Few sports move at the pace of professional ice hockey. Pro basketball may be close. For example, the starts and stops of an NFL game give the players and coaching staff plenty of time to check in, analyze recent plays, and adjust their strategies. And then there’s the sleepy summer pace of major league baseball, where the team can huddle up for half of each inning and review binders full of stats on the other team.

With the exception of its two intermissions, regulation time in a hockey game has very few breaks in play. The game runs at a relentless pace, requiring assistant coaches to run to the locker room and print out game sheets. Some of the more advanced teams might have screens to review. But by the time the Zamboni is off the ice, the players and coach are back to the bench without access to anything but a few clipboards.

What a Hockey Coach Needs

That lack of data was the inspiration behind the NHL Coaching Insights App—a collaboration between the NHL, SAP, and Apple. ASUG had the opportunity to hear about the project in detail from the NHL’s David Lehanski, SVP, business development and global partnerships. Coaches and general managers were voicing their desire to be able to use game analytics and player data during the game.

The need was obvious, though it wasn’t immediately obvious how to solve it. Lehanski and his colleagues asked themselves, “Well what data is it? How do you deliver it to them so that when they literally have ten seconds to turn around, grab an iPad, pick it up and look to find it’s meaningful, it’s intuitive, and it’s easy?”

The data constraints were intensified by the fact that hockey moves so fast and has so much variability. Players are constantly jumping on and off the ice as coaches change lines during the game. So there’s no time for reflecting on changing individual positions. “It’s this confluence of people moving in real time at the same time,” Lehanski described.

A Team Effort, Starting with the Data

Working with SAP was natural, as the NHL already had a relationship with SAP to keep its data flowing through a SAP HANA infrastructure and to use its customer experience platform to track fan experiences. So was teaming up with Apple to use iPads and iOS as the operating system. Apple’s easy-to-use interface was critical for a use case where coaches need to comprehend complex stats and real-time data to make near-instant decisions that could mean a loss or a win. “The environment is tough. You’ve got water bottle holders and sticks lined up in a tight space,” Lehanski said. “It’s not easy to navigate and that factored into the use case.”

The NHL led the design thinking process with its coaches, as it was easiest to build on the existing relationships and trust with its teams, coaches, and general managers. The league had already warmed up its coaches to iPads a season earlier, used to deliver highly desirable video highlights. “We got initial feedback from a select group of coaches as to what they would to see on the bench if they could have this type of solution,” Lehanski explained. “From there, SAP built a prototype after gathering feedback from a couple design thinking sessions.”

Putting the Data on the Ice

To get the prototype out into the rink, the NHL took the surprising approach of testing it with teams that were playing each other. “We met with both teams, either prior to or after a game, and it was amazing. Once you got the coaches in the room, you recognized that their needs are generally similar,” Lehanski said.

From there, the NHL widened its testing pool to additional hockey clubs to get the data it needed to make progressive enhancements. Finally, the league worked up to a session at the NHL draft in Dallas where it introduced the app to sixteen different coaches and clubs—with eyes and ears from SAP and Apple in the room to gather feedback. That led to the iteration it would use for the launch.

Lehanski and others at the NHL were grateful to get all the questions and suggestions that came in from the clubs after the app launched. “We thought that the worst thing would be to have no feedback at all,” Lehanski recalled.

What’s in the NHL Coaching App?

A few data points rose to the top of the list of what coaches wanted. Face-offs were important to help the coaches make decisions on who takes a face-off. Shootout results were big to help identify the players who perform the best. If the shootout went really long, coaches wanted to analyze a specific player’s performance against the goalie.

The NHL finally settled on about 60-70 data fields based on what the coaches requested, including face-off, win-loss percentages, time on ice tracking by period, by type of play, regular strength, power play, and shorthanded by player. Coaches have some tools and features they can customize as needed. SAP delivers the data from the cloud, built on SAP Fiori, with just a few seconds of latency. “As a player comes off the ice, the coach can grab the iPad, look at it, and have correlating data to what just happened a few seconds ago,” Lehanski explained.

Adopting the App

NHL coaches can be a traditional group, so the league had to think carefully about how to not only roll out the app, but encourage the teams to move away from their clipboards. Forcing change was not in the playbook. But it was important to the NHL that every team had access to the same tool to keep competitive balance. It didn’t want specific teams with more resources to build their own version of the app.

The NHL made sure the app was on every bench for every club before the end of the 2019 regular season, and plans to reconnect with all of them in the off-season to get their feedback. “We said from day one, listen, we’re not forcing this on you. And tell us, where could it be better? That started a really open conversation,” Lehanski said.

Once the app launched, it didn’t take long for the coaches to realize what they could get out of it. The NHL plans to continue to gather feedback, which it will apply to updates it will make to the app so an enhanced version is ready for the next season.

Skating to Where the NHL App Will Be

So, what’s the future for the NHL app? First, it will get more automated and add more data that coaches can choose to review. And the NHL is working on a puck and player tracking system—sort of an Internet of Things (IoT) for hockey where a series of antennae at the top of the arena will track sensors on each player and the puck to gather data on their on-ice movement.

This will generate a whole new wave of location-based data and XYZ coordinates that can transform into completely different analytics. “The example I always use is speed. Right now we don’t know how fast the players are going or how fast the puck is moving,” Lehanski said. “But if we have XYZ coordinates in real time, we can tell you.”

SAP designed this new system in real time with sub-second data latency, so the data will appear in the app during the game. “The app is able to ingest that data, Lehanski said. “It will come from our tracking system through HANA into the cloud environment, where we’ll apply analytics, use the mobile applications, and then surface it up to the coaches.”

All of these advances seem to lay the groundwork for bringing in predictive analytics, though the NHL has no plans for that right now. “Analyzing and evaluating player performance or team performance is up to the teams. Let them do it the way they want to do it,” Lehanski said. “That’s not for the league to tell the teams. Our goal is to make sure they have access to the tools and the data so they can do their analysis at the highest level.”

In the Hands of the Fans

With all of this new data, the fans may be able to get in on the fun of tracking it, too. No more looking at the few stats on the Jumbotron like shots on goal. The NHL is prototyping a fan experience so the crowds can find out where every shot was taken, how fast it was moving, who took the shot, whether or not it was deflected, or whether or not someone was standing in front of the goalie.

The Winning Goal

For the NHL, the real win is getting as many coaches to adopt the app as possible. The league doesn’t expect every team to use it to the same degree, but it wants the app to be helpful to all. “There may be teams who don’t use it as much as others, but when they use it it’s really really pertinent to the decision that they’re making and they really rely on it,” Lehanski explained.

Regardless of the refinements that the NHL, SAP, and Apple may make to the app, it’s a pretty remarkable tool that’s unlike anything any other national sports league is using today. “There is no other league that’s delivering real-time data and analytics to coaches on the field of play through a device. It’s not happening in any other sport in North America,” Lehanski said.

If you’re looking to learn how your peers are doing more with business intelligence and analytics, you should join us at the BI+Analytics Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, March 9–11. Early-bird registration is available through Jan. 31, and ASUG members receive $200 off registration.