TORONTO — More than 20 years after a glowing puck gave hockey one of its best inside jokes, intimate puck-tracking technology is inching closer toward being part of the everyday game experience.
Speaking at the Prime Time Sports and Entertainment Sports Management Conference on Monday morning, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he is hopeful puck-tracking technology will be in place before the start of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is the same system that debuted at the 2019 NHL All-Star Game 10 months ago in San Jose.
“We’re continuing to test it and we have to install the capability in every building,” Bettman said. “It’s just a time-consuming process.”
Puck- and player-tracking data has been on the league’s radar for years as a means for both game participants and viewers to learn more about what’s happening on the ice. Puck tracking can tell us if a puck passed even a whisker over a goal line (or red line or blue line), while tracking players will allow those watching at home to know just how fast Nathan MacKinnon was going when he blew by your favourite team’s defenceman.
“It’s going to start as a broadcast enhancement and then we’ll take it from there,” Bettman said. “It’s going to have to evolve because in terms of what data people are finding useful, [that’s] something we’re going to all learn together.”
Bettman referenced the FoxTrax puck that popped up early in his tenure as league commissioner. The idea there, of course, was to help people who might be new to the game follow a small black object around the T.V. screen by making it bigger, blue and glowing. While purists derided the innovation, Bettman noted it laid some of the groundwork for what we now consider standard aspects of sports viewing.
“While it didn’t work perfectly on a puck, it led to video insertion [like we see on] the first-and-10 line in football,” Bettman said, referencing the yellow line visible on any screen showing a National Football League game. “This [new puck-tracking] technology that we have in place is much more precise, with a puck that has integrity.”
Before speaking to the media, Bettman was interviewed by Sportsnet analyst and former general manager Brian Burke on a number of topics. Burke, who worked for Bettman and the league as executive vice-president and director of hockey operations in the mid-1990s, praised his old boss for — among other things — implementing a viable economic system in the NHL and helping the league find ownership stability in numerous struggling markets over the years.
Bettman, who’s been part of three work stoppages since beginning his job in 1993, said he’s encouraged by the fact that, while both sides still have their issues, neither the National Hockey League Players’ Association nor the league itself exercised an option to re-open the Collective Bargaining Agreement ahead of schedule next summer.
“I think that’s a very positive sign,” he said of the decisions made in September.
The commissioner, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year, said there’s nothing further to report in terms of NHLers participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. As the league’s general managers prepare to meet this week in Toronto, Bettman indicated that, on balance, he’s happy with the state of video review. While he didn’t have hard numbers to offer up, he believes the number of challenges have been reduced by roughly a third after the league introduced a two-minute penalty for any failed coach’s challenge. He said the point of video review is to avoid egregious errors, so a decline in challenges for judgement calls like goalie interference is viewed as a positive development.
“On a close call that could go either way, it shouldn’t be challenged,” he said.
Bettman also addressed the incident that occurred on the weekend in a game between the Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche. After taking a shot to the head from close range, Avalanche forward Matt Calvert was sprawled out on the ice, bleeding, while play was allowed to continue for a significant amount of time because the Canucks were threatening to score, which they eventually did.
“Generally [the rule allowing officials to stop the game] is applied with common sense and that’s what we encourage the officials to [use],” he said. “Obviously if the player is in real distress on the ice, the officials need to react. But those are tough situations to be in to evaluate in real time.
“What you don’t want — and this wasn’t the case [with Calvert] — you don’t’ want it being used for gamesmanship, where a game is stopped needlessly. Having said that, any time a player is in distress, the officials know they need to stop the game.”