Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: How to Win with Prescriptive Analytics

How the NHL is planning on using data analytics to change the game for everyone

Gone are the days of coaches receiving a rushed print-out on how their players are performing; now the NHL is looking at how to track the puck and the players in real-time.

nhl-at-sap.jpg

San Jose Sharks vs Vegas Golden Knights at SAP Center 

Image: Brandon Magnus/NHLI

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The National Hockey League (NHL) has 31 teams spanning the United States and Canada, with a 32nd from Seattle soon on its way. It boasts just over 260 million fans worldwide, with 80 million of those residing in North America.

The league about a season ago celebrated its 100th anniversary, which according to NHL SVP of business development and innovation Dave Lehanski means the organisation has a lot of data spanning its players to its fans. But it also means the NHL has a difficult task of putting it to good use.

One of the responsibilities of Lehanski's group is to figure out where the organisation is going next -- more specifically, how it can use technology to grow the game.

Speaking at SAP Sapphire last month, Lehanski explained "growing the game" typically refers to how the NHL can build and expand its fan-base; how it can improve the game on the ice -- that is, with a focus on the coaches, the players, and the officials; and how it can generate incremental revenue through technology.

The league in January revealed it had been working with SAP and Apple to give coaches new data-driven resources at their fingertips during games through the Coaching Insights App.

The app provides real-time, customisable data and player statistics. It leverages the SAP Cloud Platform with SAP HANA to process in-game hockey data from the arena and the NHL's system.

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According to Lehanski, the idea followed a desire coming from the coaches and general managers at individual clubs to use game data and analytics during the game.

"For years they'd been using it prior and post-game to analyse the performance of the team to evaluate players, to scout, to evaluate trades, but the growing desire was to use it during the game," he explained.

Even just a year ago, Lehanski recalled, the primary means for doing that would be through an assistant coach running down to the locker room with a handful of printouts and data sheets, sharing it with the coach when they got off the ice, and then talking to the players briefly before they went back out for the next period.

"Now, coaches can get real-time data and analytics on an iPad Pro behind the bench during every game of the season," he continued. "I think the amazing thing about it, given the fact that we built it on the HANA cloud platform, we're able to deliver that data within a few seconds, so literally as players are coming off the ice, they're grabbing the iPad and looking at what happened only a few seconds ago and can get instant feedback on their performance."

Instead of letting each team access game data in its own way, Lehanski said it was important to ensure there was a level of competitive balance and wanted his group to take the lead in providing that.

"We didn't want to have the teams with greater resources using technology to have that type of advantage during a game; we wanted all the teams to have access to that type of data and to those solutions and now we have that," he said.

The app came about after months of design-thinking sessions and one-on-one interviews with coaches and general managers to understand what they wanted out of a data analytics solution.

While the NHL knew the app would add value, Lehanski said the app has gone beyond expectations. The league is now looking at how it can build on top of it.

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According to Lehanski, hockey missed out on the "data revolution" that swept other sports, pointing specifically to the movie Moneyball and the work undertaken by baseball clubs around the US.

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"[If you look at] the way that statistics and analytics have really become a core component to a baseball fan's experience -- that is just starting to happen in hockey now -- and even if you watch tonight's broadcast ... even the way they evaluate something like goalies, they're still using statistics of things that were around 80 years ago," Lehanski explained.

"We really see the desire for more data -- we talked about it with regard to our coaches -- but it's also there for our media partners, for our fans, really for everyone in the NHL ecosystem."

Another data-driven initiative the NHL has been developing since around 2012-13 is a puck and player tracking system. Lehanski explained such a system would be installed at every arena -- with work at some arenas already underway -- that would have a number of antennas up in the rafters, tracking sensors placed on every player, and tracking sensors manufactured inside the pucks.

Lehanski said the puck sensors can be tracked up to 2,000 times per second to yield a set of coordinates that can then turn into new derivatives and analytics.

"A simple example is speed: Nobody really knows how fast the puck is moving, no one knows how fast the players are moving, but we'll be able to calculate that and with the system we're building, we'll be able to do it with sub-second latency." He said.

"We've been working on that with a number of companies, SAP is one of them, and now the goal we've settled on, the system we're installing is to start to figure out what are we going to do with all this data, how are we going to turn it into meaningful experiences for fans and for everyone in the NHL community."

With the Coaching Insights App capable of ingesting such data and serving it to the coaches in real-time, Lehanski said followers of the NHL could expect "a whole other iteration of revisions" that will allow for meaningful experiences and "create true customisation opportunities for the teams to leverage that data."

"We're also going to take some of the elements of that app ... and use it to create new fan experiences -- we're not too far away from a day where fans can have their iPad out and be live-streaming a game in a new app that allows them to determine if they want to track a puck, or a player, or put a bubble over a player to tell them how fast they're moving, or to turn on a betting functionality," Lehanski continued.

"All that is coming, but data is at the centre of all of that, so until we get access to that data, we won't be able to create those experiences.

"Hopefully we can use the data to tell new stories and create new content that's never existed before."

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