SAN JOSE, Calif. — Another big win for the geeks.
Here in the state where digging for gold set off a cultural and economic stampede in the mid-19th century, the NHL on Friday went all in on the limitless motherlode of data mining.
Coming soon to an NHL rink near you — yes, that includes you, Causeway data denizens — all the statistics you ever wanted (and some you never even thought to count) pertaining to a league that has built a multibillion dollar industry around the capricious bounces of a 3-inch chip of vulcanized rubber.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made it official during his annual All-Star weekend news conference: beginning in October, all Original 31 NHL rinks will be fitted with technology that will measure and display such things as how fast players skate, how far they travel in a game, perhaps the force of their hits, their shots and, who knows, whether their LDL and HDL cholesterol levels fall within the AMA’s recommended range.
We’re talking numbers here, people, lots and lot of numbers. The possibilities are about to explode in hockey’s new ice age, the numbers to be delivered in real time to the mobile devices of fans sitting in NHL arenas and also across screens — primary and secondary and fiduciary — all over the wide, wide world of sports.
“The puck-and-player tracking system can track pucks at the rate of 2,000 times per second, in real time, with inch-level accuracy,” said Bettman. “It will instantaneously detect passes, shots and positioning precisely. It will be equally accurate in tracking players, their movements, speed, time on ice . . . you name it.”
You name it. It slices. It dices. It will compute your IRS tax filings while you sip on a $13 Bud Lite at the Garden and pray your 50/50 ticket hits for $45k. Isn’t that amazing?!!!
We know what you’re thinking, Sabres fans. Had this stuff been around back in 1999, would the technology have detected Brett Hull’s big fat foot in the crease and perhaps helped to deliver the Sabres their first Stanley Cup championship?
Maybe. You never know, right?
Or, 20 years earlier, might the numbers have alerted Don Cherry behind the Bruins bench at the Montreal Forum, informing Grapes that he had . . . wait for it . . . too many men on the ice?
Maybe. I mean, anything and everything is possible in the digital age, ain’t it?
Truth is, how all this Carl Sagan universe of billions and billions of data is going to be utilized remains a bit of the dark side of the moon.
For instance, pucks will have embedded data chips. In theory, that should be the final piece needed to determine whether a puck has completely crossed the goal line.
Advances in camera technology in recent years have settled most of those goal/no-goal kerfuffles, but not all of them. So if the lens can’t catch ’em all, perhaps a data chip, like John’s Sewer, can get . . . the . . . job . . . done.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, isn’t so sure of that. Not yet, anyway.
“I don’t think it is its first utilization,” said Daly, speaking with a small group of reporters after Bettman’s presser. “It’s a possible utilization at some point in time. I think that technology still has to perfect a little bit — but certainly the potential is there.”
For now, the main role of the data will be to feed the info to cellphone-carrying fans (i.e. everyone) inside NHL arenas and integrate with TV broadcasts. All of that falls under the ever-expanding umbrella of fan engagement, the NHL hardly the only pro league to believe that fans dig numbers, can’t live without ’em, gotta have ’em all night long.
If you accept that, then the league’s announcement here is the greatest thing since Gordie Howe invented the abacus (a little known fact outside Original Six circles, by the way).
If you don’t accept that, then I suggest it’s you who needs to get the hell off the lawn you’ve so long protected from the neighborhood kids. Not only are the numbahs here to stay, it’s possible they’ll soon be more iconic and central to hockey than that No. 99 sweater Wayne Gretzky made synonymous with the game itself.
“There’s a lot more to a hockey player than just the stats,” noted Mathieu Schneider, 49, the former NHL defenseman who is now a special assistant to NHL union boss Donald Fehr. “When you look at guys like Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky or Nick Lidstrom . . . they were never defined by how big they were, how fast they were, how hard they shot.
“How does Brett Hull score 80 goals . . . and wasn’t the fastest skater on the ice? How does Wayne Gretzky become the all-time leading scorer when he was only 180 pounds at his highest? Nick Lidstrom, as we all know, was the greatest defenseman of all time and his intuition on the ice was probably second to none. Those things are hard to measure, and I think this kind of data and this kind of technology will help show that to fans.”
All in all, said Schneider, the union and its players are psyched about puck-and-player tracking. The league? Heck, those guys are happier than a convention of CPAs set loose at the Caesars Palace cash counting room.
It ain’t your grandaddy’s five-hole NHL anymore. The numbers are in, they’re in deep, and they’re here to stay. Count on it.