Why virtual reality is still a pipe dream for the NHL

Fans can drive zambonis in virtual reality, but watching a live game? Still a work in progress. Derek Leung/NHLI via Getty Images

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis believes sports are a "communal resource." Even as the coronavirus pandemic shutters arenas and postpones games and creates a murky uncertainty about the future of sports, Leonsis believes the community will have access to that resource again.

"I'm not buying, in any way, that we won't be able to eat in restaurants before a game at Capital One Arena and all be together," he said recently, during a web chat with The Economic Club of Washington. "It's just a matter of what time frame that has to happen in."

Until it happens, Leonsis suggested an alternative means for fans who aren't in the arena to experience the game: "Maybe it's through virtual reality."

Virtual reality and the NHL are like that couple that talks about engagement for a decade but never gets around to ring shopping. I remember back in 2015 when the league tested a 360-degree virtual reality experience at its Stadium Series game between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings at Levi's Stadium. Cameras were mounted on the glass, filming HD images. The results were encouraging, providing a panoramic view of some recorded on-ice action. One test even allowed fans to go from watching a play in the stands to floating above the goalie and the goal line. It was pretty cool.

The expectations coming out of that experiment were nothing short of VR eventually changing the way fans watch the game, perhaps even solving the most vexing riddle for the NHL on television: How to transfer the unparalleled joys of watching hockey in an arena to someone's rec room. With VR, it's not only about capturing the speed and scope of live hockey, but also recreating that personal experience for the fan.

"There's going to be a technology soon where you're going to be sitting at home and pick where you want to watch the game. You could be sitting at home and still watch it from your seat," said John Collins, then the league's COO, at the time. "That was the thing that was pretty cool about it: It was a live experience."

That was five years ago.

Surely, virtual reality is ready to bridge the fan experience from the couch to the arena during a global pandemic, right?

"So many people have thrown that out there," San Jose Sharks president Jonathan Becher told me last month. "I'm sorry to say it, but the tech's not there."


This has been the story of VR for my entire life: The virtual promise, followed by the underwhelming reality.

It was the story when I wore clunky headsets at Six Flags during the summer, spending $5 to "ride" a virtual coaster. It was the story when 1990s movies like "Hackers" and "Disclosure" ineptly incorporated VR into their plots -- remember a digitized Michael Douglas looking for a file in a virtual palace, and it taking about 25 times longer than using a laptop? It was the story with Nintendo's "Virtual Boy." It was the story with Batman: Arkham VR.

It was the story when we asked if VR was a bust in 2016 and when it was a "promise unfulfilled" in 2019 and in The New York Times this week, when author Kevin Roose lamented that "every time, I've found myself excited by the promise of futuristic VR and disappointed by the inevitable letdown of experiencing the actual limited systems" --before extolling the potential of the next generation of VR hardware.

Roose's story asks why, in this time of social distancing, VR hasn't had its moment. Sales of Oculus Quest and PlayStation VR have been brisk, as their limited quantities were snatched up. But as an immersive alternative to ... well, "life as we knew it," there's no strapping on a headset and feeling like you're at the Winter Classic.

Which has to be frustrating for the NHL. VR demos have made more appearances at the All-Star Game in the past five years than Alex Ovechkin has. As the league contemplates how to turn empty arena games into must-see television spectacles, virtually transporting fans into those barren stands to watch playoff action would have been a game-changer. Especially when we're not sure if fans will be back in arenas for the start of the 2020-21 season, either.

"It's great in theory, focusing in on the social aspect -- that you can be watching with your dad or a friend, virtually next to each other," a source that's worked on the NHL's VR ventures told me last week. "But unless the camera tech and compression technology gets better, it would be a very hard lift to have VR be the primary broadcast."

Problem No. 1: The current VR cameras do not zoom, making a live stream of games a staid experience. Problem No. 2: Stitching together multiple camera feeds in real time -- or even a day later -- would be a significant task. That's to say nothing of the file sizes for VR, which are still elephantine, especially since the tech involves an array of HD cameras rather than just one.

"Over time, it may become a reality," said the source, "but it's certainly no short-term solution."

Oh well. Maybe next pandemic.

Jersey Fouls

Some preemptive measures for the eventual return to arenas:

Look, after waiting an hour to enter the building through one designated entrance, getting a temperature check, making our way to our socially distanced seat and cheering for our favorite team through a mask ... if we see you skipping around the concourse in a COVID-19 Jersey Foul, I can assure you that you will not leave the arena wearing that jersey.

Top three jerseys I want back in the NHL

The Colorado Avalanche are reportedly ready to bring back the Quebec Nordiques' classic sweaters to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the franchise's relocation. And really, what better way to celebrate than to remind an entire swath of a province of that time a perennial loser abandoned them right before a run of 10 straight playoff appearances and two Stanley Cup championships?

But that got us thinking about other out-of-circulation jerseys we'd like to see make their comebacks in the NHL:

1. New York Rangers: "Liberty Head"

As an Original Six team, I've always believed the Rangers were better than their diagonal text sweaters, which look like a temporary jersey they wore until the actual logo was finished. The "Liberty Head" arrived in 1996 and was worn on and off through 2007.

It's basically perfect, from the gorgeous dark blue to the aggressive spikes on the crown of New York's most iconic woman outside of Cardi B. It's big. It's bold. It's befitting a team from Manhattan. Sure, it's a jersey most closely associated with a period of post-Cup failure and big-budget flops, but what's New York City if not a place for second acts?

2. Buffalo Sabres: "Buffaslug"

As long as we're taking sweaters out of mothballs for anniversaries, 2021 marks the 15th anniversary of the infamous "Buffaslug," on which the Sabres poured salt in 2010. You remember all the detractors: It's an "angry cashew" or "terrible hairpiece" or "embarrassing, even for Buffalo." Has time treated them better? Well, they're clearly not the worst Sabres sweaters of the past 20 years, thanks to that truly terrible 2013 golden alternate jersey. Maybe bring it back for just one night, to see what Jack Eichel looks like in one?

(For what it's worth, the "Slug" has been in the news lately. Please recall it was originally inspired by the San Diego Chargers' logo. The Chargers' flattened new logo, and the L.A. Rams' new look have gotten "Buffaslug" comparisons.)

3. Edmonton Oilers: McFarlane Jerseys

I once asked comics artist Todd McFarlane about the backlash to these jerseys, which he designed and the team wore from 2001 to '07 -- and he said he wasn't aware of any. "If somebody doesn't like something, I don't get hung up on it, because we don't live in a penal colony," he said.

His goal was to create a homage to the Oilers while also making it look cool enough for people outside of Edmonton to buy it, mostly by not putting "Edmonton" or "Oilers" on the logo. (This was his rationale, not mine.)

I loved these jerseys, even if the logo looks like a loogie hocked by Doctor Doom. I think they'd sell more than a few of them with "McDavid 97" on the back. Or maybe I'm just a big fan of Image Comics and still play with my McFarlane Toys. One of the two.

Listen to ESPN On Ice

We could have talked to Kevin Bieksa for 10 hours on the podcast this week. Great stories and observations, from the Sedins to the 2011 Cup Final to TikTok stardom. Plus, AHL president Dave Andrews joined us to discuss the league's canceled season. We also talk NHL season restart and more. Listen, subscribe and review here!

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Dave Andrews

Andrews has served his league, and this sport, for 26 years as AHL president. He's stepping down in June, with Scott Howson taking over. It's such a bummer that he won't hand out the Calder Cup at the end of his last season, but he's working hard behind the scenes to make sure the AHL is set up well for a return to the ice in 2020-21. One of the most well-regarded executives in the game, and for good reason. Godspeed.

Loser: "Hockey culture"

Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull lamented that "the fun is gone" in a discussion with Sportsnet's "Hockey Central" on Friday about Brendan Leipsic's sexist and misogynistic comments in a leaked group chat that got him released by the Washington Capitals.

"We did the same things, we said the same things, but there was no way to get caught. We can go out after games, we can go to strip clubs, we can go to bars, and we could do whatever we wanted, and it would all be hearsay. There's no hearsay anymore. It'll be on an iPhone," he said.

For the record, Hull called Leipsic and his cohorts "idiots that should have known better, because that can happen." So there's that. He also lamented that pro athletes can't go out after games in the same manner they used to because of the pervasive nature of modern technology, social media and invasive fans. That's fair. But Hull then created a false dichotomy, which is that players bring their Xboxes on the road because they can't go out anymore. "It's so sad, but it's the nature of the game: Do you want to go out with everyone's cellphone on you, or do you want to make sure you don't get in trouble?" he said.

How about this: Guys in their 20s bond over video games and can also leave for some velvet-roped-off bar if they so desire. Crazy, right?

But the biggest problem with Hull's comments were the ultimate context, which is that "the fun is gone" because you never know when "the fun" might leak into public discourse. Look, if "the fun" is sexist or misogynistic or homophobic, and that gets out, the players not only have to answer for it but could lose their spots because if it. That's not how it was with "the fun" back in Hull's day, but thankfully this antiseptic sunshine lighting up the toxic sludge of hockey culture will eventually make the sport "fun" for more people, from a variety of demographics, who don't find any of this stuff "fun" but more causes for why the sport seems repellant to them.

Winner: Washington Capitals

The swiftness of their rebuke of Leipsic's leaked Instagram messages was commendable, as was their decision to release him. Rather than praise the move, many questioned whether they would have done the same for a better player. It's a worthy hypothetical, but let's not lose sight of the fact that there are more grunts like Leipsic on rosters and in the minors than stars like Alex Ovechkin, and this example serves all of them notice to be better.

Loser: The "good old days"

Globe & Mail columnist Cathal Kelly's piece on the Leipsic situation traffics in the worst kind of "Canadian exceptionalism" stereotypes.

It's an impressive feat to cram explanations for hockey's growth, demographic, marketing, personality and cultural problems into one paragraph, and then summarily ignore their consequences.

Winner: Blackhawks and Rangers

The NHL is currently focused on a 24-team playoff in a season restart, which would expand the postseason to include the Rangers (.564 points percentage) and Blackhawks (.514) and their nationwide fan bases that would have nothing else better to do than watch them compete in the NHL postseason. Unless, of course, the NHL does something bonkers and adopts that "divisional" playoff format that's been discussed, where the Sabres (.493) and Ducks (.472) are seeded in play-in series instead.

Loser: Minnesota Wild

According to Michael Russo of The Athletic, the NHL has informed the Minnesota Wild that there is likely "zero chance" that their top prospect Kirill Kaprizov will be permitted to make his NHL debut this summer if the 2019-20 season resumes. "But when the NHL suspended this season March 12, the league instructed teams that no contracts for draft picks or college, junior and European free agents could be signed with a start date of this current season" he wrote.

Why he can't jump into an extended postseason and have a Cale Makar-like impact for Minnesota is just baffling.

Puck headlines

  • The St. Louis Blues president and CEO of business operations thinks his city should be a hub arena for the restart. "There will be some [markets] that would be more difficult to play in based on the level of the virus. So yes, we have shown interest and have provided the league with different scenarios and insights around our buildings and how and why we think we'd be a fantastic hub city in the event that that happens."

  • In case you missed it, this incendiary report by The Victory Press on the NWHL's problems with facilities and general treatment of players burned up the web this week. "There was no bathroom. Once you had your skates and equipment on, you couldn't access the lobby bathrooms. So a lot of players, including myself, we had to pee in a trashcan before practice, once you had your equipment on, because there was just no way you could get to a toilet."

  • Switzerland has announced a 350 million Swiss franc ($362 million) rescue package for its professional soccer and ice hockey leagues, but insists the money should not be used to pay wages to high-earning players.

  • Can EA Sports' NHL 20 increase your hockey IQ?

  • The first openly gay male hockey player believes that the NHL is hypocritical to condemn Brendan Leipsic without changing its culture. "It would be very easy to take a fringe player, cancel him, and then go, 'See, we don't tolerate that,' and then not do any of the work to actually evolve the culture and educate players at the NHL level and grassroots up to actually shift it so players aren't using these words in conversations amongst each other, in locker rooms, in group chats, or anywhere."

Hockey tl;dr

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