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NHL failing to capitalize on readily available technology to speed up the game

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Lengthy offsides and goal reviews unneccesarily prolong games, and can be easily eliminated.

Offside

At the recent General Managers Meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, National Hockey League GMs discussed various ideas that would improve the flow and pace of the game. This is a perennial point of discussion at the gatherings, dating back to the ‘dead puck era’ which brought the game to a standstill with all the clutching and grabbing and increasingly ridiculous goalie equipment shrouding the nets.

Bob Gainey, as GM of the Montreal Canadiens, once infamously made the recommendation to stop letting players dive in front of pucks to block shots in order to increase shots on goal; a proposal which was ultimately rejected.

But other implementations that did go forward at various times were the streamlining of goaltending equipment, the elimination of the two-line pass, stricter penalties for holding and hooking , no-touch icing, and the goaltender trapezoid. All of these changes were brought on with the intention of making the game quicker, with more action.

This year, to reduce the time it takes to play the games, the general managers recommended the elimination of timeouts after an icing call, which still needs to be ratified by the competition committee.

But one of the decisions made in the last year in hopes of preserving the integrity of the game has detracted from the excitement: the coach’s challenge. The general managers reviewed the new offside challenge rules this year, but were not able to come to a decisive conclusion on how to improve the rule this season, so they left it as is.

The spirit of the rule was to provide a system of checks and balances to the subjectivity that is ever-present in officiating a fast-paced game. But a by-product of this attempt at fair ruling is the strain it imposes on the pacing and excitement while referees mull over video on a tiny screen, viewing various available angles to determine whether to overturn the on-ice call. In the meantime to crowd begins to lose patience, the players start cooling down, and everything comes to a screeching halt.

An example of this sort of situation can be seen during a game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Washington Capitals , where an overtime goal by Mark Scheifele was challenged by Capitals head coach Barryotz. The review lasted an excruciating eight minutes before a final call was made.

For a sport that prides itself on the rapid pace of its play, these sorts of events are counter-productive to achieving the euphoric feeling the league seeks in a sudden-death goal, and other pulse-raising scenarios. But then the question becomes how to improve a rule that intends to offer a fair re-evaluation of a play, while at the same time not kill the crowd’s enthusiasm in doing so.

The answer is quite simple, and was partially brought up by the General Managers this year, but ultimately gained no reported traction: the use of electronic sensors to determine, precisely, the location of critical elements of the game.

Tennis already uses a tracking system of to accurately and rapidly resolve umpire challenges, a technology dubbed Hawk-Eye.

It doesn’t replace the actual umpire, preserving the tradition of the sport, but also provides an avenue to quickly resolve disputes, allowing everyone to move on knowing that the correct call was eventually made.

What would be involved?

The two situations that caused the most delay due to review downtime are goal reviews to determine whether the puck crossed the line or whether the play was offside to begin with.

The idea would be to incorporate the following technologies:

  • Equip every puck with a sensor that electronically can trace the entire periphery of the puck
  • Equip each skate with sensors to denote the extremities of the skates in a similar manner to the puck
  • Add an array of sensors to the bottom of the crossbar that aligns with the back of the goal line
  • Add an array of sensors to each blue line that aligns with the goal-side of the blue line.
  • A server system to receive the data, parse it, and output the result.

With these technologies, used in combination, it should be easy to determine whether the puck fully crossed the line, along the ice or in the air, and whether the play was offside or not, based on the relative position of the skate, the puck, and the sensors on the lines in various scenarios.

How does this tie into other recommendations?

There is no reason for the League to not adopt this technology, other than the cost, which really shouldn’t be an excuse for a privately-owned, multi-billion-dollar enterprise. The other reason may simply be the stubborn desire to preserve the purity of the game, though it’s unclear where iPad screens and blue-line cameras fit into the game’s traditions.

Everyone realizes that the game is evolving: from the equipment, to the tactics, right down to the training and conditioning of the players themselves. To wilfully turn a blind eye to technology is almost a conscious attempt at slowing down the evolution, especially when it comes to replacing humans with technology.

Perhaps the league is wary of such reliance on technology after the FoxTrax experience of 20 years ago. It was the first attempt at innovating the game for the American market, but ultimately distracted from the product itself.


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