NHL tiptoeing into player and puck tracking technology
Imagine tracking Sidney Crosby's every move on the ice in real time.
It may not be far off.
The NHL is experimenting with player tracking technology that could be available as early as next season for broadcasters and fans.
During last month's All-Star game in Columbus, Ohio, chips were put in jerseys and pucks to track everything from speed and movement to shift length and ice time. The success of this first experiment could make it more widespread.
''We're not exactly sure where this will all take us,'' NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week in Vancouver, British Columbia. ''Ultimately, we are hoping to deliver the kind of data that will create insights and tell stories that avid and casual hockey fans will enjoy.
''We are attempting to embark upon a journey that hopefully will enable us to create and then maintain a digital record of everything in our game and compile a complete digital history.''
Sportvision, the same company responsible for first-and-10 lines in football and ''K zone'' strike-zone mapping in baseball, has worked with the NHL for six years to get to this point. In co-operation with the NHL Players Association, each player had a chip in the collar of his jersey during All-Star weekend. Chips were in each puck so infrared cameras in the ceiling of Nationwide Arena could track every movement.
With this technology, teams, players and fans can see how fast a player is skating, his top speed and average.
The league and NHLPA must come to an agreement before there's even a consideration about having player tracking in place for real games. It's much more available data, and with that comes some hesitancy on behalf of some players.
''We haven't finished discussing all that with the players,'' NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said. ''Are there issues some players are concerned about? Sure. But it falls into the generalized category of creating meaningless statistics.''
Sportvision CEO Hank Adams thinks there's a use for the stats. TV networks cans determine speed and movement in real-time, with lots of information to mine.
''I'd say all around it was a success for us,'' Adams told The Canadian Press. ''We were very pleased and at some point hopefully it translates into something more long-term. But that's yet to be seen.''
Stumbling blocks exist, but the expectation is the technology will be ready for games by next season or after. Some things, like hits, giveaways and takeaways will remain subjective, and video review will still be necessary to determine goals.
But the aim is to make everything more precise: What's a shot on goal? How much time did a team spend in the offensive zone? How long was that shift? In theory, this would replace the hand scoring that currently exists and subjectivity would be taken out of the equation on shots and saves.
''Right now we have a real-time scoring system, which has served us well and is the basis for everything that we do in the stats area right now,'' NHL chief operating officer John Collins said. ''But that's humans sitting up in the catwalk kind of manually logging everything they see on the ice, maybe influenced by their own personal feelings about what's a shot on goal or a GM's influence. This kind of takes that away and makes it consistent across the entire league.''
Mathieu Schneider, a former defenseman now working as special assistant to Fehr, voiced excitement but some trepidation.
''This is the first step, but these are the discussions we're having with the players right now,'' Schneider said. ''Will coaches coach by statistics sitting on the bench with an iPad? There still needs to be that sense from the guys that it's not going to get overused or used improperly.''
Bettman thinks it's too early to tell how it plays out.
''We're still testing,'' Bettman said. ''I think we're in the embryonic stage of what is at best a work in progress. But I do believe we will get to a place where we'll have better access to what's going on in the game for media, broadcasters and our fans.''