COLUMBUS, Ohio – The skills competition was just beginning Saturday night, across the hallway here inside Nationwide Arena, when reporters gathered to look at a jersey, a puck and a television screen, each part of the league’s unveiling of player tracking.
The NHL was using the occasion to, for the first time, test its latest innovation, a technology that could blow open the data door and transform the way everyone – fans, players, front-office executives, the statistically inclined and the casually observant – ingests this sport.
The league, chief operating officer John Collins said, has been exploring this technology for the better part of six years, aiming to “create a digital record of what’s happening on the ice.” So they partnered with Sportvision, a tracking company responsible for PITCHf/x in baseball, the yellow first-down marker in football and the hovering markers on NASCAR telecasts that alert viewers to location and speed of the drivers.
“This is a trial,” Sportvision chief executive Hank Adams said. “This is the first time we’ve done it. Our expectations are we’re going to work with the broadcasters, test it out. If it goes to air a couple times, a handful of times, we’re very happy with that as we learn the interesting storylines with this data.”
Unlike the “passive tracking” format used by the NBA, which has implemented SportVU cameras into the rafters of arenas to walloping success over the past two seasons – the statistics, like player speed or distance traveled or field goal percentage in catch-and-shoot situations are all readily available on their website – the NHL would use “active tracking” computer chips embedded into jerseys and pucks.
“The problem with hockey is players are colliding too much and moving too fast, and the algorithms can’t keep up with the collisions,” Adams said. “It certainly wouldn’t work for media. You could go back after the fact and parse out this data. You have to have active tracking, which means electronics in the puck.’
According to Adams, the NHL would install 10 infrared cameras into the catwalks to track the puck and player movement through the on-ice chips, each set to a unique frequency, collecting data 30 times each second. From there, everything from skating speed to shift lengths to puck movement can be recorded. It can, Collins predicted, create more accurate statistics currently logged by hand and therefore susceptible to human error, aid in replay review, help broadcasters track difficult-to-see deflections and give on-the-fly enhancements to the telecasts.
“By embedding Sportvision chips into pucks and player jerseys, using digital platforms and our broadcast partners, we will be able to showcase quantitative data – puck and skating speed, puck trajectory, puck location and other key data points – behind the skating and stickhandling and shooting abilities of the top players in the game,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We’re not exactly sure where this will all take us. This is, if I can coin a phrase, in the embryonic stages of a work in progress, but ultimately we’re hoping to deliver the kind of data that will create insights and tell stories that avid and casual hockey fans will enjoy.”
The jersey component involves simply slipping a computer chip – roughly the size of a stick of gum – into a pocket inside the sweater’s collar on the back. Creating the puck required more creativity.
“You don’t need a Ph.D of science to know that if you’re putting electronics in a puck, you’re hollowing out rubber, there’s a cavity in there, there’s a hard piece of electronics, naturally you think it’s going to change the chemical compounds,” Adams said.
So Sportvision worked with the NHL’s rubber manufacturer and created compounds to mirror the pucks’ temperature retention, “crush and crush recovery” and weight. Adams predicted players wouldn’t even notice the new pucks, and several All-Stars later agreed.
“When you throw the puck on the ice, and the standard puck, they won’t be able to tell the difference,” Adams said. “It’s not livelier, deader, no extra rebound, heavier, it is basically the same puck from their standpoint.”
More on the various ramifications of player tracking tomorrow – its impact on contract negotiations, for instance – but NBCSN’s broadcast seemed to implement them just fine. Trailing lines tracked player movement while skating through obstacle courses and top speed was displayed like with race cars. Inside the media room, Sportvision ran a demo interface of the data-collection service, which showed an overhead view of the ice, with each player marked by a circle, scattering around.
“We know where the puck is, if it’s over the blue line we know it’s over the blue line and for how long, very precisely,” Adams said. “When it gets into who’s in possession of the puck, that again has to be a human involved in it, because we don’t have electronics on the stick. There’s only so much you can use this stuff to replace. A human being’s going to have to get involved and sometimes make those judgment calls, but it can certainly aid and automate the collection of that data.”