Columnist image
Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter



PALM BEACH, Fla. — The next mission on the NHL’s quest for the holy grail of advanced hockey statistics, the capture of on-ice player tracking, is planned for next month’s All-Star Game in Tampa Bay.

The NHL is scheduled to conduct its latest experiment there, this time using optical technology - which does not require infrared tracking chips embedded in player’s jerseys.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the goal is to begin to work out the kinks in time to roll out a tracking system for the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs.

“We’re actually working with some technology companies to get it into a position where we’re comfortable that it will work accurately and that it’s scalable for all games in all buildings,” Bettman said. “We think the ’19-20 season.”

The NHL last tested a player tracking system using infrared during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. The data delivered was believed to be extremely accurate - but the league backed off from pursuing that technology.

One issue was scalability and cost.

“It’s expensive,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “Very expensive.”

“We learned that we can get the technology to work but we needed it to work better so that it could be scalable,” Bettman said. “Doing it for 16 or 17 games in a two-week period in one building is a lot different than 1,271 games in 31 buildings.”

Another issue was that the puck embedded with infrared sensors for the World Cup of Hockey was two separate pieces. Even though maker SMT proved that their two-piece puck could maintain its integrity after being blasted 140 mph - harder than anyone in the NHL can actually shoot - directly off the post 50 consecutive times, the league could not wrap its head around the construction.

Could you imagine if a puck somehow broke into two pieces and only one half entered the net in a Stanley Cup playoff game? The blowback would be incredible.

So, the NHL is expected to test a puck in Tampa Bay which Daly described as “closer to one piece.” The payoff for fans would be no more inconclusive goal reviews because the puck is hidden under a goaltender’s equipment. Sensors would indicate whether the puck is completely over the goal line.

Most importantly, this technology does not use infrared chips, but rather software which recognizes and culls data from cameras on the broadcast.

“We're not going to need them to wear a chip or anything like that,” Bettman said. “We don’t need players to do anything different. We have other ways of doing it.”

That change in approach has led to speculation that the NHL is seeking to bypass the NHL Players’ Association and institute the technology unilaterally - that the data collection would not need to be bargained because players are not technically being asked to play or wear anything differently.

That is not the case, both Bettman and Daly said.

“We update them on what we’re doing,” Bettman said.

While NHL players may not be 100 per cent on board with all of the potential data that could be collected - perhaps out of fear that it may negatively be used against them - the NHLPA said Friday the belief that players are against player tracking is inaccurate.

After all, the NHLPA did allocate significant dollars to the World Cup of Hockey tracking initiative, since the tournament was a joint venture with the league. 

The amount of data potentially available - and what it reveals about the game - is nearly limitless. Exactly how fast was Connor McDavid skating on that rush? How often is a certain goaltender allowing goals over his glove hand from within five feet? How hard was Brent Burns’ point shot and how high off the ice was that puck Joe Pavelski tipped? With a seat at the bargaining table, the NHLPA can steer the data collection to a compromise in which the players are comfortable.​

Right now, there is skepticism about the accuracy of the data provided by the optical technology, which is why it may take until 2019 to get it up and running.

Bettman hinted the NHL is investing to “invent” other “technology that doesn’t currently exist.”

The NFL and NBA successfully implemented optical player tracking technology years ago, but the fast and unpredictable movement of players is what has held hockey back. That random nature of the sport is also why that advanced player tracking data, which has so far been tracked by hand and analyzed by analytics firms in a proprietary manner, remains the Holy Grail.

“We’re committed to doing it and we’re investing a fair amount to do it,” Bettman said. “It is a work in progress but we're very confident that we're going to get this to work. The amount of data that it will provide in addition to creating opportunities for broadcasters to use it in real time is pretty exciting.”

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli