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Player tracking chips could change the way people analyze hockey

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The NHL wants player tracking data, and that likely means inserting computer chips into players on the ice. Here's why this is great news.

Tasos Katopodis

We've already seen radical changes in the way analysts approach hockey since the beginning of the decade, but this could take the movement to an entirely new level. The NHL is reportedly hoping to place data tracking chips on every player (or at least their jersey) in the near future in order to build a new source of information for teams.

Speaking with Marc Antoine Godin of La Press, NHL chief operating officer John Collins said the league moved forward with idea after testing systems from SportVu, a company that currently provides detailed tracking data for the NBA using special camera-based systems (via Eyes on the Prize):

"We worked with SportVu, we asked them to do some modifications to their basketball system, and we followed hockey games to see what type of results it would give" said Collins.

"Turns out the camera tracking is not perfect. When there's scrums in the corners or in front of the net the cameras couldn't individually identify the players."

While the idea of inserting special computer chips into jerseys for data purposes might seem questionable to some, the potential benefits are incredible. Teams throughout the NBA already use their tracking data in innovative and ingenious ways, and NHL teams would surely follow suit if given the opportunity. Some teams might even be doing some sort of tracking in-house and we simply don't know about it yet.

Having data detailing player and puck movement throughout the game would allow us to further test many of the ideas that have already gained traction since the early days of the advanced stats movement, while possibly revealing other important trends and concepts.

"We believe it can bring a lot. Not only for training and coaching applications, but for the fans. It allows us to understand the game better. Also, it should make it easier for fans who never played hockey to understand why these guys are so talented, and what it takes to play the game."

Also notice that Collins includes fans in that quote, meaning the NHL could potentially open up a large amount of the data for online public use. That's something the NBA does, but it was never a certainty given the inconsistent way that the NHL has treated the use of its data on the web.

Still, the specter of a website that freely provides detailed tracking data on NHL teams is making me drool, and while some old-school fans might not be excited, this is the direction of the league. Multi-billion dollar businesses use analytical data; the NHL and its franchises will be no different.

So while the NHLPA still needs to approve any of these measures, Collins sees no reason why they would be blocked. Obviously, the hardware shouldn't be remotely noticeable for the players given how small the chip can be made, and it's understandable that some players might be excited about new evaluation methods that might more accurately reflect their contributions on the ice.

It's hard to break this down much more without details, and a system this ambitious and complex probably won't be coming soon. But this is definitely intriguing news, and after all the speculation surrounding SportVu, it'll be exciting to see if the NHL's alternative route is as effective.