The Emergence of “Big Data” in the NHL: A Practical Example

Photo: NHL

When most hockey fans hear about the new player and puck tracking system set to be deployed by the NHL, they most likely have an instant vision of the old “FoxTrax” system implemented by Fox Sports in the late ‘90s. The system used modified hockey pucks containing shock sensors and infrared emitters, which were then read by sensors and computer systems to generate on-screen graphics, such as a blue “glow” around the puck, and other enhancements such as trails to indicate the hardness and speed of shots.

The FoxTrax system was widely criticized by hockey fans, who felt that the graphics were distracting and meant to make the broadcasts cater towards casual viewers. They weren’t wrong. By the year 2000, FoxTrax was essentially shelved.

Step forward 20 years and the NHL is making it’s second run at the utilization of puck tracking, which will also include player tracking. The NHL announced about a month ago the system would be deployed during this year’s postseason.

It’s All in the Data

In 2013, the NHL renewed its focus on developing a trackable puck and finally, six years later, “big data” is coming to hockey. The system promises to unleash a tsunami of data about player speed and execution—and change the way that coaches, broadcasters and fans interact with the game.

“The NHL’s been behind the other sports with regard to the adoption of advanced metrics and analytics,” said Dave Lehanski, senior vice president of business development and global partnerships for the National Hockey League. “We don’t have a lot of the math that supports a lot of the subjective opinions that people have.” (As you may recall from our post last September, the KHL has already rolled-out it’s beta-version of puck and player tracking at the start of this season.)

More Than Fuel for Television Fodder

The latest edition of the tracking technology is aimed at providing much more than a distracting, glowing streak across your television screen. The new system will emit hundreds and thousands of real-time data points that will provide teams, officials, analysts, sports betting entities and fans exponentially greater insight into the game of hockey. Exponentially greater insight.

“We’re focusing on puck and player tracking, but what we’re talking about is much bigger than that,” said NHL Chief Technology Officer Peter DelGiacco. “This data is a game changer.”

A Single Expample

Think about the current “shot attempts” metric currently utilized by the hockey analytics community. In its most detailed form, shots are tracked by player, general location on the ice and what players were on the ice when the shot attempt was made. Essentially, static, two-dimensional data points. Not great resolution.

With the new puck and player tracking system, real-time data will detail a vast number of additional, important characteristics, including:

  • location of all other players on the ice when shot attempt was made.
  • Forward speed, and trajectory (direction) of the skater, and all other players on the ice, at the time of the shot.
  • The trajectory and speed of the puck prior to the shot attempt (who passed the puck to the player and from where, was it moving at shot, how fast, etc.).
  • Speed and trajectory (path) of shot.
  • If puck is stopped, location of stopped puck or redirection of puck.
  • At what point (time) in a player’s shift was the shot attempted.
  • Did shot cross any key demarcation points (goal line).

You can see many of the new interesting metrics that will now be available. The new system is essentially taking analytics from static, two-dimensional data points to real time, three-dimensional, and dynamic data points. A huge leap.

System Overview

The tracking system developed by SMT consists of two components: infrared and radio frequency sensors, embedded in the pucks and sewn into the collars of skaters’ sweaters; and processing devices mounted in the rafters and on the upper tier of the arena that record the x, y, z coordinates of each sensor on the ice hundreds of times per second.

SMT artificial intelligence software then collates the millions of coordinate data points and spits out statistics, like a player’s top speed or total time of possession, accessible on a computer system called Oasis.

SMT has created unique installation plans for each of the NHL’s ice arenas. That, combined with the last-minute switch from jogmo, pushed back the league’s timeline.

The big question ahead, which we have previously discussed (here and here), is who will get to see what data.

New Revenue Streams

“The major upside for us is driving more engagement,” Lehanski told the Wall Street Journal. “Right behind that is the ability to monetize this and generate incremental revenue for us and for our clubs.” The league hopes the enhanced data will make media rights more valuable and in turn generate more ticket and merchandise revenue.

The biggest upside may come from a market that is not yet legal nationwide: sports betting. Bettman was once a staunch advocate of the sports-gambling ban in most states, but he is now embracing the market. The league put a franchise in Las Vegas in 2016 and has signed deals with MGM Resorts International, U.K. bookmaker William Hill, and online daily fantasy platform FanDuel.

Just The Start

Hopefully you can begin to see the sizable leap that stats and analytics is about to undergo.  We will have much more on the new metrics and values attained from the new puck and player tracking systems deployed by the league in the coming weeks.

By Jon Sorensen

Further Reading
Hockey’s Next-Generation Technologies – Puck and Player Tracking Systems Come to the Capitals
Tracking Chips to be Used in World Cup of Hockey
Will The NHL’s Next-Generation Data and Data Management Models Splinter and Divide Hockey Analytics?
KHL Rolls Out New Advanced Data And Analytics System Ahead Of NHL
Monumental Sports And Entertainment And William Hill Announce Sports Betting Partnership
Commissioner Bettman Provides Update On Puck-Tracking Technology Rollout

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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