NHL to feature puck, player tracking next season

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The NHL intends to bring puck and player tracking to the league next season, commissioner Gary Bettman announced Friday during All-Star Weekend in San Jose. The NHL will join the NFL as the only major North American professional sports league with wearable tracking technology.

The timing of the technology's implementation has yet to be determined, as testing continues and feedback from players, teams and broadcasters is being collected. But the National Hockey League Players' Association has agreed to the wearable tracking technology.

Created by German company Jogmo World Corp., microchips are inserted into the players' shoulder pads and are encased in specially designed pucks. Through radio frequencies, antennas around the arena track their motion, capturing a plethora of data and mapping out their locations. This technology could revolutionize how hockey is presented on television, how teams collect statistical data on players and, ultimately, how fans wager on the sport.

There is no biometric information collected with these sensors, just game events.

"We'll know who took the shot, where the shot was taken, how fast the puck was moving. It's going to create new opportunities for telling stories," said Dave Lehanski, senior vice president of business development for the NHL.

The technology will allow broadcasters to have real-time stats integrated into their games, presented with computer-generated imaging on the screen. Viewers could instantly see the velocity of shots, the amount of ice time for a given player or where players are on the ice at a given time. The data collected from the games would allow companies to recreate them digitally in a virtual-reality environment. And yes, the chip inside the puck could even resurrect the "glow puck" used on broadcasts two decades ago, only with much more accuracy and less garishly.

Player- and puck-tracking technology has been in the works since 2013, with several attempts using different kind of technology. That included tests at the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, using infrared technology, and at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. In the past year, the NHL has tested the technology at the 2018 NHL All-Star Game, and will test it again at this weekend's All-Star events. There has also been testing at the New Jersey Devils' arena and Vegas Golden Knights games earlier in January.

Several players in San Jose ahead of Saturday's All-Star Game were unaware that the technology would be tested on them, but others were excited to see how the data collection works.

"It's more analytics for the general managers to hold against you," Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson told ESPN, with a laugh. "But I think it's good for the fans. I've seen some scenarios where it's worked, and it looked pretty cool. You find a lot more information that you never know. I don't know how fast I shoot the puck."

Other players would rather not know.

"If they don't show mine, that would be great," Calgary Flames star Johnny Gaudreau said of his shot speed. "But for the fans, it's going to be great. They can see how fast we skate, how hard shots are, all of these things."

Lehanski said that, initially, there was pushback from players on wearable technology.

"I think it's fair to say there was concern in the beginning. They had a ton of questions, like, 'What is this really tracking?'" he said. "But over the course of that time, we've made huge strides with them, working closely. A year ago, I wouldn't have thought it would be possible to test tracking technology on players in a regular-season hockey game. The fact that we're on the same page, to me, was a huge step. I think they're starting to understand that it's data. It's about what's already happening on the ice. Maybe some stories might not position things in a way they like, but other stories will."

One of the reasons this version of puck tracking has been accepted is the pucks themselves. Researchers and engineers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany found a way to manufacture the "smart pucks" whose weight was in range of the current pucks. They impressed the NHL with other technology related to it.

"For instance, pucks have to be frozen. They basically built a system that nobody else did. There's a little tray, you drop the puck in from the freezer, and it tells you if it's on and how much battery life is left," Lehanski said. "Honestly, it's not even something we thought about it."

But the players are concerned about any changes with the puck this technology might create.

"I hope it doesn't change the puck at all. I feel like maybe with a tracker in the puck, it could change the feel of it," Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel said. "You'd be surprised how close we pay attention to that stuff. The gear isn't as important as the puck. Guys can feel it."

While all of this data could be applied to everything from television broadcasts to contract negotiations, there's another undeniable aspect: gambling.

The NHL has already cut a licensing deal with MGM Resorts to create wagering options from the league's "proprietary game data," and other deals with bookmakers are sure to follow. A company called Swish Analytics showed off live in-game wagering based on player tracking data in Las Vegas, including prop bets.

With tracking technology, fans could wager on prop bets on individual players.

"Some of them are traditional prop bets, like who will score the next goal. Others are more involved, like what part of the ice the next goal will be scored from or what part of the net it'll be scored in, and which player will skate farther during the game. Will Max Pacioretty skate over 3 miles, for example?" said Jon Waldman, director of strategic development for the NHL.

The NHL and the NHLPA have a written agreement that includes "protections" for players on how the tracking data will be used.

"Typically, the clubs aren't supposed to rely on any of the data we're collecting, in player and puck tracking, in contract negotiations," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "It's not just salary arbitration. It's contract negotiations generally. Citing speed [or other data] and relying on those statistics in negotiations."

Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to the executive director of the NHLPA, said Friday that there was a split between the veterans and younger players on acceptance of the tracking technology.

Daly said a segment of the players was concerned that contract talks could become too "stats reliant" with this data. "Some players that don't have those attributes, but have other attributes, are concerned about that," he said.

But that agreement cuts both ways: Players won't be able to use tracking data to bolster their contract cases, either.