New tech will give us a closer look at the Sabres and the rest of the NHL

It was announced this week that the NHL would temporarily pull some of its new tracking tech pucks due to concerns about their on-ice movement and performance. The NHL has emerged as a leader among professional sports leagues in technology implementation, with teams like the Buffalo Sabres paving the way in their use of fan experience and crowd monitoring technology WaitTime.

The NHL has also had a priority interest in embedding technology for puck and player tracking for years, a process oft-delayed in the past due to the cost or lack of efficient tech. But the league hopes to have this technology finalized soon so the Sabres, and the rest of the NHL, will be able to utilize it to its fullest potential.

All 32 NHL arenas (including the two used by the Islanders) have been equipped with a new puck and player tracking system for the 2021 season. The tech has been used and tested during both of the last two NHL All-Star games as well as in last season’s conference finals.

The NHL reviewed the first supply after concerns were raised and determined that surplus did not receive “the same precise finishing treatments during the offseason manufacturing process as were used during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.” They also stated that a new supply will soon be available for game use, one that will first “undergo appropriate quality control testing”. So we could be seeing this new tech in Sabres games soon.

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The technology uses microchips that are embedded in the pucks with six light-emitting diodes on top and six on the bottom, all of which are painted black. Likewise, in the stitching of players’ jerseys, small electronic IR sensors tags are inserted by equipment managers into pouches in the backs between the shoulders.

About 14-18 infrared (IR) cameras are in small silver boxes with an antenna on either side and positioned in places around the arenas, with lenses pointed down from above to detect movement as captured by the sensors for optical player and puck tracking. The number of cameras is different in each arena based on the physical layout and any obstructions, as they are positioned at angles to gather Z-axis information.

The system then uses call-and-response via a ping sent over a radio frequency. The sensors in the pucks and jerseys respond by emitting infrared light pulses that allow the monitoring to detect their locations and movements, transmitting that data back in real-time.

This provides real-time metrics and statistics during games, allowing teams, such as the Sabres, and the league to track speed, workload, shift, and total distances. The type of data this tracking system yields insights to improve the quality of play on the ice as well as broadcasting and fan engagement off it, and in time it could also influence other professional sports, gaming and eSports, fantasy sports, and sports betting. With the rise and popularization of biometrics in both lifestyle and training, the potential for integration in measuring athletes’ overall health and performance could be further optimized.

That tracking system for real-time data was developed by solutions and innovation-based company SportsMEDIA Technology (SMT), and the NHL’s VP of technology Keith Horstman has been hands-on in the implementation process.

“The new system,” Horstman said to SMG, “couples IR active-tracking technology with SportsMEDIA Technology’s [SMT’s] platform to generate X-, Y-, and Z-axis information related to the puck and players and then turn that data into statistics like possession, shots, passes, time in the defensive or offensive zone, time on ice, speed, distance, and more.”

Based on his comments on their development during the All-Star game rollout, the puck issue should be resolved sooner than later.

“We’ve done extensive testing of the pucks,” Horstman said. “They are made by the same company that makes the regular puck, and the new ones are within the weight range and the same diameter. We’ve done tests where pucks have been hit at 130 mph, and so far so good.”

In SMT’s prep for each NHL arena, including the home of the Buffalo Sabres, KeyBank Center, four work crews traveled to test sites and implement the tech, one for a survey and the other three for installs. The first team survey’s the venue and works with the arena operator to determine optimal locations for each camera. Next, a cable contractor will lay wiring to connect them, and another crew will install and test hardware. After that, the sensors and their infrared emissions are implemented on the ice, so calibration begins and a surface map for tracking movement is developed.

Additional sensor tags are then placed in face-off dots, blue lines, the center red line, and goal lines to map where they are in the surface space for the cameras and system. Once those steps are completed, a test skater will take to the ice wearing a sensor tag to fill in horizontal x-y coordinates. After that, the test skater goes back out on the ice with a camera tripod with sensor tags attached on the top, middle, and bottom to add vertical z coordinates.

At this point, the sensor embedded pucks are brought into play, with the test skaters shooting them as hard (and as high) as possible to calibrate the camera’s tracking as well. In early trials, tests showed that more camera and tracking coverage was needed behind the goalie due to the type of angle and crowded activity that can take place immediately around him. So some camera placements were adjusted, thus solving the problem.

All data collected from the sensors below, combined with additional info such as referee whistles that stop the game clock, are then fed into SMT’s central OASIS (Organization of Asynchronous Sports Information Subsystems) platform. OASIS uses an artificial intelligence (AI) engine called EIEIO (short for Eventing Intelligence Engine Inside Oasis.)

The long term applications and benefits of this gameplay data cannot be overstated, and are seen as valuable to the league’s future.

“I do think we’ll 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,” added NHL Deputy commissioner Bills Daley.

During last year’s All-Star event press conference NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke on the league’s focus on “being a leader on bringing sports and technology closer together.”

“There will be more data than ever before,” Bettman said. “I believe the players will generate something like 200 data points per second and the puck 2,000 data points a second. So, in terms of getting inside the game, telling stories as a fan, delving in to get what you’re interested in, you’re going to be able to do more things than ever before and even imagine.”