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An innovative way to reduce player injuries

The Sabres are one of the teams to have used player tracking devices during practices.Matt Kincaid/Getty Images/File 2016

If a general manager could decrease his team’s man-games lost to injury by 20 percent, he would sell his owner’s personal jet to make sure such a scenario became reality. Injuries, especially the preventable groin strains, keep GMs up at night as they call up reinforcements, pursue help on the trade market, and perform hourly check-ins with their medical staff.

The only barrier between teams and better health is acceptance.

Catapult, an Australian company specializing in data to maximize athlete performance, believes it can help teams minimize injuries. Part of Catapult’s injury solution lies within its technology.

One of its products is the OptimEye T5, a wearable device about the size of a deck of cards. If a player wears the OptimEye T5 on his back, the device’s infrastructure — accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, ability to be tracked by indoor wireless nodes — can track speed, workload, even the force of his skating stride.

The appeal to technology that can monitor effort is how the data can help teams improve player usage. According to Catapult, the average NHL team records 252 man-games lost per season, with more than 50 percent of its roster suffering some type of injury. At that rate, a team would part with $7,533,333 in revenue. It would incur logistical costs (insurance, calling up players from the AHL) between $800,000 and $1.2 million. The points deferred when a groin pull sidelines a superstar could mean the difference between postseason qualification and premature tee times — the latter of which costs people jobs.


Teams have tracked player workload in practice with Catapult’s technology (clients have included Buffalo and Philadelphia). By adjusting their practices, off-ice workouts, and recovery periods through their data’s guidance, Catapult users reported between 16 and 21 percent reduction in groin and abdominal injuries. They had 61 fewer man-games lost. It’s resulted in $1,768,000 in team savings.


The trouble is that in the NHL, teams cannot mandate their players to use wearables in games. In comparison, the NFL partners with Zebra Technologies for leaguewide player integration during games. NFL teams are busy scouring through Zebra’s game and practice data to come up with more efficient ways to keep their players healthy.

“The [NFL] controls the content and did a lot on the commercial side in terms of sponsorships and next-gen stats you’ve seen during the games,” said Matt Bairos, CEO of XOS Digital, a Wilmington company acquired by Catapult on July 13. “Now the teams are getting access to that information as well.”

Although the NHL and NHLPA have yet to agree on in-game use of wearables, XOS’s users could convince their employers of their importance during practice. XOS’s pucks product is Thunder Hockey, which teams use to capture game video and use as they see fit: to review plays, track player performance, and scout opponents. Thunder’s primary customers are video coaches, the indispensable worker drones hunched over laptops to provide their bosses with the clips they cannot be without.

The Catapult OptimEye T5 is about the size of a deck of cards.Catapult

The video coaches, including representatives from Edmonton, Nashville, Pittsburgh, and San Jose, assembled this past week at the Marriott Copley Place for XOS’s annual Thunder Hockey Users Conference. On Tuesday, Brant Berglund, XOS Digital’s director of hockey products, explained to his customers how Catapult’s technology, if applied to Thunder, could be a wise investment.

The trick is catching a head coach’s attention. Berglund created a scenario in which a coach, upon arrival at the rink for a matinee game, runs into multiple tangles. A star player is hurt. Another player has gotten into off-ice trouble. The team is stuck in a losing streak. The opponent is the best team in the league.


This is not the time for a video coach to pull on his boss’s sleeve and tell him he’s been riding his players too hard.

Instead, Berglund explained how even a coach with six brushfires requiring immediate dousing would take notice if the data were presented in the right setting: on his laptop.

“They’re watching video all day. So there’s the place it has to go,” Berglund said. “It has to go in that bucket. And it has to be somewhere where it’s not another application in another window.”

For all the directions in which a head coach is pulled, he always finds himself back in front of his keyboard. It is his most critical resource in reviewing plays, performing prescouts, and preparing for special teams meetings. The most precious cargo hauled onto the team charter is the trunk that cradles a video coach’s gear: laptops, monitors, and server. The equipment managers don’t toss that trunk into the truck like they do with the superstar’s bag.

Berglund showed how XOS could integrate biometric data into the software that coaches already know how to negotiate. As an example, Berglund showed a clip from the third period of last season’s NCAA championship game between North Dakota and Quinnipiac. Berglund also displayed sample heart rates and workload thresholds of all the players on the ice had they been using wearables.


That way, if a first-round pick got stripped of the puck by a fourth-liner, a coach could pull up all the available data. Perhaps the first-rounder was 50 seconds into his shift after playing 15 of the first 40 minutes. Maybe the fourth-liner had just rolled over the boards. The first-rounder’s coach might not scream at him upon return to the bench. Instead, he might give him a shift off to energize him for later in the period.

Some coaches are good at gauging a player’s fatigue, especially if he staggers into the room between periods in search of an oxygen mask. But a coach has other priorities to address during intermission than inquiring with 20 players on their comfort level. It would be easier for him to acknowledge workload if the information popped up on his laptop. With a few clicks, he could also access practice logs, including heart rates, calories burned, and force expended, from the past two weeks, for example, on every player.

This is important because overexertion during practice can show up in a bad way during games. One AHL coach described the uncertainty he feels when practices reach 30 minutes. The next 10-15 minutes are critical in building fitness, learning skills, and practicing systems.

But it’s difficult to determine whether pushing harder at the 30-minute checkpoint is better than easing off. Go too hard, and the third period of the next game might not go so well. Having data would give coaches a better idea of how to maneuver between full gas and easing off.


“You’re going to keep your players on the ice,” Bairos said of an NHL team that embraces the melding of biometric and video information. “When they’re on the ice, you’re going to make sure they’re at peak performance. You’re going to maximize their time on the ice. And you’re going to make sure they’re healthy and stay on the ice.”


Time to reposition Chara on the PP

The Bruins will miss Loui Eriksson in many ways, especially on the power play. Eriksson punched in 10 man-up goals in his final season as a Bruin, tying a career high and trailing only Patrice Bergeron (12) on the team. Eriksson was an important presence on the No. 1 unit as the net-front man. He was also the left-shot goal-line outlet for Ryan Spooner on the right side. When Eriksson controlled the puck, he could feed Bergeron in the middle or give return passes to Spooner.

Matt Beleskey, also a left shot, could take Eriksson’s spot. Or the Bruins could tweak the unit by deploying David Backes, a right shot, as the net-front presence.

Zdeno Chara would be a better option than both.

Chara spent most of 2015-16 as the point man on the No. 2 unit. Chara scored 10 of his 37 points on the power play. He did not see any time down low.

But Chara has the size, experience, and touch to be Eriksson’s replacement. He’s familiar with the position. As a left shot, Chara could slide into the opening, allowing the other pieces (Bergeron, Spooner, Torey Krug, and David Krejci) to remain in place. No goalie can peek above the 6-foot-9-inch Chara when he plants his flag in front. No defenseman can muscle the strongman out of the way.

Last season, Chara scored his only power-play goal on Oct. 30. He poked home the rebound of a Krejci shot off Roberto Luongo. Chara had rotated down to the right faceoff dot. It’s where he’d be if the Bruins deployed him as a regular down-low attacker.

Chara scored only two of his nine goals from the point. The first was a half-slapper from inside the blue line that slipped behind a down-and-out Colorado’s Reto Berra. The second was a long-range snap shot after an offensive-zone faceoff on Buffalo’s Robin Lehner. He added a three-quarters-length empty-netter against Minnesota. Chara scored his remaining six goals from below the tops of the circles.

There’s no disputing the speed of Chara’s slap shot. Its power, however, didn’t lead to results on the No. 2 unit last year. As the down-low man on the first unit, Chara wouldn’t be responsible for retrieving the puck after clears and reforming the attack. It would be less taxing to post up at the offensive blue line and wait for his teammates to arrive. And it might initiate better production.


Jersey ads would promote growth

On Wednesday, the NHL announced that all players participating in the World Cup of Hockey will wear ads on their jerseys. The uniforms will bear the logo of SAP on each shoulder.

It might be the first step toward advertising adoption for regular NHL games, regardless of the caution Gary Bettman suggested be taken toward making that reality.

“Nobody should say this means the next step is to put [ads] on NHL jerseys,” the commissioner told reporters in Toronto. “I am a believer in the history, tradition, and exactly how special NHL sweaters are. These World Cup jerseys have been designed from scratch and are spectacular, but it’s not necessarily the same as NHL sweaters. I don’t think anyone should make that leap right now.”

Everyone, including Bettman, can wax about the sanctity of the NHL jersey. They would be right. The most graceful Brioni suit has nothing on Montreal’s white uniform.

But the league and the players would be shortsighted not to consider adding advertising in subtle and tasteful ways to increase the bottom line. If the league is to keep growing, additional revenue streams will be required.

Given the nature of today’s low-scoring game and consumers’ shifting television habits, the league can’t depend on ticket sales and TV revenue to continue rising. As entertainment, the product is not what it was. Consumers are going to figure this out by saying no to inflated ticket prices and changing the channel.

So if growing means adding a corporate logo on the shoulders, chests, trims, or anywhere else on the jersey, so be it. Nobody’s going to reach for the remote because of the offending nature of a uniform. The league is better off thinking of ways to improve the product than fretting about altering its wardrobe.


Detroit pushing for Frozen Four

There’s a good chance the Frozen Four will land at Little Caesars Arena, the Red Wings’ future home. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, the Detroit Sports Commission submitted 54 applications on Aug. 12 to hold future NCAA championships, including Division 1 college hockey. The new arena would be the Frozen Four’s prospective home in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022. Michigan State would serve as the host school. The Frozen Four last visited Detroit in 2010, when Boston College beat Wisconsin at Ford Field before 37,592 fans. Finalists will be announced on Oct. 26. Winning sites will be revealed on Dec. 7. The Frozen Four will take place at Chicago’s United Center in 2017 and St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center in 2018.

College game can take the lead in technology

The NCAA does not have any rules preventing use of wearables in games. This could make college hockey an important test lab in collecting data and conducting experiments that NHL organizations are not free to execute. A college team would have to invest in technology such as ClearSky, Catapult’s indoor wireless positioning system. But forward-thinking programs have already installed GoPro cameras in their home rinks to provide additional angles to complement television feeds. They have hordes of students itching to stake their claims in sports analytics upon graduation. The pieces are in place for colleges to dream up innovations to advance the game more briskly than their professional counterparts.

Long-term limbo

Hampus Lindholm, Jacob Trouba, and Cody Ceci, three of the first nine defensemen drafted in 2012, remain unsigned following the expiration of their entry-level contracts. All three would prefer to sign long-term second deals. So far, among that class’s first nine defensemen, only Morgan Rielly (six years, $30 million) has scored a long-term extension. Matt Dumba was the latest to accept a bridge deal when he signed a two-year, $5.1 million contract with Minnesota.

Healthy use of money

Budgets are tight in the AHL. Long bus rides are standard operating procedure. Hotel rooms, when they’re even booked, do not compare with those used by NHLers. Players are usually on their own to search for sustenance. But this year, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate, is planning to provide breakfast and lunch on game days for its players for the first time. The organization believes investing in healthy food is worth the extra dollars than the alternative — 20-year-olds ducking into burrito joints and eating items that could roil their stomachs. Providing game-day meals is standard in the NHL. The cost, however, has prevented full adoption in the AHL.

Loose pucks

Physically, Noah Hanifin is getting closer to his peak. The 19-year-old Norwood native continues to add muscle under the watch of Brian McDonough at Edge Performance Systems in Foxborough. The Carolina defenseman, who accelerated to enter Boston College a year early, will be a monster once his physicality, hockey sense, and experience come together . . . On Thursday, two days after becoming an unrestricted free agent, Providence College defenseman John Gilmour signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Rangers. Calgary had picked Gilmour in the seventh round in 2013, but the Flames declined to sign the left-shot defenseman. Gilmour concluded his college career with a 9-14—23 output in 34 games as a senior . . . Ryan Donato is setting himself up for a good sophomore season at Harvard. Donato, the Bruins’ second-round pick in 2014, scored 13 goals and eight assists in 32 games as a freshman. He’s been among the better players in the Foxboro Sports Center Pro League, where he’s used his speed, quickness, and good hands to create scoring chances . . . As usual, resident lunatic Dallas Eakins competed in the annual Leadville Trail 100 MTB race in Colorado. The 49-year-old finished the mountain bike race in 11 hours, 22 minutes, and 4 seconds. The former Oilers coach, now employed in San Diego (Anaheim’s AHL affiliate), is as fit as they come . . . Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill will serve as the grand marshal for NASCAR’s Pure Michigan 400 on Aug. 28. Blashill will issue the command for the drivers to start their engines. Blashill will be launching some awfully fast cars, but still none with Dylan Larkin’s flat-out speed.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.