At the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, we were given a glimpse of the future.
There were real-time stats delivered via sensors on a player’s body, telling us everything from the speed of his skating to his (actual) time on ice.
There was a puck covered in infrared sensors, beaming information to cameras around the rink that would recreate games in a virtual, digital environment – and potentially end every argument about whether or not it crossed a goal line.
There was a sense that we were about to enter a new information age for analytics.
Last year, the NHL and the NHLPA indicated that the technology, developed by Sportvision, could be implemented in games as soon as the 2015-16 season. That obviously hasn’t happened – so where did it go?
According to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, there are still obstacles when it comes to cost, and there’s hesitancy from the League to commit to new technologies.
“We’re ultimately trying to get there. But the technology is evolving. Before we make the necessary investment to do it, we want to make sure that it works the way it’s supposed to,” he said on Monday night, “and that there isn’t a cheaper way to do it.”
Cost is a huge issue. For the Sportvision player tracking to work, every player needs to wear a chip; there needs to be 10 cameras placed on the catwalk of each arena; and the pucks themselves would cost $200 each. “Which would not allow you to do the things you like to do with them,” said former NHL COO John Collins to Sportsnet last August. “They are shot into the crowd, people keep them. Players, officials like to give pucks to fans. It’s not something we wanted to take away.”
Figuring out the puck has become a problem for the NHL when it comes to player tracking, according to Bettman.
“The player tracking is one thing. The puck is another. It’s a little bit harder to track things in our game than in baseball or football, because it’s non-stop action at an incredible speed. Tracking the puck has been an interesting challenge,” he said.
Bettman cradled his hands, and looked down.
“You have this glob of rubber, subjected to incredible temperatures when you’re making it. Getting that technology inside of it without compromising the integrity of the puck has been challenging.”
This has always been the issue for the “put a chip in the puck” movement. NHL vice president of hockey operations Mike Murphy once told me that the League has attempted to put one inside of their pucks on a dozen different occasions, but each time the pucks would end up splitting in two.
The Sportvision pucks might be sturdier, but at $200 a pop, the financial investment would be palpable.
(UPDATE: Hank Adams, the CEO of Sportvision, reached out to clarify that the $200 figure was for a prototype. "At volume, the pucks will cost about 1/4 of that. Around $50 each," he said.)
Player tracking may or may not make an appearance at the 2016 NHL All-Star Game; if the tech is being tested again, it certainly isn’t with the fanfare of last year’s demonstration.
Despite the obstacles, Bettman’s optimistic that the NHL will join the other leagues using the technology to collect a seemingly endless amount of data from games.
“That’s something we’ve been monitoring,” he said, “We think we’re going to get it right.”