Sliding fortunes for NHL's puck-tracking experiment

2021-01-26 12:06:44

An NHL puck bearing the name of commissioner Gary Bettman is photographed on the boards prior to the game between the New York Islanders and the Boston Bruins at Nassau Coliseum on January 18, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. [Photo/Agencies] Two weeks into its new season, the NHL is backtracking on puck tracking. The fan-friendly technology, which the league trumpeted as a "broadcast breakthrough" for 2021, features sensors embedded in game pucks and in the stitching of players' jerseys, allowing strategically placed cameras in the arenas to detect and instantly display data. The data generates real-time, in-game stats for television broadcasts, including players' skating speed, distance traveled and shot and pass velocity. But following a performance review from the first 44 games, the league announced the microchipped pucks have been temporarily mothballed. Player tracking will continue. "The theory behind player and puck tracking was to give people insights into hockey who maybe would learn how special the game is and would understand it a little bit better, so we started with the possibility of having broadcast enhancement," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said when the technology was first tested during last year's All-Star weekend. "But now in the era that we're in, the opportunities are limitless. If you're a millennial or a Gen Z in particular and you're consuming sport differently than it's ever been consumed before, we're going to be right there for you, giving you what you want." Puck and player tracking has been in the works for years as a way to provide additional data, enhance broadcasts and add potential wagering information for bettors. So far, TV has been the only home for the information, and NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said the NHL's US broadcast partner is "all in" on trying to capitalize on the technology and translate it for viewers. "I was aware the league was using a different puck," Philadelphia Flyers coach Alain Vigneault told Canadian Press on the weekend. "I thought a couple times it didn't slide as well on the ice. We didn't know if that was because of the puck or the ice surface; they were bouncing everywhere. But I'm sure they will figure it out. It's early in the season, and they will do the right thing." Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Austin Matthews told SportsNet Canada that he noticed a difference both in weight and slide of the microchipped pucks. "Actually, (teammate Jason) Spezza was the first one to bring it up to me, and I told him that's why I couldn't bury some of the scoring chances I had in the first four games-because these pucks are all messed up," joked Matthews. He and Spezza conducted their own experiment. "We held one of the regular pucks and one of the new ones, and there was a little bit of a difference in the weight and stuff, and it seemed like sometimes the new one wasn't sliding as well as it usually would," Matthews said. "Don't know if that was the ice or the puck ... but we're pumped to be going back to the old ones." The flaws in the new system are reminiscent of FoxTrax, an augmented-reality program used by Fox Sports during NHL telecasts from 1996-98. The system used modified 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, like fiery trails to indicate the speed and accuracy of shots. FoxTrax was widely panned for being a gimmick that distracted from the game, and was dropped after two seasons. The NHL expects new tracking pucks to be available soon and put back into play after undergoing rigorous testing. "We will continue to integrate the tracking data into the presentation of our games in various ways and I think that integration will continue to ramp up over time," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "But I wouldn't expect any monumental shifts in the game based on player and puck tracking this season. We will continue to work with our partners in terms of the information roll-out and the uses of the information."