How SAP, Apple, and the NHL are transforming the world's fastest game

Hockey is finally getting access to real-time stats to back up its high-speed reputation.

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One of the many ways the SAP-NHL Coaching Insights app for iPad can present data to coaching staff.

Image: NHL

I've religiously watched hockey since the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche. I'll never forget being allowed to stay up way past my bedtime as the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers went into triple overtime in game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and the excitement as I saw Uwe Krupp take a shot from near the blue line and it snuck past goalie John Vanbiesbrouck to win what had been up until that point a 0-0 game, the series, and the Stanley Cup. Mind you, it was the first professional sports championship for the state of Colorado. 

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Hockey is often called the fastest sport on Earth. It's a tagline I've heard debated amongst family and friends who aren't hockey fans, but instead, consider the NFL much faster -- and tougher -- than the NHL. There's really no way to explain just how fast the game is on TV; you have to be there in person to see, feel, and hear it. 

Data in real time

In 2014, SAP, Apple, and the NHL started working on ways to give players and coaches more data in real time. Feedback from coaches indicated they wanted access to instant replays and statics -- directly on the bench during a game. There isn't a lot of room on a hockey bench, and thus, SAP and the NHL decided to give each team iPad Pro tablets and started to work on an app that made all the data easy and quick to access.

The first version of SAP-NHL Coaching Insights app for iPad launched in 2019, with stats like time on ice for each player and face-off percentages with specific player matchups -- for a total of over 75 individual stats and over 50 team stats. 

After launch, the NHL and SAP held sessions during the draft, since they had a captive audience with coaches from most teams in the same city, to gather feedback about what coaches liked, didn't like, and wanted to see in future updates. However, regarding the meetings, Chris Foster, senior director of digital at the NHL, said: "The one challenge, as you can imagine, is you get a bunch of coaches in a room and sometimes they aren't as forthright as they want to be. Maybe they hold things a little close to the vest."

Ultimately, the NHL decided to hold private Zoom sessions with individual teams when the entire league paused all games and practices due to COVID-19. A total of 85 coaches from all 31 teams in the league participated in the calls -- including several head coaches -- providing valuable, honest feedback about the app.  

The second version of the app, which is currently in use by every NHL team, leverages data and stats collected during each game and transmits it to iPads in near real time. But the accuracy of the data is increasing thanks to small RF sensors embedded in each player's jersey, and soon, the same type of sensor will be added to every puck used in live games. 

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This tag is what each player has on the back of his jersey to track movement. 

Image: NHL

The sensors transmit data 12 times per second when the players are on the ice, once per second when they're on the bench, and the puck transmits data 60 times per second throughout the game. 

A big impact

Set aside puck tracking for a minute. The data and information collected and aggregated by SAP and displayed in the second version of the SAP-NHL Coaching Insights app are having a big impact on how coaches and players approach a game. 

The coaching staff can see the distance each player has skated during each shift as well as during an entire game. They can, of course, look at how much time each player has been on the ice -- and what I found incredibly fascinating is they can see each player's rest time. That is, the amount of time they've been off the ice and on the bench. It helps coaches understand who is rested for the crucial face-off after an icing, or who not to put on ice right away when you're pulling the goalie with three minutes left in the game down by a goal. 

Collecting and monitoring these stats is nothing new to the NHL, as Brant Berglund, senior director coaching and general manager apps at the NHL and former video coach for the Boston Bruins, said: "Rest time has been calculated before, but it was done with trainers and clipboards." The same can be said about ice time and face-offs, but the biggest difference here is the information is available in near real-time (one to two seconds of latency), instead of having to wait for an updated stat sheet between periods. 

The app is completely customizable by each team, allowing the coaching staff to alter which stats are visible on the main screen, or to change the area where the team is taking high-chance shots based on that team's playing style (also referred to as home plate shots). Coaches can even drill down to see the number of shots and location of those shots, mapped out on the ice. 

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An example of how fast a player moved during his shift. 

Image: NHL

Going back to hockey as the fastest game on Earth -- the tags that players wear, yes, they track how fast a player moves around on the ice in miles per hour. If you've watched any hockey broadcasts lately, you might have seen a quick stat of top speed for a player's shift. Coaches, however, get insights into how fast a player skates during his shift, broken down into 10-second segments. That data can translate into insight on how quickly and effectively a player is moving on a given night. 

It's the first time this type of information has been available to a team during a game, so it's unclear how much of an impact it's going to have on decision making in the long term, but it's not hard to see how knowing whether your star player is having an off night by a quick look at their overall skating speed can influence how a game is coached. 

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Tech on the bench

With so much information available for coaching staff, I talked with Edmonton Oilers Head Coach Dave Tippett and Video Coach Jeremy Coupal about how the iPad and the SAP-NHL Coaching Insights fit into their approach. 

Coupal first saw the app when it was merely a sketch on paper as SAP and the NHL were gathering feedback from coaches. "How do we narrow this down so it's useful, first and foremost," Coupal explained as he walked through his initial thoughts about the amount of data coaches would access.

The Oilers don't tweak the overall layout of the app often, with Coupal only adjusting it a couple of times this season. The coaches decide what information is most important to them, and it's made available or at least known where to find it within the app when needed. 

I watch a lot of hockey, and I've never seen a head coach holding an iPad Pro on the bench. I asked Tippett how he approaches using the app. He said he has several coaches who are assigned an iPad during the game -- Coupal being one of them. Each coach has a different task and is in constant communication with each other. Information is shared between coaches and passed to Tippett about in-game decisions. 

"During a timeout late in a game, we may talk about how Draisaitl is 4 for 4 against so-and-so [in face-offs] on the left side," Tippett gave as an example.

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An example of face-off data coaches have access to. 

NHL

When it comes to ice time, Tippett often looks for information about how much he's playing NHL All-Star Connor McDavid throughout a period, and whether he should put him on the ice before or after a TV timeout. 

Going further, using the speed data, Tippett said he is able to see Connor has played eight minutes: "But is it a hard eight minutes?" When talking about information he looks at the most, Tippett continued, "I would say face-offs, time on ice, and where you're giving up shots from are what we look at." 

I asked him if there has been an "Aha!" moment during a game where the information available on the iPad has influenced a decision that changed the course of the game. "There hasn't been an 'Aha!' moment, but you're constantly ingesting data," he said. 

Comparing the speed at which teams get data now, Tippett said, depending on the arena, he often would have to wait during intermission -- until two minutes before teams were supposed to go back on the ice -- before getting an updated stat sheet with on-ice time or face-offs. At that point, it's hard to analyze and implement effective changes.

With the app, his entire coaching staff is always analyzing data and ready to make changes during a period, in between shifts, or at intermission. 

Looking to the future

Once puck tracking rolls out (hopefully, this season), the amount of data at coaches' fingertips will expand. For example, Tippett explained there are areas on the ice where he's comfortable with his team giving up shots on goal. But he's also quick to point out that who takes the shot can mean a lot. 

Here's how Tippett described it:

"I put a lot of value on actual scoring chances in a game and the quality of scoring chances. Not just where they're from. You've got [Alexander] Ovechkin shooting from that spot, and you got somebody else shooting from that spot -- it's different. That's just the reality of it. So having the ability to get information quicker on velocity of the puck, where it came from, in relation to your home plate. Ovechkin can be shooting three feet outside of there, and if it were someone else, you'd classify it a B chance. But when Ovechkin is shooting it it's closer to an A."

Another aspect of the game that will be enabled when puck tracking goes live is the amount of time in each zone that players and lines spend. Coaches can view how much defensive zone time their first line has versus the amount of time spent in the offensive zone. It can be viewed in minutes and seconds, but, arguably, the more useful way to view this metric is in percents. Ice time isn't equal among players or lines, but by viewing the percentage spent in each zone, coaches get a better idea of how effective or ineffective a player or combination of players is for a given game. 

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The upcoming virtual replay feature. 

Image: NHL

I also got a preview of a new Virtual Replay feature that's coming to the app soon. Virtual replay looks more like an old-school video game, making it a low-tech visualization of a high-tech platform. Players are represented by dots, with their numbers on top, floating across the ice rink. The top-down view of the dots moving across the ice removes all distractions and simply shows you positioning in relation to the puck. 

One clip I watched showed a Maple Leafs player join a teammate on a two-on-one rush down the ice, but in order to avoid being offsides, he took a wide-angle (and thus going a longer distance) toward the blue line to time zone entry with the puck. A split-second later, he nearly scored. We couldn't see if the pass was almost broken up by the lone defenseman, or if the goalie made the save of his life; all we could see is each player's positioning on the play. 

Teams will have access to this view during the game, but it's also available to watch outside of the arena on any one of the league-issued iPad Pros. It's a quick and effective way to go over positioning, scout your opponents, get an idea for how they move with or without the puck, and see any setup plays they have in their arsenal. 

Constant learning process

Coaching at an elite level is a constant learning process. Coaches have to change and adapt as the league and players change and adapt with them. Tippett summarized the introduction of technology on the bench quite well:

"[The app] is the evolution of coaching, and the evolution of technology moving into coaching. We use the data to evaluate our game, but I also use a lot of the data when I'm talking to players individually. There's times when a player thinks he's playing poorly, and I can show him some data that says things are alright. Keep doing what you're doing. Then there are times when a player thinks he's playing great, and I can show him he needs to dig in a little more."

With technology having such an impact on the game now, with everything a player does on the ice being tracked and documented in an app, I asked Tippett and Coupal what the reception has been by fellow coaches and players. 

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Tippett said it took some time for technology to get into the league, and even admitted he used to keep some stats on paper by putting "ticks besides a guys' name" for different metrics over the years. Overall, the amount of data available is welcome by everyone, even the players. Well, most of the time. "Players love stats when it shows good, and they don't love them when it shows bad," he said.

But maybe that's a good thing. Maybe players will push themselves to play harder, move quicker, and shoot the puck with better precision if they know everything they do is being tracked and logged. 

All I know is I desperately want access to a consumer version of SAP-NHL Coaching Insights app on my iPad. It'd be an ideal second-screen experience, keeping tabs on how my favorite players are doing, and how the team's effort is trending overall in a given night. 

I mentioned that to the NHL and SAP, and while it's nowhere near close to becoming a reality, the end goal is to make similar aspects of this data available to everyone. (Until then, maybe someone from the NHL can send me a link so I can help beta test the app, eh?)

The next time your favorite player is thrown on ice for a face-off late in the game, you can be confident that someone in the building looked at an iPad and viewed in-game data to help make a decision. What a wild world we live in today.