way the game has changed in even the past five years, role players are less the Colton Orr type, and more speed - more Leo Komorov and Cal Clutterbuck than Ben Smith and Matt Martin. They’re speedy, good defensively. They don’t bleed shots. They don’t get caved in possession-wise. They can keep up.
Fighting is leaving the game. The function of the role player now is more speed and a good forecheck. It’s an energy line. It’s about being well-rounded.
There’s a more positive way to talk about that. Every player has a role, they’re all role players. Instead of calling out those specific types of players as being “role players”, we can talk about them in terms of utility. A lot of them play two positions, and they’re pretty versatile. The difference between a third or fourth line player and a first line player is that the first line player has something, usually scoring, that they do really well. Alex Ovechkin has his scoring, and who wouldn’t want him on their team. Someone like Leo Komorov can score, but not at the Ovechkin’s rate, but he’s also good in his own end. Koivu isn’t going to score you eighty-five points, but he’s one of the best face-off men in the league, and he’s probably not going to get scored on, and he’ll get you a decent amount of points.
It’s even more frustrating hearing people describe a player based on one or two traits when those traits might not even be accurate. Talking about Matthews, hearing him described as a responsible two-way player, and being in the stands when he scored the overtime winner at the Centennial Classic on a backhand shot most players have no business scoring on - it just doesn’t do him justice.
I was there too.
On that play in particular, he displayed so many different skills. He made an excellent pass to Jake Gardiner, great vision to even see Gardiner there. His skating threw off the defence and opened up space and a path to the net, and then he scored the goal on his backhand. That’s four different skills on display in seven seconds.
There’s more to players than what we most easily see.