By Larry Lage
DETROIT (AP) — The latest generation of NHL pucks have six circles on both sides covering tubes that allow infrared cameras to constantly connect the vulcanized rubber with a puck and player tracking system.
After a bumpy start last season with microchipped pucks that didn’t slide right, the latest versions have worked so well that at least one coach wasn’t sure if they were in play yet.
“I’m not aware that we have used those pucks yet this season,” Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “I wish we would so we could feel them.”
That seems to be a good sign. The NHL attempted to track pucks last January, but took them off the ice six days into the season.
“We went away from it because the puck didn’t glide right,” Blashill recalled. “It didn’t feel like a real puck. Obviously, that’s the trick. I think puck tracking is a great thing that will really help the analytics a lot.”
That is indeed the key: Data generated by the pucks and from sensors about the size of a thumb on the backs of players will be used by teams to develop their players and to scout opponents. Passing, puck possession, takeaways, giveaways and more can be accurately recorded without the potential subjectivity of a scoring crew in an arena.
In contract negotiations, it isn’t difficult to envision a day when teams and agents point to data generated by the tracking system.
“Everything that could be used against you, it could also be used for you,” Winnipeg Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois said.
TV networks will continue to display and talk about some of the information on broadcasts and studio shows.
“We have to make sure the data is used in the right context,” said former NHL player Anson Carter, now an analyst for Turner Sports. “We all know (Colorado center) Nathan MacKinnon is fast and if the data says he’s going nearly 40 mph, I’d use it if it showed that two or three other players were perhaps 7 mph slower and integrate it into an analysis to hammer home a point.”
Fans who want to know how fast players skate, how hard they shoot and more will be able to choose options that will show the data on an overlay as they watch on a big, medium or small, hand-held screen. Some details were announced in February.
“We’re going to let fans decide how much or how little they want to incorporate it,” NHL vice president of business development and innovation Dave Lehanski said. “They will be able to create a personally customized viewing experience.”
Perhaps later this season, gamblers are expected to be able to wager on a new wave of bets. How far does the puck travel in a game? Who skates the fastest in the second period? Who has the hardest shot in the game?
“This is going to re-engineer the hockey better experience, which to put it politely is sub-optimal because it’s all about game outcomes,” NHL vice president of technology Keith Horstman said. “It’s exciting that this data is going to lead to in-play betting.
“But, it’s going to take some time to figure out what fans care enough to bet on and how the odds and probability will work. We’re working on it and I’d like to say it will happen this season.”
Brett Abarbanel, director of research at the UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, expects there to be an appetite for the betting once the details are worked out by the NHL.
“This is the type of wagering that is attractive to fans so you’re going to see increased interest because these are wagers that can close more quickly,” Abarbanel said. “If I want to bet that the Vegas Knights are going to beat the San Jose Sharks, I have to wait until the end of the game. If I don’t want to wait, maybe I can bet on who skates the fastest in the first five minutes of the game.”
While gamblers will use the data to try to make money, coaches will take the information hoping to gain a competitive advantage to win games.
“The puck tracking piece is critical and we’re excited about it with our analytics group,” Blashill said. “We think it take some of the things we have in place and bring it to a whole other level.”