By: Shayna Goldman
The National Hockey League announced that the World Cup of Hockey 2016 will feature player and puck tracking. The World Cup of Hockey tournament, which begins September 17 and runs through October 1, will include tracking data on television broadcasts of the games, as well as in postgame analysis. The NHL partnered with Sportvision to provide these additional insights through their tracking technology.
Sportvision also assisted the NHL with player and puck tracking for the 2015 NHL All-Star Game. The All-Star Game was an excellent time to experiment with player tracking because of the unique format of the All-Star Skills competition. Many events in the Skills Competition are based on the speed of the puck or player, making the quantitative statistics collected by the trackers very useful.
Sportvision will be collecting real-time data from these trackers, including a player’s ice time, zone time, and shots, plus the direction, distance, and speed of the shot, player speed, puck trajectory, distance the puck and player travel, and possession data. SAP––who partnered with the NHL to reinvent the League’s analytics platforms––will transmit the data collected by Sportvision to the World Cup of Hockey’s broadcast partners, ESPN and Sportsnet.
When announcing the experiment with tracking for the 2015 All-Star Game, 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.”
Bettman furthered that notion when announcing the use of player and puck tracking for the World Cup of Hockey 2016, “What’s really great about using the technology in this tournament is it’s two weeks, it’s in one place and it really gives us an opportunity to test it before we have to decide whether or not we’re going to unleash it on 1,230 regular-season games (and) if you include the outdoor games, more than 30 different venues.”
NHL Executive Vice President of Digital Media and Strategic Planning Steve McArdle saidthe League will use the World Cup of Hockey as an opportunity to examine the use of player and puck tracking as well: “These are competitive, repeatable situations where we’re going to take a hard look at the system, a hard look at the data that comes off of it, and really understand at a scalable level what it means to deploy this night after night after night, multiple times a day in this situation.”
McArdle said that 750 pucks will be created specifically for the World Cup. All of these pucks will resemble an NHL puck in look, weight, and overall feel. However, these pucks will also have tracking technology embedded. Players’ jerseys will also feature a small tracking chip. For additional tracking resources, infrared cameras will be stationed throughout the Air Canada Centre in Toronto where the World Cup of Hockey will take place. McArdle explained that the accuracy of the data was improved by “increas[ing] the sample rate of the cameras capturing the data, so that we’re capturing data from both the pucks and the players on a more frequent basis to give us a more precise reading of both the pucks and players. We have improved the tag design … which will allow for better visibility for cameras and tracking.”
According to McArdle, a number of teams have expressed interest in the data that can be captured through the puck technology. “We’re going to work with our hockey ops groups and SAP, and we’re really going to understand what it says. The data that came off the All-Star Game was at all-star speeds, at all-star physicality. It was different. So we’ve received a lot of questions from hockey ops groups, scouting groups at the club level. Our approach is going to be take a good hard look at what this data is, and then we’ll take a measured approach to how we’re going to use it and distribute it, etc.”
Earlier this year, Bettman discussed the use of data and analytics in hockey: “I think our teams, coaches, and managers covet and crave as much information as they can get. But I think you don’t play these games on paper. There is a human element, an emotional element. While I think data can point you in the right direction, a really good manager has to have a feel for the game, for the locker room, and for the players on the team and how they interact. Because no matter what the stats are, if the guys in the room don’t like each other and respect each other, they won’t win.”
The Commissioner somewhat discredited all that analytics are in his endorsement. The NHL does have their own database, so in order to drive viewership, it needs some positive recognition. With the Commissioner seemingly not fully supporting analytics, it will be interesting to see what data teams will be interested in collecting from player and puck tracking.
Advanced statistics can help describe how a team is successful and unsuccessful. Given that the puck and player tracking provides accurate data, it then has to be understood what exactly all of these micro-statistics actually imply. The NHL and its teams must find ways to translate the quantitative data into qualitative information that can be utilized.
At the moment, micro-statistics appear fairly fragmented and are not directly linked enough to macro-statistics like scoring and wins. The NHL could take the micro-statistics collected and correlate those statistics for successful playmaking, zone time, and, of course, scoring. Drawing those correlations would describe to players, teams, and fans how to be successful in a number of situations. Not every statistic will necessarily correlate to anything or be useful at all, but many micro-statistics together could result in significant showings that could demonstrate even the most ardent dissenters that advanced statistics have merit––even when a team does not utilize them to build a successful season.
McArdle stressed that the World Cup’s player and puck tracking is just a “scaled implementation” for the tournament. “So this will be an ability to put the entire system and the entire processes and the entire set of data that’s coming out of it through scaled deployment to really understand what it would be like to deploy this over the course of a real NHL season. This is probably the best simulator that we have in this very dense period of time to do so. So we will take our time after the tournament to evaluate the data, evaluate reactions from the fans, evaluate reactions from the players and evaluate how the system itself performs before we move onto anything more permanent.”
If player and puck tracking is successful in the World Cup, it could be worth implementing in the NHL season. It may take time for these micro-statistics to be fully synthesized to have enough context to be useful. However, just because these statistics may not be understood to their fullest potential immediately, it does not preclude this data from providing additional insights over time that can be indicative in a unique way and ultimately help teams win. But if the Commissioner is doubtful if this data has worth at all, how motivated will the NHL be to actually synthesize the micro-statistics into useful data?