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Player Tracking in Youth Hockey? The Future is Now

With sensor technology that maps every split-second of action in hockey games, a Vancouver-based tech company could change the way people evaluate players at the developmental level.
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How many of us retired hockey players romanticize the idea that we could’ve made it in the pros with a bit more luck? If only that hardnosed bantam coach hadn’t overlooked us, ignored us because we were too small or because the coach wanted to play their own kid. If only we could’ve been seen for all the little things we did well on the ice.

What if, in the near future, nothing players did at the minor or senior hockey levels went unnoticed? What if coaches could track, in real time, how fast players were skating, how long they held the puck, how effective their zone entries were…in the middle of a game, right after their shifts? That idea doesn’t represent some far-off future in a world with flying cars. It’s the present. The advent of player tracking is already in the process of making instant analysis a reality at the NHL level, but it’s also about to start happening at much lower levels thanks to breakthroughs made by a company called Drive Hockey Analytics. Forget the classic trope of parents driving their kids home after games, doling out advice on how they needed to hustle more or finish their checks. Thanks to readily available information on a Drive Hockey app minutes after a game, Mom and Dad might be pointing how their kid’s peak skating speed dipped from last week or how their average shift length increased.

So how did Drive Hockey Analytics, a Vancouver-based company incorporated in 2018, make a foray into player-tracking technology? The idea started as a sports technology engineering project at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. According to chief operating officer Adam Nathwani, it began with anecdotal musings from founder Mike Dahlstedt a few years back. The NHL had been teasing the idea of player tracking for years, but Dahlstedt wondered if there might be an even greater need for that type of research at the grassroots level, where the people charged with running teams had far fewer resources – and far less time because they often still had day jobs.

“In a lot of cases, coaches, particularly at the lower levels, are volunteer coaches or parent coaches,” Nathwani said. “They may not necessarily have that expertise that you would see once you get to the higher ranks, (where teams) identify a need for additional tools and resources to support decision-making for coaches but also in support of recruit and player development.”

With a massively underserved market in mind, the Drive Hockey team began creating its revolutionary technology. So how does Drive Analytics’ version of player tracking work? As Nathwani explains, it starts with placing a series of sensors, between 12 and 14, around a rink, typically on the glass. A tracking device is embedded in a custom-built game puck that behaves exactly like a regular puck. A “stick tag” insert puts a tracking device in the butt end of a player’s stick. All these pieces of technology work in conjunction to build a complete and remarkably detailed map of every event, down to the most microscopic level, that happens during a game. We’re talking multiple events recorded per second, outlining the examples listed above such as skating speed, zone entries and a lot more.

“We’re able to not only identify events, but we’re able to determine what led to those events, and we can create intelligent reports for players and coaches,” Nathwani said. “So we’re able to better understand cause and effect, and we find that it’s very helpful, particularly for the development process. In a lot of cases, players may not know what they should’ve done, what led to an error or what led to a successful outcome.”

So what are the primary applications of the data collected by the sensors? Nathwani cites two areas of focus. One is a real-time dashboard coaches can use during games, allowing them to track everything from shift length to skating speed to how long players have rested between shifts. It could create a major shift in how coaches manage their players’ fatigue levels during games. The second application is arguably the technology’s bread and butter. It’s a much more comprehensive database, accessible minutes after games, that allows players and coaches to see everything the sensors capture. That could include standard advanced stats but also something as specific as animated, moving data points that create a "playback" of shifts. It can also facilitate what Nathwani refers to as “benchmark comparisons,” allowing players to gauge their personal progress and also see how they measure up in various attributes compared to their teammates and peers. Drive Hockey is even experimenting with a pro-comparison feature that maps out a player’s style and likens it to an NHL player's.

The possibilities of Drive Hockey’s technology are obviously thrilling, then. But when is the right age to start tracking players so painstakingly? Do we want to lecture five-year-olds on their shot power or expected goals rates or high-danger save percentages? Is there a line at which an age group is too young to have its numbers crunched? Drive Hockey’s stick-sensor inserts are currently designed for intermediate and senior sticks, not junior-aged sticks, but the company has received requests for technology all the way down to the youngest level of hockey. The demand exists, and if crazed hockey parents are going to over-analyze their kids in any scenario, the technology will at least allow them to do so accurately.

“Players, no matter what age they are, are being evaluated, they’re being judged, they’re being given feedback,” Nathwani said. “We just want to provide some additional resources, some additional tools, so that, in the event that a five-year-old is being evaluated, at least there’s some objectivity to the matter. We’re just trying to provide some accessibility to some new information that could be helpful for them.”

Drive Hockey aims to someday expand the breadth of  knowledge for pretty much every demographic below the NHL level. It doesn’t intend to compete with the NHL’s tracking partner, SportsMedia Technology (SMT), which counts not just the NHL but also other juggernauts like the NFL and MLB among its clients. Instead, Drive Hockey hopes to become a go-to option for teams at the lower levels, which can’t afford to devote massive portions of their budgets to analytics departments and could use all-in-one solutions to improve the accuracy of their information.

Currently, Drive Hockey has multiple patents pending, and its tracking tech sits in the pilot-project stage. It had a few set up before COVID-19 gripped the globe, with clients such as Ryerson University on board. Today, the first programs playing guinea pig are the BCHL’s Coquitlam Express and the Greater Vancouver Canadians of the BC Major Midget League, which has an under-18, under-17 and under-15 team.

Don’t be surprised if the pilot teams and their respective leagues turn into full-time clients soon. The potential for such an enormous leap forward in hockey teams’ data analysis is simply too great to ignore.

To learn more about Drive Hockey Analytics, visit drivehockey.com

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