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The Future Of NHL Hockey Broadcasts

I was watching a video from a prominent YouTube personality on changes he’d like to see to the rules in the NHL Hockey League. I could probably talk at length about some of the ideas I have, but that’s not what this is about. One “bonus” segment he talked about was how he’d love to see some changes in the broadcast of NHL games, specifically that he was frustrated with a glowing overlaid circle on certain players to highlight them on the ice. He found that annoying, and I could only agree – but it got me thinking, what could the future of hockey broadcasting look like?

First, We Need To Talk About The FoxTrax Puck

This was a revolutionary idea that came to be around 1996-1998 by Fox Sports. Essentially they stuffed a hockey puck with some electronics that emitted a bunch of infrared signals, along with a velocity sensor. What the viewer saw was this glowing blue orb on the ice, which then turned to red when it was moving fast enough (read: a shot). It’d also leave this fun little trail behind it which it’s size was based on the velocity of it’s movement.

I remember this era, and it sucked. Greg Wyshynski summed it up best “cheesy enough that it looked like hockey by way of a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers production budget”. I wholeheartedly agree. That thing sucked and it ruined hockey on TV. Fox ultimately scrapped the thing after 2 years. Thank goodness.

But, Augmented Reality Is Back!

Have you noticed that there’s customized and always rotating ads on the boards? This started about 2 years ago and at the beginning it was horrible. They hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks in the system and occasionally you’d see glitches. Further to this a lot of the ads actually had motion to them, which completely distracted from the play on the ice. I absolutely hated it and hoped the league and broadcasters would realize how poorly it’d been done.

Thankfully those glitches have mainly been worked out, to the point I actively look for them and can’t find any these days. As for the ads, they’ve gotten a hell of a lot better, too. I didn’t mind the rotating ads replacing the actual ones on the boards, but the moving ones were horrid. Now they seem to have moved to either simply “replacing” the ads with static ones, or using the entire boards as one big giant ad. In fact, I kind of like that approach better as it gives a “continuity” to the background and is actually less distracting from the play. My only caveat is that some of them have motion, but they seem to have kept that to a minimum. I suspect that they charge advertisers a premium to have motion, they’ve got to.

The last part of the current AR ads of today is the ones which show up on the ice itself. These are usually in upper center of the respective ends, and in the neutral zone. I don’t mind them changing from time to time, but anything more than this would just be terrible. I always look at how much advertising is on the ice in European and International hockey and just hate it. Plus, those stickers on their helmets looks absolutely stupid.

And… It Went Too Far

Thankfully for us who watch CBC Sports, they haven’t done anything too stupid yet. But, for a lot of the US broadcasters they’ve began putting rings around players the entire time they step on the ice. The play is down in the corner with the puck, but your eyes are drawn to some superstar player circling in the upper slot because there’s a blue ring around their feet. Idiotic, I say.

I sincerely hope we never see this on the CBC, and I hope they’re reasonable enough to know that Canadians simply would revolt.

What Would I Like To See?

Subtlety. Technology can be used, but when overused it’s just annoying and obtuse. Most of my suggestions revolve around actually tracking where a puck is to a level of accuracy is within 1cm or better. That would absolutely change the game.

I wanted to make an argument for being able to identify where the puck was when it’s in a scrum, or under a goalie’s pad, but the more I think about that, it’s part of the excitement of “WHERE IS IT?” and the anticipation. It’s an action moment on par with a breakaway.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be tracking pucks. We could completely eliminate the problems with challenges of goals, offsides, and puck over the glass penalties. Now you’ve got the ability to see if the puck actually crossed the goal line or where it is in an offside challenge. No more endlessly scrolling video review for 5 minutes to come back with a call that they couldn’t confirm nor deny, so the call on the ice stands. It’d be over in seconds.

As for puck out of play penalties, the gyroscope in it could easily report on data of it’s movements. That would easily identify if from the time it was released from the stick did it in any way suddenly change momentum, spin, or direction. If it did, no call, if it didn’t, you’re going to the box. Again, the review is determined in seconds, not minutes. Data is your friend here.

Cameras On Players & Referees

It’s already been done, and thankfully not all that often, but I think this is coming. As cameras get smaller and more robust, I could see them wiring up all their helmets with mini-cams to get 16 feeds on ice (10 skaters, 2 goalies, 4 referees), and 2-3 dozen more from the benches. That’d be insane. But, what do you do with those angles? Are they used for broadcast? I believe they could be. Not during play, but during breaks in play. The replay room is crazier and better than ever these days, and the people behind those dials are absolute wizards as far as I’m concerned.

What if 30 seconds after the play happened, they could cut to a 4-panel split screen of all the guys in a scrum fighting for the puck? Could you imagine the replay of a fight? That’d be next level. What about the goalies and seeing their angle of what was coming at them? Insane. Now think about the poor refs when it gets revealed they missed the blatant penalty because they were distracted by some person in the stands.

Choose Your Own Adventure

It somewhat exists now, but I only see it getting crazier. Some services allow you to zero in on the position of a particular player when they are on the ice. I believe some broadcasters already provide this to a limited degree. But, think about it for a minute. What if you could select the camera angle of any player on the ice? What if there were options to toggle between their angle when they’re on the ice, and when they step off it goes to the general broadcast, or a different player of your choosing? What if you had a list of the angles on one side of your screen to switch in real time? What if you could build you own dashboard of views with the main broadcast being the focal point with various angles on the side, picture in picture style?

I can only imagine such a thing is coming. They’re already capturing a ton of angles, it’s just a matter of time until they are able to process, store, and then serve up that content in real time to people. It’s just a matter of resources and reasonable computing power, I believe.

Final Thoughts

Augmented reality is pretty awesome when done correctly. Think about the era where a bunch of people who hadn’t seen natural light in months were out roaming the streets playing Pokémon Go. The way they’ve implemented it in the NFL with the line of scrimmage and first down lines is incredible. But when it comes to hockey they have a path to greatness, however that comes with a threshold of stupidity. I hope what comes next is well thought out and considered as an experience that adds to the game more than it distracts. I believe that things should be optional, not mandatory. Give users an experience they can customize to their own liking and you’re going to win the approval of the masses.

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