COLUMBUS, OHIO — When Phil Kessel took on Tyler Seguin in a head-to-head race around the rink at the NHL all-star skills competition, viewers at home knew right away that Kessel had won.
The numbers showed it.
On the replay, viewers could see who got the explosive start, who took the turn more efficiently, who was faster down the stretch.
The players at the all-star game were guinea pigs for new technology the league hopes will become the norm as early as next season.
Player sweaters were outfitted with a microchip that monitored speed and location. The pucks, too, had chips that instantly sent messages to a control centre that will revolutionize how the game in seen, talked about, digested.
“You guys might like that, but I’m not so sure I want that in my game,” said Kessel. “Too many numbers, right?”
For some people, the NHL doesn’t provide enough numbers — at least, not enough really accurate ones. The fancy stats revolution revealed a deep appetite for more and better numbers. The NHL seems very happy to comply.
Currently, league employees — about five per game — manually input events on the ice. They’re sometimes subjective, some just plain wrong.
That’s all about to change.
“We want to create a digital record of what happens on the ice that is consistent across the league, that is highly accurate, that allows fans to go as deep as they want to go,” said John Collins, chief operating officer of the NHL.
The deal with Sportvision — perhaps best known for those yellow virtual first-down lines in football — gives the league data in real time and allow fans to go deep into the game. Some ideas:
• Every hit can be documented.
• A deflection can be detected instantly.
• Actual zone time can be measured.
• Whether a shot is on net or not, which is sometimes subjective, can be measured objectively by its trajectory.
• Who’s on the ice the longest?
• Who skated the fastest?
• Who skated the farthest?
• How do players fare against each other?
Another possibility: Take the game that was just played and turn it into a video game, where you put yourself on the ice as the goalie to see if you can do any better.
The information will be available to broadcasters and online through the NHL website as a second-screen experience. The league, for now, has support from the players despite some concerns. The union seems to see the bigger picture.
“From the players’ perspective, we’re excited about trying to bring that in-arena experience into the living room,” said Mathieu Schneider, long-time NHL defenceman and now NHLPA assistant. “The experience at the rink doesn’t translate to television, but as technology gets better we’re able to see more of that. Technology in hockey has more upside than maybe any other sport.”
Schneider outlined some of the players’ concerns: “Will coaches coach by statistics sitting on the bench with an iPad? It’s next to impossible to measure hockey IQ. We all know Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull were not the fastest skaters and weren’t the strongest guys, but they were two of the greatest players to ever play the game. There needs to be that sense for guys that (this technology) is not going to be overused, that it will be used properly.”
Players at the all-star game seemed okay with it.
“Being interactive like that and having . . . another connection to the game as a fan — and to be able to see how fast the guys are skating, heart rate, all that kind of stuff — would go a long way,” said Blues defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk.
“They’re trying to do new things, look at different ways of taking stats,” added Blackhawks blue-liner Duncan Keith. “We’ll see where that goes. . . . You can have all the stats you want, but the game is decided on who scores the most goals. There’s a lot of the things in the game that aren’t going to change just because there are stats.”