The hockey puck as it’s been known forever, that humble 6-ounce chunk of hard rubber patented decades ago by Bruins general manager/coach Art Ross, has left the building.
There’s a new kid in NHL rinks, and this is fitted with a tiny embedded battery, a circuit board roughly the size of a half-dollar, and 6-inch-long tubes that emit infrared light at 60 pulses per second — fast, yet still two beats behind Connor McDavid on a breakaway.
“Crazy, isn’t it?” said the NHL’s Dave Lehanski, an executive vice president who has helped steer the puck’s development the last 7-8 years. “It almost has a life of its own.”
Crazy ain’t the half of it, especially for those of us who remember maddening nights of pond hockey, searching in the dark, knee-deep in drifted snow for pucks gone astray. Where were those light beams then?!
“Yeah, it went in right there . . . it went in right there . . . I swear!” said Lehanski, briefly a netminder in his Bowdoin days, recalling fruitless childhood hunts for black chunks of vulcanized rubber. “I know it’s out here somewhere!”
The space-age pucks, which cost the NHL some $40 each to produce, will make their debut next week in the NHL’s 31 arenas, all part of the league unveiling its long-anticipated Puck and Player Tracking technology for use in broadcasts and, undoubtedly, the tidal wave of legalized betting about to wash over all pro sports.
But let’s save all the data and their various uses for a different day and focus on the puck’s grand makeover. It’s come a long, long way from days of old. Some of the late-19th-century versions were made of wood. The rubber iteration came along around 1900 when someone shaved off two sides of a ball, a puck emerging from the handiwork.
Rest assured, the new puck will look and sound the same as the old model — 6 ounces, 3 inches wide, 1 inch thick. Based on exhaustive testing, noted Lehanski, players have reported it feels the same on their sticks, fires just like the old version, and bangs off pipes and boards with honest-to-Boom Boom Geoffrion auditory authenticity.
“We tried to leave no stone unturned,” said Lehanski. “A big part of the testing was just getting players to play with it. How does it feel on your stick? How does it sound when you shoot it? So it was hours and hours and hours of testing . . . and when the players told us they couldn’t tell a difference, we knew we were in a good spot.”
One of the unique aspects of NHL pucks for decades has been their logos. Dating back to Original Six days, one side of the puck carried the logo of the home team in each arena, with the NHL logo on the opposite side.
In part because of the shortened season, noted Lehanski, NHL pucks for these next six months will sport only the NHL logo. For 2021-22, which will see the Seattle Kraken open for business, all 32 arenas will be stocked with pucks with both the home team logos and the NHL shield.
The key tech element of the new puck is its battery-powered infrared light, the beam essential to a triangulation system that also incorporates 16-18 cameras mounted inside every arena. Every NHLer also will be outfitted with an infrared tag — approximately the size and shape of a pack of gum — slipped into the backs of their sweaters.
All the light beams and all the associated PPT technology, other than cameras mounted in the ceiling and elsewhere in the arena, will not be visible. Every move of puck and players will be tracked, recorded, and all of the info streamed into a giant data punch bowl.
Eighty years ago last month, it was Ross who was granted his patent on the design of a new puck, one that was far easier to handle because of its textured (knurled) edge. He held the patent for some 17 years.
A local manufacturer, the Andover-based Tyer Rubber Co., for many years produced the NHL pucks that carried Ross’s patent number. Ross also held a patent on the nets the league used for years. His son, John Ross, once told a Globe reporter with great pride that NHLers for many seasons “shot the Art Ross puck into the Art Ross net.”
Tyer pucks were punched out by the thousands, ready for immediate game play as they rolled off the production line. The new pucks are manufactured in three stages across three sites. Soucy Baron, a rubber manufacturer outside of Montreal, produces the raw form puck, Ross’s knurled edge and all. Raleigh-based SMT, Inc., loads up each puck with battery, circuit board, and light tubes. Inglasco, Inc., in Sherbrooke, Quebec, then uses a silkscreening process to affix logos. Et voila, the biscuit est fini.
The paint applied by Inglasco turns purple when the pucks are chilled to proper temperature for game play. If purple fades to a gray tone, it is pulled from play. During games, pucks are stored in a tiny freeze box at rinkside, alongside the official scorer’s position.
For decades, pucks were kept chilled in a bucket of ice inside one of the penalty boxes. If cold to the feel, they played. If not, they remained in the bucket. Changing paint color? Maybe for a can of Coors beer.
According to Lehanski, pucks that land in the stands can be taken home for souvenirs. So at least that bit of hockey nostalgia has not been lost to the onward march of technology.
Once a puck is out of play, the arena tech crew will deactivate it from the PPT system and a new puck, with a unique embedded code, will be activated. The fan who goes home with the souvenir puck will just have chunk of rubber, its battery gone dead in 4-6 hours.
“Although,” added Lehanski, “we’ll have the data that tells us everything about that puck, what happened to it in every moment. Every goal. Every save. There is something interesting to that. So at the very least we want to think about how we can create some kind of public database for fans to go back and look at these pucks.”
All for another day back in the puck lab. For now, with play about to begin anew, the old puck has been reborn, chock full of new technology, and no doubt loaded with the same old capricious bounces that make hockey so infuriating and intoxicating. Let no one in a lab coat ever try to find a new model for that.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.