Stubborn NHL takes step forward with plans to test new technology

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

John Collins, COO of the NHL, says new technology could be in place for the start of the 2015-16 season. (Richard Drew/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Technology and advanced analytics are changing many pro sports – but hockey has been slow to fully embrace the camera and the computer. While a small number of teams, including the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks, have sought out new ways to assess the game, the sport as a whole has remained a bastion of puck-heads stubbornly frozen in a low-tech age.

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Until now: As the NHL playoffs move toward the Stanley Cup finals, change is coming off the ice. The National Hockey League plans next fall to test new technology to track players in action and produce a vast new array of information – a boon to teams seeking competitive advantage and astute fans placing bar bets.

A league-wide system could be in place for the start of the 2015-16 season, according to John Collins, NHL chief operating officer.

Mr. Collins sees more than raw numbers. The figures can paint detailed pictures of the game and its players that can help the NHL market its product, complementing efforts such as the league’s reality show this season, NHL Revealed. “It’s about telling stories,” Mr. Collins said in an interview.

Hockey has slid gradually into the age of advanced analysis. About half of NHL teams gather and analyze a range of more sophisticated information on their players and opponents, such as a particular skater’s favourite scoring spot on the ice.

Such efforts are soon to become the norm. The NHL first has to decide which technologies to test, with Sportvision and SportVU, both Chicago-based, the leading contenders. The league aims to test one or more systems, starting this fall, with five to eight teams. One goal would be to integrate all the information with the league’s broadcasters.

“Hockey is next. The sport is ripe and ready for analysis,” said Brian Kopp, a senior vice-president at SportVU provider Stats LLC, which is owned by 21st Century Fox and Associated Press.

SportVU began to work with a small number of NBA teams four years ago, and the league as a whole signed on for the start of this season. The system, installed in every NBA arena, involves six cameras far above the court that track the players and the ball. This data is then combined with NBA play-by-play information and fed through algorithms to produce reams of useful insights. The data give fans a richer understanding – and give coaches and managers information to better assess the game and its players.

Take Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors. During the regular season and the playoffs, the point guard was a particularly strong shooter from the left side of the key beyond the three-point arc, according to a detailed breakdown on NBA.com.

But his shot selection changed somewhat during the playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets, when he drove to the basket much more often, trying to carry his team to victory – right until his final, thwarted effort in Game 7. That information is of interest to the Raptors’ coaches – and their opponents.

Hockey lags. Basic stats show that Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin scored on only 7.1 per cent of his shots in 2013-14, the worst of his career, but how it happened is unclear, at least to the general public.

It’s the same for the success of Toronto’s Phil Kessel, with his third-straight season converting more than 12 per cent of his shots into goals. The Leafs have expressed a coolness to analytics, while the Canucks and others are believers and track such information internally.

The adoption of SportVU or Sportvision could bring higher-tech insights to the league and its followers. Right now, keen fans use such websites as extraskater.com to glean insights from the real-time data the NHL does supply.

Puck possession, for instance, is measured by all shots taken, at various points in a game – a reasonable proxy. New technology would add considerable precision.

SportVU recorded eight games in Washington before the Winter Olympics as an initial trial. Cleanly tracking the puck remains a challenge.

The company also added two cameras to the set of six it uses for the NBA to track players moving on and off the bench. As in the NBA, the cameras identify players by the number on their jersey.

Sportvision is best known for the first-and-10 line digitally drawn across football fields for television viewers. The company was also responsible for the short-lived glowing puck on Fox in the 1990s. Sportvision has recently refined the idea and the NHL is looking at the new prototype chip-installed puck.

Smaller companies are also in the game. Ottawa’s PowerScout Hockey tested its portable camera system – borrowed from Prozone Sports in England, which focuses on soccer and rugby – in a total of 50 games in about half of the NHL’s arenas this season.

“The teams,” said PowerScout president Marc Appleby, “are blown away by the information.”

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