In a digital age, NHL teams were still relying on analog approaches to deliver stats and data to coaches during games. One team's video coach would leave his room with 30 seconds left in a period and run out to print game summaries from NHL.com to ensure that his coaches had them ready for intermission.
"They're running around corners, printing. That's what was happening," said Chris Foster, the NHL's director of digital business development.
The coaches wanted to innovate the process, and the league listened. The SAP-NHL Coaching Insights App will begin appearing on coaches' iPads located at the benches and in the dressing rooms -- which are currently used for video replays -- as early as February.
No more waiting for the printer to churn out stat sheets. The data will now arrive in the hands of coaches as the game is going on, in real time. No more waiting until intermission to analyze the numbers; now, coaches can make informed adjustments to everything, from faceoff choices to ice time, on the fly.
"This will provide real-time data, analytics and metrics to complement the video and give them what they want in the live game environment," Dave Lehanski, the NHL's senior VP of business development and innovation, told ESPN. "As far as we know, we'll be the only sports property delivering real-time video and data to the benches for the coaches and the players."
In 2017, the NHL and Apple partnered to build an in-arena, in-game coaching system that allowed teams to review video highlights during the game. The request was made by players and coaches, and the system was well-received.
Over time, coaches began asking about adding real-time stats to the iPads. So the NHL, Apple and SAP began collaborating with bench coaches, video coaches and team analytics analysts to determine what data they'd need during the game to better make decisions, and how best to deliver it. The result is a clean interface that brings the real-time stats found on the league's website during games, as well as exclusive features, into the hands of coaches during play.
ESPN got a glimpse of the app this week, which will be loaded onto new iPad Pro tablets for the teams. (These tablets, by the way, are restricted for use in the arena only, because of security concerns.) It allows teams to monitor any number of stats, from broad categories like shot attempts to narrower ones like faceoff success in certain areas of the ice and against certain opponents. Coaches can dial up which type of shot their players have used in a shootout the most, and what type of goals their netminders have surrendered.
Each data category is customizable, so coaches can specify which stats they're most interested in tracking. But there's also player customization: Coaches can set a particular ice time target for a skater, and then receive data on how close to that target a player is after each shift.
"There are two stat types across the board that every coaching staff said that, without question, helped them make in-game moment decisions: Time on ice and faceoffs," Foster said. "With time on ice, you want to manage your top players to make sure they have gas in the tank at the end of the game, or if they're coming back from an injury."
For both ice time and faceoffs, the app offers something that the coaches uniformly requested from the NHL: easy-to-read displays. Faceoff success or failure is depicted as a series of green circles with check marks or red circles with X's, and faceoff percentages can be broken down by where they were held and against whom.
"While coaches consider season performance or career performance, it's what they're doing in that game that matters," said Foster.
Players that are near or over their ice time projection during the game will have their names displayed in red, with a small red triangle with an exclamation point next to their photo -- similar to a "check engine" light on a car dashboard.
There's also the ability to map shots on goal for different situations, locations and specific players, with real-time data on the results of those shot attempts. But that information is the tip of the massive iceberg slowly moving the NHL into the future. Puck and player tracking technology is in its final testing stages, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman expects that it will be used by teams and on broadcasts beginning next season.
While the SAP-NHL Coaching Insights App will help coaches for the rest of this season, Foster admits this is only Version 1.0 of what's to come with the data dump of player tracking tech. By next season, coaches could use it to track everything from the distances their players have skated to the velocity and placement of their shots each period.
"If the demand [for this] isn't there right now, it'll definitely be there when player and puck tracking arrives," he said.