Player tracking coming to the NHL? It's complicated

The technology exists to track biometric data in real time as NHL players ply their trade. Should that data be made available to the public? Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

BOSTON -- To understand the unlimited potential of National Hockey League player tracking and wearable technology, one must first turn their attention to the National Rugby League.

Last June, Johnathan Thurston of Queensland kicked the winning conversion in front of 82,259 fans in the National Rugby League State of Origin series. To look at his face before the kick was to see that easily identifiable mix of trepidation and adrenaline. Except that's not actually what was happening 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 biometrics. A few days later, Channel Nine in Australia showed the winning kick using the Telstra heart-rate tracker he was wearing, and discovered something revelatory: Thurston was able to slow his heart rate down by six percent from a high of 170 beats per minute to just 161 before taking the kick.

The proverbial sports cliché "ice water in his veins" was now quantifiable, thanks to this wearable athlete tech.

"He had control, and poise, as he took the kick," said Adir Shiffman, executive chairman of the Catapult Group, a company that makes wearable technology for athletes and is a partner of the NHL. "The depth of the narrative around that moment was vastly more engaging for the fan."

When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman talks about player tracking, he talks about it in these terms: That the data will tell a different, fuller story for fans. Maybe it's the speed of a player's shot or skating. Or maybe it's something more biometric. It 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 view of "anything" when it comes to tracking data, and executive director Donald Fehr says how that data is used is a concern for those he represents.

"It's the new hot fad. Whether it'll be around in 10 years in any meaningful fashion is anybody's guess. The push to quantify everything, without knowing what those quantities mean ... for example, if I saw you're skating slower than you did three years ago, does that mean your play is better or worse? Can you not keep up any more? There's a real danger in negotiations about a lot of statistics that merely provide excuses for doing what they want to do," he said.

But when it comes to data about a player's health, Fehr was clear:

"The biometric data is player-personal, health-related and in our view, owned [by the players]."

Where other leagues fall on the issue

"Player tracking" has become an all-encompassing term for collecting data from players, but it falls into two distinct categories: In-game data about player performance, and biometric data about what a player's body is doing to achieve that performance.

On-ice player tracking in the NHL isn't in its infancy -- it's still in the womb.

The league's first attempt at a player tracking system was in 2015, technology that debuted at the NHL All-Star Game. It involved infrared sensors and chips on player jerseys, and stalled due to cost and questions about its effectiveness.

Its next attempt will be camera-based but won't require a chip on the players. The league is working with the Fraunhofer institute in Germany to create a "new chemical composition for the puck" with a transmitter in it that will work better than its predecessors, according to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "It works exactly how the current puck does, he said. The institute has previously worked on an "illuminating hockey puck and hockey goal monitoring system," and has a patent on it.

Biometric data, meanwhile, has become standard everywhere but inside games. Wearable technology has been used in both player training and by NHL teams in practices for at least the last three years. Catapult, which is an Australian company, first worked with the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres to have players wear monitors during practices to measure their velocity and muscle usage. It's now become commonplace among many NHL teams to wear devices in practice and then have that data delivered to them in the locker room afterward.

But the leap between practice and in-game collection of biometric data is one the NHLPA isn't willing to take quite yet. Hence, the biometric data question isn't one the NHL has addressed with much specificity -- it's much more a nebulous debate about "player tracking" as a whole, which is in contrast with two of the other "big four" sports leagues in the U.S.: Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

In MLB's last Collective Bargaining Agreement, it clearly states that use of wearable tech by a player "shall be wholly voluntary" and has strict restrictions on the confidentiality of that data -- to the point where a team must destroy it if requested by the player.

In the NBA's last CBA, the use of wearables is declared as "voluntary" and says that "the data may not be considered, used, discussed or referenced for any other purpose such as in negotiations regarding a future Player Contract or other Player Contract transaction (e.g., a trade or waiver) involving the player." Any violations of that policy results in a $250,000 fine for a team.

It's the contractual part of this that has players unnerved. Teams will claim that a veteran player's body is breaking down based on player tracking data regarding speed and, perhaps, stamina. Players will argue otherwise. But there will be real numbers to point to, and in both cases, draw conclusions from.

"You're starting to see a broader array of the metrics used to evaluate our players. That goes for 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.

Fehr agreed.

"It's always a concern what will happen, whether conclusions that are drawn from the data are drawn for convenience's sake or drawn because that's what people really believe, because they have a desire to put the best team out there," he said.

Public vs. private issues

While it's true hockey could be opened up if an array of player tracking and biometric data were shared with fans, breaking down a goal would take on several new layers of analysis. What the athletes fear are the armchair GMs now becoming armchair physicians, and drawing conclusions from things like heart-rate numbers.

"Maybe I just have a lot of anxiety, and I just have the tools to cope with it," said Capuano. "Biometrically, I just think that players are worried that the information might be used against them."

The Boston Bruins are a team that uses biometric tracking in practices. Defenseman Kevan Miller told the Boston Globe last year that collecting, and making public, that data is a slippery slope.

"There's a lot of guys here, their resting heart rates at three minutes, even if they haven't had any coffee or anything, is just higher than others. So how do you calculate that compared to another guy? If you have a guy that's going out there, he's got a heart-rate monitor on, and the screen shows up, the fans are like, 'Oh, he's not working hard. Or he's working too hard like crazy. Why is he through the roof at 200 [beats per minute] and this guy's at 120?' It's different per person. It'd be a weird kind of thing," he said. "I know it's probably heading toward that direction to try and collect more data on players. But I don't really know that it's better."

Miller is 30. Capuano retired at 37. There is a generational gap among athletes that's undeniable when it comes to player tracking and biometrics.

Former NHL coach Dan Bylsma, now with NHL Network, said it's difficult to present veteran players with data that paints them in a negative light -- that positive reinforcement of performances is consumed while criticism is sometimes rejected. Now, imagine if that data somehow quantifies their bodies breaking down in their 30s, or could identify when a player is past their prime?

But it's not just a "veterans vs. rookies" split. Millennials who freely broadcast most aspects of their lives care less about that bio information being made public than older generations. In the end, they care more about what the tech can do to prolong their careers and improve their performance.

Hence Leon Draisaitl, the 22-year-old forward for the Edmonton Oilers, is the face of Vexatec, a company that makes a workout shirt with high-tech tiny textile sensors that measure everything from respiratory rate to posture.

"Most young players, most millennials, don't have these same kinds of concerns as the players that are already there. The benefits of this technology are outweighing some of the philosophical worries about it," said Capuano.

Draisaitl's generation of NHL players will have a significant voice in the next CBA in the next three years. Given what other leagues have done, the topic of wearable tech and what happens to the collected data from game will be addressed. It's a revolution that could change how we tabulate stats, how teams evaluate players and how fans comprehend the game.

Could you imagine biometric information about a Stanley Cup Final penalty shot, with the heart rates 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, by yourself, alone and exposed," said Capuano. "And now someone can see your biometric data."