The secret life and death of a hockey analytics pioneer

TORE PURDY PROBABLY would have hated this article. He wouldn't have been nasty about it -- in the often contentious world of analytics blogging, he was respected by his colleagues for not being mean or vitriolic -- but he would have been frustrated by the attempt to smooth 28 years of raw human data into a readable history about a pioneering analytics blogger and beloved brother and son. Purdy once told a friend that "the narrative rarely tells the story," and it was that core belief -- that facts are stubborn, that narrative is often a clumsy attempt to smooth the rough brambles -- that underscored his work.

Yet 2013-14 was the most important year yet in the brief history of hockey analytics, and that's a narrative Purdy had a hand in creating. That season, many analytics proponents united behind a controversial prediction: The Toronto Maple Leafs, despite an early hot streak, had terrible puck possession metrics and were headed for certain collapse. Tensions between the small but vocal analytics community, long ignored by much of the hockey world, and the traditionalists -- GMs, players, coaches, old-school reporters -- were forced into the open. "People run with these stats like they're something we should pay attention to and make decisions on, and as of right now, very few of them are worth anything to us," then-Leafs general manager Dave Nonis said.

But as the season stretched on, the Leafs started playing exactly as the analytics predicted. They finished the 2013-14 season with a 2-12 streak that was widely read as a triumph of the nerds. What happened next became known as the "summer of fancy stats." Years after MLB and NBA teams began hiring analytics writers for front-office roles, NHL teams started scooping up some of the same bloggers and analysts who'd criticized their decision-making. Less than a year after Nonis' dismissive comments, the Leafs hired three statistical analysts. All of a sudden, the stat guys were being taken seriously.

It should have been a moment for unequivocal celebration. But just as the summer of fancy stats was getting underway, the community took a massive blow: Tore Purdy, one of the most important pioneers of hockey analytics, a guy who should have had his pick of NHL jobs, died at 28. For the analytics writers who considered Purdy a pioneer of the field, the news made their triumph bittersweet. "Basically everything that we do now was built upon the foundation that he laid," says Travis Yost, who writes about hockey analytics for TSN.

FOR YEARS, THE hockey analytics community has lived almost entirely online, communicating via email or their blogs or a Yahoo group. Until the summer of fancy stats, many writers who had talked regularly for years didn't know anything about one another outside their work. Until they learned of Purdy's death, most of his fellow bloggers never even knew his name.

In this world, Tore Purdy was known exclusively as JLikens, the brilliant author of the blog Objective NHL.

Years after the Moneyball revolution, the NHL lagged miserably behind other sports in adopting analytics, and there were only a handful of writers -- Tyler Dellow, Gabriel Desjardins, Tim Barnes (writing as Vic Ferrari) and JLikens among them -- doing groundbreaking work. JLikens first came onto the blogging scene in 2008, launching Objective NHL with an article that briefly and elegantly disproved the commonly cited correlation between NHL goalies' save percentages and shots against. "There is absolutely no evidence that high shot totals have an inflationary effect on goaltender save percentage. Why, then, is it often argued that such a relationship exist[s]?" he wrote in the post. "More than anything else, the phenomenon seems to be driven by wishful thinking on the part of the claimants, a disproportionate number of whom belong to certain fan bases. I'll say no more."

From there, he quickly built a body of work that blazed a trail for the practitioners of advanced stats who came after him. "It's people like JLikens who laid the foundation. If there's a Mount Rushmore of hockey analytics, he'd be on it for sure," Yost says.

JLikens' grasp on mathematical modeling was strong, which enabled him to tackle the big questions -- questions that would seem merely rhetorical to the average right-brained reader, like "how often does the best team win?" He would pose a question that seemed unanswerable and then meticulously set about deriving a formula, running the numbers and coming up with the charts and tables he needed to prove it. JLikens presented his findings in the dispassionate, clinical tone of a researcher: "It turns out that the best team wins the cup 22 percent of the time -- about once every five seasons," he wrote, before outlining in detail the limitations of his research.

"He was certainly one of the first people to really get into doing what I call the hard proofs," says Dellow, another early analytics blogger, who now works for the Edmonton Oilers. "A lot of us would have ideas and kick them around. He came at it from a harder math angle, trying to prove some of the stuff."

A single JLikens article could articulate a subject-level mastery many people would struggle to convey over the course of their lifetime, and his blog felt like essential reading to anyone interested in advanced metrics. His breakthroughs helped spearhead the idea of studying statistics in games when the score was close, because leading teams tend to play more passively. He also advanced the idea of scorekeepers' home-rink bias and showed how significantly a team's stats can change depending on whether it's chasing or protecting a late lead.

"He basically verified everything we were doing in a rigorous statistical manner, in a way that made you comfortable with the results," says Benjamin Wendorf, a writer for The Hockey News. Concepts that hockey analysts now use regularly -- puck possession and how it's measured, shooting percentage regressions, shot quality -- "are only spoken about so confidently because a lot of his work has held up."

Most of JLikens' commenters were enthusiastic about his work, but when someone was uncivil, he wouldn't take the bait. Instead, he'd patiently dismantle the other guy's argument, burying him under an avalanche of facts. The only time he expressed impatience was when someone said something vague or euphemistic, like "good teams make their own luck." "What does that even mean?" he'd shoot back, before returning to his preferred mode of fact-based argument.

"A lot of people, when they're geniuses, like to use that to tell everyone else why they're wrong and flawed," says Rob Vollman, who runs the analytics site Hockey Abstract and contributes to ESPN. "He was purely seeking out insights. He'd never get distracted with what someone else was doing wrong." The passion in JLikens' work came through in its complexity, in the hours he'd clearly spent painstakingly running models and putting his posts together. "He'd be trying to answer a question with numbers and then just along the way he'd invent or create or discover or innovate something amazing, almost off-handedly, as an aside," Vollman says. "He'd create something that someone else would have to devote a lot of time to target. It was really a genius that he had."

THIS IS NOT the story Purdy would have written, with its reliance on memories of family and admirers who never fully knew him. He'd say there were too many missing facts about what happened in his life that made him conclude he couldn't go on. He'd resist the idea that his story could be reduced to the tragedy of a young genius who could see so much possibility in the work he created, but not in his own life.

Little is known about his death. His parents say they don't know why he took his life, and they don't want to speculate publicly about the private details of a personal matter. But here are some facts about Tore Purdy's life: He was born on Dec. 20, 1985, in Edmonton, Alberta, a twin who from an early age proved to be a highly unusual little boy. As a child he became obsessed with time, asking his parents for an analog clock for Christmas and wearing an armful of wristwatches around the house. At 3, his mother, Joyce, remembers that he would call out the makes and models of passing cars as she pointed them out. At 4 and a half, they say, he had figured out the multiplication tables up to nine. Where first it was time, cars, and country capitals, as a young adult Purdy became obsessed with psychology, genealogy, genetics and Ukrainian history.

"When he did things with numbers, that was cute. We just thought, 'Well, he's adding nine on, and that's laudable,'" Joyce says. "When he got a bit older, it became apparent to his father, Ray, that Tore had eidetic memory. That remarkable ability to recall detail usually goes away in adults, but in Tore, something like it persisted into adulthood. The father and son were Canadiens fans, and every year they'd attend Oilers-Canadiens games together. Up until Purdy's death, Ray says, "he could tell you who scored all the goals in the games when he was 8 years old. It was just unbelievable."

In school, he excelled in the subjects that interested him, but wasn't the type of student to get hung up on acing every test. "His interests were really narrow," says Jerome Shiu, another longtime friend. He studied history in college and took statistics and calculus because they were easy for him, but he ultimately decided to skip past graduation and go straight to law school. "I think the intellectual truth of what he was into really mattered to him," says his twin brother, also named Ray. "It was really important to have integrity in what he believed and how he supported it. I don't know too many people like that it."

Purdy's unusual gifts didn't make him antisocial. He had light blue eyes and "this crooked mischievous smile," says one of his childhood friends, Matthew Whitman, like he knew a secret and was waiting for everyone else to catch on. He always looked much younger than he was, but he had a deep voice that belied both his age and his wry sense of humor -- he'd borrow a friend's credit card for lunch, then much later casually rattle off the number to him to let his buddy know he hadn't forgotten it. But he was also intensely loyal, the kind of friend who would pick you up for high school every day and come over after to apologize if one day he wasn't able to make it.

He was crazy about playing sports, too, and would spend his summers organizing games among the neighborhood kids. There was a rink near the family home that a neighbor would flood in the winter, and in November Tore could frequently be seen going to check whether it was frozen yet. Sometimes his mother would take the dog out and see her son alone on the ice, with his goalie net and hockey jersey on, skating around in minus-25-degree weather. In a eulogy, his brother Ray Jr. wrote, "Christmas or birthdays, Tore invariably asked for jerseys, balls, pucks, cards. Our house was full of sticks, gloves and pads that were threadbare and well-worn in the service of Tore's relentless pursuit of the perfect pass, shot, play. While he played many sports, at his core, Tore was a hockey player. He practiced endlessly in the street, in the rink, in the basement."

After he passed away, when Purdy's father went to clean out his car, he found a monument to his son's sports obsession. "There was a football, a baseball and a glove, three tennis rackets, several sleeves of tennis balls, five hockey sticks, a hockey bag and a soccer ball. He just carried all that stuff all the time," Ray says.

MUCH AS HIS fellow bloggers were entirely in the dark about his life online, Purdy's family had no idea that he had become one of the most influential hockey bloggers on the planet. Joyce remembers one year, when the family was at its vacation home in Phoenix for Christmas, Purdy spent considerable time at the dining room table, plugging away on his laptop. Ordinarily, he was the first one ready whenever someone wanted to play tennis or go for a walk, but this year he was too busy to play. A few months later, Joyce read what he'd been writing on his blog and thought, "That is what he was doing at the dining room table? He didn't talk about it very much."

"He'd never brag about anything," his friend Mark Graham says. "He'd let you find out about it in other ways." Although he would light up when talking about the work on his blog, very few people outside his online community of analysts understood it. "Tore was passionate about things, but you never got the sense that he was passionate about anything until you knew him well," his father says. "He would never say, 'Oh, I love doing this' -- but you'd just see it." Says his mother, "We didn't realize until after his passing that he'd been considered a pioneer."

The blog post in which Purdy asked and answered how often the best team wins was his last -- he decided to abandon the blog when the writing workload for law school became too heavy. Eventually he stopped showing up in other people's comment threads, too. After graduating, Purdy joined the law firm where his father was a partner and quickly established himself as a research expert. "He was able to really analyze complex legal issues, research them and come up with a solution that was not only beyond his years but kind of the level of legal reasoning that many lawyers just don't have ever," says Ron Nelson, a partner at the firm who mentored him.

He lived in a spartan apartment in Edmonton and played ice hockey with his friends in a recreational league. Toward the end of his life, he was considering whether he might leave his legal career and pursue a job in statistics. "I wish he could have had a job doing that," his mother says now, her voice breaking. "He would have loved that."

SENSING A MAJOR moment for the community, Vollman decided to organize a hockey analytics conference last year. "We all knew things were about to explode," he says. "We wanted to get together to figure out what we were going to do about it and how we fit in."

Vollman didn't think much of it when he didn't get an RSVP for the conference from the blogger known as JLikens. Some writers grew out of blogging for free. Others grew tired of the nastiness that is an inevitable side effect of writing on the Internet. A lucky few would get hired by NHL teams -- until last summer, teams generally didn't make announcements about hiring analysts. Or there could have been an even simpler explanation. "He could have been busy with life. We all have day jobs," Vollman thought.

In May, roughly a dozen analytics enthusiasts gathered in a glass-and-brick start-up space in Edmonton for the inaugural Alberta Analytics Conference. The conference was intended to celebrate the writers' recent successes, but it was also a chance for like-minded people who knew each other only online to meet face-to-face. There were sessions on the application of analytics to fantasy sports and broadcast media, and presentations of original work of analysts tracking different teams. And then there was a terrible announcement from one attendee, the only person who had known JLikens offline. JLikens, he said, was Tore Purdy, a lawyer who lived in Edmonton. He had died a month earlier at age 28.

The news hit hard. "It was sort of a shocking revelation," says Bruce McCurdy, who covers hockey for Purdy's hometown Edmonton Journal but had no idea they lived in the same city. "It took a while for the dots to be connected. A 28-year-old kid with all this brilliance -- gone."

Vollman took to Twitter to break the news, and soon tributes to JLikens flooded in. "JLikens did a lot of the grunt work and wrote at a blog that the vast, vast majority of people who read blogs and read stat stuff will never have heard of. ... This really is shockingly awful," wrote Dellow. "How much impact did JLikens have? Enough that I was genuinely excited when he once showed up to comment that he liked something I wrote. JLikens was one of the people who did the really hard work of finding the path. The rest of us are just going down it," said Eric Tulsky, writer of the blog Outnumbered. "JLikens/Purdy was ~24 when he wrote one of the most important piece[s] ever on hockey analytics," Corey Pronman, a writer for ESPN, wrote, linking to one of his posts on even-strength outshooting and team quality.

It was the conference that finally closed the loop between the two halves of Tore Purdy's life. Just after his fellow writers found out who he had been offline, their posts about him let his family know just how influential he had been. "I guess because I didn't understand, really I had no idea," his mother says. "I was just so proud. I was amazed. It was just kind of a gift at the end of May to read all that."

It was "wild but not surprising," his dad says. "He was just so gifted. Tore wouldn't do something half-assed. He would have to be leading the charge in some way. I was just really proud of it, but not really surprised, you know? Just because of the way he lived."

And although they never got to meet him, the group that organized the May analytics conference was still determined to pay tribute to his impact. When the conference met for a second time last fall, it was under a new name: Objective NHL Alberta.