New NHL player tracking system will revolutionize TV coverage, stats

Puck Daddy

COLUMBUS, Ohio – In the 1996 All-Star Game, the NHL debuted something that it felt would revolutionize its product on television. 

But the less said about the FoxTrax glow puck, the better.

Nineteen years later, the NHL’s debuting another technological leap during All-Star weekend. It involves the puck. It involves lasers. But this time, they may have gotten it right and, in turn, changed the way we’ll watch hockey ... and quantify it. 

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“We’re trying to bring that in-arena experience to the living room. We’ve talked about it for years and years. And as the technology gets better, the closer we get to it,” said Mathieu Schneider of the NHLPA.

The NHL and the NHLPA debuted their new player tracking system during the skills competition, and plans on expanding it during Sunday’s All-Star Game. Sportsvision, the company behind real-time tracking and graphics in NASCAR and the NFL, embedded chips inside pucks and players’ jerseys that can measure quantitative data, puck and skating speed, puck trajectory, puck and player location, and ice time.

“This is, if I can coin a phrase, in the embryonic stages of a work in progress, but 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,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “In short, 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.”

The technology could change the way we follow the game on television and on second screens.

On TV, it allows for real-time identification of players – think NASCAR, with the colored arrows pointing to the drivers – as well as real-time stats that can include skating speed, shot speed and ice time. The "casual fan" can tune in and see if Alex Ovechkin is on the ice, his real-time stats and his skating speed. 

Think of how many times an announcer talks about a defensive team being pinned in its zone; with this technology, the announcers can show real-time ice time numbers on screen to quantify it.

The technology also brings back something that might make those who recall the glow puck quiver: comet tail-like streaks.

But this time they won’t be used during play like those garish red streaks back in 1996. They’ll be used during replays to track the puck – like, for example, to see how it was deflected on goal.

“It allows us to tell more stories,” said NHL COO John Collins.

The second-screen experience will also be revolutionary. Here's a prototype:

The impact will be two-fold. There will be a live look at a game, in which players are followed in real-time. It looks a little like an old school video game, or the kind of “live box score” you might see for the NFL. But it tracks puck location, player location, referee location, line changes, ice time and other stats. Fans can click through to different real-time stats, follow along with the action. 

Or they can watch an archived game through this technology, breaking down each goal based on shot distance and the position of teammates. 

Then there’s the database that this technology will create. Given how much data the sensors will collect, the NHL can begin to provide hard-number analytics on puck possession, on-ice scoring events and other stats.

It’s all part of a larger project for the league that seeks to digitize every box score available in league history, scraping stats that would allow fans to compare, say, possession numbers from 2015 with possession numbers from 1965.

A full revision of the stats pages, including this newly collected data, could begin as soon as February.

As for the technology itself, Sportsvision found a way to do what the NHL has tried to do for years – put a chip in the puck without fundamentally changing it.

“It uses infrared emitters, what we call active tracking,” said Sportvision CEO Hank Adams.

They uses the same technology in the NBA and NASCAR. The problem with the NHL, he said, is that there are too many collisions to simply track the players. They had to put sensors on the actual puck, along with sensors inside the collar of the players’ jerseys.

“There’s a chip in the puck, and infrared lights are shined through these light tubes,” he said. “We have infrared cameras up in the catwalks, 10 of them. They see the flash of the puck, which is a unique frequency, and different than the flash of a player tag. And each player tag as a different frequency. We slip it into a pocket of the jersey, and it shines through brightly.”

The important thing about the puck was that it wasn’t fundamentally changed. Adams said the puck acts the same way as a regulation puck, despite having four emitters on top and bottom, as well as 10 around the outside of puck.

The pucks are “not inexpensive,” said Adams. But if a fan catches one, they’ll “have a nice souvenir.”

(Unlike when the glow puck existed, the pucks can be shut off when they fly into the stands. No more weird glowing orbs in the lower deck.)

It’s mind-blowing how far players tracking can go. Will these official numbers be used in arbitration hearings? Will it be something that’s proprietary for the NHL, and perhaps be only available to the general public through a subscription service? Will there be different feed of games that offer more data than a regular broadcast?

And what about the technology? With laser sensors on the puck, couldn’t it aid the NHL’s hockey operations team in determining if a puck actually crossed the goal line?

In fact, it might. 

“That was brought up. Something we looked at. From our standpoint, it can be an aid for the referees,” Adams said. “For shots on goal, there’s an official definition: Will it have gone in if not for the goalie? Well, we know where the puck is, we know how far away the goal is. And there are things we can automate, like if the puck was deflected by a stick above the crossbar.”

Again, it’s the “embryonic” stages of the tech. But it’s very promising.

If nothing else, it won’t be Glow Puck Part Deux. 


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