Q&A: CapFriendly’s founders on signing trends, building an online giant

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (16) centre John Tavares (91) and left wing Andreas Johnsson (18) congratulate centre Auston Matthews (34) after he scored in the third period of pre-season NHL hockey against the Montreal Canadiens in Toronto on Wednesday, September 25, 2019. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

TORONTO — Long before they launched what wound up an online staple for hockey lovers, CapFriendly’s founding duo’s earliest forays in the sport looked much like those of the players whose names eventually populated their site.

Early trips to the rink, and an unfiltered love of the game.

“I was introduced to skating at three years old,“ says Jamie Davis, one half of the duo at the head of the CapFriendly operation. “I started playing Timbits hockey when I was four or five, played competitive hockey, so I’ve been playing my whole life. Both my brothers were the same. They’ve been playing hockey and skating pretty much since they could stand and walk.”

The same goes for the website’s original founder, Dominik (who requested his last name be omitted). “Very similar for me,” he says. “I played hockey as a kid, I would watch hockey all the time — Saturday nights were always Hockey Night with my dad, watching the Habs here in Montreal. … As I got a little bit older, that would translate into collecting hockey cards, because I wanted to get to know more about my favourite players and my favourite clubs.”

That was where it all began. Before websites like CapFriendly became the corner of the internet at which NHL fans’ interest often pools, the relationship between them and the players they loved was restricted to the tangible — hockey cards, posters, a signed stick here and there. The past few decades have changed that relationship significantly, though, and when it comes to the financial side of the game, it was one site in particular that altered a generation’s interest in the league.

“That was the way to know more about these guys. And then time went on and things evolved and sites like CapGeek came out, and introduced us to new ways to fall in love with our favourite game, with our favourite clubs and our favourite players,” says Dominik of the late Matthew Wuest’s seminal cap-focused site.

“That was just like candy for me — I soaked it all in.”

He was far from alone, as the proliferation of NHL salary information unlocked a new avenue for fan engagement with the game. And it was always about far more than just understanding how hefty a paycheque star players were collecting.

“It allows the average fan to play the role of GM, the role of coach, to see how he or she thinks that they could do better,” says Dominik. “Everything that’s come out over the years, all the new ways for fans to interact with their favourite clubs, it’s given them an opportunity to fall in love with their favourite players and their favourite teams all over again.”

Nearly five years into their effort to spur that love story via CapFriendly, the preeminent source for fans looking to indulge in the financial side of the game, Dominik and Jamie spoke to Sportsnet about the journey of building the online giant.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: It’s incredible to see how much the site has grown and the level it’s reached — what was the first moment for each of you where it dawned on you just how big this was getting?

Jamie: For me personally it was the day that Dion Phaneuf was traded from Toronto to Ottawa, because our site went down. And it went down hard. That was the first time we ever had an issue with dealing with scale, the scalability of a website. So that’s when I kind of realized, ‘Oh, we might have something here.’

Dominik: I think on my end, it was gradual. It was always around, how much interest there was in player contracts and the salary cap. Just watching the daily traffic on the site and seeing how the progression chart was always a constant up arrow — there was no up and then down and then back up again. It was one direction and one direction only. We continue to see that every year. This is going to be five years in June, and every year we think, ‘Oh this is unbelievable, we’ve hit x amount of users or x amount of page views this year, whoever thought that would be done. It’s probably going to start flat-lining a little bit.’ And then the next year rolls around and we just completely obliterate those numbers and we’re shocked all over again.

SN: Take us back to the beginning — how did CapFriendly begin and how did you two decide to work together?

Dominik: I started CapFriendly — or the idea of CapFriendly — in January 2015, shortly after CapGeek went down. Obviously, CapGeek was the site in terms of the salary cap, CBA, player contracts. When it went down, I kind of found myself lost in terms of where to go to find that information that, as a fan, I really valued. I thought it was something I could take on.

In the beginning, it wasn’t really something I planned on having go up on the web or become what CapGeek was — it was more really for myself, for the challenge, if you will, to see if I could do it. So I started building it with a friend of mine who helped me out on the development side. We launched in June of 2015 and it quickly started to gain traction — we started to get quite a few followers right off the bat. I think in our first day, our Twitter had somewhere in the range of 5,000-6,000 followers.

It quickly escalated — in terms of time and effort, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the beginning. But I quickly realized how much work it was.

That’s actually how I met Jaime. He was working on a similar site at the time, it was called Hockey’s Cap — same idea, same principle, player contracts, the salary cap, the Collective Bargaining Agreement. He had a really good site going, which was also gaining a lot of traction. Jamie reached out to me first to see if there was a fit there, if we could kind of join forces and bring it all together under one umbrella. I think in January 2016 we merged our sites under the banner of CapFriendly, and we’ve been working together ever since.

Jamie: Me and my two brothers were all fans of CapGeek, too. We had used the site for a couple years when we saw the announcement that it was going to shut down, and we were all very bummed about that. At the time, I was experimenting with some web design, just as a hobby, and working on a site that was music-related. My brother suggested we try to create a similar site —- there were some sites that had similar features, but we didn’t feel they were as in depth as CapGeek, so we went ahead and started designing the site.

We were kind of expecting another site to pop up to fill CapGeek’s void, and it never really happened, so we started working on it a little bit harder. We ended up releasing the site in May, I believe, one week after General Fanager released his site — he released, we released a week later, and then Dom released CapFriendly two weeks after that. So within a month, three sites all popped up.

I knew how much work went into creating a cap site, so I reached out to Dom to congratulate him on the release. As time went on, we realized that we both have strengths and they’re different from each other. Dom’s strength was definitely a weakness of ours — he’s excellent at networking and meeting people and getting information. And then we felt that Hockey’s Cap had some features that we had set up, like ArmchairGM, that he didn’t have developed at that point. So after a couple months, we got into bigger discussions and decided a merger would make sense.

SN: Looking at it now, it’s become a staple of the hockey world, one of the daily go-to sites for hockey fans. What are your thoughts on where it stands now and how far the project has come?

Dominik: For me personally, I still find it surreal sometimes when I take a look at the people that follow us on Twitter or the people that reach out to us on a daily basis, asking for an opinion or for some help. It’s hearing our site’s name on the radio, or in a magazine or newspaper, or occasionally on television — even though it’s been four years going on five, any time it happens, I’m still kind of at a loss for words. That’s really been something that I would’ve never ever imagined. I thought that maybe it would have a degree of success – it was never my goal or my intention, but I figured there’s always that possibility, there’s always some people that would like it and visit it. But I never ever thought it would gain the kind of popularity that it has over the years. It’s really mind-blowing.

Jamie: Surreal is a great descriptor of the feeling. It’s pretty unbelievable how much interest there actually is. And it’s an honour to have people rely on us — it’s something we take very seriously.

SN: What does a day in the life of the CapFriendly team look like? Tell me about the team you have in place and what the process looks like when a signing breaks.

Dominik: For the day-to-day, Jamie is around to take care of most of what happens, weekdays 9-5. I’m also fortunate enough that because of my day job and the way I’m set up, I’m also pretty available during the day to monitor any kind of action going on in the hockey world. And we’re really fortunate to have several other people that help us out, especially over the evenings and on weekends, whether that’s monitoring Twitter or other websites to see if anything has gone down, or to help out with the actual website itself and everything that goes into making sure that’s up and that nothing goes wrong.

[Aside from Dominik and Jamie, the CapFriendly team is rounded out by Ryan Davis, Chris Davis and Joe Mazza]

So we have a great little team here — we all complement each other really well, we have fun working together. It’s never a chore. We’re really fortunate that we get to do this — this is not any of our day jobs. We all have day jobs. Jamie’s the only one who works on the site full-time, but for the rest of us, it’s all in our spare time. So it’s a lot of hours, but it’s definitely a lot of fun.

SN: One thing that fans have taken note of is how fast you guys update the site when new signings or trades drop — how have you developed a system to manage that while most of you have so much other stuff going on?

Jamie: We’re always in contact with each other — we have a messaging system where we’re always talking to each other, and honestly, the conversation that we have doesn’t go quiet for more than a couple hours every day. We try to have somebody always paying attention to the hockey world to make sure we’re on top of the news, and if something’s coming down, then we’re ready in case it actually does.

Dominik: We’ve also gotten to a point where there’s so many people that love the site and are interested in making sure we’re up to date and have all of the information as quickly as possible. If we miss something — and when I say ‘miss something,’ I mean it could’ve happened five minutes ago and we don’t have it up on our site yet — we’ll get people tweeting at us, we’ll get emails, we’ll get text messages saying, ‘Hey, you missed this, it happened three minutes ago, it’s not up yet.’ We really appreciate that, because it’s happened, where we might’ve missed something for whatever reason, and thanks to the fans we were able to pick up on it and add it to the site.

SN: There must be a different sense of pressure now compared to when you first started, with fans now having an expectation that CapFriendly will have all the details, and instantly. How has the pressure on you guys changed over the years?

Dominik: I think it’s definitely gone up over the years, that kind of pressure. I won’t say that it hasn’t — it definitely has. I think it’s gotten now where people expect everything to be up to date within minutes of news breaking and being as accurate as possible. They rely on us and want to see how a trade or a signing or a move might impact their team because it’ll trickle down. Or if it’s a reporter in the media it might impact a story they’re writing. We’ll have people in the hockey community as well that are looking at the site and using it for certain things each and every day.

We’ll get people working for clubs that will call us and say, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know, this is just slightly off, you might want to change that. Or agents will contact us and say, ‘Hey, you know, this player’s contract here, you’ve got just this little thing wrong here, we just wanted to let you guys know.’ So we definitely feel a little bit of pressure I guess, but it also pushes us forward. It encourages us to know that people are interested.

SN: The financial side of the game has obviously proven to be fascinating for fans, probably to a bigger degree than the league expected. Why do you think that is? Has the level of interest surprised you at all?

Dominik: I’m not surprised. I like to tell people, back in the ‘90s, the way that you could get to know your favourite player was collecting a hockey card, looking at the back of that card and seeing what that player’s points were. Or maybe buying a poster and putting it up on your wall. And now we have access to player contracts with sites like ours. We have access to advanced stats thanks to sites like Evolving-Hockey and NaturalStatTrick. With social media, with everything that we have now on television and radio, fans are just soaking it up, and have more and more ways to know everything they need or want to know about their favourite players or their favourite clubs.

So I think the desire has always been there for fans, I just think that now, with everything we have at our fingertips, they’re getting more ways to do it.

Jamie: To add to that, I don’t find it surprising because of the importance that the salary cap has on every single move that is made in the NHL. You have your upper limits, you have your lower limits and teams have to abide by those limits at all times. Every time you make a trade, every time you sign a player, or call a player up from the minors, you have to consider, ‘Do I have enough cap space?’ Every single time there’s a move made in the NHL, the salary cap always comes into play. I think people are really interested in that aspect, because it is such an important factor.

SN: Have you ever felt any pushback from anyone in the league or elsewhere for providing the resource you provide?

Dominik: I haven’t felt any pushback — if anything, I think because of the interest that fans have in this kind of information, it maybe opened it up a little more, to be a little bit more transparent, for providing a little more information because they see that it helps them engage with their fans. It drives the interest up. So if anything I’d say it’s helped clubs maybe share a little bit more and be a little more transparent with their fans because they’re really starting to see the importance with their fans.

SN: Given you guys have been watching signing trends closer than probably anyone outside of those in the league, what are some of the most interesting overall shifts you’ve noticed when it comes to player signings?

Dominik: I’d say the trends kind of shift every two years. The type of contracts that would be signed say four, five years ago are no longer what we’d see today — for example, prior to the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, we’d see those long contracts that would be back-diving, trying to lock up players as long as you possibly could. And then with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2012 they abolished that, and you started to see kind of a new way of thinking, of maybe we can break this up into tiers — we’ll have entry-level contracts, and then maybe out of entry-level we’ll see about signing a bridge deal, and then from a bridge deal maybe we’ll go on to a longer-term deal.

Now you’re seeing maybe less bridge deals, and clubs signing players either to longer terms right out of entry-level or maybe signing them to one- or two-year deals. But every year you’ll see a new trend. The perfect example is this past year — in July, one of the biggest things that stood out to us is how many shorter-term deals were signed. A few years back on July 1st, you saw longer-term deals and big dollars. This past year you saw a lot of one-year deals, two-year deals, for a lot lower money.

Jamie: And the three-year bridge deal with the third year being all salary and significantly higher than the first two years.

Dominik: That’s another thing that we saw a lot of this year that we didn’t see as much of in the past years. You’d get those deals that would take a player to one year from being an unrestricted free agent but all salary in that last year, so that the qualifying offer would be high, to kind of force the team’s hand, to see what they’d do. So every year we see new trends, and it’s really interesting to watch.

SN: How has the site changed since you first started up, with all the growth that’s come?

Dominik: I think when we first started the site, a lot of what we built were ideas or features that we wanted to see. Things that we were interested in, that we thought would really improve the site. But I would say the last year or so, a lot of the features and a lot of the new tools that we’ve added to the site, have come from the fans.

And in some cases have come from people in the actual hockey community who reach out to us and say, ‘Hey, what would you think if you added this kind of feature? What would you think if you added this kind of information to the site?’ So that would then spawn ideas for us, we’d obviously add our own flavour to it, to try and make it as user-friendly as possible, as simple as possible, because sometimes it could get overcomplicated.

But a lot of the tools and the features that we have on the site now, they come from ideas offered to us by the fans and people in the hockey community.

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