The earliest revolutions in hockey happened because of the players. The Bobby Orrs changed the way we looked at position players, the Russian five-man unit altered coaching strategies and equipment technology spawned faster skaters and harder shots. But the next big changes are happening away from the rink, in offices crammed full with whirring and buzzing computer towers and servers. With the ability to track stats in a more specific manner, the league has already seen changes in terminology and how we value and analyze players. It is impacting arbitration and the way teams scout and has added numerous jobs in NHL front offices. The NHL’s partnership with business software company SAP repackaged and delivered many of the numbers that had become popular with statheads, but new technologies, like player tracking that companies such as Quebec startup Sportlogiq are developing, could transform the way coaches do their jobs and change the outcomes of games in real time.
“There are some things you could show (with our technology) right now to a smart coach and he could take what, say, P.K. Subban’s decision-making is like in the defensive, neutral and offensive zones,” said Andrew Berkshire, Sportlogiq’s manager of editorial content. “And if a coach gets a report during the first intermission that says these are the decisions Subban’s making, you could say to him, ‘P.K., when you’ve got the puck here, you’ve got to make that pass more because that’s what you’re better at and what generates more offense.’ ” With player tracking, a technological advancement already in place in pro leagues like the NBA and the English Premier League, coaches could integrate their feel for the game and gut reactions with hard numbers. But how, exactly, does this work?
Sportlogiq’s platform was developed from what was originally surveillance technology and works by mapping skaters’ movements – from head to toe – roughly 2,500 times per game, producing an annotated database that creates a breadth of data, the likes of which has never been seen in the NHL. Instead of using chips in pucks or jerseys, which are technologies more difficult to implement, Sportlogiq works off standard game footage, be it from broadcast cameras or film taken by a coaching staff.
“The way that it tracks the players is by detecting parts of their body so we can find their feet, their hands, their stick and their head,” Berkshire said. “Using that, we start to determine not only where they are, but what they’re doing. Was it a shot or a stick check or a body check?” But with so many events covered by the system, the trouble can be data getting lost in the shuffle. Co-founder-CEO Craig Buntin said that, right now, some teams don’t know what to do with the data they’re receiving. Ben Alamar, the current ESPN director of analytics who previously worked with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers during the NBA’s big technological, statistical and player-tracking boom, said the amount of data can pose a potential problem. That problem, however, could give rise to a shift in the landscape of the NHL front offices. “The data that comes out of (the NBA’s SportVU technology) is really complex and you can do amazing things with it and really creative things,” Alamar said. “But it does change the scope of what an analyst is in most sports. In the NBA, when I started, if you had good Microsoft Excel skills, you could do valuable stuff with just that. To do really creative, innovative stuff with the new data, you’re talking about people who have degrees in computer science and statistics.” Beyond a team-to-team basis, player tracking has potential implications for the NHL’s department of player safety. If the speed, trajectory and path of an offending player can be measured on a hit being considered for supplemental discipline, it could impact how the league proceeds with fines and suspensions. It’s not just player tracking that will make its way onto NHL ice, though. Advanced goal-line technology is on its way, too. In Game 3 of the 2015 Pacific Division final between Calgary Flames and Anaheim Ducks, a Sam Bennett shot from the goalmouth looked to have crossed the line from several angles, but the goal was ruled inconclusive on video replay. That moment, and others like it, has given way to those who want to see goal-line technology used in the NHL. In the U.K., Hawk-Eye Innovations has created goal-line technology for soccer that is used by every single team in the English Premier League. The system works by directing seven cameras at each goal which track the ball in the goal area. With millimeter accuracy, the system can instantly send a report to the referee whether the ball has crossed the line. Similar Hawk-Eye systems have already been implemented in tennis and cricket, as well. A Hawk-Eye system implemented in the NHL would have made the subsequent video replay of Bennett’s goal obsolete. Increasingly, fans, players, coaches and teams want to remove the human-element of error, which is what the Hawk-Eye system aims to accomplish. It’s not beyond reason to believe one catch-all system could also remove the need for the once-a-week questionable call regarding the puck-over-glass penalty. Everyone, from GMs to fans, wants the right calls to be made. Technology like Hawk-Eye can ensure that. What it will all come back to – goals, penalties, discipline, et al. – is how the game is coached and played. That’s again where player tracking will be what makes the biggest changes, and they might not be as far away as we think. And, once perfected, it won’t be long before we’re seeing coaches make split-second decisions based on analytics. “Honestly, when this data is real-time and perfect and we know everything we need to know about this data, the coach of every NHL team is going to have an iPad (behind the bench),” Berkshire said. “And they’ll be able to look at what their players are doing and what they should be doing more efficiently shift to shift.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the September 14 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.