Military intelligence is my favorite tongue in cheek oxymoron, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that throughout history, military institutions have counter-intuitively functioned as engines of innovation and social change. From Silly Putty, to nylons, to the Internet, to the personal shopping Drone that you'll probably own a generation from now - technology designed with military applications in mind often filters into the society at large after the fact, and comes to permeate everyday civilian life.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then competition is the father.
In professional sports - a hyper-competitive field, obviously - the major innovations are usually concerned with tactics rather than technology (there are exceptions though, like Gatorade and Goalie Masks). In hockey, goaltenders almost never saved above 90% of the shots they faced until Patrick Roy and Francois Allaire pioneered the "butterfly" style, a key factor in the inflation of save percentage over the past generation.
Tactical innovation in sports is one thing, though it's missed on occasion by broadcasters. But the application of technology - new or existing - as a way of gaining a competitive advantage is often a harder sell for whatever reason. In hockey, new tech developments are often received with a similar type of skepticism that have previously greeted societal innovations like the internet, the personal computer and most recently, drone technology.
More than fifty years ago, Hall of Famer Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante was mocked in some circles when he decided, quite rationally in retrospect, that he might want to wear a mask while trying to stop fast-moving vulcanized rubber for a living. Craig MacTavish, who recently critiqued the forward thinking ways of the Vancouver Canucks organization, was the last NHL player to refuse to wear a helmet (I might suggest that these two facts aren't a coincidence). To this day "riding MacTavish" remains a popular euphemism among hockey fans for describing unprotected sex.
This season, the St. Louis Blues and their Assistant Equipment Manager Joel Farnsworth - who has a degree in biomechanical engineering according to his ZoomInfo Page - have begun using an iPad for scouting purposes in advance of the team's shootouts. The shootout, for those of you who aren't big into hockey, was introduced for the 2005-06 NHL season to replace ties. It's a stupid wrinkle that is generally hated by hockey purists, but basically there's a single extra point up for grabs during the post-game skills competition, and the event is essentially a random coin flip. There are very few players in the league who are significantly good enough at the shootout to consistently impact the outcome. The shootout game state is pretty much a textbook opportunity to data-mine in an effort to gain any sort of available knowledge edge or competitive advantage.
St. Louis' use of the iPad for pre-shootout scouting was first noted by the Score in late January of this year. This seemingly sensible, old news, marriage of tactics and technology was mocked by the Rogers Sportsnet Pacific broadcast team (featuring play-by-play guy John Shorthouse and colour commentator and burger enthusiast John Garrett) during a game between the Canucks and the Blues on Sunday night. Here's a transcript (transcription my own):
John Shorthouse: "Look at this the technology, the iPad! Jake Allen having a look at Canucks shooters and trying to come up with a quick study...
John Garrett: "Well as you saw with Alex Burrows [Blues goaltender Jake Allen had stoned Alex Burrows on his go-to move, with thirty seconds to go in the overtime period]... I don't know how much you can absorb here, it's almost too much. It is too much. You want to do it before the game, okay, fine, but right before the shootout? Come on. Let's not think about this too much. Is Jake Allen paying a whole lot of attention to the "tech wizard?"
John Shorthouse: "I would assume they've done this before the game and this is a refresher? Is that possible."
John Garrett: "I still think it's way too much, have you seen the commercials where they say "nerd alert" that to me that's a "nerd alert" - you don't need that come on"
Correlation doesn’t imply causation of course, and in fact Blues goaltender Jake Allen said he mostly ignored the iPad scouting video. Still this may not surprise you: the St. Louis Blues proceeded to score two straight shootout goals, while the Canucks were stoned by Jake Allen on their two attempts. The Blues came away with the extra point as a result. Nerd alert!
Is there something about the culture surrounding the sport of hockey that makes it more resistant than the other professional sports to new ideas, new applications of technology, and change? At the moment, it certainly seems like it. On the one hand, there are clubs like the Sharks, Penguins, Kings, Canucks and Bruins all of which are admittedly at the forefront of using advanced analysis (of various kinds) to improve player readiness and personnel decisions.
In terms of embracing new ideas and creatively leveraging technology to inform tactical decisions and scouting, the teams and most of the General Managers that run them are ahead of the culture, and way ahead of the ex-jocks who discuss the sport in the most simplistic, accessible terms possible on television.
We can already see that any competitive advantage a team might gain at the NHL level from, say, specializing the deployment patterns of their forwards lines is short-lived. In fact, it appears that the knowledge edge will evaporate and other teams will catch up before the hockey media at large even acknowledges the ground that's shifting beneath their feet. I think that tells you a lot about who is really being left behind here.
Follow Thomas on Twitter: @ThomasDrance
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