By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)
LAS VEGAS (AP) — On one screen live video was showing how many feet per second Erik Karlsson was skating. On another was a video-game-like visualization of the game on the ice below between Vegas and San Jose. Nearby screens flashed prop bets – where the next goal would be scored from? would Max Pacioretty skate 3 miles tonight? – as odds were updated by the second.
The NHL this week tested puck and player tracking for the first time in regular-season games, an exciting step with plans to have it place across the league next season. The NHL will join and perhaps surpass the NFL with real-time tracking technology it hopes will have broad ramifications for teams, players and fans from Florida to Vancouver.
An overwhelming amount of data will soon be available for analytics, broadcasters and, yes, gamblers as expanded sports betting takes hold following last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision clearing the way.
”It’s going to change the game in a big way,” said Dave Lehanski, NHL senior vice president of business development. ”We’re going to go from tracking or capturing maybe about 350 events per game now – shot, pass, hit, save – to 10,000. That alone at the end of the day, you’re going to have a massive amount of new data that no one has ever seen before.”
Microchips were added to player shoulder pads and fitted inside specially designed pucks for two Vegas Golden Knights home games this week, against the New York Rangers and the San Jose Sharks. Fourteen antennas in the rafters and four more at the suite level tracked movement through radio frequencies and relayed the data to suite 46, where league and Players’ Association executives and representatives from 20 teams and various technology firms, betting companies and TV rights holders were watching along with a handful of reporters.
Tracking was tested at previous All-Star games and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. The latest tests refined the logistics of using the technology in meaningful games, and also showed how the real-time statistics can be used on broadcasts, in betting applications and in creating virtual reality and augmented reality simulations.
”Technology gives us a chance to bring our fans closer to the game, gives them a chance to look at the game from different perspectives,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said as the Golden Knights battled the Sharks. ”And the opportunity is unlimited in an era where technology is developing at a record pace.”
Fans will get their first real taste of the tracking system at All-Star Weekend on Jan. 25-26 in San Jose when NBC in the U.S. and Rogers in Canada will have access to the data to use on their broadcasts. If all goes according to plan, the full range of puck and player tracking will be in place to begin next season.
The NHL and NHLPA have been discussing puck and player tracking for several years, and millions of dollars have been invested in the project. Player concerns over tracking data being used against them have been quelled enough that they agreed to wear the microchips.
”I do think the potential positives far outweigh any negatives,” said Mathieu Schneider, a retired defenseman and special assistant to the NHLPA executive director. ”It’s incumbent upon us to make sure we’re doing not only for the current guys what we can but for future guys. … I think the timing’s right.”
The NHL owns the data but must share it with the union. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the sides are on the same page and will talk about it more for the next collective bargaining agreement. One of the conditions is that teams are not allowed to use player tracking data in salary arbitration.
”Who knows what’s going to happen with it?” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. ”I think people like to see different stats, and the NHL’s probably trying to give fans a little bit of something like that. Maybe it affects some guys, maybe it doesn’t. Hopefully it only enhances players and their skills and how they play the game.”
The NHL will join the NFL as the only major North American sports leagues with players wearing tracking technology. The NBA and Major League Baseball use sophisticated systems that can include radar and cameras.
Jogmo World Corp. and the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany developed this particular system in conjunction with the NHL over the past three years. It has taken that long just to get it right; the rubber used to make pucks originally didn’t work with the sensors. The system tracks a puck 2,000 times per second and players 200 times per second.
”Overall, hockey’s the most challenging sport that you can think of because the highest mechanics, the highest speed, the highest impact,” Jogmo founder and CEO Martin Bachmayer said. ”We had to change the puck recipe, the puck mixture to make that work. That was super difficult.”
The NHL won’t say how much, but the new pucks are considerably more expensive than the frozen rubber varieties used over the past 100-plus years of hockey and any fans who went home with a puck from one of the games unknowingly got a piece of history and a valuable souvenir. How referees handle them and how equipment managers deal with the microchips on the shoulder pads were major elements of the testing this week, and adjustments will be made based on feedback from players and officials before next season.
Starting next season, broadcasters will be able to flash up-to-the-second data during games, and at some point fans will be able to customize puck and player tracking stats as they watch online. The goal is to try to attract new viewers and give hardcore fans more to sink their teeth into.
”The casuals will use it as a way to understand just how fast (hockey is),” NHL chief administrative officer Steve McArdle said. ”All the things that they have heard about hockey will come to life through data right in real time. The avids, if they want to go super deep on the analytics that are going to be derived out of this thing, it’s a rabbit hole that you could go as deep as you want to go.”
It could also change the way the game itself is played. Teams already have their own proprietary data, and the influx of standardized numbers and information with pinpoint accuracy down to the inch will make analytics even more advanced.
”They want to have more information, so that really provides us with an opportunity to really make the clubs better and smarter,” NHL chief revenue officer Keith Wachtel said.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno