NHL hoping to implement player-tracking technology by 2019

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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (Chris Young/CP)

If the NHL has its way, the league will be using new, innovative player-tracking technology by the time the 2019-20 season rolls around, if not sooner.

Commissioner Gary Bettman laid out that timeline to NHL.com’s Dan Rosen on Friday while in Florida for the Board of Governors meetings, suggesting this tracking technology might even be in place as soon as the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

There’s one key obstacle still in place though: the technology the league seeks hasn’t been invented yet.

“We’re in the process of working with some technology companies to invent technology that doesn’t currently exist,” Bettman said to Rosen. “Because it’s more complicated to do this (in hockey) than in any of the other sports for a whole host of reasons which relate to the attributes of our games, the physical contact, the sticks, the speed and everything else.

“But we’re committed to doing it and we’re investing a fair amount of money to do it.”

One key change in approach resulting from that increasingly quick, contact-heavy in-game context? The league is now focusing on tracking players using camera-based technology as opposed to placing chips in players’ equipment, according to Rosen.

The NHL experimented with the chip approach recently at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, partnering with a company called Sportvision to track on-ice activity during the tournament via chips embedded in game pucks and devices in the backs of players’ jerseys. Infrared cameras were placed around the arena at that time as well.

However, Bettman said the league is still looking for more, as it isn’t clear whether or not the approach used during the World Cup can be effective over a full season.

“We learned that we can get the technology to work but we needed it to work better so that it could be scalable,” Bettman told Rosen. “Doing it for 16 or 17 games in a two-week period in one building is a lot different than 1,271 games in 31 buildings.

“It is a work in progress but we’re very confident that we’re going to get this to work.”

There’s no question the successful implementation of player-tracking technology would be a game-changer for fans and analysts alike.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman recently offered his thoughts on the potential impact of player tracking on Dimitri Filipovic’s podcast, The Hockey PDOcast.

“All the debates we have about what really matters—I think when the player tracking finally comes, it’s going to erase a lot of those questions,” Friedman said.

 
The Hockey PDOcast - Episode 208: The Art of Reporting
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However, Friedman noted that some within the game remain hesitant to embrace such technology.

“I think players and the Players’ Association are worried,” Friedman said, adding that this worry is tied specifically to the potential for increased player tracking to affect player valuations during contract negotiations.

That is, that the ability to track a player’s every move on the ice could allow teams to argue more definitively that said player is, for example, slower than in years past and thus not worth signing. Or perhaps worth signing at a lower price.

“I think that’s one of the big fears,” Friedman said. “I think that’s one of the things that stands up in the way and blocks it. And I think there are some players now who trust the teams that are looking at their information, and I think there are some players now that maybe don’t trust the teams in terms of what they’re seeing.”

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