Friday, March 20, 2015

He Didn't Go Out to Change the Game

    If you're not a hockey fan, or even a day-in, day-out hockey fan, the trending topic "Matthew Wuest" from twitter last night might have been slightly confusing. Wuest, who sadly passed away due to colon cancer, was the owner/founder/keeper of "CapGeek", a website that changed hockey forever.
   In the world of the salary cap, it became almost impossible for fans to track how close their team was to the cap, or how it was even allocated. Very few teams publicly disclosed salary information in their press releases, not understanding the value it has for the fans. CapGeek changed that. Not only did the site show how close (or far) a team was from the year's salary cap, but it did so in the most user-friendly way possible. And it went beyond even this... it possessed buyout calculators and allowed any fan to be the GM for their team and try out a number of wholly implausible scenarios and see how the numbers worked out. The NHL and the NHLPA would announce the salary cap limit, and NHL insiders would tell fans the length and AAV of a contract, but once the intricacies of the CBA came into play, so few could grasp the full picture. CapGeek did that, and changed the way hockey fans viewed the game.

   In an uncapped world, it was a matter of team budgets and what owners would be willing to spend to get their teams to the top. The cap brought in a level playing field for everyone, and fans wanted to see how GM's worked the cap and built the best team possible in those circumstances. As a consequence, fans then didn't just view player acquisition and movement from a purely hockey sense, now they viewed it also from a financial sense. Allocating $5.5 million in salary cap dollars for Dave Bolland for the next 6 seasons would have meant little without CapGeek, and the criticism Bolland has received for his production would also not be nearly as fierce if it wasn't for CapGeek.

   CapGeek made GM's responsible for the messes they made not only in the eyes of their owners, but now in the eyes of the fans too. They had the same picture that so many inside the game had possessed since the salary cap was instituted, but a fans perspective now put even more public pressure on GM's and players. The financials of the game became almost as important as the game on the ice.

   Wuest was a quiet and private man who, based on media accounts of him, was intensely proud of his creation, and had every reason to be. He didn't just earn the respect of all hockey fans and the media, but people inside the game trusted him not to editorialize this treasure trove of information he now possessed. And because of that, every bit of information on the site was correct, down to the smallest details such as the strength of a no-trade or no-movement clause. In a world where media and fans are tuned into opinions and "hot takes" more than ever, CapGeek managed to present the information to the fans and said "do with it what you will" and nothing more. The ease of use and the validation Wuest's site received from media, fans and hockey folk alike made it so revolutionary.

   Salary cap's are such an ingrained part of American sports now, that understanding them and their nuances is critical to fandom. The NBA's salary cap is a minefield of exceptions, contract limits and dead money while the NFL's is so vast and ungainly that the NFLPA has to release cap totals just to make sense of it all. And let's not even get started on the MLS salary cap, which fans know exist but that's about it (much like the NSA). So as CapGeek changed the way fans viewed hockey, it also changed the way fans viewed the salary cap. Wuest was even contemplating a CapGeek version for the NFL. No site that tries to track the salary caps of the NBA or NFL will even come close to being as user-friendly and game changing as CapGeek was.

   When Gary Bettman said recently that there was little to no public interest in an NHL O&O version of CapGeek, the response was almost unanimously, "what?" There are probably forces behind Bettman that made him make that statement, but coming in the clear influence of CapGeek, it made next to no sense. There is a hole in the NHL marketplace that CapGeek had and has not yet been filled. Whoever does will be viewed by so many as a hero. When ExtraSkater went offline last summer, many websites and people helped fill the void, but nothing has come up since CapGeek went offline due to Wuest's health problems in January.

   RIP Matthew Wuest. Sometimes the biggest revolutions come about out of nowhere. CapGeek certainly changed the game.

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