BOSTON — To understand the limitless potential of National Hockey League player tracking and wearable technology, one must first focus on the National Rugby League.
Last June, Queensland’s Johnathan Thurston kicked the winning conversion in front of 82,259 fans in the National Rugby League’s State of Origin series. To look at his face before the kick was to see that easily identifiable mix of worry and adrenaline. Except that’s not actually what was going on inside Johnathan Thurston, with the game on the line.
Thurston volunteered to use wearable technology during the game that tracked his movements and measured his biometric data. A few days later, Channel Nine in Australia showed the winning kick using the Telstra heart rate tracker he was wearing and discovered something telling: Thurston was able to slow his heart rate by six percent, passing from a maximum of 170 beats per minute to just 161 before taking the kick.
The proverbial sports cliché “ice water in your veins” was now quantifiable, thanks to this wearable technology for athletes.
“He had control and poise when he took the shot,” said Adir Shiffman, executive chairman of Catapult Group, a company that makes wearable technology for athletes and is a partner with the NHL. “The depth of the narrative around that moment was much more engaging for the fan.”
When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman talks about player tracking, he puts it this way: The data will tell a different, more complete story for fans. Maybe it’s the speed of a player’s shot or skating. Or maybe it’s something more biometric. This will open up the game in new ways.
“Anything that can help grow the game. Anything that can help,” he said last week at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
The National Hockey League Players’ Association has a different take on “anything” when it comes to tracking data, and executive director Donald Fehr says the way that data is used is a concern for those he represents.
“It’s the new fashion. No one can guess if this will exist in any meaningful way in 10 years. The desire to quantify everything, without knowing what these quantities mean… for example, if I saw that you were skating slower. that three years ago, does that mean your game is better or worse? You can no longer keep up? There is a real danger in trading on many statistics that only provide excuses to do what they want to do,” he said. said.
But when it comes to data on a player’s health, Fehr was clear:
“Biometric data is personal, health-related and, in our opinion, belongs (to the players).”
Where other leagues fall on the question
“Player tracking” has become a broad term for collecting player data, but it falls into two distinct categories: in-game data about player performance and biometric data about what the player’s body is doing. a player to achieve this performance.
On-ice tracking of players in the NHL is not in its infancy – it is still in the womb.
The league’s first attempt at a player tracking system was in 2015, a technology that debuted during the NHL All-Star Game. The project involved infrared sensors and chips on players’ jerseys, but it was blocked due to its cost and questions about its effectiveness.
Its next attempt will be camera-based but will not require a chip on players. The league is working with the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany to create a “new puck chemistry” containing a transmitter that will work better than its predecessors, according to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “It works exactly the same as the current puck,” he said. The institute has already worked on a “light system for monitoring hockey pucks and hockey goals.” and has a patent on it.
Biometric data, meanwhile, has become the norm everywhere, except in games. Wearable technology has been used both in player training and by NHL teams during practices for at least three years. Catapult, which is an Australian company, first worked with the Philadelphia Flyers And Buffalo swords have players wear monitors during workouts to measure their speed and muscle use. It has now become common among many NHL teams to wear devices in practice and then receive that data in the locker room.
But the leap from training to in-game biometric data collection is one the NHLPA isn’t yet ready to make. Therefore, the issue of biometrics is not one that the NHL has addressed with much specificity – rather, it is a nebulous debate about “player tracking” as a whole, in contrast to two of the country’s other “big four” sports leagues. in the United States: Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.
MLB’s latest collective bargaining agreement makes it clear that a player’s use of wearable technology “must be entirely voluntary” and has strict restrictions on the privacy of that data – to the point that a team must destroy it if the player requests it. .
In the NBA’s latest CBA, the use of wearables is declared “voluntary” and specifies that “the data cannot be taken into account, used, discussed or referenced for other purposes, such as in negotiations regarding a future player contract or other player contract transaction. (e.g., a trade or waiver) involving the player. Violation of this policy results in a team being fined $250,000.
It’s the contractual part that annoys the players. Teams will claim that a veteran player’s body is breaking down based on player tracking data regarding speed and, perhaps, endurance. The players will say the opposite. But there will be real numbers to point out and, in both cases, to draw conclusions from.
“You start to see a broader range of metrics used to evaluate our players. That’s true when you’re in an arbitration setting in baseball or contract negotiations in any sport. A player’s fear is that these metrics are going to be manipulated against them, or used as a tool against that athlete,” said former MLB pitcher Chris Capuano, a leading voice in player tracking issues.
“There’s always worry about what’s going to happen, whether the conclusions drawn from the data are for convenience or because that’s what people really believe, because they have a desire to put the best team on the ground,” he said.
Public or private issues
While it’s true that hockey could open up if a host of player tracking and biometric data were shared with fans, breaking down a goal would require several new levels of analysis. What athletes fear are armchair CEOs who now become office doctors and draw conclusions from data like heart rate numbers.
“Maybe I just have a lot of anxiety and I have the tools to deal with it,” Capuano said. “Biometrically, I just think players are concerned that the information could be used against them.”
“There’s a lot of guys here, their resting heart rate at three minutes, even if they haven’t had coffee or anything, is just higher than everyone else’s. So how do you calculate that versus another guy? If you have a guy going out there, he’s got a heart rate monitor on, and the screen comes up, the fans are like, “Oh, he’s not working hard. Or he works too hard like crazy. Why is he at 400 km/h (beats per minute) and this guy is at 120?’ It’s different depending on the person. It would be a weird kind of thing.” he said. “I know we’re probably going in that direction to try to collect more data on players. But I don’t really know if it’s better.”
Miller is 30 years old. Capuano retired at age 37. There is a generation gap between athletes that is undeniable when it comes to player tracking and biometrics.
Former NHL coach Dan Bylsma, now at NHL Network, said it’s difficult to present veteran players with data that portrays them in a negative light — that positive performance reinforcement is consumed while criticism is sometimes dismissed. Now imagine if this data somehow quantified the decay of their bodies in their 30s, or could identify when a player was past their prime?
But it’s not just a “veterans versus rookies” division. Millennials who freely disclose most aspects of their lives care less than older generations about disclosing this biographical information. Ultimately, they care more about what technology can do to extend their careers and improve their performance.
So Leon Draisaitlthe 22-year-old striker Edmonton Oilersis the face of Vexatec, a company that makes a workout shirt with tiny, high-tech textile sensors that measure everything from breathing rate to posture.
“Most younger gamers, most millennials, don’t have the same concerns as existing gamers. The benefits of this technology outweigh some of the philosophical concerns about it,” Capuano said.
Draisaitl’s generation of NHL players will have an important voice in the next CBA over the next three years. Considering what other leagues have done, the topic of wearable technology and what happens to the data collected during games will be discussed. It’s a revolution that could change the way we compile statistics, how teams evaluate players and how fans understand the game.
Can you imagine biometric information on a Stanley Cup Final penalty shot, with the heart rate of the skater and the goalie? Or that of a pitcher, in the ninth inning of the World Series, trying to get that last out?
“You’re already out there, alone, lonely and exposed,” Capuano said. “And now someone can see your biometrics.”