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The potential impacts of player tracking in the NHL

(Alex Prewitt/Washington Post)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sunday night at the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, the league took another step toward implementing a tracking system, testing the computer chips in sweaters and jerseys during the actual event. It was, everyone involved said, only the initial phase of a rollout program without a definitive timetable, but the telecast implemented the data and a screen inside the media room showed the live results.

The NBA has already invested in similar technology through the company SportVU, where cameras capture “passive tracking” from the rafters. But Sportvision, the company partnered with the NHL, will use “active tracking,” essentially embedding the chips into the moving parts, in a game where there are a lot of moving parts.

So what’s the impact here? Who’s mining this data, and for what purpose?

Statistics and understanding

The NHL has already undergone a statistical revolution with the now-widespread usage of competition quality, zone entry data and even simpler puck possession metrics like Corsi and Fenwick. But tracking would alter the landscape even further. The NBA makes available SportsVU statistics that measure player speed, catch-and-shoot efficiency, passes per game or contested rebounds per game, to name a few. The NHL could follow a similar model.

“It’s proven the value of some players where the stat sheet may not have shown that,” Sportvision CEO Hank Adams said, speaking of the NBA. “Guys who disrupt plays because of their defense, there’s been no official stat or measurement of that, but they’re telling now with some of the tracking data, it’s actually drawing out some of the value of these players. It’s not readily apparent. It’s been used quite powerfully for that. You’re seeing coaches ahead of the curve really digging in on that.”

The NHL, however, doesn’t post anything beyond box score data on its Web site. No Corsi or Fenwick, which can be calculated by just looking at shot attempts. Nothing more advanced, like skater speed or shooting percentage from certain distances or even types of goals (deflection, slap shot, etc.). There are plans to change this. According to NHL COO John Collins, the league will “completely restage” all of the existing data on its Web site, then implement tracking as it becomes available.

“I think we have certain proprietary statistics that we want to use,” Collins said. “I think one of the things we’ve presented to the players, then to the clubs, has been the way guys want to re-stage our whole approach to statistics and analytics.”

The cameras would also remove some of the human element from keeping score. Certain statistics like hits would remain subjective – “It’s not like we’re going to put sensors all over the player’s body and tell when they collide with one another,” Adams said – but tracking would give more precise data for shift length and possibly even zone time.

The ultimate goal, Collins said, is to standardize the data collection system throughout the league, to avoid relying on individuals whose tendencies vary from rink to rink. Maybe the issue of pre-tracking-to-post-tracking comparisons would arise, but at least the method would be uniform.

“Real-time scoring system served us well,” Collins said. “The basis for everything we do. That’s humans sitting up in the catwalk manually logging everything they see on the ice, maybe influenced by their own personal feelings of what’s a shot on goal, or GM influence. This takes that away and makes it consistent across the league. As a baseline, that’s the reason to really take a hard look at it.”


The NHL sent NHLPA staffer Mathieu Schneider, a defenseman who played for 20 seasons, to the briefing meeting with reporters, where the issue of collective bargaining arose. How would the players react to having their every move logged and scrutinized? And how would that factor into contract negotiations, when a team could parse through this data and find weaknesses to support lesser offers?

“That’s a negotiation,” Schneider said. “That’s something that happens outside of this process. We’re right at the beginning phases here. See what comes out of it. Hopefully fans and players are excited about it. We can work together to really enlighten a whole new group of people who haven’t been able to really follow the game.

“There still needs to be the sense from the guys that it’s not going to get overused or used improperly. The guys are excited about the prospects, on the upside, and we’ll wade into it cautiously and see how it goes. But it’s an exciting time.”

Video review

Adams said Sportvision and the NHL have discussed the tracking cameras’ potential use for video review, but “it’s not ever going to replace the forma decision.”

“There may be times when we’ll see it and it hits off a goalie’s skate and crosses the line, and for whatever reason the camera angles didn’t get in,” Adams said. “I think it’ll aid in making that decision.”

In other words, the officials will just do their job like they normally do, then defer to the tracking system – like they currently do video replay – if the situation calls for it. For instance, did the puck get deflected into the goal from above the crossbar?

Fan consumption

“This is not the glowing puck,” Collins said. “That’s not the intended use of this technology.”

It was a botched mid-90’s experiment, indeed, named by Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski as one of the worst inventions in sports history. So, no to the glowing puck, but possibly yes to lines trailing player and puck movement, and a NASCAR-like system of pointers hovering over the ice, telling viewers how fast someone is moving and how long they’ve been skating on this shift, for instance.

“From the broadcasters, one of the things they’re most excited about, I can’t imagine standing in front of a 100-mile-an-hour slap shot and deflecting it off a thin piece of wood into the goal, like these guys do, which is amazing,” Adams said. “And it’s sometimes really hard to see. But it’s something we can make visually very apparent with the trail that deflects off the stick and goes in.”