SPORTS

NHL tiptoeing into player and puck tracking technology

02/05/2015 01:02 EST | Updated 04/07/2015 05:59 EDT
Imagine being able to track Sidney Crosby's every move on the ice in real time.

It may not be far off.

The NHL has started experimenting with player tracking technology that could be introduced as early as next season, dramatically changing the game for fans and players alike.

During last month's all-star game in Columbus, chips were put in player jerseys and pucks to track everything from speed and movement to shift length and ice time. The success of this first experiment could spur movement toward making it wide-spread.

"We're not exactly sure where this will all take us," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "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 just to get to this point. The first step in co-operation with the NHLPA was all-star weekend when each player had a chip in the collar of his jersey. There was another chip in each puck so that infrared cameras in the ceiling of Nationwide Arena could track every movement.

The result was an ability for the league and TV networks to see speed and movement in real-time and oodles of information to mine after the fact.

"I'd say all around it was a success for us," Sportvision CEO Hank Adams said in a phone interview. "We were very pleased and at some point hopefully it translates into something more long-term. But that's yet to be seen."

Plenty of stumbling blocks exist, but the hope is that this kind of technology will be ready for real games by next season or perhaps the one after that.

"We're still testing," Bettman said last week in Vancouver. "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."

The applications are endless, even if player tracking can't explain everything that happens on the ice. Some things, like hits, giveaways and takeaways will remain subjective, and video review will still be necessary to determine goals.

"It certainly is not intended to be a replacement of that system," Adams said.

But the NHL's 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 things such as 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."

With this kind of technology, teams, players and fans can see how fast a player is skating, his top speed and average and can do the same with the puck. It's much more data than has ever been available before, and with that comes some hesitancy on behalf of some players.

"We haven't finished discussing all that with the players," NHL Players' Association 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."

Mathieu Schneider, a longtime defenceman who's now working as special assistant to Fehr, voiced excitement but also some trepidation, not about the information itself but how it might be used. Concerns include impact on coaching decisions contract negotiations.

"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."

The league and NHLPA must come to an agreement before there's even a consideration about having player tracking in place for real games.

— With files from staff writer Joshua Clipperton in Vancouver

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