When Brooks Laich speaks about a subject of interest, as anyone who happens to be within earshot can attest, the Washington Capitals forward really gets rolling — and now was one of those times. The subject was digitized player tracking, unveiled last weekend at the NHL All-Star Game. Computerized chips placed inside jerseys and fused into pucks. Infrared cameras watching from the rafters. Laich tore through the list of possibilities.
“I’d like to look at great games I had, and say geez, I skated six miles tonight at an average speed of 22 miles an hour,” Laich’s said. “That’s a lot of effort on a great night. Then say, a night when you weren’t as good, say I skated four miles at 16 miles an hour. Or after your shift length, once it hits 45 seconds, what’s your average speed?”
The information gathered by his company’s tracking system, Sportvision CEO Hank Adams explained in Columbus, Ohio, at the all-star festivities, could indeed measure those statistics. Player tracking could also transform television broadcasts, supplement video review and factor into contract negotiations. It could add more concrete data to a relatively free-flowing sport and computerize hand-taken statistics like shift length, now often susceptible to error.
When he formally announced that the chips would be used during the skills competition and actual game — neither exactly accurate simulators of regular season speed — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman called the implementation process “in the embryonic stages,” and when asked later if the 2015-16 regular season was a reasonable rollout date, the league declined comment through a spokesperson.
But conversations with several Capitals revealed, at the very least, intrigue at the possibilities. Laich predicted it could “change the standard.” Defenseman Karl Alzner called player tracking “an untapped market.” Goaltender Braden Holtby jumped into a conversation with defenseman Jack Hillen about more precise shift data.
“All stats that you get, doesn’t matter what you get, all analytics are all vital in terms of what you have in a player,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “They’re information that you can help to improve a player in a team concept or maybe individually.”
At the All-Star Game, Sportvision beta-tested its equipment. The pucks were manufactured to include light pipes, but for all other purposes functions like a real puck, and the computer chips were slipped into jerseys. In the rafters of Nationwide Arena, 10 infrared cameras logged data 30 times per second, Adams said, and the NBC Sports Network telecast incorporated this much like in NASCAR, displaying skating speed and other relevant information above players in real time.
“That’d be cool, to see how guys are fading, tendencies you could track if you’re working too hard on the ice, not enough,” Alzner said. “It’s kind of neat.”
Alzner also expressed concern that teams could use data against players in contract negotiations and arbitration hearings, something the NHL and NHLPA will need to agree upon before tracking gets a full-time green light. The league spokesperson, via e-mail, cited the need to “continue to have a dialogue” with the NHLPA, but agent Allan Walsh, whose company Ocatgon Sports represented seven skaters who participated in the all-star festivities, said tracking could be used to help players in financial discussions, too.
“Not only am I in favor of it,” Walsh said, “I’m literally dancing in the streets.”
Hillen was initially skeptical. He claimed he never looked at statistics and wasn’t even sure how many games he had played this season, so tracking to him seemed like “getting so far away from the eyeball test of watching a player.” And while Trotz seemed enthusiastic about mining the data for tactical advantages, Hillen said he’s never had coaches mention stats while teaching.
Still, as Hillen explored the idea further, and Holtby joined the conversation, he seemed intrigued by certain possibilities. The Capitals could calculate zone time easier, thanks to the sensors in the puck. They would know how fast Hillen skated in certain situations, or how quickly he closed defensive gaps while on defense.
“If they do it, they do it, right?” he said. “I guess everything’s for the fans. They do that stuff to try to create a better viewing experience and grow the game, so that part of it is really, really good. That’s the reason why you do that.”
Indeed, NHL COO John Collins championed the broadcasting possibilities, like a televised trail to follow the path of deflected pucks, but also announced a league-wide restaging of “our whole approach to statistics and analytics.” Next month, the NHL will begin including possession metrics, zone starts and other advanced data on its Web site. Tracking seems next in line.
“You’re going to see that, within five to 10 years, as soon as it becomes efficient and financially doable,” Laich said. “I think it’s going to be a benefit in a lot of ways. If you’re looking for some way to find an advantage to win, and we’re talking to change the odds, the percentages in your favor, over a long period of time, analytics might be something that helps you do that.”