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Puck, player tracking being tested at Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Finland players looked at the numbers and laughed.

They couldn’t believe captain Lasse Kukkonen only had five sprints in a game and Petri Kontiola had a whopping 46.

Even better: They don’t even know what qualifies as a sprint.

“We were looking at the stats and average speeds and making fun of some guys,” forward Oskar Osala said. “How can you have 46 sprints in a game? It sounds like a ridiculous amount of sprints.”

At these Olympics, data on speed, acceleration, stopping, distance traveled, shift lengths and ice time is available to teams in what could be the next step for puck and player tracking across hockey, including the NHL. Referees even have whistles digitally connected to the clock so it stops immediately without the need for a timekeeper’s quick reaction that will always be a step slow.

Yeah, this feels like hockey’s future. The NHL has worked with technology companies and invested significant money to develop a system it can use. The Olympic men’s and women’s hockey tournaments are a valuable testing field that could speed up the process of getting it ready for use like it is in the NBA, Major League Baseball, Formula One and other sports.

“We’re still searching for the right thing, but technology is developing so fast,” International Ice Hockey Federation general secretary Horst Lichtner said. “We are still all looking for the right solution. Maybe it’s two years. It’ll be fast.”

Lichtner and Alain Zobrist, CEO of Omega Timing, which is doing the tracking in hockey and ski jumping thanks to a deal with the International Olympic Committee, said their organizations have been in contact with the NHL about the technology.

The system includes microchips in the back of jerseys that can be tracked and cameras high above the ice at the Gangneung and Kwandong hockey arenas track the movement of the puck.

It’s not quite Fox’s famous “glow puck” from the 1990s, but it’s similar to the testing the NHL did at 2015 All-Star weekend and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Omega gave the same combination of technology a run-through at the 2016 Youth Winter Olympics in Norway, and it was successful enough to try it with pros.

At the Olympics, a player’s speed is sometimes flashed up on arena video boards and all the data is sent to teams. Unlike the NHL, iPads and other electronic devices aren’t allowed on benches in international play, but if and when they are, the data could be available in real time for coaches and players to evaluate.

“We’re able to measure the data, process it and distribute in less than 100 milliseconds,” Zobrist said. “It might be a great tool for them to help their coaching.”

Player performance tracking is a touchy subject off the ice. Players have expressed concern that data on speed, distance traveled, shot velocity and other things could be used against them in coaching decisions and contract negotiations.

“It’s just all cons,” said former NHL defenseman James Wisniewski, who’s playing for the United States. “There’s nothing pros for a player for that at all. It’s not like you’re going to make more money, get a longer-term deal because you travel more distance or you don’t travel. All this is going to do is hurt you. Being a (NHL Players’ Association) rep for eight, nine years, I really have a hard time believing that the PA’s going to even let that go through. It’s all negative.”

Osala enjoys real-time data he gets as a golf fan and considers it a useful tool for athletes.

“I kind of understand how the pros approach their game and I think it’s pretty cool how you can develop your game after you made a deep analysis of your performance in a long span,” said Osala, who played three NHL games with the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes. “For me as a fan, it makes the game so much more interesting. Absolutely as a fan I would love to have the data in hockey.”

It would be fascinating to see how fast Connor McDavid skates, how quickly Vladimir Tarasenko releases the puck or how hard Zdeno Chara shoots from the point on the power play. But there are questions about how practical that information is. Lichtner called Formula One’s program the “ultimate data experience” because fans know everything, including the G-force on a driver, but said he doesn’t think that’s important in hockey.

“I don’t need to know the G-force of the contact between (Alex Ovechkin) and the other guy if he’s strong, but maybe some people would like it,” Lichtner said. “I can see a coach having a hundred pages more of information. He might love it, but what is the benefit for the fan?

“I’m asking my people always, ‘Why do we do it and what’s in it for promoting hockey better?’ Make it more complicated? It’s already fast and complicated enough. Can you explain the game better? Yes? Then we have a big benefit.”

During the U.S. game against Slovenia, Brian O’Neill’s maximum speed was posted on a scoreboard, visual evidence that this is a team that can fly. As much as Wisniewski doesn’t see any pluses, teammate Bobby Sanguinetti wondered if it the data can help players understand themselves better.

“It might even help with rest for us,” Sanguinetti said. “If you see a guy’s logging a lot of minutes and he’s traveling a lot of distance, I guess, from the chip, maybe that has some impact.”

Finland players joked around about Kukkonen’s five sprints, but Osala said he felt the veteran defenseman was one of the best on the ice.

Therein lies a potential problem.

“I think you need to have somebody looking at the data and somebody looking at the actual game,” Osala said. “You can’t just look at the numbers. There has to be a balance between them.”

That’s the common refrain among players and coaches about advanced stats right now, including Corsi and Fenwick, which measure shot attempts to convey some measure of possession. Once player and puck tracking is perfected and implemented, there could be specific stats on how much time the play was in each zone, similar to time of possession in football.

It seems like just a matter of time until the NHL will track and disperse that information, and Lichtner said the NHL and IIHF are on good terms and will share ideas. He said he doesn’t believe this system, which the IIHF only found out about three weeks before the Olympics and worked with Omega and jersey-maker Nike to implement, is the one that will ultimately be in place.

“The future is a mix of chip data and cameras,” Lichtner said. “But we have to try it.”

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

WCHA’s Alabama-Huntsville cuts hockey program

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Alabama-Huntsville is dropping men’s hockey and men’s and women’s tennis as part of budget cuts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials said athletes in those sports who want to join another team’s roster will be released without penalty and free to transfer immediately. If they choose to stay, their current scholarships will be honored for the duration of their academic careers.

Alabama-Huntsville was one of the only southern schools to have a men’s hockey varsity program. The Chargers won Division II national titles in 1996 and 1998 and were Division II runners-up in 1994 and 1997 before making the move to the Division I level for the 1998-99 season.

Men’s hockey had been the lone Division I sport for Alabama-Huntsville. It competes at the Division II level in all other sports.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

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Canada’s NHL teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their respective buildings.

In a four-day span May 13-16, all seven teams contacted their season-ticket bases with options and, in some cases, deadlines to make a decision, according to The Canadian Press.

“It has become increasingly apparent, that any possibility will not include any further games being played this season in front of fans at Bell MTS Place,” the Winnipeg Jets said in an email.

That admission may seem anticlimactic given leagues and teams around the world are either playing in empty stadiums, or trying to figure out a way to just resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But season-ticket money is a key element of NHL business. Clubs are loathe to part with it.

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money.

Toronto Maple Leafs season-ticket holders had to declare they wanted their money back by Victoria Day or a credit would be applied to their accounts.

Their Montreal Canadiens counterparts had to make a decision by Friday, while the Vancouver Canucks’ deadline is June 3.

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.