NHL Plans League-Wide Optical Player, Puck Tracking for 2019-20 Season

At the NHL’s most recent ownership meetings, commissioner Gary Bettman revealed plans for a  league-wide player and puck tracking system that, importantly, will be non-invasive and not require skaters to wear any transmitting chips as they did during a trial at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Bettman acknowledged that more research and development work is needed to cater such a system to the specific needs of hockey but said the hope is to have an operational program in place for the 2019-20 season or even the Stanley Cup playoffs at the end of the 2018-19.

“We’re in the process of working with some technology companies to invent technology that doesn’t currently exist, because it’s more complicated to do this than in any of the other sports for a whole host of reasons which relate to the attributes of our games, the physical contact, the sticks, the speed and everything else,” Bettman said, according to NHL.com. “But we’re committed to doing it and we’re investing a fair amount of money to do it.”

Major League Baseball uses the radar-powered Statcast system for its tracking needs, complemented with optical cameras for a comprehensive cataloging of every movement on the playing field. The NBA uses a strictly optical system, currently run by Second Spectrum which supplanted SportVU as the official league vendor. The NFL accomplishes its version by mandating that every player have small tracking chips on the shoulder pads.

As Bettman noted, the sticks and speed involved with hockey present unique challenges, not to mention the enclosed space inside the rink. During the World Cup held at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the NHL hired Sportvision which stitched chips into hockey sweaters and implanted devices into the pucks themselves with infrared cameras tracking the action.

“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 [at the World Cup] is a lot different than 1,271 games in 31 buildings.”

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The league has often used the playoffs as a testing ground for new technologies, such as the iPad placements on the bench last year and blue-line cameras for the previous postseason.

Another concern, reported by TSN, is that those pucks were technically two pieces. Testing of its structural integrity was commendable — 140 mile-per-hour blasts (faster than any recorded slapshot) off the post 50 consecutive times — but the league was said to worry that a malfunction at an inopportune time could be a catastrophe (if, say, only half the puck went into the net during a playoff game).

And, of course, the other notable problem: “It’s expensive,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told TSN. “Very expensive.”

The cable network also reported that a tracking system which does not require any material change to the player or his uniform — i.e. no chip placement on his person — could circumvent some of the thorny labor issues other leagues have faced about data privacy. Despite that, Bettman and Daly assured TSN that lines of communication were open with the players’ union, which had collaborated on the World Cup trial.

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

While accepting his induction into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in October, Bettman hinted that such technology was coming and traced the origin of tracking systems to Fox’s glowing puck, which, he noted, was the subject of “much discussion and some derision” at the time.

He continued, “We are working on dramatically updated versions of that technology, and we have plans to roll out updated player and puck tracking. We are literally going back to the future.”

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