A couple weeks ago, the NHL held an Innovation Event in Northern California to announce that the league’s website would now feature dozens of “enhanced” metrics that had previously been available to the public only on independently operated sites. Enhanced! These metrics were to be the most advanced ever available in hockey–meaning that they’re still way behind the kinds of stats available in other professional sports.
Hockey has been slow to adapt to the post-Moneyball sports landscape. Over the past year, a number of teams have placed greater emphasis on data analytics–the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, both of which have struggled in recent years, each hired stat-savvy bloggers to work in their analytics departments–but the NHL has yet to develop the statistical capabilities long ago perfected by other leagues. In the NBA, for instance, every arena has a system called SportVU that uses sophisticated cameras to track the movement of every player on the court as well as the ball, allowing for a wide range of metrics like touches per game or rim protection. Major League Baseball, meanwhile, can pinpoint the exact location of every pitch, and has been rolling out a system called FIELDf/x that can track the ball once it’s put into play, as well as the movement of the players on the field. These sports have what the hockey lacks–that is, a means of tracking players. And the slow development of that technology in hockey has been holding the league back.
Player-tracking technology allows for “better insight and a more rigorous, objective understanding of what is happening,” whether on the field or the court or the ice, says Alex Rucker, the senior analytics consultant for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, who works heavily with SportVU data. It’s also an extremely efficient data-gathering mechanism: There are countless things that happen during a game that previously could only have been logged manually–an expensive, time-consuming, and not very accurate process. Lacking that kind of data, player evaluations by coaches, scouts, media, and fans are often based purely on observation.
A player-tracking system would clearly revolutionize the way analytics are done in the NHL, but the league has yet to implement one. So what’s responsible for the delay?
For one thing, the cameras used for basketball wouldn’t cut it in hockey. Existing player-tracking technology “doesn’t work for a contact sport, and it certainly doesn’t work for a sport that’s so fast and has so much contact,” said John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating office, on a recent conference call. Hockey players often become tangled during the course of play (imagine three or four players fighting for the puck along the boards), meaning that any camera-derived data would need to be supplemented with manual data gathering–exactly what such an innovation is designed to eliminate. Worse still, camera systems aren’t able to track the location of the puck, which is necessary in determining who has possession.
Change is coming, however–very quickly, as a matter of fact. The league tested a player-tracking system at its annual All-Star Weekend in January that didn’t rely on the kind of cameras used in the NBA. Instead, players wore RFID chips inside their jerseys, with another chip embedded into all the pucks used during the course of the game. Those chips interacted with 10 infrared cameras placed throughout the arena, allowing all the necessary elements to be tracked at a rate of 30 frames per second.
“If we sat down five years ago and talked about RFID, and which sport would be easier to do, I would have said hockey, without any hesitation,” says Rucker. That’s because, at least in theory, they could place RFID chips everywhere–on sticks, in pucks, and on the players themselves. “In hockey, they wear so much gear, you wouldn’t notice,” says Rucker. “They’re small–put a couple on the shoulder pads, and all of a sudden you have this wealth of data that frankly could be better than basketball data.”
The RFID player-tracking system–created by Sportvision, the same company that developed baseball’s FIELDf/x system as well as the “First and Ten” technology used on football telecasts–unlocks a wealth of data. Suddenly we’re able to learn which players are best at winning battles for the puck along the boards, which players enter the offensive zone at the highest speeds, and where goalies are most vulnerable to letting a puck slip past them. It would allow the league to standardize stats like scoring opportunities, and more accurately track important metrics like puck possession. No longer would data-savvy fans need to rely on stats like Corsi and Fenwick, two measures of possession in hockey that use shot attempts as a proxy for puck possession. Sportvision’s computers will be able to measure that kind of thing exactly.
“You’re really unlocking the potential of analytics,” says Tanay Delima, an engineering student at the University of Toronto who has been studying tracking data collected by a different company during a regular-season NHL game last year, building visualizations and models that could be used for analysis when a fuller data set is available. “Hockey analytics is still in its infancy,” says Delima. “But once you had a player-tracking system implemented in basketball, analytics kind of exploded.”
The NHL declined to allow anyone from Sportvision to speak with Fast Company for this story, but it’s clear that there are still kinks to work out. Collins says that the All-Star Weekend test was “more positive than negative,” and that the pucks they used, custom-manufactured with embedded RFID chips, held up well. Over the next few months, they’ll be working with the puck manufacturer to refine the design, and working with Sportvision to refine the reading of the chips worn by players. He also said that the actual reading of the chips worn by players needed to be fine-tuned. Collins says it’s still possible it could be introduced in time for the start of next season, though he admits that’s a pretty tight deadline.
The league and its players association would need to agree on the specifics of such a system before it’s used on a full-time basis. Jonathan Weatherdon, an NHLPA spokesman, declined to say if the players had specific concerns at this stage. (“The NHL recently told us that they will be presenting us with a proposal on how they would like to incorporate tracking, and once they do so, we will fully review and respond to their proposal,” he said.) Karl Alzner, a defenseman for the Washington Capitals, voiced concern to the Washington Post “that teams could use data against players in contract negotiations and arbitration hearings.” In the same article, though, an agent for several hockey players pointed out that those same stats could be used to support arguments in players’ favor.
League-wide implementation of RFID is still months away at the earliest. In the meantime, the NHL is on the verge of some game-changing technology, even if it is a little late to the party. Says Collins: “The technology has caught up to our game.”