Big brother is watching the NHL game, faster than ever
NHL executives, coaches and players are quick to say the game is faster than ever and there is technology available to track how quickly players skate and how hard they shoot.
Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee calls it the “next wave” in the evolution of the top hockey league in the world, but what happens to that information is secret for now.
“I don’t tell people what we do,” McPhee said as his Pacific Division champion team prepares for its playoff opener against the Los Angeles Kings.
Younger, faster — and cheaper — players are pushing out older, slower — and more expensive — veterans to kick the pace of the game up a notch. When Radim Vrbata announced he was retiring after this season, the 36-year-old Florida Panthers forward acknowledged the speed of the game played a part in his decision to leave the league.
“The speed of the game has really jumped over the last couple of years,” Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill said. “You can tell with your eyes. We don’t have any chips in jerseys or any of that stuff.”
The league is working with a company, or companies, it will not disclose to use camera-based technology to track players and pucks.
“We are still in the evaluation stage,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in an email. “We have generally shared the results of our testing as part of an overview of the technology as opposed to on a team or player basis. Ultimately, I would envision most (although maybe not all) of the acquired data would be made available to the clubs, and the public.”
Iceberg Sports Analytics, which says it is working with the NHL, uses cameras to track the players and the puck 10 times per second.
“We get a limitless amount of information from these coordinates collected by using machine/deep learning algorithms,” Iceberg global sales director Scott Vargas said.
For a while at least, the public may be kept in the dark on some of those details.
At the 2018 Winter Olympics , microchips were put in the back of jerseys tracking cameras were perched high above the ice. Data on speed, acceleration, stopping, distance traveled, shift lengths and ice time was available to teams. How fast a player skated sometimes flashed up video boards in the arena, much to the chagrin of former NHL defenseman James Wisniewski.
“I think for people on TV to see how fast you’re going down the wing, really, does it really matter?” Wisniewski asked.
Daly said open questions include how quickly the tracking will grow and which technologies are used. But he believes it will eventually become prevalent in the NHL and in other major professional sports leagues.
“Fans and other observers of the game want and demand more and more information all the time,” Daly said. “It enhances the way they consume the sport. And it is incumbent on us to respond to and satisfy that demand.”
The NHL Players’ Association, meanwhile, will only say it is ready for more dialogue on the topic.
“We look forward to continuing our discussions with the league to ensure the successful implementation of player and puck tracking,” NHLPA general counsel Don Zavelo said.
Even in the Detroit Red Wings’ dressing room, there wasn’t a consensus.
“If you track players and show how fast you’re skating, I think fans will be able to appreciate it and it will look cool on TV,” Red Wings center Dylan Larkin said .
Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg provided another perspective.
“I’m not a big fan of that because eventually that will be used as a disadvantage for players,” Zetterberg said. “Even though they say it won’t be, it will be in contracts and it will be used against players in all different areas with management and coaching issues.”
Daly insisted he doesn’t buy that argument.
“Our experience with enhanced statistics is entirely the opposite,” Daly said. “Players and agents have historically and virtually without exception been able to use enhanced statistics and analytics to their individual benefit. That’s just a fact.”
It is also true, without debate, the league’s large, lumbering defensemen have been replaced by smaller, faster players on the blue line. And up front, the days of having enforcers play limited minutes to rough up opponents are over because every team tries to roll four lines of swift skaters who can match up with the best opponents.
When teams turn the puck over in the neutral zone, it is coming back at them in a hurry. Retreating and regrouping is more rare these days. Kings President Luc Robitaille said beyond scoring chances for and against, how quickly his team and opponents get the puck up the ice is an important statistic.
“Everyone is measuring how fast you’re moving the puck end to end,” he said, declining to share details.
“Teams that have success are moving faster. Look at Vegas,” Robitaille added. “Everyone has been wondering why they’re winning and it is because they have a lot of guys with speed.”
Rule changes, philosophical shifts by teams and improved training are among the contributing factors to create the need for speed.
After the league emerged from a lockout in 2005, players were allowed to make longer passes up the ice to create more scoring chances and officials were told to have zero tolerance for clutching-and-grabbing defensive tactics.
“When the red line was taken out of the game that sped the game up,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “Now, players come into the league more recklessly fearless. They’re not afraid to skate as fast they can. They’re not worried about what’s waiting for them at the other end. The game has become all about stretch passes into two and three zones. That is making the game look really fast.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey