Puck and player tracking taking big strides forward in NHL
When Buffalo rookie Owen Power scored his first NHL goal, the replay from five different angles was available in a matter of seconds in a private suite at Prudential Center as the team celebrated below. A few doors down, donning a headset puts you virtually on the ice with a set of cartoon characters reenacting the play.
More than three years since puck and player tracking was first tested by the NHL, the technology has grown by leaps and bounds to give coaches just about every piece of information they would want during and after a game. When the playoffs begin next week, fans will continue to see more details about player speed, shot speed and other metrics; by next season, they should have access to some of that data, too.
“We’re going to be putting more puck and player tracking data on our website in the near future, so fans will have access to it for the first time,” NHL senior director of coaching and GM applications Brant Berglund said at the league’s latest tech showcase during a game between Buffalo and New Jersey. “It will be there next season and possibly even as early as the playoffs this season for some of it.”
Showing how hard someone shoots the puck — and how oftena player breaks 20 mph — is just the start of the array of futuristic technologies coming to a hockey arena near you. The next wave includes real-time video and instant replays available for fans on their phones and steps toward augmented and virtual reality.
Coaches already have access to the full complement of puck and player tracking data as part of the app developed for their use on the bench during games. It includes a two-dimensional illustration of the game with players turned into tiny circles with their numbers on them and everything from average and max speed to when an opponent is most likely to pull the goalie when trailing by a certain number of goals.
Television broadcasters could be next to get an app like that to illustrate trends, with fans eventually getting their hands on all the data, more than has ever been available before.
“You can spend a lot of time and get great information about what’s going on in the game,” NHL chief technology officer Peter DelGiacco said. “We think the opportunity that we have in the next couple years with taking all this data and creating insights and making the game a lot more relevant with better stories and be a lot more entertaining for all fans — not just the hardcore people. It’ll also give better insights that you didn’t really know.”
It’s not just hockey nerds who might enjoy heat maps of shots or live speed data. Executive VP of business development and innovation Dave Lehanski said fans at arenas want replays available more than anything else.
The good news on that front is the technology is already available and has been implemented with nine NFL teams and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. Inside a phone app, a fan in attendance can pause and rewind the game and see it from multiple angles.
“We really want to personalize the experience,” Verizon director of sports partnerships and innovation Eric Nagy said. “We’re there. This is something we’re pushing now.”
Already in place are replay vaults filled with automated clips and others cut by people. Coming are iPad experiences integrated with social media and gambling, where odds are available in real time for live betting.
Down the line is virtual reality that can take anyone inside the game and on the ice in a 3D world that could look realistic or more like a cartoon world. Strap on a headset and you can see a model of the game from defenseman P.K. Subban’s point of view.
“We can make the characters look like anything you want,” said Nicolaas Westerhof, co-founder of virtual reality company Beyond Sports. “We can go to any camera angle. Everyone’s actually able to select their own camera angles. It’s like you’re creating your own experience.”
Lehanski said combining the puck and player tracking system, 5G networks in every arena and the cloud is building the infrastructure that could make for tons of real-life applications when more advanced glasses and other things are more readily available.
Commissioner Gary Bettman called the opportunities “unlimited.”
“We want to make sure that your connection to the game and your viewing experience, no matter where you are, including at the game, gives you whatever it is you want and brings you inside the game in ways that people never imagined,” Bettman said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
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