By: Brandon Costa
Player and puck tracking have come to the NHL, and the league and technology partner Sportvision are happy with its progress in this first season of tests.
The NHL used its All-Star Weekend in January to conduct a full, for-the-public trial on its new chip-based tracking system. It was a bold move, but the league was very transparent with hockey’s first implementation of the technology, making data available for ingestion and use by the holders of the game’s Canadian (Rogers Sportsnet) and U.S. (NBC Sports) rights.
From ice time to distance traveled, the information pouring in fascinated even the players, who leaned across the boards to check out the analytics on the tablet of Sportsnet’s Between the Benches reporter Glenn Healy during the game.
Developed by Sportvision, the NHL’s new tracking system places small devices in player jerseys (left) and in the puck.
“We are still very much in a test phase, but it’s gone to air and has been used in a live game. That’s a major, major breakthrough,” says Hank Adams, CEO of Sportvision, whose company is, yes, the same one that brought hockey viewers the infamous “Glow Puck” in the mid 90s.
There are two types of tracking in live sports: active and passive. The NHL chose the active type, which involves using infrared to read chips and sensors placed on the players and inside the puck, similar — in ways — to the NFL’s system with Zebra Technologies. (Passive tracking is computer- and camera-based, the system currently used by the NBA and MLB.)
Those close to the development of the technology say that, with the speed of the game and the constant collisions between players in the NHL, there was really no choice when it came to using active tracking.
“The technology has had to be developed in a way where we felt, given the nature of the sport, that it had to be chip-based,” says NHL COO John Collins, who has been investigating player and puck tracking for the league for the better part of a decade. “There are a lot of camera-based systems for other sports. It doesn’t work for a contact sport, and it doesn’t work for a sport that is so fast and has so much contact, because you’d always need to supplement whatever the cameras would track with some manual as guys come out of a group, say, in the corners.
“The other thing we didn’t like about camera-based technology was, it didn’t allow it to be alive and integrated live into our telecast, which we felt was a big miss. And it would be impossible to track the puck, and the data needs to include where the puck is [and] who is in possession of the puck.”
Sportvision agreed with the move and considered extreme accuracy paramount.
“If you are going to put a trail on a puck that’s being deflected off a stick into a goal, plus or minus 6 to 12 in. isn’t going to work,” says Adams. “We can’t have a puck tracked going into the goal when it actually missed. We needed really high precision, and infrared has the best.”
The NHL made its tracking data available to broadcast partners and the media during January’s All-Star Game.
It was easy to place chips on the players: a transmitter about the size of a stick of gum is sewn into the upper back of the players’ jerseys. The puck, however, was much more complex process. Sportvision technicians had to insert electronics into the puck while maintaining its consistency: from weight distribution to coldness retention, crushability, and more.
“We felt the puck held up incredibly well,” says Collins. “We got the feedback from the players and the equipment managers, and there really were no issues that were of concern.”
All-Star Weekend did present some unique quirks to implementing the system. During the Skills Competition, for example, there was an unorthodox number of players on the ice, a bit of a drag on a system designed for a traditional 5-on-5 lineup. As many as 20-30 players were milling about the ice.
The system was not used last month at the NHL Stadium Series game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA, and there are no current plans for it to make a public appearance during the Stanley Cup Playoffs or Final. However, the recent round of tests have the league optimistic that the system can be fully implemented as early as the beginning of the 2015-16 season.
“We’re certainly talking about it,” says Collins. “The learning curve from what happened at All-Star Game, I think, was a lot more positive than negative. I think the rightsholders really integrated it well even though this was the first time they were doing it on a live basis. … So we can still make this happen potentially for next year, but it’s a pretty tight timeline, and we’re addressing all of the capital improvements [and] the investments that need to be made. He also notes that the Players Association needs to comfortable with the system before it’s rolled out league-wide.