The technology that spawned a much-derided novelty in the 1990s has been refashioned and has the potential to revolutionize hockey data.
A hockey puck containing sensors and a computer chip at the World Cup of Hockey Innovation Summit on Sept. 22 in Toronto. PHOTO: DAVE SANDFORD/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES
One of professional hockey’s most hated innovations has found a new lease on life. The glow puck is making a comeback.
The National Hockey League and Sportvision Inc., a sports technology company, are using this year’s World Cup of Hockey as a chance to test updated tracking technology that was first used, to wide derision, by Fox Sports in the late 1990s. Back then, Fox thought it would help grow the TV audience. This time, developers say it’s more than a gimmick.
“It may change how the game is coached and played,” said Hank Adams, Sportvision’s CEO.
The company has developed new hockey pucks loaded with tracking chips and outfitted the players in the six-team tournament with sensors on their sweaters that track movement throughout the games. The sensors emit infrared signals that allow cameras circling Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to record data like the speed and trajectory of a shot, how fast and how far players skate, who is on the ice and the length of their shifts.
Sportvision had to develop new pucks to hold the sensors. To test them, the company shot the pucks out of a cannon at speeds up to 135 miles an hour, faster than the record 108.8 miles per hour shot by Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara in 2012.
Sidney Crosby of Team Canada scores a first period goal past a diving Sergei Bobrovsky of Team Russia at the semifinals of the World Cup of Hockey. PHOTO: BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES
First used during the 2015 All-Star skills competition and game, the sensors are getting their first real-game tryouts at the World Cup, which begins its final round Tuesday.
The sensors also allow Sportvision, which developed the computerized yellow first-down line used in NFL broadcasts and the virtual strike-zone shown in televised baseball games, to graphically enhance visuals for people watching on TV.
Broadcasters use the graphics to point out particularities about hockey that might get lost during games. For example, during a recent broadcast of a Team North America game against Team Finland, Canadian broadcaster Sportsnet showed a replay of goal by defenseman Colton Parayko. “It’s not how hard the shot is, it’s just where it gets to,” said the announcer, as the onscreen graphics traced with a red tail the arc of the shot from Parayko’s stick into the net, displaying the speed at a relatively modest 50 mph.
Others have used blue boxes to outline the shape of a penalty-killing unit’s coordinated movements, or highlighted important players with red circles during replays.
The graphics are a huge leap forward from the technology’s first incarnation, the infamous FoxTrax puck, which to viewers at home would appear to flicker with a blue halo and erupt into a red comet when it was shot toward the net during games broadcast by Fox Sports between 1996 and 1998.
Purists despised the cartoonish graphics, which were meant to help casual fans follow the puck on their screens, and the graphics disappeared after Fox lost its rights to NHL broadcasts in 1998.
One of the designers of that puck, Rick Cavallaro, went on to join Sportvision, and the reintroduction of the hockey tracker to the NHL represents something like a rebirth of the glow puck.
This iteration is a big leap because it allows cameras to capture data, something the original infrared puck did not do. The puck also doesn’t glow for the entire game, something fans had found distracting during the Fox days. The technology is being reborn during an era where other sports such as the basketball and football have embraced tracking technology, and when big data and analytics are being more widely used. The league and its fans have begun to embrace advanced statistics that record previously little-used numbers such as team shot attempts or shooting accuracy. Much of these are painstakingly recorded by individual fans watching games after they’re played.
The sensors, now send about 60 data points a second for the puck and 10 for each player. “It’s a massive amount of data,” said Stephen McArdle, head of digital media for the NHL. “We’re still understanding the best way to use it.”
For their part, the players haven’t noticed anything different with the new pucks. Swedish player and center for the Vancouver Canucks, Henrik Sedin, said he didn’t even notice they were using new pucks.
But he said that there has been some informal discussion among players about how the league ultimately uses tracking data. “There’s a fine line between too much data and how it’s used,” he said.
Using the numbers to rate players solely based on the strength of their slapshot or their speed could lead to analyzing players too similarly, he said. It could also lead to teams basing pay decisions on quantifiable data that doesn’t take into account intangibles like leadership ability.
As of now, the NHL and its Players Association, which jointly own the data, have avoided the issue by agreeing only to share some of the data with the broadcasters. The league is also making some of the insights gleaned from the data available on the World Cup website, to cater to the analytics crowd.
The league will take some time after the World Cup to look at the results, said McArdle. “There will be a lot of listening before and after the games,” he said. “We’ll be paying very close attention to what the hockey media community is saying, and the fans on social media.”
Sportvision’s Adams cringes when he heard comparisons to the glow puck, but conceded that its development paved the way for the new trackers. “People still often reference that puck. It had a certain fame, or infamy, and it did get hockey back into the conversation,” he said. “But this is a different animal.”