This season, the league is debuting a puck and player tracking system that promises to unleash a tsunami of data about player speed and execution
By Laine Higgins, Wall Street Journal
Oct. 10, 2019
In the last decade, data and analytics have turned baseball into a bonanza of home runs and strikeouts, basketball became a game won or lost behind the arc and even prompted football coaches to start going for it on fourth down.
Hockey, however, has barely evolved.
“The NHL’s been behind the other sports with regard to the adoption of advanced metrics and analytics,” said Dave Lehanski, senior vice president of business development and global partnerships for the National Hockey League. “We don’t have a lot of the math that supports a lot of the subjective opinions that people have.”
Finally, however, a solution to this problem, pursued by the NHL for nearly 25 years, may finally be arriving later this season. And it’s inside the puck.
As early as 1995, commissioner Gary Bettman explored implanting a tracking device into pucks to collect data for coaches and make it easier for television viewers to follow the puck while watching games on grainy standard-definition broadcasts. But progress came in fits and starts, and the NHL’s dreams outpaced technological innovation.
In 2013, the NHL renewed its focus on developing a trackable puck and finally, six years later, big data is coming to hockey. This season, the league is debuting a puck and player tracking system developed by SMT, the sports technology company behind football broadcasts’ glowing yellow first-down line. The system promises to unleash a tsunami of data about player speed and execution—and change the way that coaches, broadcasters and fans interact with the game.
“The major upside for us is driving more engagement,” said Lehanski. “Right behind that is the ability to monetize this and generate incremental revenue for us and for our clubs.” The league hopes the enhanced data will make media rights more valuable and in turn generate more ticket and merchandise revenue.
“We’re focusing on puck and player tracking, but what we’re talking about is much bigger than that,” said NHL chief technology officer Peter DelGiacco. “This data is a game changer.”
The biggest upside may come from a market that is not yet legal nationwide: sports betting. Bettman was once a staunch advocate of the sports-gambling ban in most states, but he is embracing it now that it’s legal. The league put a franchise in Las Vegas in 2016 and has signed deals with MGM Resorts International, U.K. bookmaker William Hill and online daily fantasy platform FanDuel.
“Betting and what’s happened here…was not something we had on the table in 2013-14,” said Lehanski. “But it didn’t take long to say, ‘Alright this data’s going to be hugely valuable.’”
The benefits of having data on players and the pucks was obvious to the NHL. Building a trackable prototype puck was another story.
“You start out with ‘Let’s just take a puck and saw it in half, let’s gouge out the interior of it and let’s see what happens when we stick some electronics in and then glue it back together,’” said SMT founder and chief executive Gerard J. Hall. “How hard can it be?”
Quite hard, as it turns out. It took SMT nearly four years before it was ready to debut its prototype puck at the World Cup of Hockey in September 2016. According to Hall, those pucks functioned “flawlessly.” But the pucks were panned as ugly. Infrared sensors inside them required the pucks to have slightly raised nodules around the edges and a seam at the top to let light flow through the rubber. Shortly after the tournament wrapped, the NHL looked for a new firm to produce trackable pucks using radio frequency, which would not require external nodules or seams.
“I had Ph.D. scientists who are like, “Are you kidding me? The damn thing works!’” But that’s not the only thing that matters,” said Hall.
The NHL in 2017 interviewed dozens of technology firms before partnering with the Fraunhofer Institute in Nuremberg, Germany, which created a subsidiary, called jogmo world corp., to exclusively develop pucks for the NHL. These pucks were used in showcases at the 2018 and 2019 All Star games in Tampa and San Jose, respectively, and for two Las Vegas Golden Knights games during the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2019.
The NHL promised that the tracking system would be ready for the 2019-20 season. Internally, however, there were concerns about whether it was smart to bet the future of the league on a newly formed subsidiary an ocean away. Some NHL executives questioned if jogmo was familiar enough with the game to anticipate how coaches, players and broadcasters would make use of the influx of data.
The NHL terminated its relationship with jogmo last February. A spokesperson from jogmo declined to comment.
Meanwhile, SMT continued refining and testing its infrared pucks at collegiate and junior-level games. Once things soured between the NHL and jogmo, SMT was ready with an improved puck—and a deep knowledge of the game, having provided the technological infrastructure for the NHL’s official scoring system for over 25 years.
The tracking system developed by SMT consists of two components: infrared and radio frequency sensors, embedded in the pucks and sewn into the collars of skaters’ sweaters; and processing devices mounted in the rafters and on the upper tier of the arena that record the x, y, z coordinates of each sensor on the ice hundreds of times per second.
SMT artificial intelligence software then collates the millions of coordinate data points and spits out statistics, like a player’s top speed or total time of possession, accessible on a computer system called Oasis.
SMT has created unique installation plans for each of the NHL’s ice arenas. That, combined with the last minute switch from jogmo, pushed back the league’s timeline. The technology will not likely be ready for gameday use until the 2020 playoffs begin in April.
The NHL plans to install the tracking technology in waves. It is already installed at St. Louis’s Enterprise Center, host of the 2020 All Star Game, and T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, where the CES showcase took place. Also at the top of the list are San Jose, Washington, D.C., Raleigh, N.C., and Toronto, cities whose teams the league believes could make deep playoff runs in 2020.
NBC hopes to make use of the puck and player tracking data for its broadcasts during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly before the NHL’s Global Series game in Prague.
“That’s still a hope and our timeline has slipped a couple times so I’m not guaranteeing that,” he said. “But that’s certainly our hope.”
Read more here.