Tim Ohashi’s first piece of hockey analytics focused on the Washington Capitals, and was created at age 7. “Hockey’s Capitals Playing Players Now,” it was called, and each page was chock full of data, plus pictures of smiling (if a bit blobby) hockey players playing hockey.
“10 is Kelly Miller,” the book accurately reported. “12 is Peter Bondra.” Fine, the information contained therein may not have been proprietary, but it was awfully cute.
There were surely other suburban D.C. kids drawing blobby artwork of Kelly Miller in the mid-‘90s, other kids memorizing Washington’s roster and wearing a Jim Carey jersey during street-hockey games. Few of them, it’s safe to say, grew up to become members of the Capitals’ coaching staff.
“I could have told you probably 20 years ago that this was exactly where I’d like to be,” Ohashi, 28, said recently, sitting in the Caps’ Ballston dressing room, wearing his team-issued coaching attire. “I never in a million years would have guessed I’d be here.”
Ohashi’s journey — from obsessing over sports as a kid in Bethesda to studying psychology and mathematics at Bates to landing an internship and then a full-time job on Barry Trotz’s coaching staff for his favorite hockey team — is indeed the stuff of teenage dreams. Here was a kid who grew up going to Caps games at U.S. Air Arena, and who used to watch practices from the bleachers in Northern Virginia, until a series of unlikely events allowed him to study those same practices from the other side of the glass.
“When you’re in college, your adviser doesn’t tell you ‘Hey, this is something you should consider,’ “ Ohashi joked.
That’s why, like thousands of other sports-crazed kids, Ohashi picked a real career: He would be a sixth-grade math teacher. He was working toward a Masters in teaching at Brown, before a serious back problem limited his mobility and forced him to take a medical leave. Back home in Montgomery County, he decided his heart wasn’t fully in teaching, and that the one constant in his life had been a passion for sports.
So he enrolled at Georgetown’s Sports Industry Management program, hoping to find a career that tapped both his love of sports and his data analysis skills. Midway through his first year in the program, he sent his resume and cover letter to every person in the Caps organization whose name he could dig up, hoping to find an internship opportunity, a foot in the door. He sent resumes to staffers in hockey operations and on the coaching staff, but also to employees in community relations, marketing and PR.
Around the same time — in the fall of 2014 — video coach Brett Leonhardt decided the team’s new staff really needed an intern. Trotz was about to begin his first season in Washington, and his larger coaching staff had far more intense video demands than the previous regime. Other parts of the Caps organization had previously hired interns from Georgetown, and when he realized that grad students were already interviewing for fall gigs, Leonhardt went to colleagues in ticketing, marketing and public relations to see what sort of resumes they’d received.
He needed someone with a knowledge of sports analytics and a familiarity with the team, someone the coaching staff could trust with every decision made inside their room, someone who could quickly explain complex ideas in simple language, someone who could take a new position and transform it into something indispensable. Ohashi was the first person he called.
The internship was part time (or maybe “part time”), and there were no promises about what would happen next. Ohashi’s hours were split between video work (clipping and editing segments for coaches and players from practices and games), generating reports and analyzing data. The newcomer didn’t exactly have the hockey background of his colleagues; he had played spotty minutes for the club ice hockey team at Bates, scoring one career goal, in an 18-2 win. Still, the fit couldn’t have been better.
“The stuff he was doing was unbelievable, stuff I don’t think any of us had ever seen before,” Leonhardt said.
“Sometimes those fresh eyes look at [the game] from a different perspective,” Trotz said. “I think everybody — all our staff and [General Manager Brian MacLellan] — recognized that this guy was a very strong individual when it comes to what we want to do. And you don’t want to let a good person go.”
So after that internship ended, Leonhardt and Trotz approached MacLellan and asked about creating a full-time analyst position on the coaching staff. When the GM approved, there was no doubt about the first hire.
“It was an easy decision,” Trotz said.
“He created it by the work he put in,” Leonhardt said of Ohashi. “He’s the smartest processor of information I know.”
Now Ohashi’s job expanded into something like an NFL quality-control coach. He started attending every game, home and away. He delivers video reports to players, and helps the staff break down every penalty. He helps Leonhardt pre-scout opponents, clips video from every practice, and analyzes numbers in as many ways as he can. He also operates the team’s video-review operation. (Leonhardt said Ohashi was personally responsible for calling back two offside goals scored against the Caps in overtime games they eventually won: last year against Boston and this year against Buffalo.)
When Trotz invited his entire coaching staff to Vegas last spring to share in his coach of the year ceremony, Ohashi was part of the traveling party.
And he’s started providing the dressing room with the “Coach Ohashi Stat of the Day” during pre-scouts, “something that wouldn’t necessarily be on the radar that can be used as motivation or used as information,” Trotz said.
Players chirp him as they would a teammate; like Trotz, several immediately mentioned Ohashi’s easy-going personality, and the way he’s fit into their dressing room. But they also speak of him with considerable respect.
“A genius,” Jay Beagle said. “Statistically, he’s the best.”
“He’s got to have a pretty big brain in there to do what he’s done,” Karl Alzner said. “Yeah, [Ohashi’s background] is a little bit odd, but I think that’s the way sports are going. People who have really brilliant minds, who think outside the box, are finding [careers] in sports.”
Ohashi always thought if he had a chance to break into sports, it would be in baseball, a sport with a far more robust relationship with analytics. (If the Caps hadn’t responded to his resume, his next step would have been to similarly bombard the Nationals front office.) He figures his future could be more front-office than coaching staff, something with decision-making responsibilities, something further removed from ice level.
In the meantime, he’s still playing out a D.C. sports fan’s childhood fantasy. He’s the son of two World Bank professionals, a kid who went to Georgetown Day, who used to cherish his old wooden Sher-Wood stick because it was the kind Bondra used. “I feel good when I go to a Caps game,” he once wrote, in wobbly letters, during grade school. Now he’s getting paid to do it.
“Everybody around me — my girlfriend, my parents, my brother — they always said this is what you’re passionate about, [but] I think I was just afraid to try and make the leap, because it doesn’t seem like a very attainable job,” he said. “I’m not kidding when I say every now and then I have to pinch myself.”