Since October 2017, teams playing at the Hakametsa arena in Tampere, the oldest indoor rink in Finland, have had a chip on their shoulders. Literally.
The chip, hidden in a little pouch inside their sweaters, tracks players’ movements on the ice. Similarly, the puck has a small chip inside it, transmitting data on the movements of that piece of vulcanized rubber.
Based on Quuppa position-tracking technology, each player’s Bluetooth sender and the puck transmit data that is picked up by 20 locators in the rink. The data is stored in the cloud and then distributed back to users via a web portal.
The smart puck system, or Wisehockey, as its developers call it, is the product of Finnish Bitwise. “We’ve been working with (Finnish league team Tampere) Tappara for years, and they approached us about developing a new mobile app, which was only moderately interesting to us,” said Bitwise’s Mika Hulkki. “When we heard that the arena still had the locators installed by a previous partner, we got interested.”
Transmitting information about the players wasn’t a big challenge – but getting the chip inside the puck was. Hulkki and Bitwise’s CEO Tomi Mikkonen spent months working on the pucks, looking for the ideal solution. “We had to make sure adding the chip wouldn’t change how the puck behaves on the ice or add weight,” Hulkki said. “At the same time, we had to find a way to get the chip inside the puck in a way the signal would reach the locators and that would protect the chip.”
Months of work with power drills and different kinds of isolation materials led to the current solution. “It was trial and error,” Hulkki said. “Tomi and I hand-made several prototypes and tested them until we found this one. The biggest challenge was to make sure the puck would feel exactly the same as before. Now we have something that is almost as hard as the vulcanized rubber used to make pucks, but it also acts as isolation and protects the chip.”
The system sends data every 50 milliseconds on the players and every 10 milliseconds on the puck, while tracking their positions with an accuracy of about four inches. Wisehockey locators have been installed in three more arenas, covering five Finnish League teams, and the plan is to have every single Finnish League arena fitted with the locators by 2019-20. According to Hulkki, it only takes a few days to install the system.
While the system has been in place in just one arena for a full season, visiting teams have also had access to the data regarding their players. Wisehockey can track an individual player’s total distance, shift lengths, faceoffs, maximum speed and average speed. And for teams, Wisehockey tracks zone entries, whether shots have been blocked, shot speeds and puck possession. “You can also watch the events unfold in (two-dimensional) animation in real time,” Hulkki said.
Wisehockey’s team of 20 programmers have written “over a million lines of code,” and it’s that code that makes the system unique, says Hulkki. “Since Wisehockey is an automated system, we can provide the data report in real time,” he said. “Also, if a team or a league would later want to pull up data on something that we haven’t tracked before, we can do that fairly quickly. We can crunch 500 games’ worth of numbers easily, something a camera-based system can’t do because the analysis is done manually.”
The data can be used to enhance the arena experience, by creating entertainment for fans, as well as the TV product. And of course, once coaches see what can be done with the system, they’re interested. “Currently, though, our customer is the Finnish League, and we’ll work together with them to see which elements should be prioritized,” Hulkki said.
In addition to the Finnish league, teams in two other leagues were also set to use Wisehockey later this season. “The NHL wants to have proprietary technology, and we haven’t talked to them, but we’ve seen a lot of traffic on our site from the league office,” Hulkki said.
This story appears in the January 28, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.