One of the biggest features of the 12th KHL season is the use of smart technology to bring a huge new range of stats to coaches, fans, broadcasters and beyond. The KHL became the first ice-hockey league in the world to implement this system, using sensors in the arenas and microchips in pucks and uniforms. Sergey Dobrokhvalov, KHL Vice-President for Marketing and Communications, explained how it was set up, how it all works and how it’s helping to attract even more fans to the game. 

The interview will also feature on ‘Icecast’, the KHL’s podcast Episode 2.

‘Upgrading 24 arenas in six countries was not easy!’

How important is it for the KHL to be the first league in the world to implement smart pucks and player tracking technologies?

Sergey Dobrokhvalov: It’s nice to be first in the world, but it’s part of our long-term KHL strategy of being one of the most innovative leagues in sport. As part of that strategy we have a lot of initiatives that we are trying to implement, trying to make our product more unique. This whole system of analytics and statistics, with the smart pucks and the microchips in the players’ jerseys, is fully in line with our desire to be innovative. We are very happy that we managed to launch it this season. It was a tough challenge for us and being the first to do it was a nice bonus. The only other option was to wait for one more year, because we didn’t want to implement it partway through the season or at the start of the playoffs. We need that data for a whole season, not just a part. After the successful tests last season, we felt it was the right time to launch it for the current season.

The NHL was also trying to do this but will only start from their playoffs after changing their technical partner. Did the KHL encounter any difficulties in implementing the system?

SD: The most difficult thing was to do it in time. We finished the test at the end of the regular season. Then we needed time to work out the whole project, to work out how many arenas we needed to prepare and to get approval from the Board of Directors for this investment. We had maybe two-and-a-half months in pre-season to put the sensors in all the arenas. Moreover, we had a schedule to go arena by arena. When we installed the system, we needed to calibrate it according to the field of play. But then there were some changes to the rules and in most arenas the lines on the ice were changed, so we had to make new calibrations and change everything.

We managed to do this before the first game, but it was a very tough task. Some of the arenas were not even ready on September 1st for the start of the season. The last two were finished on the third or fourth, but of course this were arenas where the first home game was not until later in the month. The main challenge was having enough time to implement it. Six weeks to do 23 arenas in six countries is not easy!

Was it easy to install the equipment?

SD: We have 23 sets of sensors for the arenas and we have two more mobile set-ups that we can use in temporary venues. These are used in the arenas where we play the KHL World Games in Europe or when clubs go to different cities like Barys in Almaty recently. Sometimes, clubs have difficulties and can’t play one or two games in their home arena, so we have the mobile sets that are a little bit easier to install. But the whole installation and calibration takes two or three days.

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‘There is nothing to break in the puck’

Have there been any issues with players not wanting the chips?

SD: I think I heard about a case in the NHL where some older players were against the system because everyone could know about their real speed and their real condition and how they behave. Maybe they were worried that people would think they were overpaid or something like that, but we had no such issues in the KHL.

How much does it cost? The ‘glowing pucks’ used in the NHL in the 1990s cost $200 each.

SD: It’s much cheaper for us. We were lucky to find a partner who could produce the whole system for us. It’s maybe three or four times the cost of a regular puck. The technology is different from what the NHL did back then. We built a system using low-energy microchips. It’s just a regular puck into which we insert a microchip. So, it’s just the cost of a puck, a chip which is like a SIM card in your phone and the process of installing it.

There have been a couple of complaints that players were told not to take the puck after they scored their first goal in the KHL.

SD: It’s strange to hear that. We give the clubs enough pucks. We deliver eight smart pucks and two regular ones for every game. The regular ones, without microchips, are intended as gifts or souvenirs. We don’t have any regulations that clubs cannot give away smart pucks. According to our analysis, eight is more than enough for each game, we rarely see eight pucks go away from the ice in any game. So any club can give a puck to a player or a fan if they want to. If a player was told not to keep a puck, that was a decision made by a club for some reason. There might be some clubs that want to use the data from the training process, maybe they want to keep the pucks for that.

How often do the pucks get broken?

SD: There is nothing to break in the puck. There might be some issues, as with any information technology, but in the first 20 days of the championship we only had a couple of pucks that didn’t work from the start. We’ve never had a situation where we stopped receiving a signal during a game. When the pre-game warm-up starts, the referee should put all the pucks on the ice and the special control room in Moscow checks that it has a signal from all eight pucks. Once we’ve confirmed that eight pucks are working, seven go back in the refrigerator and one is used for the game. There were two or three cases where 20 minutes before the game, we had seven signals but not eight. But its not a case of a microchip or a puck getting broken during the game.

Were there any cases where players’ chips got broken in a game?

SD: There were one or two cases where we didn’t receive a signal from the chip in the player’s jersey. At this stage we can’t say what the issue was, whether it was broken or whether it was not activated properly. We’re still investigating. Overall we can say we’ve played more than 100 games this month and we’ve had just one or two cases like that.

Are there any fines if players take the chip out?

SD: There are no fines for players. It’s the club that’s responsible not the players. There are some fines in KHL regulations if a player plays without the chip installed. It’s always case by case, we need to understand why we don’t get the signal. Every game, in the pre-game we check the signal from each puck and all the players. If we understand that there is no signal, we immediately call to the club, to a dedicated person who is responsible for the chips. We tell them there is no signal from this player and he has 20-30 minutes to change the chip or to insert it if somebody forgot to put it in.

If something happens during the game, we don’t fine that. It might be that our technology is broken, just like your mobile phone can get broken. The fine only applies if it’s done deliberately when somebody declines or doesn’t want to put the chip inside the jersey. Also, if we lose the signal during the game the club is not obliged to immediately put the microchip inside the jersey. Between the periods they should check what’s wrong with the microchip and either replace with a new one or restart the old one.

Are there any plans to implement a heart-rate monitor or similar stats?

SD: This is another project. We already did some tests and it might be presented next season or the one after that, when we have time to upgrade the chips to ones that can record the heart rate and physical condition of each player.

How much does the system cost for each club?

SD: For the clubs the system is absolutely free. The KHL covers all the costs itself. I can’t tell you the exact cost – it’s not cheap – but as a league we view this as an investment in our product. It’s not only something that will be used by coaches or fans, it’s also a very good commercial project for betting companies and TV companies.

The betting companies are one of our main targets in terms of commercializing this project. Live betting is growing very fast in Europe, it had 37% growth last year. The old way, where you bet on the result of the game and sit back and watch, is not so common nowadays. Live betting, betting during the game often on very short-term events, is much more popular than ever. If there is a penalty, for example, the odds change dramatically for a short time and people want to bet that a goal will come in the next two minutes. For companies to offer bets like that, they need all the data in real time. That’s the big differentiator with the system we have installed.

At the moment, betting companies do their stats from video pictures that they receive. Our system is absolutely real time, the delay is maybe 0.01 of a second. That helps coaches too. In the past, they analysed what happened after the game and could only make changes for the next one. Now they can analyse in real time and make changes even during the game if some player or some aspect of the game is not working.

What about the technical side? Where are all the numbers crunched?

SD: The sensors themselves in the arena coordinate the data from the microchips. They take all those coordinates and send it to a server in the arena. That server gets all the coordinated data and sends it to a cloud platform via an internet channel. The coordinated data is then transformed into the stats we see. This can only happen in the cloud because there is a huge amount of data involved. The cloud then distributes the statistics to the various other platforms, such as the website, the KHL app, the broadcasters, the teams and so on.

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‘When you have a stake in the game, you care more about the outcome. We want to give all our fans more to care about’

Some people are disappointed that not all of the data is available at the moment. Why are some parameters being hidden?

SD: We’re not hiding anything. It’s just a matter of timing. We only had a couple of months to implement the system and then it takes time to integrate the data with the existing platforms. We have a plan for when the different statistics will be available in the public domain. Right now, we have speed and distance available; month by month we will see more statistics. Soon fans and journalists will see everything that happens.

Also, we don’t necessarily want every single data point to be available everywhere. Some is useful for the coaches, some for the fans, some for journalists. Not everything that is known to coaches or journalists should be shown to the fans. It’s their job to make the conclusions from those analytics and provide them to the players or the fans.

Is there scope to use this data to change hockey journalism and the way the KHL is reported?

SD: I think so. I don’t think fans only need straight news coverage from journalists. Results, stats and news can come from the official website. As a profession, journalism should be making more and more of these analytics to show fans the sport from a different angle, to offer new insights. If a journalist reports that this team wins because that player was injured, from a personal point of view I don’t think that’s helpful. Of course, we understand that old-style long reads are not always very popular with people who consume the content, but we should still think about the format to get those analytics in a form that is useful for the fans.

How much of this system is about promoting the game?

SD: Everything that we do is for two reasons. First to engage a new audience and second to keep the audience we already have. This system fits for both targets. For a new audience we provide new, interesting info that was previously not available. Maybe somebody will see these new statistics and analytics and it will help a new audience to be more interested or to understand the game better. When you first see the game of hockey you don’t understand anything but the goals. Maybe some more analytics will help to make the product more understandable. And creating something new is also good for the existing audience. It’s our mission to develop more interesting marketing products from the sport of hockey, to find something interesting for the fans.

It’s like our discussions with the betting companies. It’s not the betting in itself is something good or bad, it’s about the way it heightens your emotions around the game. When you have a stake in the outcome, whether it’s one dollar or a hundred, you care that much more about the outcome. We want to give all our fans more to care about.

Is there any app that is designed for the coaches?

SD: All the statistics we get from the smart box system are already available on a special portal for coaches. You get your team and the opposition. All clubs already have access, but it will take some time for all the coaches to adopt it. We all understand that we have different coaches, some are more progressive, some are less progressive. So even though they all have the same access, we have a plan over the next couple of months to visit each club and sit with each coach of every team to show how they can use the system, how it will be useful for them. This is our special project where we arrange meetings with the coaches. It won’t happen by itself; we need to push it.

There’s another side to those meetings. We have basic statistics, but we need further development and at those meetings we will be asking what coaches want from the system. All the clubs have access to the basic package, but some more progressive clubs might want to make some individualized analytics or statistics. This is something that they can buy additionally from the system. We agreed that if 80% of clubs say they need this parameter then we will include it in the next update and develop it for free. If it’s some personal thing needed for just two or three clubs, they should pay additionally for that.

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‘In three or four years we will personally know every hockey fan in the country’

The NBA started using tracking a few years ago. Now there is talk of introducing augmented reality in the arenas.

SD: We’ve started discussing this internally. We have one project where you can watch a game in the arena and when you point your smartphone at the game you will get statistics about the players in real time. This issue is now that we have a delay in the signal. It takes 2/3 seconds to got from sensor to server to cloud and then back to mobile app. In a game as fast as hockey three seconds means the player is in another place on the ice or has even been replaced by a teammate. But once we know how to fix the delay on the signal this is the next step for the system.

Will we see people at our arenas wearing augmented reality glasses?

SD: In 10 years maybe. It will definitely take time. The KHL found it difficult to switch to an understanding that hockey and our league is not just about sport but about entertainment. We are adopting this concept, but it took us five years to get there. Augmented reality is not just entertainment, it’s something like a video game and that will take time to get established, especially in the Russian leagues.

What’s next?

SD: I can’t tell you all our secrets, but we have a few project in the next couple of years. You know one of them, the system we are testing with SAP. This is no less important to us than the smart pucks project, at least for the business. Our mission is that in three or four years we will know personally every hockey fan in the country. We will know everything about them, what they want, what they prefer and what they like. Then we can tailor the product to match what they want.

Will we see a KHL video game?

SD: We have a strategy and some plans. We understand that cybersports are a huge market, growing dramatically. We understand that we should exist there in some way and we are looking at different options. But developing our own high-quality game really costs a lot. Maybe we can do something different and organize some tournaments under the KHL brand. Don’t forget that only 2-3% of the cyber gaming market involves sports simulators so for us it might be more effective to integrate with another gaming platform, or setting up KHL sponsorship for a cyber team. We should exist in that space, but we need to know how to do it effectively.

Some coaches have suggested that new technology is making hockey worse. What do you say to them?

SD: It’s the same as it was in football with the VAR. There are a lot of people against that because they think it kills spirit of the game. It’s very strange to hear that because when you don’t have video reviews, all the coaches say the referees are bad, the officials got it wrong and they lost because of a bad decision. When you provide a way to help the refs get it right, they say that it kills the spirit of the game. We should decide which is better. If we decide not to implement this, let’s stop saying the referees are killing games with their mistakes. Everyone can make mistakes, even technology gets things wrong, so coaches should decide what they want. If they want to criticize modern technology, they should stop criticizing referees, or vice versa.

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