Fetch all the data

Gathering hockey data with cacheblob

Posted by RDJ on November 5, 2016

Header image is D700 noise tests by Carl Jones used under license CC BY-NC

Before the start of the current NHL season, I decided to dig into making my own goalie predictions. I wrote about this earlier, first about the projections and then in more detail on how I modeled the goalies in particular. Now I wanted to go into more detail on how to get the data yourself, and in particular on a Python package that I wrote and released to help with exactly this purpose. Peruse the goalie fetching code here.

The use case

In the sports analytics ecosystem, data may flow from producers to aggregators to analysts to users. For example, hockey data may flow from the NHL.com feeds to a website like hockey-reference.com to a statistician like me to a reader like you. The sources in the middle, such as the excellent corsica.hockey, are both consumers of data from basic sources and producers of data for fans or analysts further down the assembly line. Some of the data I pull comes in a structured format, like NHL.com providing JSON APIs. However much of it comes in a presentation format, designed to be read by an end user and not consumed as inputs for another data provider. Many of these sites have aspirations of vertical integration, or are simply trying to couple the data closely with advertising, so they purposely do not make it as easy as they could for potential competitors.

Nerd crossing

Competitors for the hearts and minds of the massive sports analytics community?

Empty Seats from Brook Ward used under licence CC BY-NC

This means that I have to extract a lot of data from HTML files. That’s fine. But I don’t want to pull all of the HTML pages for every change I make to the code, nor do I want to totally separate data gathering into its own process. I don’t want to update the data every time, but often I want it to update at some interval. Some data rarely changes, such as old boxscores, while some data changes every day, such as game results, and other data may change every time I view it, such as gamelogs for a game in progress. I want to cache my data, but with a concept of staleness and control over data expiry.

Enter cacheblob

cacheblob, as I describe it in its PyPi description, is a key-value interface for expiring items. You store a key that has an associated value, with a duration for which it should live.

In the case of hockey data, I store a URL as the key and the HTML as the value, with the expiry set to an appropriate duration.

Here’s the gist of the code that handles this:

def fetch_page_if_needed(cache, url, duration=datetime.timedelta(days=1)):
    """Fetch a page from `url` and store it in the `cache`, unless it is already cached.

    :param cache: The cacheblob object to use for storage.
    :param url: The URL to fetch, which will be the key in the cache.
    :param duration: How long to store the value in the cache [default: 1 day].

    :returns: The page text, or None if it was not status 200.
    res = cache.fetch(url)
    if res:
        return res.value

    page = requests.get(url)
    if page.status_code != 200:
        print("Error fetching page \"{0}\": {1}".format(url, page.status_code))
        return None
        cache.store(index=url, value=page.text, duration=duration)
        return page.text

If the item does not exist or has expired, fetch returns None, and only then do I actually retrieve the page and store it in the cache.

In the rest of my code, whenever I need to retrieve a URL, I call my function like this:

page = fetch_page_if_needed(cache, url)

Where the caching happens

cacheblob itself is not a storage mechanism. Instead, it supports a number of storage patterns. If you want your data in SQLite databases, it has you covered. MongoDB, covered. Flat files on your hard drive? Covered. Purely in-memory, for cases where you don’t want any persistent storage? I got you.

In this case I chose to use a local MongoDB instance.

cache = Cacheblob.cache(handler="mongo", opts={"table_name": "goalie_stats_html"})

The essential nature of cacheblob is not about storage, it’s about data expiry and providing an interface to access expiring data. So I designed it to be adaptable to different models of data storage and persistence. I (or you) can write more of them. There are so many important design decisions on which databases vary, that I wanted none of that debate, and certainly didn’t want to commit cacheblob users to a specific choice.

Likewise, the implementation I’ve coded is in Python, but if there’s interest in this I could easily port to R or other languages. Essentially it’s a language-agnostic concept where I didn’t find an existing implementation that quite fit my purposes.

Explaining the goalie fetching code

There’s not much to how my goalie fetching code works. I fetch the per-season pages on goalies, going through the list of years. For each of those pages I fetch, I use BeautifulSoup to parse the page and iterate through the table rows. For each table row, I look for cells (td tags) matching the specific statistics that I want to find.

This is not a complicated case, because hockey-reference.com structures the data in tables and clearly identifies the cells.


I built cacheblob because it solved a problem that I had dealt with in myriad ugly ways over the years. It fits a specific niche, that nothing else has quite the same purpose. Please let me know of any suggestions or ideas you have, or any feature requests.