NHL tests puck and player tracking in regular-season games

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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.

In a hallway high up in T-Mobile Arena, virtual reality headsets provided a view of the game from the perspective of anyone from Marc-Andre Fleury to Joe Thornton to a fan in section 214.

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

James van Riemsdyk on fatherhood, Flyers/NHL returning, and more

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Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk took a moment out of his day/put his car in park to chat with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” on Friday. You can watch the full video above this post’s headline.

JVR didn’t do much to peel back the curtain on return-to-play issues, but he provided some useful information nonetheless.

  • Maybe most relevantly, JVR told Tirico that he’ll be close to 100 percent if the Flyers actually get to return to play. Van Riemsdyk injured his finger back in March.

JVR and Tirico didn’t really go into this, but the 31-year-old winger was heating up toward the end of 2019-20. Things didn’t start that smoothly, as Van Riemsdyk only managed five goals and 11 points through his first 17 games. Considering the $7M per year investment the Flyers made, JVR probably heard some grumbles.

But he played some of his best hockey with a still-fairly-new team before the injury and the pandemic struck. JVR scored 29 of his season’s 40 points (and 14 of his 19 goals) through the last 39 games. An updated version of Bill Comeau’s SKATR chart captures how much better JVR has been overall in 2019-20 after a disappointing return season with Philly:

JVR SKATR
via Bill Comeau

As disruptive as the pandemic has been, it had to be nice for JVR to be there for such a life event. An eager Tirico also learned that JVR’s child already has Gritty slippers.

(Please send Gritty slippers. I’m already quite googly-eyed from quarantining, anyway. At least my belly button doesn’t change colors [yet] though.)

  • He didn’t elaborate much, but JVR hinted that players prefer reseeding over a bracketed playoff format.

Really, though, the low-fi nature of the video pushes it to another level. Few things humanize a person quite like doing an interview in a parking lot. (Been there, JVR, been there. Kind of.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

USA Hockey president Jim Smith facing investigations

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Hockey president Jim Smith is the subject of two investigations surrounding his tenure as the president of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer confirmed Friday that the organization has hired an independent investigator to look into Smith’s business dealings with AHAI. Fischer also said the US Center for SafeSport is investigating allegations that Smith was aware of sexual misconduct by a coach and didn’t take action against him during Smith’s tenure with AHAI.

The Athletic first reported on the two investigations.

Fischer said the US Center for SafeSport’s investigation is regarding allegations that were made against Thomas Adrahtas, a youth hockey coach. The Athletic reported in February that multiple players said Adrahtas had abused them.

The US Center for SafeSport said in a statement that ”consistent with best practices and federal law, the Center does not discuss matters to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of the parties and any potential witnesses.”

Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. He told The Athletic through a spokesperson earlier this month that ”in my time as president of AHAI, there were no reports alleging misconduct by Tom Adrahtas.”

Founded in 1937, USA Hockey is an organization focused on the support and development of grass-roots hockey programs. Smith was unanimously elected as president by the organization’s board of directors in 2015. He was unanimously re-elected in 2018.

Ducks’ offensive woes extend to rare 2-year playoff drought

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The last time the Anaheim Ducks missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, they went all the way to their franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final just one year later.

Not many observers expect the current Ducks to duplicate the feats of those beloved 2002-03 Mighty Ducks after they complete another long offseason made even longer by the coronavirus pandemic.

These Ducks are still in full rebuilding mode after winning just 29 of their 71 games this season, including a Western Conference-worst 24 non-shootout victories. The Ducks were in sixth place in the Pacific Division standings primarily on the sturdy strength of goalies John Gibson and Ryan Miller, who bailed out their teammates all winter long.

Just three years after the Ducks reached the conference finals for the second time in three seasons, a long road back to Cup contention appears to loom in Orange County. Anaheim got largely disappointing performances from its collection of forwards – a star-free group outside captain Ryan Getzlaf – and the blue line was inconsistent while coach Dallas Eakins worked young talent into the lineup amid injuries and trade departures.

But during a second straight season without a playoff appearance – matching their total playoff-less seasons over the previous 13 years combined – Eakins and general manager Bob Murray saw signs of the team they want the Ducks to become. They’ll have an extra-long offseason to contemplate the next steps to get there.

”While we would have preferred to conclude our season normally and play 82 games, it became obvious over time that was not practical,” Murray said this week. ”We remain excited about our future and can’t wait for the 2020-21 season.”

SELDOM SCORING

Perhaps appropriately for a team with a long-standing reputation as an intimidating, defense-first organization, the Ducks’ biggest problems during their two-year playoff drought have been all about offense. Eakins was hired last summer to implement a speed-based system designed to produce more scoring opportunities, but it’s just not happening yet.

One season after Anaheim finished last in the NHL in goals, its minus-39 goal differential this season was the conference’s worst. Anaheim scored two or fewer regulation goals in a whopping 39 of its 71 games. Only Adam Henrique (26 goals) and Jakob Silfverberg (21) found the net with any frequency.

The Ducks’ problems ranged from Rickard Rakell‘s two-year regression to the disappointing numbers from youngsters who weren’t ready to produce at the highest level. Murray also curiously gave up on Ondrej Kase and Daniel Sprong in February, trading two young forwards with clear NHL-caliber scoring ability when they didn’t produce enough for his liking.

IN THE CREASE

Gibson and Miller didn’t post impressive statistics, but anybody who watched these Ducks knew their most valuable players were between the pipes. Gibson’s game has grown and matured even while his team has regressed, and the 39-year-old Miller still shows no drop-off in his abilities. If Miller decides to return for another NHL season, he’ll have the chance to pass Dominik Hasek on the NHL’s career victories list – and the Ducks won’t have to worry about this vital position for another year.

DROP THE BALLS

The Ducks have an 8.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL’s complicated draft lottery. Anaheim hasn’t had a top-five draft pick since 2005, when it snagged Bobby Ryan with the second overall choice. Murray and his scouting department have a long history of finding impressive talent outside the first round, but they’ll likely have the opportunity to choose a game-changing star this summer for the first time. The Ducks also have Boston’s first-round pick from their trade of Kase.

DARK BLUE LINE

Anaheim’s collection of defensemen appears to be thoroughly average, and none seems likely to get much better. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are solid pros, but they’re likely past the points in their development where they could become stars. The Ducks could use an injection of game-changing talent on the blue line.

GETTING BUCKETS

Linemates Henrique and Silfverberg bucked their team’s offensive struggles with a pair of impressive seasons, and they’ll be a foundation of the rebuilding effort. Henrique was particularly productive, leading the roster with 43 points. They’re both locked into long-term contracts.

GETZ BACK

The 35-year-old Getzlaf will head into the final season of his contract later this year when he begins his 16th season with Anaheim. The playmaker still racked up 29 assists this season despite finishing the year on a line with Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano, two 24-year-old recent additions with a combined 59 career NHL goals. It’s a long way down from his heyday with Corey Perry, but Getzlaf appears eager to keep working on the Ducks’ rebuilding project.

Supporters quickly raise $500K to try to save Alabama-Huntsville hockey program

UAH Hockey University of Alabama-Huntsville logo $500K
via UAH Chargers
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Mere days after it looked like the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey program was going to get cut, supporters raised a whopping $500K in hopes of keeping the UAH program alive.

With another $500K expected to come from boosters, the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s ice hockey program reached the seemingly unrealistic goal of $1M to try to avoid the end of a program that stretches back four decades.

UAH supporters drove that $500K by combining a Go Fund Me account with T-shirt sales.

Now, this doesn’t outright guarantee the continuation of UAH’s men’s program.

“[School president Darren Dawson] did make us a verbal commitment that if you get to that number, we’ll make it happen,” former UAH player Sheldon Wolitski told AL.com. “We’re hoping he’s going to honor his word. We were asking for a formal statement from him to say that. It would be a shame to put all this effort and we raise it and he doesn’t follow through.”

Even if school officials stick to that verbal commitment, there are some hurdles to clear.

Not the first time the UAH men’s ice hockey program has been saved

Paul Gattis (also of AL.com) argues that the UAH men’s ice hockey program needs more than just money to survive. This is not, after all, the first time that this program needed saving. It was teetering on being canceled back in 2011 before victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Even so, it’s pretty remarkable, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Does it justify comparing UAH officials to “Dr. Evil?” I’d zip it on that one.)

Those fighting for the UAH men’s ice hockey program aim to preserve something quite unusual, as Joseph Goodman noted as fundraising intensified:

UAH hockey is the only NCAA Division I hockey program in the South. How cool is that? It’s one of one — a singular, special thing just like the city it skates for and represents.

Will we see this program survive after giving Cam Talbot and others the chance to chase their dreams? It seems a lot more likely after an eventful week.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.