Over the off-season, we will be putting focus on some of the invaluable resources we reference throughout the year. As the free agent frenzy came and went, and with the dust settling on team composition, there is no more fitting site to focus on than CapFriendly.
With the advent of of the salary cap in the National Hockey League in 2004 to help restore parity after escalating player salaries, there came a secondary market, unaffiliated with the NHL, of salary-tracking web services. Their complexity grew from simple static spreadsheets to fully dynamic databases with multiple features, views, and options.
Many of these sites, like CapGeek (founded by the late Matthew Wuest) and General Fanager sprang up and became indispensable tools for not only fans, but teams started taking notice as well. Some of those who ran these sites started to get snapped up by NHL teams to help with their own financial and contractual concerns.
Oddly enough, Gary Bettman stated in an interview with ESPN in 2015 that he didn’t think that fans had any interest in a cap tracker sponsored by the league. “I don’t think it’s a resource we need to provide because I’m not sure fans are as focused on what players make as they are about their performance on the ice.” You might say he misjudged his demographic’s augmenting interests in the numbers side of the product.
The current standard-bearer for all matters pertaining to the Collective Bargaining Agreement and salary cap navigation is CapFriendly. We reached out to the mouthpiece for the site, Dominik, to talk a bit more about the service and pull back the curtain a little bit on the operation that started off as a pet project and turned into ... well, it’s still growing and morphing, and has not reached its final form yet, to his delight.
Dominik prefers a certain level of anonymity, so he’s requested that his full identity remain on the down-low. Let’s just sort of romanticise that he’s some sort of counter-cultural Banksy of the CBA world, contrasting with Bettman’s more traditional view.
When did you start the site, and what was your initial vision?
We started working on building the site around February of 2015, a few weeks after CapGeek went offline. We then officially launched the site on June 1, 2015.
My initial vision for CapFriendly was quite simple: I planned to enter everything into an Excel spreadsheet to maintain and track each team. I honestly had no intention of putting it online; it was just something to keep me busy while I was in between projects. It was a friend who is a web developer who said ‘give me what you have’ and he’d turn it into a database with a few tables and build me a website to display it all. I guess you could say that that was the beginning of the end.
Once the site was live, everything started moving extremely quickly and we couldn’t keep up: The developer didn’t have the time to keep adding or updating the website based on the users’ requests and demands. Due to this, I was contemplating shutting the website down.
That’s when the guys from Hockey’s Cap (another cap site) reached out to see if I’d be interested in merging what I had with what they had already built. They already had a lot of great features and information, but were missing a few things that my site was able to provide. We merged in February of 2016, and have been working together ever since.
Who is your favourite team?
Growing up in Montreal you probably didn’t have too many friends if you weren’t a Montreal Canadiens fan. I followed them religiously for years. But after we launched the site, I knew I wouldn’t be doing the site justice if I cheered for or supported a specific team or teams, and the rest of the team took on the same mindset. We all took a less biased approach in everything we did, and everything we saw; one that would allow us to look at a trade or signing not as fan of a team we loved or hated.
Was it hard to get information at first?
It definitely wasn’t easy at first, but I cold-called a lot of people, introducing myself and explaining why I was calling, as well as what I was trying to do, and if they’d be willing to help. I started with small questions because I knew I would need to gain people’s trust. Once that trust was established, and they saw that we were committed to the site and willing to work hard, they were willing to help even more.
I think that these people also saw the value in having a site like CapFriendly around, and how helping us now would hopefully provide them with something they could potentially reference in the future. I’d like to think that we’ve gotten to a point where our site does offer clubs, agents, and media a bit of help through the tools and information we provide.
Now, we will on occasion get an email or message saying ‘hey, you’re missing something,’ and then help us correct it. But for the most part we understand that many of the people we have the privilege of speaking with are very busy and don’t have time to be looking at our site with the goal of flagging issues. Most of the time it’s up to us to do our own digging and track down anything we might be missing.
Do you have a legal background to be able to navigate the CBA?
I myself do not. I have a degree in Computer Sciences, but out of school I immediately got hired as a Quality Assurance tester for a company, and then quickly moved on to my current role as a Systems and Process Analyst. That background is what really helped me in my understanding the CBA and the salary cap.
To give you an example, one of the first things I did prior to launching the site is take the CBA, break it down and parse it into different sections based on what I felt was relevant or important, and then piece it all back together again in a simpler and much easier format that all could understand.
I’ve probably read through the entire CBA. I have a copy of it on my desk filled with highlighted sections, hand written notes and different colour post-it notes. I then took all that and wrote my own CBA for dummies. I then sent it off page-by-page to various people around the league to check what I wrote and confirm its validity in order to ensure my understanding was correct. The result is a living document that I use almost every day, and that I constantly add to anytime I learn or come across something new.
How much staff do you have?
We’re five in total. We each play a different role but complement each other very well. For example, my main role is networking: tracking down the information, building relationships and partnerships that help push the site forward. My goal is to ensure we have a thorough and accurate understanding of the player’s contracts and the NHL/NHLPA CBA, as well as working closely with our lead developer when designing, building, and maintaining tools and features.
What was the tipping point for you where you realized that CF was taking off?
The first time we knew this was something was the first time we crashed. It was the Dion Phaneuf trade from Toronto to Ottawa on February 9, 2016. We had seen a steady climb in our traffic to the site, but the moment that trade broke we saw a spike that crashed the site for about an hour.
It told us two things. The first was that fans were really interested in and cared about the information we were providing on the site. The second was that we needed to upgrade our servers.
How many servers are you running? How often did you have to upgrade servers, and is everything stored locally or do you upload to a remote data farm somewhere?
We are currently using a single dedicated server. With the large amounts of traffic we have been receiving lately (an extreme being the Tavares to Toronto signing) we are looking at another server upgrade. Since launch we have upgraded our server situation four times.
What is your favourite feature on the site?
To steal a quote from Enzo Ferrari, “the one that has yet to be built.” I get so excited when working on a new feature that it instantly becomes my favourite one. Then when we launch it, my mind is already on the next thing or how we can make this new thing even better. We have a lot of tools and features, but for everything we have on the site I’d say we have just as much that’s not public-facing that only we know about, and even more in the pipeline with some ideas that we have. The only bottleneck is time.
What future developments are you planning?
We have some really exciting stuff coming, but the one that we’re all really proud of is the French version of our site which, after a couple delays, we finally feel should be ready for September/October. Being from Quebec, I always knew that launching a French version of our site was a must. The only problem is that we didn’t realize what a huge undertaking it would be. Translating all of our CBA explanations took quite a bit of time and effort. But it’s almost done, and we can’t wait to release it.
Did you expect CapFriendly to grow to being the industry standard?
I don’t know if it will ever get to that point. It’s definitely a useful tool, but there will always be something missing or ways we can improve or make it better.
Eyes On The Prize would like to extend our gratitude to Dominik for taking the time to speak with us, and for letting us glimpse, ever so slightly, the inner workings of his world.