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NHL, Sportvision test program to track players, puck

by Corey Masisak

COLUMBUS -- Tracking exactly what is happening all over an ice rink at all times has been nearly impossible, but the NHL and Sportvision are working on cracking that code.

The NHL and Sportvision tested player- and puck-tracking devices Saturday night at the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Skills Competition in what could be the first step to revolutionizing the way data is collected in hockey.

"At the end of the day, we need to create a digital record of what happens on the ice, that is uniform across the League, highly accurate and allows fans to go as deep as they want to go but also allows us to tell stories," NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins said.

Sportvision is responsible for some of the leading technologies in other sports such as the yellow line that shows the yardage needed for a first down in football and the "K-Zone" that serves as a virtual strike zone in baseball telecasts.

The company developed a way to insert tracking chips inside pucks and a tracking device to slide inside the back of players' jerseys that interacted with 10 infrared cameras placed throughout Nationwide Arena for the test run Saturday. The amount of data the devices can track is immense, from the location of every player on the ice and the puck at all times and the speed at which the players and the puck are traveling. The data can be collected at a rate of 30 times per second.

"Hockey is an incredibly hard sport to follow," Sportvision chief executive officer Hank Adams said. "It is very dynamic. It is very fast. Players change shifts dynamically during the game. You have guys coming on and off the ice, and fans at home can't see that. With this technology, we can very simply tell fans who has come on, who has come off, how long their shift was.

"It can be very simple storylines like that, or very complex storylines; when you collect this data over a long period of time, you can really start helping fans understand the game better and maybe even help coaches understand the game better. What happens with the penalty kill against a power play in certain formations. We can start mining this very deep data."

Sportvision is thought to be a tool to further enhance hockey on TV.

"We're excited about trying to bring that in-arena experience into the living room," said Mathieu Schneider, NHL Players' Association special assistant to the executive director. "That's something that we've talked about for years and years -- that the experience at the rink doesn't translate to home. As technology gets better, we're able to see more of that."

Hockey is in the midst of a transition period in which advanced statistics and analytics are gaining more prominence. This tracking technology could someday provide even greater accuracy for some of these statistics and concepts like puck possession, zone entries and quality of competition.

For Saturday night, the NHL and Sportvision were focused on testing the equipment and the process of collecting the data. Collins said the League and the NHLPA will meet with Adams and his Sportvision group after going through the tests to determine the next course of action.

"While we're excited about doing this test, we're not exactly sure where this will all take us," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "This is, if I can coin a phrase, in the embryonic stages of a work in progress, but ultimately we are hoping to deliver the kind of data that will create insights and tell stories that avid and casual hockey fans will enjoy. In short, we are attempting to embark upon a journey that hopefully will enable us to create and then maintain a digital record of everything in our game and compile a complete digital history."


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